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How music can help push the WNBA forward

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2019 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game - Inside Photo by Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

To assert a connection between basketball and rap in 2019 is hardly revelatory. From Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” to Drake and Gucci Mane on the sideline of the Eastern Conference Finals, we are many decades into a relationship that’s evolved from mutual envy (ballers want to be rappers and rappers want to be ballers, etc.) into big business as companies seek to capitalize on an easy way to show their savvy — one that seems unlikely to become less relevant anytime soon.

But as synonymous as the genre has become with the NBA, for the most part the WNBA still lacks a cosign from mainstream rap. “You gotta infuse hip hop into the WNBA because basketball is street, it is culture,” says Grammy-nominated rapper Rapsody. A longtime basketball fan, she’s now the voice of the New York Liberty’s new theme song, “Liberty Loud,” which was produced by her frequent collaborator Nottz (Kanye West, Snoop Dogg). “You can’t make it corporate, there’s a disconnect there,” she continues. “[The connection is] organic. Everybody else is trying to use hip-hop for that reason, and it’s not always authentic — but I think this is authentic.”

The WNBA is many things, but unfortunately “cool” is not yet high on that list despite the league’s repeated attempts to establish cachet through music. The W has struggled to find a consistent musical identity, commissioning original songs that range from what some (me) might consider the golden age of the WNB-Ays to gospel to pop-punk to rock. What might neatly be termed “empowerment pop” has long found a home in WNBA promotions, including Alicia Keys’ “Superwoman” and Selena Gomez’s “Like A Champion.” Last season’s primary WNBA ad featured a cloying, seemingly made-for-TV song called “Can’t Knock Me Down.”

But for the most part, that’s not the kind of music WNBA players themselves listen to — nor is it the music that the coveted younger fanbase seeks out. The most visible meeting place for basketball and rap today isn’t actually coming from broadcast syncs or arena DJs, it’s on YouTube where basketball mixtapes are a booming business. Sports fans have repurposed the rap term as shorthand for highlight packages, often accompanied by either a DMCA-safe generic hip-hop beat, or for the bold, a popular song. Outlets like Ballislife regularly rack up hundreds of thousands of views on their mixtapes — and almost never feature women. Fans sometimes make their own and when they do, the soundtrack is rap.

“We have to speak about the disparities between men and women: how we’re looked at, how we’re promoted, what we’re pitched for,” says the rapper. “It’s the same thing that I carry as a woman in hip-hop — changing how we’re perceived and branded.”

Slowly, it seems like the WNBA is getting the hint: Rapsody’s single “Ooowee” was used in promos for last fall’s WNBA playoffs; a 2018 WNBA on ESPN ad featured rapper Dej Loaf’s “Big Ole Boss.” The timing couldn’t be better, since women have a presence in hip-hop today that they haven’t for years — namely, more than one at a time is getting mainstream attention. “It’s a resurgence, a rise,” Rapsody says. “We want to see that same thing happen in sports too — for the women to get the pay that they deserve, and for them to have the platform, for them to be shown on TV as much as the guys.”

Strengthening the ties between hip-hop and the women’s game, like the Liberty are doing with their new theme song, helps drive home the fact that the WNBA is worth watching because it’s fun — not just because it’s “empowering.” “You see all the rappers at NBA games,” Rapsody concludes. “Imagine if that happened for the women. That would make it a cultural thing. You can never, ever forget the culture — you’ve gotta tie it all together.”