Meet the Professor Bringing Rap Into Gender Studies and the Classroom Onto Instagram

Nikki Lane beside shelves of books
Pictured at Rofhiwa Book Café, Lane brings a gender studies lens to pop culture, studying Black lesbians, women in hip-hop and more. (John West/Trinity Communications)

It only takes a few minutes with Nikki Lane, Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies’ newest assistant professor, to get clear why the department was eager to welcome her.

Her research is provocative, she teaches a class called “Hot Girl Meg” and, as if the topic alone isn’t captivating, Lane commands an audience when she speaks. She is as comfortable citing Kimberlé Crenshaw as she is Salt-N-Pepa lyrics, effortlessly mixing her research interests in linguistics, cultural anthropology, and the role of race, sexuality and gender in pop culture into a new kind of professor.

Although she started off as a psychology major, Lane’s interest in anthropology was piqued when she studied abroad at South Africa’s University of Cape Town during her undergraduate studies at The George Washington University. “Working with these brilliant Black anthropologists, I was like, ‘I want to do that when I grow up,’” said Lane. 

Enter women’s studies. 

“I took a women’s studies class on a whim,” said Lane. She realized that she could focus on things she loved, such as anthropology and linguistics, and view them through a women’s studies lens.

She changed her major to the discipline and became interested in studying Black women’s sexuality. In her Ph.D. program, Lane honed her interests to focus on Black women’s sexuality and linguistics.

Risky connections

Currently, Lane’s research extends into two branches: Black queer life and Black pop culture.

“I’m writing a book about where to find Black lesbians,” Lane said. “They've always existed, but they may not be at the local lesbian bar or the gay bar.” 

She stresses that despite flying under the radar, Black queer people and in particular Black lesbians are and always have been good at finding each other. “I think that there's something philosophical there,” she said.

The military offers particular interest. Having family in the armed forces, Lane became intrigued by the connections Black lesbians in the military made, even before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed. 

“These women could have been dishonorably discharged if they were found out, yet there are networks of Black lesbians who were in the military, served, retired and got the full benefits,” Lane said. “I’m fascinated by how these women found each other in a time when it was so risky to do so.” 

Rap linguistics

The second branch of Lane’s research is on Black women in pop culture, specifically in the rap genre.

Using her unique background in linguistics, Lane looks at how these artists like Megan Thee Stallion, Nicki Minaj and Saweetie “queer” their language, as she calls it, to fit into the genre.

Take Missy Elliott, for example, the subject of one of Lane’s papers on the topic. Lane explains women in hip-hop must bend and twist language to make it useful for them.

“Typically, the speaker in most hip-hop songs is the man, usually a Black man at that,” said Lane. “The experience of (presumably heterosexual) Black men tends to be the lens through which most of the language of hip-hop is viewed through, so Black women who are doing hip-hop have to enter into it through that lens.”

In response to the way Black female rapper’s bodies are typically on display in songs voiced by their male counterparts, artists like Missy Elliott are “redefining masculinity and femininity in ways that question, and thus destabilizes, the system of domination,” Lane said.

She points to the way Missy Elliott is ambiguous about the sexes of her sexual partners in the song “Gossip Folks” as an example of “queering” her lyrics in order to gain control over her sexuality, as well as position herself as a major player in the genre.

 “I try to get people to tune into listening to the music, and when they hear something that doesn't quite sound right, to say, ‘Oh, this does sound a little gay, it doesn’t sound like how a heterosexual woman would describe her sexual practices, does it?’” Lane said.

At a time when GSF Chair Jennifer Nash’s goal for the department is to make it a hub of Black feminist theory, Lane’s research and experience are a perfect fit.

“At every step of the way, Lane is interested in the variety of forms that Black feminist theorizing takes, from scholarly articles to dance, from monographs to beats,” said Nash. “She treats Black popular culture not just as a laboratory for understanding the politics of race, gender, and sexuality, but also asks how Black popular culture produces theories of race, gender, and sexuality.” 

From the classroom to the ‘Gram

This fall, Lane bringing that expertise to one of her signature classes, Hot Girl Meg. Named after rapper Megan Thee Stallion, it’s a survey of Black women in hip-hop, with an emphasis on debates about gender within the musical genre.

“I think that she [Megan Thee Stallion] offers us an opportunity to talk about a lot of things that have shown up in Black woman's pop culture in general, but also talking about Black woman's sexuality especially in public,” said Lane. 

Will Megan herself be a guest in the class? “I don’t have Megan's number,” Lane laughed, “but I would love her to come to class, so I might just slide into her DMs or something.” (Megan, if you’re reading this: call Nikki). 

Lane takes such an encompassing approach because her goals as an educator are to do what was once done for her: to show students the breadth of opportunities that are available to them with GSF. “It’s important to me to keep exposing students to things that they didn't even know they will be interested in,” she said.

That commitment makes her an approachable teacher to those outside traditional university spaces, as well. Lane answers questions on Instagram during her “Office Hours,” runs a “Summer School” that is described on her website as “what happens when a dope ass professor teaches critical social and cultural theory in a bar,” and offers personalized classes about race, gender, sexuality and class for anyone who is curious and interested in the topics, whether they be in academia or not. Having her research be accessible to everyone has always been her goal. 

“It's important for me for my scholarship to exist outside of academia,” said Lane. “I don't want this work to only exist in a bubble. My goal is to find interesting ways to get gender studies into places where we think it's not supposed to be,” she said. “Because I think it belongs everywhere.”