Hip-hop artist Roxanne Shanté spoke about of her experiences as a teenage girl entering the hip-hop industry during the movement’s conception as part of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs’ Women’s History Month presentations at VCU on March 16.
Shanté’s early life was explored in the 2017 film “Roxanne, Roxanne,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Shanté — born Lolita Shanté Gooden — lived in the Queensbridge Projects in Queens, New York. She said she began battle-rapping as a way to earn extra income for her family, because the winners would always walk away with money and Shanté said she “didn’t lose.”
“There were so many who came before me,” Shanté said. “(But) I was the first female rapper who wasn’t afraid to battle male rappers.”
Her mother, who Shanté said she knew for many years by the first name of “Miss” and the last name of “Peggy,” supported Shanté through the early stages of her rapping career. At her first rap-battle, Shanté said she had to stand on a milk crate to be eye-to-eye with her opponent.
When Shanté needed braces because of a thumb-sucking-induced overbite, she said her mother was most worried about Shanté’s ability to rap with the wires tearing at her mouth.
“Every day she’s asking me if I’m feeling better,” Shanté said, reiterating that the income from her rap battles was important to her family.
Eventually, they solved the problem with a then-popular candy, Nik-L-Nip. The candy held a variety of flavored syrups in miniature wax bottles that were sold at low prices. Shanté said they would used the wax from the containers to coat her braces so she could continue battling without damaging her mouth.
After dozens battles in The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, community centers and parks, Shanté said she was sometimes turned away from battles because she kept winning. Eventually, she made her way to the SNS Club at 145th St. for a battle whose winner would leave with $5,000, but when she got there the bouncer asked her to open her mouth.
“‘No, this is just for men,’” Shanté said he told her. “‘The little girl with the braces can’t enter.’”
Shanté said the men who dominated the industry were intimidated by her. Other female relatives, like her aunt and younger sisters, began accompanying Shanté to battles. One of her sisters served as a “traveling drum machine,” Shanté said.
“I (was) 14 years old and I’m literally trying to keep my family together,” Shanté said. “I had little sisters and a lot of laundry to do.”
It was in the middle of doing laundry when Shanté recorded the freestyle that would launch her into fame. She was approached by Marley Marl, a hip-hop producer, and asked to record a track in response to the song, “Roxanne, Roxanne” by another hip-hop group, UTFO.
The freestyle lasted seven minutes and Shanté said she returned in time to take her clothes out of the wash.
In the middle of the night, Shanté said a friend called her to tell her that her song, “Roxanne’s Revenge,” was on the radio.
Having adopted the name of Roxanne for the song, the Roxanne Shanté persona was born. Her popularity climbed and another record company created, the Real Roxanne, a hip-hop collective whose title was held by two different girls. Shanté said the first was a black girl with lighter skin than hers; the second was Latina.
“(I felt) that feeling that unfortunately a lot of brown-skinned girls feel — that this is what society wants,” Shanté said. “Now I have to work twice as hard for something I created.”
Shanté said she showed up at the same battle as the “Real Roxanne” and defeated her. When the second girl came along to fill the role after the first quit, Shanté would find out where she was performing and pull the mic’s plug out of the socket, she said.
Shanté said her persistence in “reclaiming” Roxanne Shanté succeeded. At the World Supremacy competition — which consisted of a bracket of rap battles — Shanté said the judges made her battle every round, because they hoped to knock her out before the final. If she won, it would solidify her status as the best in the world.
“It was just me against everyone,” Shanté said. “Every time I felt (my voice) was going to give out, I would squeeze the limit and move on.”
During the final round, Shanté said a judge asked what it would take for her to lose. Someone suggested scoring her a “2,” instead of the scores of “9” and “10” she had been earning.
Shanté said she collapsed when she saw the dreaded number two flash, signalling her defeat.
“I stopped loving hip-hop that day,” Shanté said. “It’s like coming home and finding your man cheating on you.”
The industry has changed drastically, Shanté says, but she is still hailed by many as a pioneer in the industry.
“I love the fact that I am old-school and these are the memories I have,” Shanté said.
Georgia Geen, Staff Writer