Before Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Lil Kim, and Missy Elliott, there was Roxanne Shante. On Friday, Netflix released Roxanne Roxanne, a biopic based on the life of a talented young girl from Queensbridge, New York who changed the rap industry forever by creating a place for herself in an industry that never made room for her.
Lolita Gooden, later given the name "Roxanne Shante" had earned the title of battle rap champ of Queensbridge at nine years old and had a hit single on the radio that triggered nationwide response before she turned 16 years old. Shante is credited as the original godmother of female rap, making and inspiring some of the first diss records ever and helping to progress the then newly-discovered genre called hip-hop into the mainstream.
Despite her previous accomplishments, there was not much that the public knew about the rapper. Roxanne Roxanne offers an in-depth look at her life and the trials she faced that are still relevant to all women today, including the extreme jealousy and domestic abuse she faced at the hands of her child's father. In an interview with Pitchfork Magazine she said:
"It was very therapeutic. Because you know that you survived it. There are a lot of women who have went through what I went through. There's a lot of women who are still going through it today. And one of the main things is being able to say, 'You know what, if I was able to get away from it at that age, you'll be able to do it now.' I want young girls to take away from the movie that anything is possible."
The story is riddled with the recurring theme of toxic masculinity, male dominance, and the values of sisterhood as we get an in-depth look at the life of a woman who paved the way for hip hop.
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Shante spent her childhood taking bets for battle raps and boosting clothes from local shopping malls to help her then, depressed mother take care of her three younger sisters. In 1985, she was discovered by a local DJ who got her song, later coined Roxanne's Revenge, on the radio and she blew up nearly overnight. She told Billboard:
"Since it wasn't a battle, I didn't think that anything was going to come of it. In battles, I was rhyming for 30 to 40 minutes, so four minutes was nothing for me. I stuck with the storyline, and the next morning I was 'Roxanne.' Male rappers felt like I was throwing things off. If the best in the game is a little girl, then rap is no longer going to be seen as this masculine thing."
The biopic offers a brutally honest transparent vision of what life was, and still was like for a woman of color seeking to thrive in a male centric-industry.
Shante lived a life similar to most women of color who hold a position of power in their industry: filled with people who will try to play with your money and men who feel like they are entitled to your body, your career, your agency, and your craft when it was never theirs to begin with.
I started rapping when I was 12, so the Hip Hop Pioneer's story resonated with me. I've been in front of some of the biggest names in the industry and realized that my identity as a woman will always overshadow my talent, so I took a hiatus. For years I felt devastated and discouraged.
Men always tell me, "I know it's easier for you in this industry, because you're a woman. All you have to do is open your legs or flash a titty." I always thought to myself, I didn't sign up to flash a titty. I'm here to rap.
There were so many moments in Roxanne Roxanne that resonated with me personally, it was almost eerie. And it reminded me that I'm not the only woman enduring these trials. Despite all of the misogynistic barriers to entry in the rap game, Roxanne Shante is a reminder to us all that our body, lives, and careers are our own.
I watched the movie last night, and as a female MC, I wish that this story that had been told a long time ago, but Shante feels like the time is just right.
"What would make a Roxanne Shante movie come out now? The thing about it is it's because it's the woman's time now. Though it has always been the woman's time, it's time to come to the forefront. It's time to show the strength. … This movie will serve that purpose where [women] can sit back and say 'I was that little girl in the group home.' Or 'I was that woman who went through depression and through heartache and heartbreak.'"
Roxanne Roxanne was produced by creative minds like Pharrell Williams, Forest Whitaker, and Roxanne Shante herself. The film stars newcomer Chante Adams as the titular character, Mahershala Ali, and Nia Long. Check out the official trailer for the biopic below.