What's changed since the Roxanne's Revenge days? 8 female emcees react to Netflix's Roxanne Roxanne
Michie Mee, Eternia, Masia One and more share their takes on the story of a hip hop trailblazer
There aren't too many 14-year-olds who changed the music world on their way to doing their mother's laundry, but that is the legendary backstory of Roxanne Shanté.
In 1984, the young rapper spit a diss track, "Roxanne's Revenge," that put grown men to shame. That story is at the centre of a new Netflix film called Roxanne Roxanne.
Music biopics have been a Hollywood mainstay, but the industry has only recently turned its attention to the rap world. Notorious, Straight Outta Compton and All Eyez On Me: those movies told men's stories, and the ones featuring women — CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B — were made-for-TV fare that focused on the R&B world, not rap. Shanté is one of, if not the first, solo female rapper to receive the biopic treatment.
When I saw the promo for Roxanne Roxanne I could have cried. It is about time.- Eternia, rapper
What's really unique about Roxanne Roxanne, though, is the way it eschews the regular biopic formula — the early struggle for recognition, the dizzying heights of fame and success, the tragic downfall (often due to substance abuse, mismanagement, in-fighting or all of the above) and the redemptive arc.
Everything takes place before Shanté (played by Chanté Adams) is old enough to vote, and her story is remarkable and tragic. Although she became the first female rapper to have a hit solo record, it never translated to wealth. Rocking braces for most of the film, we see the story of a young survivor who was forced to grow up before her time.
She is recognized, celebrated, exploited, abused and sexually assaulted. It's a poignant illustration of the few defences that existed for young girls in the early days of hip hop.
I was curious to know what Canadian female rappers thought of this historic (or herstoric) film and whether they saw any shifts in the culture for women in hip hop today, so I've asked eight to share their thoughts.
Some of these women are newly emerging, while others are legends in the game working since the early days of rap in Canada. Some know and have worked with Shanté, while others auditioned to play her in the film. Participating in this conversation are Michie Mee, Eternia, Masia One, Sydanie, LolaBunz, Phoenix Pagliacci, Keysha Freshh and Lex Leosis.
Spoilers ahead, so you'll want to watch the film before reading any further.
Why are biopics about female rappers important?
Eternia: Because we need history to reflect the truth. Relevant characters in rap history aren't just artists that went platinum. They aren't just people that had a massive marketing machine behind them. There are people that made their mark on this culture — many of them women — that are virtually forgotten in history because they weren't signed to a major label or rolled with a major crew of dudes.
These are the renegades I'm interested in preserving the memory of. Their stories are just as compelling, if not more so, than 8 Mile or Straight Outta Compton. When I saw the promo for Roxanne Roxanne I could have cried. It is about time.
Keysha Freshh: As a female emcee, it's vital I know that the things I've gone through in this industry — the plights I've faced, the misogyny and the blatant disregard of my skills because I'm a female — there are others who fought these fights before [me] and for [me], so that [I] can have more leeway. Also to see that yes, there were female rappers since the inception of hip hop and they were stars and they were touring and making hit records.
Emcees like Roxanne Shanté paved the way for all of us to be here.- Lex Leosis, rapper
LolaBunz: Biopics of female rappers are very important because it's a reality that people need to understand. I often hear people say, "Oh, somebody put her on," or, "She fucked her way to the top" (excuse my French). These are stories that fans really believe because they have no back story.
More biopics shedding light on facts rather than fantasies help to begin real conversations and help people to understand [the] reality of what females really have to endure.
Not only that but there are probably many young aspiring female artists who have never heard of Roxanne Shanté, or Michie Mee, or know the story of MC Lyte — people who made it. We learn by example and by being aware.
Lex Leosis: It's so important for the culture to showcase the stories of women who have accomplished excellence, while facing continuous barriers with every step. We are ignored, silenced, pigeon-holed and underestimated. Emcees like Roxanne Shanté paved the way for all of us to be here.
The film illustrates multiple moments of toxic masculinity that Roxanne Shanté endured both in her private and professional worlds. Does it look the same in today's rap world? What's changed and what has stayed the same?
Masia One: I've worked in studios from Hollywood to Asia. The circumstances and players have stayed the same. It is my hope that women now are in a better position to be brave and stand up for themselves and be vocal about any disrespect.
Lex Leosis: As long as toxic masculinity exists in society, it will exist in the rap world. I see it in men taking credit for women's work, inserting themselves into narratives they don't belong in, believing they are owed something in exchange for a co-sign.
Jessie Reyez speaks about it brilliantly in "Gatekeeper." We hear about it in interviews from women, horror stories from our sisters. But nothing changes. It affects our mental health, our bodies, our money, our careers. I have found the best way to fight back is to stick together. Women are so strong individually, and we are unstoppable as a unit.
Phoenix Pagliacci: Throughout the history of hip hop, the female emcee has gone from queen to accessory to item back to emcee. We saw Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Monie Love be guest performers on popular TV shows, saw Eve, Amil and Lil' Kim hop on posse cuts with male [dominated] crews, and saw TLC, Salt-N-Pepa and Bo$$ turn the definition of female identity on its headtop. But what we didn't see is the way in which these female emcees were mistreated.
Only recently have stories of our problematic faves come to light. And even then, the female who endured the traumatic event is still not the headliner. The disturbing trend in hip hop nowadays seems to be the obsession with supporting abusive males who blatantly disrespect females and in turn perpetuate the violent, misogynistic omen that haunts this once inclusive culture. The toxic mentality that abusive individuals should be excused because of their talents is a worrisome phenomenon.
As long as toxic masculinity exists in society, it will exist in the rap world.- Lex Leosis, rapper
LolaBunz: I think the difference we see today compared to back then is that there are many more females in the game as artists, in management positions, producers, DJs, etc. So we have more of a choice when it comes to who we work with to get to the top. There is also more awareness and support for women who face the types of toxicity we saw in the film. So for some men, it causes them to think twice about how to deal with women.
This film, alongside other recent stories, has complicated previously romanticized notions of the early days of hip hop. Was the movie a revelation for you or was it an affirmation of what you already know?
Keysha Freshh: Absolutely an affirmation. A lot of what has recently come to light to complicate the narrative [are] things that were known in the industry and could no longer be kept a secret. These conversations need to be had. It wasn't all good. The stories you hear are of a lot of hardships, a lot of barriers and sabotage. For women, these hardships were multiplied.
Phoenix Pagliacci: I had an optimistic utopia in my head of the early days and was quite surprised to see that it wasn't so. In particular, I found myself rewinding the scene of Roxanne in the green room with DJ Marley Marl and Biz Markie. Another scene that caught me off guard was the tour with Sparky Dee.
Having two female emcees touring today seems like a dream, especially with this fight to the death mentality that hip hop culture seems to hold onto with a vice grip. But the manager's shadiness was reminiscent of the new age culture vultures taking advantage of talented and hungry young rappers who just wanna do what they love.
Eternia: This was an affirmation of what I already knew to be true. Being in the music biz you learn pretty quickly that there's a dark side that is often accepted and encouraged as "the norm." I learned early on that our rap idols have vices that often eclipse their virtues.
One of the most moving scenes in the film, to me, was when Sparky Dee offers Roxanne Shanté money after she's been swindled by her management. Mainstream media often pit female rappers against each other in public but this depicted a private moment of sisterhood. How did it feel watching this moment?
Masia One: It reminded me of my sisterhood with female emcees from Toronto to Vietnam. I think this is closer to the reality than not.
Sydanie: Seeing Sparky Dee and Roxanne Shanté hold space, as her manager screws her over with finances, reminds me of how often Black girls have to protect and defend each other as a means of survival. It's also important for young female rappers, poets and artists to see [these] moments because it reinforces the importance of kinship within our small art community as Black women/GNC rappers.
LolaBunz: I really loved this scene. I can't even tell you how many times I have been ripped off or promised money or opportunities that never came. In these times, support is definitely what you need to keep going — and support from a fellow female artist speaks volumes.
With women in hip hop, there is this strong belief that there can only be one female rapper and anyone that comes after has to compete. It drives me crazy because there are thousands of male rappers and society easily accepts them. I believe it's coming to a time where thankfully more females in hip hop are being given mainstream opportunities and I believe we have power in numbers.
Michie Mee: This was one of my favourite moments in the movie as it showed that we (female artists) knew the actual business part of the music scene was bad. We weren't eating/getting paid besides the performance shows — God forbid the show was sold to us as a promotional show, yet charging money at the door. We knew someone was getting paid, just not us, regardless of being the headline act as in most cases Roxanne Shanté was. I didn't know this fact yet. I was always aware of how tight Roxanne and Sparky [were] — and still are. This was absolutely super cool and proved my sister is as genuine as ever.
Back then, when we knew of corrupt activity, there wasn't much we could do. As women we felt it more [and] we also knew the hip hop genre rules were just being made.- Michie Mee, rapper
I've felt this from Shanté personally as an artist several times. She even travelled to Toronto for my annual Scorpio BDay party with no issues and regardless of my budget. She knew what I was doing and related to my hustle in coming back in this music business. She's a survivor in real life and in her struggle with cancer. I admire her so much. To see her stay the same humble, kind person Sparky Dee [saw] and paid back from her own pocket was a true testament that Roxanne Shanté is the "Truth."
She put/co-signed so many of us on the scene including me — a fresh face to the NYC scene from another country and with an accent. Sparky knew her and her heart...I love that this was expressed in such a simple way.
This is now done in cases today where female artists can sign, help produce [and] promote in bigger ways to help other developing artists. Back then, when we knew of corrupt activity, there wasn't much we could do. As women we felt it more [and] we also knew the hip hop genre rules were just being made.
What other female rappers deserve biopics? Why?
Keysha Freshh: Missy, that's a given. Lauryn Hill. Da Brat. Michie Mee, Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown, Nicki Minaj and definitely Queen Latifah.
Masia One: Lauryn Hill! I'm opening for her here in Singapore this weekend. Her music, her voice, her success, the drama surrounding her journey — and she did it all maintaining positive lyrics and without clichés of "skinning out."
Michie Mee: Sha-Rock, Sparky Dee, Salt-N-Pepa, Missy Elliot and many more. Most importantly "Mee" and this beauty-full Canadian citizen-Jamaican born-U.S. Visa musical journey of mine. I look forward to telling my story, too. Two hours will never be enough to tell anyone's story but it should give insight into how similar and different we all were and are. Doing it all for the love of hip hop and (in my case) reggae, too. Writing is a gift in any form. As songwriters we're able to share influences musically, so it'll be even cooler to break it all down to a documentary and even cooler content. Looking forward!
Any final thoughts?
Sydanie: Roxanne Roxanne is easily one of the best hip hop biopics I've ever seen! This biopic holds its own because Roxanne Shanté is the godmother of battle rap, from a time prior to many of [the artists who] already have biopics made today. It validated the importance of hip hop history in today's culture and set a high bar for future biopics about other women in hip hop.
Eternia: UTFO's "Roxanne Roxanne" may have been the first rap record I heard in life. "Roxanne's Revenge" was beyond my level of comprehension at that age to properly take in, but I knew she existed as a young child; she was larger than life to me.
[Shanté is] probably one of the most complicated, enigmatic and simultaneously charismatic women I've ever met.- Eternia, rapper
She became real to me when we toured together in Europe in 2007 alongside Bahamadia, Invincible and more. I learned so much from this woman. I left that tour more confident in myself and who I was (and being unapologetic about that) than I had ever been previously in my life.
[Shanté is] probably one of the most complicated, enigmatic and simultaneously charismatic women I've ever met. She's one of the very few people that can still make me feel like a little fangirl in 2.2 seconds.
Michie Mee: It's about time and thank you, Netflix!!! GO SHAUNNNNEEE GO!! New music coming from "Mee," the music never stops! Acting as much as possible and loving my craft!