The rap pioneer talks to Saeed Saeed about her celebrated career
Original hip-hop queen Roxanne Shante on Netflix film and rapping in a man’s world
This year’s hip-hop good news story is the return of Roxanne Shante.
The veteran New York rapper’s three-decade career received a welcome reappraisal courtesy of the Netflix feature Roxanne Roxanne. Released in March after a well-received debut at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the gritty drama followed her rise from a troubled household to become arguably hip-hop’s first female star.
As a result of Netflix’s global reach, the 49-year-old’s career, which had so far had only taken off in the United States, found international flavour, which includes a performance and panel discussion this weekend at Sole DXB.
“The thing is I have always been working every weekend either through performing or hosting events,” Shante says. “What I think the film has done is that it allowed people to look at my career from a different angle and it opened up the door to a new generation of fans.” And that means the understanding that female rappers didn’t just begin with Cardi B or Nicki Minaj and even Salt-N-Pepa.
Born in New York City and raised in Queensbridge Houses (which with 7,000 residents living across two complexes remains the largest public housing development in the Western Hemisphere), it was Shante and her generation of female MCs that showed hip-hop wasn’t simply a masculine affair.
Since it was the pre-social media period of the 1980s, respect had to be earned through the hip-hop duelling format of battle rapping. And Shante, who described herself in her seminal 1989 track Have a Nice Day as the “the microphone grand mistress”, was one of the best.
Word of her street cred led to legendary producer Marley Marl to seek her out in 1984 to perform on a beat that was to become the hip-hop classic Roxanne’s Revenge. As it turned out, he didn’t have to look too far.
“All he had to do was open the window and call my name as he lived in the building above the laundromat nearby,” she recalls. “And that’s the thing about where we lived. Until today, there is no other square mileage that has so many successful rappers such as Queensbridge public housing.”
Indeed, joining Shante at Sole DXB is the event’s biggest headliner, the rap legend and former resident Nas. But where his fierce lyricism stems from him jotting his thoughts on paper, Shante prefers to drop her rhymes unfiltered and on the spot.
That visceral approach, and her formidable story telling techniques, resulted in Roxanne’s Revenge to be an instant hit. Not long after, Shante – who was already a mother at the age of 15 – was thrust into the limelight and the music industry.
Since the genre was new at that point, not to mention the fact that she was its first major female act, record label executives were bereft of marketing ideas. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on talents, the young artist was viewed as an ideal way to reach more listeners. “I was young and entered the industry without my parents around, so I depended on these people to guide me and realised what I wasn’t comfortable with,” she says. “But it was a time where they were told that a female rapper had to be more sexual and that was when I had to bow out gracefully. Because I didn’t enter the industry to be this sexy female rapper, but to be a great rapper, period. But at the same time, I was still feminine. I didn’t change my attire to be one of the guys – I was just Shante.”
Coupled with the financial mismanagement that was rampant throughout the hip-hop industry in the 1980s, she hasn’t released an album since 1992. Her career has ever since focused on live performances either as an artist or a host of live events.
But like most genres in music, hip-hop also went through a cycle, with the 1980s street fashion and hip-hop sounds of old now in vogue all over again. She views her re-emergence as a fortunate coincidence, and puts it down to the positive outlook she relentlessly maintained throughout her career. It is a lesson she continues to give to aspiring artists and in her speaking engagements in American colleges. “I always say that the things you do for other people, the universe will do for you. I look at myself as a person who is always giving. I made sure that I never sold people dreams and that’s why I don’t get nightmares,” she says.
“But it is also about keeping your door open. People have that saying that opportunity knocks you have to answer it? I say that if you keep your door open then opportunity just walks right in.”
Roxanne Shante will perform at Sole DXB at Dubai Design District on Saturday. Doors to the festival are open from 12pm until 10pm. For more information, go to www.soledxb.com