Free The Girls (2001, Hip Hop Divas, Vibe Books, Three Rivers Press)
by dream hampton
I remember getting jumped at the skating rink, by like, eight girls. It started on the carpet, where you walk on the bumper part of your skates, but quickly spilled onto the rink’s slippery floor. At first it was Alexis, a pretty dark skinned girl with breasts (I had none, still don’t). She grabbed one of my two French braids and spun me toward her screaming, “Yellow bitch!”
She swung. I stepped back. She missed. Her girl, Tenyetta didn’t, though; she punched me dead in the eye. Terrified, I still managed to bust her lip. The 15-year-old girl, who said she was Alexis's cousin and complained in the girls' bathroom that she'd had an abortion the Friday before, hit me in the back of the head with a skate and opened my scalp. Blood poured into my eye, down my cheek, into my mouth. I was on the ground and being stomped. My pretend cousins, my real best friend Marqueila, and Skateland security broke through the circle and peeled my battered and bruised 11-year-old self from the floor. But it was way too late.
I knew it was coming. Andre, this beautiful ninth grader from Detroit's Martin Luther King homes, had spent the past three Saturdays trying to teach me to skate backwards. He had expensive skates and long pretty Jheri curls. I helped him write his book reports and he told me stories of all the girls he "messed with." He'd point them out while we were skating. "See that girl with the big ass?" (I didn't have one, still don't) "She sucked my dick last night." Andre didn't turn me on, he couldn't even spell. I just wanted to to be held up while I learned to skate backwards. I was still playing with Barbies. I'm still mad at these bitches. When I cut my hair short, there is the raised scar at the crown of my scalp from that skate.
I had another friend, Darius, who also had a long Carefree Curl, and used to drive a cherry red moped. He was murdered in 1986. He would strap a giant boombox to his bike and give me rides to and from the arcade. His mother's boyfriend was from Harlem and he'd bring mix tapes of rap music to Detroit for Darius's box. I remember the morning he came over with this "battle rap" between Sparky D and Roxanne Shante. They sounded as if they were in the same room, but Sparky D called Shante a crab-ass bum and accused her of giving her man fleas and gonorrhea. Shante called Sparky half-ass white, fat, and accused her of having pussy that was "threw" and getting fucked in the ass. Sparky came back with rhymes about Shante being too damn black with hair that would never grow.
The girls on my block, some of whom had stepped to my defense at Skateland, loved Darius's new jam. They dubbed it and played it over and over again. Sometimes a dis from the song would make its way into one of our neighborhood arguments, like the time Stephanie called Naomi a crab-ass bum. Or the time India told me to "shut the fuck up you half-ass white." I couldn't call her too damn black with hair that would never grow. I didn't even choke on the comeback—it never came.
I hated the way my girlfriends talked to each other, even then. In John Hughes' movies the girls were scheming and cruel, but they had nothing on my friends. We were violent and abusive with one another, our deep self-hatred as visible as the tribal identification marks of a far-flung clan. We all, each and every one of us, learned to hang with boys instead, to say things like 'girls ain't shit', 'you can't trust 'em'. Some of us came back to our preadolescent selves, to become loving and trusting women. Some of us didn't.
Because they wore coordinating outfits three to four times a week for four straight years, Kenya and Shannon had to split the “Best Dressed” award in twelfth grade. In the back of the high school yearbook they are wearing twin outfits and posing in lunge positions with their hands on their hips. They’re each wearing gold chains that spell the other’s name. They didn’t know each other before freshman year, but they sort of fell in love in Spanish class and have been best friends ever since.
When U of M turned Kenya down, Shannon forfeited her own admission and they both went to Spelman. Shannon’s mom was so pissed. They pledged Delta together but their line was all fucked up when this girl died from a car crash. The school blamed it on relentless rushing. Kenya met this Morehouse boy from Queens and fell deeply in love. He spray-painted his tag on her dorm wall, then went to jail for two days when the campus guards caught him trying to sneak out of Kenya and Shannon’s room with Krylon and dirty fingers. On a trip to Lenox Mall Shannon saw Kenya’s boyfriend from Queens kissing this girl from Texas and walked right up to them both and slapped the shit out of the girl. Kenya dropped the boy two hours later. They had each other’s back like that.
When they attended the Al B. Sure! Concert Al himself had arena security invite them backstage. He asked Shannon straight out if she wanted to fuck and she really wanted to, but Kenya gave her a look that said, “We would be so over—so very over—if you played yourself right now.” They had each other’s back like that.
Before graduating they organized a talent bazaar/charity event for a shelter that housed runaway girls. They performed “Push It” and wore matching unitards and slid under each other’s legs just like Salt-N-Pepa did in their video. Shannon went to Parsons School of Design in New York for graduate school and because Kenya was unsure of her plans, she followed Shannon.
Kenya married a guy who played for the NBA a year later and Shannon designed fur coats for rappers and ball players. When Kenya’s husband got some cheerleader pregnant just three weeks before she was to deliver their first baby, Shannon drove to Jersey, packed her best friend’s things and moved her and her soon-to-come infant into her one bedroom. They have each other’s back like that.
Bonnie And Clyde
She used to be so fly, the first eleventh grade girl in Detroit with her own Benz. Candy apple red and convertible, with customized boots to match. Red riding boots. Red knee high, flat Gucci boots. Red gator boots with a 24- karat gold-plated heel. She dyed her hair burgundy and had it cut in a deep asymmetrical, modeled in the national salon competition and was on the local news when her hairdresser brought home first prize---a bronzed head with a bob. Her man was only 19 years old, but he’d opened I-95, which in the 80’s became known as “Cocaine Lane,” further than any other cat in the city. They say he had houses from the southwest side of Detroit to Liberty City, a neighborhood just north of where he copped his weight in Miami.She liked to make that trip back then, she could drive all the way without stopping (he never did like to drive long distances), but he’d keep her awake with promises about the next twenty years.
They were best friends. She still says that. She’s eighty pounds heavier from serving 12 years of Fed time and she still calls him her best friend. She’s proud of the fact that she never snitched. Doesn’t seem suspicious that he served 18 months, went home, and has forgotten to put money on her books for the past ten years. “My life is like a movie, girl. You want something to write, you should write this down.” She has a girlfriend on the inside and they pass the credit card numbers they catch as telemarketers to boosters on the outside. I’m here to thank her for the mink she sent my godmother. She wants to talk about the ‘80s, How 'live' it was. ‘People don’t say 'live' anymore,’ I tell her, slightly annoyed. She wants me to remember the shopping sprees, her trips to Vegas, that flawed trip to Bogota. I remind her of her best friend who was shot in the face when she opened her apartment door, back in ’90. ‘Mimi’s daughter is pregnant,’ I tell her. She seems surprised that ninth graders are still getting pregnant.
She brags that the outfit L’il Kim was wearing on Access Hollywood is exactly like the one she was wearing when she got arrested. She mentioned this once already, in a letter she sent two years ago about how these girls like Kim are rhyming about her life, about how I should do an article about her in Vibe, about how her man would never put her on a fucking Greyhound with weight. How that was beneath her, even now. ‘But now you’re wearing khaki,’ I tell her, ‘a color you hate.’ She accuses me of being a player hater. ‘People don’t say that anymore,’ I deadpan. ‘Fuck you’ she hisses, as she stands up, ending the visit, and gets in line to be strip-searched.
Sucker DJs (I Will Survive)
LeShaun’s from Brownsville and she never had any romantic delusions about the ghetto. She hated it and wanted out. She’d been rhyming since she could lace her shoes and a couple of times it seemed like her ticket. In 1988, a year before she had a baby with Sammy B from the Jungle Brothers, she had an underground smash called “Doin' It (Wild Thing).” Hers was a lilting voice that sounded sweet when she spit nasty rhymes about rough sex. When Queen Latifah and her partner Sha-kim began their label Flavor Unit in 1991, they sought her out, and she was down with them for a couple of years.
In 1995 LL Cool J decided to do a remake of her song called “Doin' It.” She was asked to rap on the hook. It wasn’t a big break but it kept her in the game. She was in a good place in her personal life too. She’d been driving to West Virginia to visit an ex who was locked up there, but she recently met a man she loved. She became pregnant with his child, he made her his wife, and they moved to Maryland. She had dreams of being a rap star, but life as a wife and mother in suburban Maryland---- once a fantasy as remote as a platinum album—was coming true. Still she got on LL’ hook and she even rocked a few bars.
A few month before delivering her baby she learned LL had shot the video for “Doin’It” and had neglected to call. When she raised a little hell, even filed a lawsuit (which she settled out of court), LL went on MTV News and said he'd done her a favor, that she would have embarrassed herself trying to make a video pregnant. She was humiliated. In private she complained about the unfairness of it all, how hip hop had blown acceptable notions of sexy for men wide open; she invoked Biggie.
A couple of years later she settled into marriage and motherhood, and LL offered her, as an olive branch, a verse on a duet on his new album. She still loved hip hop, loved to rhyme, had been doing it for so long, she just couldn’t hold a grudge. This time LL invited her to the video shoot. She hoped he’d ask her to do a couple of shows too, and he did. He even invited her to appear on his following album. But no record deals followed, no press, no major breakthrough.
Fox and Kim were doing so well with the style she’d pioneered, but for LeShaun it was a constant chase. “I Had to get my priorities straight. Hip hop’s not my priority anymore. This game doesn’t love me like I love it,” she told me from her home in Maryland. “Just gotta let it go.”
My daughter hates hip hop. It was our earliest battle, until she bent my will her way. Before the man I’d asked to be her godfather, Biggie, was murdered, I used to force it on her. Play it in the car while she was strapped in her car seat, in the house as she climbed in and out of cabinets. Then I stopped, because everything seemed some half-baked tribute to, or worse, appropriation of my friend’s legacy.
Eminem doesn’t occur to me, but even as I try to ease into a Common or a dead prez moment she is intolerant. She calls rap “mean.” Has a list of things she doesn’t like in Kim’s new video: ‘her hair, her lipstick, her dress.' As we make our way down into the 125th Street subway station one evening after school they are blasting an uncensored version of an x-rated song by Ludacris.
“They’re hurting me, Mommy,” she yells dramatically. “I know baby, sometimes a lot of bass in music makes your chest hurt, like it’s stretching.”
“No,” she insists. “They’re hurting my feelings.”
I want to tell her all the ways hip hop has made me feel powerful. How it gave my generation a voice, a context, how we shifted the pop culture paradigm. How sometimes it’s a good thing to appear brave and fearless, even if its just posturing. I want to suggest that these rhymes about licking each other’s asses are liberating. But I can’t.