The Notorious B.I.G. once asked "What’s beef?" and while that’s still TBD, one thing that is undeniable is that back in 1984, a 14-year-old Queensbridge native named Roxanne Shante was ready to serve anybody brave enough to step to her. This was around the time when her U.T.F.O. diss track “Roxanne’s Revenge” not only had the streets of New York buzzing, but also proved that hip-hop wasn’t just a boy’s club.
Before pillars of the culture like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte were putting ladies first, ground-breaking artists like Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill were pushing the envelope, or Nicki Minaj and Cardi B were grinding their way to H.B.I.C. status, there stood Roxanne Shante. However, she admits that she’s unbothered if, in the past, her contributions to the game have been overlooked. “In all reality, that’s fine with me,” she told REVOLT. “Because in order to get you in here someone needs to open up the door and if that needs to be me, I’m fine with that.”
Breaking old habits can be hard to do, even for one of the genre’s foremothers. Thirty years after first exploding on the scene, Shante is still in the business of breaking barriers. “It actually shows that there is a market for us in film and that there’s a market for our stories,” she said, as she discussed her newly-released Netflix biopic Roxanne Roxanne. “And hopefully this will be another one of these things [that] they say I pioneered.”
Produced with support from Pharrell Williams and Forest Whitaker, the film, chronicling her meteoric rise to fame, stars Nia Long, Oscar winner Mahershala Ali and newcomer Chante Adams who told us, “I’ve always been passionate about telling stories about women of color, especially stories we’ve never heard before.” The actress landed her breakthrough role only several weeks after graduating.
As expected, working alongside an esteemed ensemble came with some perks. There was the access to the expertise and advice of her co-stars, as well as to a certain new skill she picked up. One of Shante’s earlier hustles was the art form known as boosting—stealing designer fits and reselling them to local B-boys and hustlers—and, of course, she made sure Adams pulled it off. “There was no way that somebody is going to sit back, look at the film and say, ‘Now you know she would’ve gotten caught,'” said Shante. “We just wanted to make sure that was the case and she caught on quickly.”
A story of triumph, Roxanne Roxanne is also a cautionary tale. It focuses on a period when music’s most dominant genre was the new kid in the block, and yet many of those obstacles a teenaged Shante faced are still prevalent today. Artists young and old are still being jerked by managers and labels, while movements like #MeToo only exist as a result of verbal, mental, sexual and physical abuse still running rampant.
For Shante, those seemingly difficult-to-revisit moments from her life featured throughout the movie are there to provide a glimpse of hope for anyone dealing with similar situations. “That one moment when you do decide to fight back, whether you win or lose, is enough to give someone else that strength to want to fight back,” she said.
“Being the victim makes you turn into the villain,” she later added. “When you keep silent about something that happens to you, you leave that door open for it to happen to someone else.”
Practicing what she preaches, Shante, along with her husband, started Mind Over Matter. Located in Newark, New Jersey, the non-profit provides mentorship and guidance for young girls that are at risk of not graduating and are faced with the growing pains of life in the inner city. Participants can also count on Ms. Shante, as many of them refer to her, for rides to school and to prom night glow- ups. “I am for them what I felt I needed at that age, so I make it my business to do that,” she admitted.
“I came up with this whole term for it,” said Shante. “I call it re-enterfication, meaning you go get money and you move back into the hood. This way, some child can see you on a daily basis and see that success is not far or out of reach.”