The Strange Case Of Lil Mama

Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty.
Niatia Jessica Kirkland wears many hats. She’s a dancer. She’s a Black girl. She’s a rapper. She’s a New Yorker. She’s an entertainer and television personality. She’s a meme. All of these identities work to create the entertainer that the world knows as Lil Mama.

Lil Mama’s first single, “Lip Gloss” came out in 2007 and still stands as an emblem for her public-facing career: a diamond deeply embedded in the rough. “Lip Gloss” had all of the makings of a one-hit wonder: a catchy beat, a less catchy dance to accompany it, and a mundane item, lip gloss, as it’s centerpiece. It could have gone straight to Kidz Bop and no one would have noticed. But on the other hand, the music video showed, in all of its teenybopper glory, Lil Mama as an undeniable talent. Her flow wasn’t bad and her dance moves were on point. The video also had cameos from Kanye West and Slim Thug, two co-signs that offered Lil Mama some credibility.

It’s safe to say that people didn’t know what to do with Lil Mama during her breakout years. She was a teenage girl demanding to be taken seriously in an industry dominated by adult men. She seemed to be caught in pop culture Purgatory: not gimmicky enough, but also not quite real enough for us to care about. Consumers were just waiting for something to happen that would provide them with a box to put Lil Mama in.

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In 2009 it happened. Still riding her “Lip Gloss” wave and having secured a new gig as a celebrity judge on America’s Best Dance Crew, Lil Mama snagged a seat at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Feeling inspired as Jay-Z and Alicia Keys performed their infamous ode to New York “Empire State of Mind,” Lil Mama made a decision. Beyoncé tried to stop her, but the young entertainer, with her still-budding recognition and city-girl determination, bounced her way, uninvited, onto the stage with two of the biggest names in entertainment.
Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty.
It was awkward, to say the least. A slight gesture from Jay-Z confirmed that it was an unwelcome show of solidarity over their shared hometown. But more importantly, it was also the moment that the public decided that Lil Mama was a joke. Her VMA stunt cast Lil Mama as the clueless outsider — either too cocky or stupid to think that she could share the stage with a big name like Jay-Z. The incident coincided with the internet meme’s shift from online fodder for tech geeks to a mainstream social media commodity. And Lil Mama as the stage-crashing third wheel became the visual foundation of too many jokes.

And it just never stopped. Lil Mama was a host on ABDC for seven seasons. She was even cast as Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez in VH1’s CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story. But none of it was enough. When Lil Mama appeared on 105.1’s infamous Breakfast Club to address her mistake at the VMAs, she cried while talking about her mother who died in 2007, before Lil Mama could fully reap the benefits of her small dose of fame. And instead of empathy, the public responded with yet another meme — this one operating as the female equivalent of the Jordan cry face. When she posted a picture of herself sans makeup and weave: another meme.

My recollection of Lil Mama’s career is not meant to take down cyber bullying or a fickle internet culture, although that could certainly be a post for another day. Instead, I’m posing a question about who we are willing to conceptually throw away, and why? On whose backs are we willing to make our points about how women should act, think, and feel?
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On whose backs are we willing to make our points about how women should act, think, and feel?

As an entertainer, Lil Mama didn’t bother with the media training that would make her less of an around-the-way girl. Her ass didn’t suddenly grow to massive proportions so that she would look really thick in spandex one-pieces. She was never interested in being anyone’s sex symbol or denying her own talents to give off a false facade of ladylike demureness. Lil Mama is a Black girl from New York that has probably been called loud, obnoxious, and uncivilized for most of her life. I know that because I’m a Black girl from Chicago who gets called those things. Our literal inability to be the kind of women that people want us to be: chill enough to not hop on the stage when we get a surge of hometown pride, sexy enough to sell records, polished enough to be taken seriously — constantly puts us at odds with everyone else. It’s the tide Lil Mama has been swimming against for a decade.

About a year ago, Lil Mama dropped a track called “Memes.” Thus, letting the world know that she wasn’t blind to the shallow categorizations by the rest of the world. Like everything else that Lil Mama has done in her now decade-long career, it racked up views in the millions but didn’t generate the mainstream buzz that lends itself to respect. Since then, she’s kept fairly quiet.

Earlier this month, however, Lil Mama posted a series of photos of herself in full glam mode. She appears in several full-length gowns, serving the sophisticated chic that previously evaded her public image. For the first time, Lil Mama is sexy in the way that we expect from a female rapper. In one photo she crouches down in small bottoms, legs agape. As a fellow New York MC, not even she can ignore the picture’s semblance to the iconic pose of Lil Kim, and later Nicki Minaj. While it can be argued that this shoot represents a personal evolution and maturity — the former teen entertainer is now just a couple of years shy of 30 — I can’t help but wonder if she’s grasping at what was a missed opportunity to do things the way everyone else wanted her to.

T O U C H D O W N

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