Netflix’s last attempt at hip-hop history didn’t go as planned. The Get Down, which released its first season in two parts in 2016 and 2017, was canceled last summer. The news came as a shock to some, who celebrated the show for its fresh perspective on the origins of a complicated genre that has grown into a global phenomenon. While I enjoyed characters and storylines in The Get Down, I thought that it would have been better suited as a movie instead of stretched out over entire series. And while it make a clear connection between hip-hop’s founding and the LGBTQ+ disco scene of the ‘70s, the series also lacked a female perspective.
It looks like the Netflix gods noticed that slight, and they have now blessed us with Roxanne Roxanne, a biopic about the early life of Roxanne Shanté, rap’s first female star. Produced by Pharrell Williams, Forest Whitaker, Mimi Valdes, and Nina Yang Bongiovi, Roxanne Roxanne was screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and will be available to stream on Netflix on March 23. The film isn’t just an account of one woman in hip-hop. It’s about how the lived experiences of Black and brown people, including women, were always the heartbeat of rap. As such, it’s not the narrative about female rappers that we’re used to, but we definitely need it.
Today, we look to female rappers to be bosses. Fans check for the records they break, the charts they top, and the Louboutins they wear as evidence that women belong in hip-hop, too. Nicki Minaj’s pop crossover and Cardi B.’s chart-breaking success stories sell us on glitz and glamour We like their humble beginnings, not for what they reveal about the relationship that these women have with music and hip-hop, but because they make their achievements seem even greater. Conversations about women in rap are often a dialogue about ‘firsts,’ ‘bests,’ and ‘greatests.’ Afterall, Roxanne Shanté was the first big female name in rap, and that’s likely why she got the biopic treatment. But an unfortunate side effect of this narrow focus on only the height of femcee careers is that we miss out on the role that Black women play in shaping hip-hop history as a whole.
Born Lolita Shanté Gooden, Roxanne Shanté (played by Chanté Adams) grew up in the Queensbridge Projects in New York and took a liking to freestyle rapping when the art form was still in its infancy. She watched her mother Peggy (Nia Long), fall into depression and alcoholism after being scammed out of $20,000 by her boyfriend. As a result, Shanté was often charged with taking care of her young siblings and clashed with Peggy when she tried to impose strict rules on her. Shanté took on adult responsibilities, which included trying to make money to support herself and her sisters at a very young age. She stole clothes and sold them. She helped out her cousin’s drug business, sometimes foregoing school to prioritise her coin. All the while, she cradled a talent and interest in rapping, the local art form that would later sweep the world.
Shanté’s burgeoning career was nearly over before it took off thanks to the men around her. Her abusive older boyfriend, with whom she had a child; her DJ, who tried to control how she expressed her sexuality; and her manager, who likely stole a portion of the money she made touring. Even in its infancy, hip-hop reflected the reality that misogynoir made life harder for Black women, and that is one of the understated lessons of Roxanne, Roxanne. We can’t talk about misogyny and sexism in hip hop without looking at how those things impact Black women’s lives both within and outside of the industry.
In addition to memorable performances from Long, Mahershala Ali, and breakout star Chanté Adams, Roxanne, Roxanne is groundbreaking because it makes us take a hard look at the things we would rather quickly move on from.