Lolita Gooden was a mere 14 years old when she assumed the moniker “Roxanne Shanté” and ascended to superstardom in 1984. Having spent the earliest years of her teens obliterating rap battle foes in her neighborhood of Queens, New York, Shanté’s hit single, “Roxanne’s Revenge,” projected her beyond normal girlhood into a world of celebrity far more surreal and sinister.
An upcoming Netflix biopic, “Roxanne, Roxanne,” traces the life of Roxanne Shanté and highlights the ways in which an industry rife with mendacious men thwarted a budding star.
In advance of the film’s debut, Shanté talked with HuffPost about the pressures we place on girls and our collective failure to protect them.
I’m curious how this film came about. I know Pharrell, Forest Whitaker and a number of others played a role in producing this, so how did they reach out to you?
I came in contact with [producers] Mimi Valdez and Nina Bongiovi, and they’re the ones who actually set the wheels in motion. This project could not have even been set in motion without those great women approaching me and saying, “We were looking for you and we want to tell your story.” I was like, “OK, let’s do it!” So we met the next morning. You know, when women get on things — not saying men don’t — but when women get on things, we get on them quickly. [Laughs]
Yes, ma’am. Absolutely.
So before you knew it, they came back to me and said, “Look, we have what is needed [to make this].” I had no idea that it was going to turn out to be the type of project that it is now. I mean, I knew it wasn’t going to be a documentary, and I was thanking God that it wasn’t a porno. [Laughs] So I’m happy that it is what it is.
How hands-on were you as the film was actually being made? Were actors constantly tapping you for guidance and seeking your counsel?
I served as executive producer, so I was on set every day. Everything was run by me; we had to make sure that we kept everything organic. We didn’t really want to make it where everybody wore different kinds of clothes every day, and everything was about the stage and all that. We wanted to tell the story for what the story truly is, and we wanted people to know that there’s more to hip-hop than just being on the stage hippin’ and hoppin’. Sometimes, when some of us hop offstage, it ain’t hip.
It’s interesting to hear you speak on how intentional that was, because there are aesthetically interesting things in the film that hearken back to the early ages of hip-hop, but it’s not a film about music, per se.
Exactly, and I think that’s where people will be able to appreciate the fact that this is truly a Roxanne Shanté movie. It’s not an “’80s hip-hop movie” — it’s a story that took place during that time. We have some musical moments in the film, but I’ve had great musical moments in my life, so that’s the reason they were in there.
And every man I met — whether they were age eight or 80 — I was always approached with, ‘Roxanne, Roxanne, I wanna be your man.’
Your film explores the ways you were manipulated and abused, as a child, by men claiming to have your best interest in mind. Do you hope “Roxanne, Roxanne” will be considered among the canon of art produced today that’s showing the ways women cope with and wear their hurt?
Absolutely. I think there’s a time and place for everything, and I think this is the perfect time for the movie. It allows people to see that it’s not just a “Me Too moment” as far as Hollywood goes, with your biggest stars. People always assume that you have to reach a certain level of success to go through that, but I’m a person who experienced harassment from the very beginning of my career.
I think the film chronicles that harassment well and shows how ever-present it was.
People say, “Roxanne, did you experience any Me Too instances?” and I say, “Let me just explain one thing to you.” At the age of 14, I made a record called “Roxanne, Roxanne,” also called “Roxanne’s Revenge.” And every man I met — whether they were age 8 or 80 — I was always approached with, “Roxanne, Roxanne, I wanna be your man.” So imagine having to deal with that on a day-to-day basis, hour after hour, with people constantly coming at you saying that.
I understand. Watching “Roxanne, Roxanne,” I got the sense that you are very open to portraying the ways you internalized some of this harassment. Is that accurate?
When your management is telling you, “Smile! Smile! Don’t feel any type of way about that! This is what you have to do for the industry!” you feel, on the inside, that something is wrong with that. You’re not comfortable with it, but you still have to go along with it for career purposes, so I can definitely relate to what a lot of women today are going through and want to tell this story. This is great for women in hip-hop, too, because they need to be able to see the movie and relate to being put into the predicament I was put in.
I’m grateful you mentioned women in hip-hop specifically, because I wanted to ask whether you feel as though hip-hop has eluded some of the Me Too narrative. It seems we don’t discuss some of the degradation that takes place in the music industry in a way that shows there are real consequences for wrongdoing.
I’ll be the first to tell you that hip-hop does have its flaws when it comes to the ways that women are treated, objectified or talked about. People feel that when a woman comes into the industry, it is no longer based on her talent.
Can you elaborate on that? That’s a sentiment we hear often and I think it’s especially powerful coming from someone who was pushed out of the industry by those forces.
People believe if it looks “good,” it sounds good. Hip-hop is no longer listened to with ears; instead, people listen with their eyes, so if a woman looks good, she automatically sounds good. And that puts a lot of pressure on women to feel like they need to come into the industry looking good, or they need to flaunt their body, or they need to express their sensuality instead of putting out their talents first. And that’s so unfortunate, because we have so many talented sisters who refuse to say certain lyrics or do certain things, and because of that, they don’t get the type of platform that others get in the hip-hop industry.
If a great actor like Mahershala says he had difficulty playing the part, imagine the person who had to live the life.
You seem to have understood that dynamic at a very young age, and yet your competitiveness with male emcees was a huge source of your popularity. Where did you develop the confidence and audacity to call out men on records?
I think [by] witnessing, firsthand, the initial heartbreak of all heartbreaks; that heartbreak where you put your trust in someone, give them everything you have, you believe they have your best interest in mind and they break your heart. But I had to remember that I was responsible for others and that responsibility fell on me very early in life. And rapping was a different kind of approach to those “daddy issues,” in a sense. My mom always told me, “Everything you do can be done on your own. You don’t need anyone.”
What do you hope to accomplish with this film? There are a lot of topics broached and I wonder whether you hope it achieves something specific.
So many women feel that everything discussed in the film is taboo ― whether it’s domestic violence, daddy issues, being a teen mom, or drug use, or abuse. But these are things that everyone has experienced, and when women watch the film, they can say, “This right here is something I went through,” whether they acknowledge it publicly or not. I think in hip-hop, and even some cultures, we’re taught to say, “That’s nothing ― don’t worry about it.” We don’t even allow each other to go to therapy, and for me, this movie was totally therapeutic.
I hear that. Was creating this art emotionally taxing at all, though? I read that Mahershala Ali became emotional and had to seek guidance while playing your child’s father.
Absolutely. I mean, if a great actor like Mahershala says he had difficulty playing the part, imagine the person who had to live the life.
“Roxanne, Roxanne” debuts on Netflix Friday, March 23.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.