Roxanne Shante was a trailblazer for women in rap and black women artists in the 1980s, predating and creating spaces for artists like Queen Latifah and Lil Kim. She hit it big at the age of fourteen with "Roxanne's Revenge", a response to rap group UTFO's misogynistic hit "Roxanne, Roxanne". The song was noticed for its sharp wit and coarse language, and was a national and local hit. Dr. Shante used the success of the Roxanne Wars to launch a career as an MC with exceptional freestyling ability.
Dr. Shante was also in a problematized body: a young black woman without class privilege and with a child. Record company executives used her lack of privilege to cheat her out of her royalty checks and dump one of the founding members of the Juice Crew after two albums. At 25, the first queen of hip-hop quit the industry. "Everybody was cheating with the contracts, stealing and telling lies," Shante, born Lolita Gooden, said. "And to find out that I was just a commodity was heartbreaking."
But instead of giving up, Dr. Shante used her past experience to take her career in a different direction. Her contract with Warner Brothers included a clause which guaranteed that the label would pay for her education for life.
Of course, Warner Brothers thought that they could continue to take advantage of Dr. Shante, and refused to pay for years. But through Dr. Shante's determination and self-advocacy, she eventually succeeded:
She eventually cashed in, earning a Ph.D. in psychology from Cornell to the tune of $217,000 - all covered by the label. But getting Warner Music to cough up the dough was a battle.Since earning her PhD., Dr. Shante has continued to be a role model and inspiration for women everywhere. Besides funding annual scholarships for female rappers, Dr. Shante focuses her efforts today not on capitalizing on the washed-up celebrity vogue over at Vh1, but instead focusing on how she can help her community. She currently runs a therapy practice targeted at urban women of color. Dr. Shante often uses hip-hop in her sessions to create a comfortable and safe environment for the women she sees.
"They kept stumbling over their words, and they didn't have an exact reason why they were telling me no," Shante said.
She figured Warner considered the clause a throwaway, never believing a teen mom in public housing would attend college. The company declined to comment for this story.
Shante found an arm-twisting ally in Marguerita Grecco, the dean at Marymount Manhattan College. Shante showed her the contract, and the dean let her attend classes for free while pursuing the money.
"I told Dean Grecco that either I'm going to go here or go to the streets, so I need your help," Shante recalls. "She said, 'We're going to make them pay for this.'"
Grecco submitted and resubmitted the bills to the label, which finally agreed to honor the contract when Shante threatened to go public with the story.
Dr. Shante's efforts are especially important because urban WOC rarely receive mental health care. (The source article frames it as their being resistant to therapy, but I would guess that the reasons for this are more systematic - as in, therapy is outrageously expensive and probably does not cater to this demographic, and is stigmatized in any culture.) "People put such a taboo on therapy, they feel it means they're going crazy," she explained. "No, it doesn't. It just means you need someone else to talk to. They can't really let loose and enjoy life. So I just let them unlock those doors."
"I call it a warning service, so their dreams don't turn into nightmares."
Interested in hearing her work? Watch this space tomorrow, when I'll share some of Dr. Shante's music for Music Monday.