Most of the time, biographical movies take a lot of creative license with the person’s life story. But if you want to know everything about Roxanne Shante, the subject of Netflix’s biopic Roxanne, Roxanne, watching the movie is a really good start. Unless you’re a hip-hop aficionado, it’s entirely possible that you’ve never heard of her, despite the fact that she was one of the best battle rappers of her time. And she did it all before she was even old enough to drive.
The film stars Chanté Adams as the fierce young rapper, whose real name is Lolita Shanté Gooden. Nia Long plays her mother, and Mahershala Ali plays her abusive boyfriend, Cross. Roxanne herself, along with Pharrell Williams and Forest Whitaker, produced the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year. The movie is already getting rave reviews on social media for its spot-on portrayal of the hip-hop scene in 1980s New York City, and for putting the spotlight on such a powerful woman, who, by most accounts, doesn’t often get her due when it comes to how we remember the pioneers of hip-hop. If you love Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Remy Ma, or Lil Kim, Roxanne Shante is their foremother. Here are some things to know about her before you queue up the Netflix movie for a second or third time, which you should definitely do.
1She got started early.
She really was doing laundry when she got a big break.[/listheader]
In the film, Marley Marl calls out to 14-year-old Roxanne while she’s running to go put her laundry in and asks her if she wanted to do an “answer track.” The song she was responding to was a UTFO song called “Roxanne, Roxanne,” which is about guys cat calling women and not getting any response (or “respect,” as they put it in the song). According to interviews at the time (the same ones the movie reenacts), she really was on her way to laundry when he asked her to record what would become “Roxanne’s Revenge,” in which she calls them out for thinking they’ve earned a woman’s response. She made a name for herself standing up for women and telling men where to go — honestly, what’s not to love about this woman?
That album was never distributed by a record company, but it sold about 250,000 copies in New York City alone. It would also go on to start the “Roxanne Wars,” with dozens of artists joining in with their own answer tracks. Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, told Billboard about the track, “It was the inciting incident for popular attention [to focus] on a female MC not as some decorated add-on chick, but as the main attraction.”
3She’s not mad.
Although she was fierce enough to not just start the “Roxanne Wars” but also join in another legendary hip-hop battle, “The Bridge Wars,” Roxanne’s not really a hater. She left hip-hop eventually because it wasn’t making her any money and she had to support her sisters and first child. She told The Breakfast Club in an interview, “I needed things that were financially lucrative for me, and at that time it wasn’t. I was a battle rapper. I had no intention of making records.”
Because she never really made records or any money from hip-hop, Roxanne assumes people think she’s sitting at home, watching women like Nicki Minaj climb up the ladder in the music business. But really, she loves watching women win. She told Pitchfork, “I like the way the women in hip-hop now are definitely taking care of their business and becoming bosses. They’re getting great contracts and going out there and being the faces. I think it’s wonderful.”
Chanté Adams, who talked to Roxanne Shante before filming and has been doing press tours with her this week, told Metro she was excited that the hip-hop legend was finally getting some play in pop culture:
3Roxanne’s relationships are portrayed accurately.
The violence Roxanne experiences in the movie is portrayed in a very real, often triggering way. After her boyfriend breaks her jaw, the rapper is scolded by a promotional photographer to smile — that photoshoot really went down, which you can see in the above photo. She told NPR that it was hard to watch those scenes be filmed. But it was also really validating. She said,
4And her mom likes the movie.
Another hard thing to watch is how hard Roxanne’s mother struggles in the film with her own relationships, drinking, and parenting. Roxanne said in her Pitchfork interview that she and her mom had a private viewing and cried before, during, and after. Later, her mom said of Long and Adams’ portrayal of their relationship,
5Roxanne Shante is still looking out for women.
These days, the former battle rapper runs a foundation with her husband called Mind Over Matter, which helps young girls between the ages of 13 and 18 years old who are at risk of dropping out of school. She’s also a Court Appointed Special Advocate in Essex County, New Jersey, which means she advocates for kids in foster care.
She told The Interview, “I think because I experienced so much as a child, I feel like I’m responsible for every child that I come into contact with. I also feel like as a sister, I’m responsible for every woman that I come in contact with. I make it my business. You don’t have to be black to be a sister, ma. You just have to be a woman, you just need to be whatever it is to be a sister. You could be transgender, you my sister, you my sister, at the end of the day.” Like we said, Roxanne is epic. And she’s still inspiring women everywhere with her much-deserved Netflix biopic. It’s about time she got the credit.