The 1980s are a time period often referred to by music lovers, especially hip-hop heads, as the Golden Age of Hip-Hop, the era when the genre was birthed, when it was learning its way in infancy, started to crawl, and truly took off running. What’s spoken of a bit less often is how this genre was built from the ground up by the underprivileged Black youth of New York City, how each borough had a different style and flavor, and how so many of the greats were inspired by the informal tutelage of rap battles and club freestyles. Over the years, many of the pioneers of hip-hop have seen their names fade from memory, especially the women who helped pave the way in what’s currently a very male dominated genre. Roxanne Roxanne is the story of Lolita Shanté Gooden, better known as the legendary emcee Roxanne of the wildfire 1984 hit Roxanne’s Revenge.
Though she’d been battle rapping since the age of 9, by age 14, Roxanne got her first real taste of fame and minor celebrity. But being so young, being a woman surrounded largely by men with less than honourable intentions, having very little understanding of the business side of the music industry, an woefully lacking in parental support, Roxanne was exploited both sexually and financially by the men around her.
One of the aspects of Roxanne Roxanne that is just as painfully accurate as it is heartbreaking is the relationship between Shanté (Chanté Adams) and her mother Peggy (Nia Long). While Peggy clearly loves her daughter, her focus (first on being a disciplinarian, then on drowning her sorrows with alcohol) is not on giving the misguided Shanté the guidance and love she needs. As a result, Shanté left home, first looking for support, then for love, in all the wrong places. To Peggy’s credit, she is supportive of Shanté’s rap career, encourages her to stay in school, and tries her best to talk her out of a toxic relationship with a predatory older man (Mahershala Ali).
One of the things that Roxanne Roxanne could have done better, however, is focus less on Shanté’s trauma and more on her brief but iconic career, her membership in the Juice Crew, with other notable members like Biz Markie, Sparkie D, and Big Daddy Kane. Most all, the film could have done more to illustrate how Shanté served as a direct influence for rapper Nas, among others, and how hugely influential the first ladies of hip-hop were and continue to be to this very day.
Overflowing with the style, flavor, and music of 80s New York, with a stunning primary and supporting cast, Roxanne Roxanne is a breath is like coming up for air after swimming in a sea of biopic about iconic men. Long overdue, surprisingly poignant and featuring excellent dialogue, Roxanne Roxanne is definitely worth a watch and Lolita Shanté Gooden deserves to have her flowers in life. I give this one 4 stars.