Early life and education
Born Shawntae Harris on April 14, 1974, in Joliet, Illinois, Brat was raised on the West Side of Chicago, Illinois. Born to a Chicago city bus driver, her parents never married. Brat was subsequently raised in two different households. Da Brat lived part of the time with her mother and grandmother and attended an Apostolic church four times a week, where she sang in the choir. Da Brat attended Kenwood Academy during her sophomore and junior year, where she ran track and played basketball. She graduated from the Academy of Scholastic Achievement, a continuation charter school that caters to at-risk students in 1992.
1992–95: Early success
In 1992, Da Brat’s big break occurred when she won the grand prize in a local rap contest sponsored by Yo! MTV Raps. For the prize, she met the young rap duo Kris Kross. They introduced her to their producer, Jermaine Dupri, who signed her to his So So Def label. Dupri cultivated Da Brat’s image as a “female Snoop Doggy Dogg,” and she became one of the first female “reality-based” rappers. Da Brat told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that her stage name was inspired from being “a spoiled only child.”
Da Brat’s debut album Funkdafied was released in 1994 and entered the rap albums chart at #11. The album went platinum, making her the first female solo rapper to sell one million copies. The eponymous single reached #1 on the rap singles chart and #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Her follow-up single from the same album, “Give It 2 You,” reached #26 on the Hot 100.
1996–99: Collaborations and film projects
In 1996, Da Brat released her second full-length album, Anuthatantrum, which included the single “Ghetto Love” featuring T-Boz of TLC. During the rest of the 1990s, Da Brat came to be known more for her “featured” appearances on other rappers’ and R&B singers’ albums rather than for her own solo work. Da Brat was also featured with Kris Kross on the title track of their album Da Bomb (1993) as well as on their third album Young, Rich and Dangerous (1996). She contributed a rhyme to the hip hop remix of Mariah Carey’s hit, “Always Be My Baby” (1996). She also made her feature film debut that year in Kazaam (1996) with Shaquille O’Neal.
During the summer of 1997, Da Brat appeared along with Dupri on a remix of Carey’s “Honey (So So Def mix)” (1997) and recorded the hit remix of “Ladies’ Night (Not Tonight)” (1997) with Lil’ Kim, Left-Eye of TLC, Angie Martinez, and Missy Elliott. Also in 1997, she was featured on “Sock It 2 Me,” a track on Missy Elliott’s debut album, Supa Dupa Fly. In 1999, she appeared, alongside Krayzie Bone, on the remix to Mariah Carey’s cover of Brenda K. Starr’s “I Still Believe” (1998). She also appeared as a guest artist with Elliott on Carey’s remix of “Heartbreaker” (1999), and on the remix of Brandy’s “U Don’t Know Me (Like U Used To).” That year, she was also featured on a remix of the Destiny’s Child single “Jumpin’, Jumpin'” (1999).
2000–03: Return to solo work
In early 2000, Da Brat released her third full-length album Unrestricted, which produced the moderately successful singles “That’s What I’m Looking For” (U.S. #56) and “What Chu Like” (U.S. #26), featuring soul singer, Tyrese. The album was not well-received compared to Brat’s earlier work. However, the new album and new millennium did inspire an image makeover for Da Brat. Abandoning her “gangsta” persona, she decided to follow the trend in popular music and attempted to add to her sex appeal. In 2001, Brat continued her trend of being featured on other artist’s remixes, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop Singles chart along with rapper Ludacris on the main remix of Mariah Carey’s “Loverboy” and being featured artist on Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” remix. Da Brat also appeared as Louise in Carey’s 2001 movie Glitter. In 2003, Brat released her fourth album, titled Limelite, Luv & Niteclubz, and appeared on the 4th season of VH1’s The Surreal Life.
2005–present: Current activities
In 2005, she made a comeback of sorts when she was featured on the remix of the song “I Think They Like Me,” by Dem Franchize Boyz, which also featured Bow Wow and Jermaine Dupri. The song peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop Singles chart and No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2006, she was an onstage guest on Mariah Carey’s The Adventures of Mimi Tour in Atlanta, New York City, Long Island, Washington, DC, Chicago, and Los Angeles performing her rap verses on the “Heartbreaker” and “Honey” remixes. She was also featured on Kelly Rowland’s “Gotsta Go,” a bonus track from her 2007 album Ms. Kelly and is also featured on “4real4real”, a bonus track from Carey’s E=MC². She also co-wrote a song with Carey called “O.O.C.” which appears on E=MC² and contributes backing vocals on the track. In 2007, she participated in the fifth season of the VH1 reality series Celebrity Fit Club. In 2011, she did a remix with Kelly Rowland called “Motivation” featuring Lil Wayne. Following her release from prison, she launched a web series about life after the experience titled “Brat Chronicles: In Transition” on YouTube. She released her new single “Is It Chu?” on iTunes and other digital services on July 2, 2013. She now works for the Rickey Smiley Morning show as a co-host (July 2015 – present) and is part of the Dish Nation cast out of Atlanta. Since 2016, Da Brat has appeared on the reality TV series The Rap Game, as a mentor to young talent. In 2017 Da Brat joined the reality TV series Growing up Hip Hop: Atlanta which follows around Atlanta legends and children of Atlanta legends.
In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.
The hater: A stonefaced comic who frequently gets compared to the late Patrice O’Neal, Sam Jay has drawn acclaim from acts like Hannibal Buress and Rhea Butcher. She has appeared on podcasts like 2 Dope Queens, and is known for her candid jokes about race, sexuality, and stereotypes. The A.V. Club talked to her backstage at Riot L.A.
The hated: Da Brat, “What’chu Like” (2000)
The A.V. Club: Why did you pick this song?
Sam Jay: As a person that grew up not understanding their sexuality, she was a thing that I could understand. I wasn’t sure if I was gay or straight. She was a tomboy, and I was like, “I get that.” That’s what I thought I was at that time, and she was a person I could truly relate to. So she was the artist I attached myself to. That’s why I picked her as an artist to focus this whole thing around.
AVC: But you don’t like that song?
SJ: I hate that song.
SJ: Because they made her be someone she wasn’t. If you watch the video, they made her wear a bikini, they made her rub up on Tyrese…
Everything about it was awkward. Brat wore baggy jeans and rapped like the guys, but I feel like she got to a point in her career where they were like, “No one wants to see you do that anymore. You have to be sexy.” And instead of finding a way to just be her, she just assimilated. It was awkward. It was like the first time I slept with my boyfriend. It was just weird. There was no reason for it.
But It Remains Unclear
In 2003, Amanda Perez had two hit singles and her videos being played on MTV. Her song “Angel” reached number three on the Billboard charts and peaked at number seven on Total Request Live. Her 2007 album Hand of Fate also did well, but wasn’t able to trump the success of her debut Where You At or 2004’s Angel. Even so, she was signed to a major label—Virgin Records—and one thing was very evident about her: Amanda Perez did not look like other R&B ingenues. Clad in baggy denim, baseball jackets and sneakers, Amanda had swagger; a masculine air about her. Her hair was in tight cornrows, and she had an eyebrow piercing and a neck tattoo. She was much edgier than her TRL counterparts, an anomaly in mainstream music, especially for women.
Although she’s been out of the public eye for six years now, Amanda is back with a new video for her song “Freak for the Weekend” and one thing it noticeably different: She’s an out lesbian.
In 2010 she performed at Long Beach Pride saying, “We’re all family,” and about the industry: “I don’t give a fuck.” If you follow Amanda on Twitter, she frequently posts photos and adoring messages about her girlfriend, Ana. She also rants on Instagram about guys that tell her she won’t be gay forever. (Check her Pussy Monster shirt in case you had any question.)
It’s not clear if Amanda was asked to keep her sexuality out of the conversation while she was signed (she now releases music independently), but she’s clearly out now.
Another masculine-style MC whose popularity in the music business came around the same time, Da Brat is also trying to make a return with her song “Is it Chu?” and she also is going to have a reality series made about her life from the producer of R&B Divas, as well as part of an R&B Divas type shows but about female rappers.
In a 2011 interview, Da Brat told a blogger:
Much of the speculation of Da Brat’s sexuality came because of her attire, which is similar to that of Amanda Perez’s. Da Brat prefers T-shirts and pants to the sexed-up outfits a lot of pop stars wear, and she was asked in the same interview why she “dresses like a guy”:
Of course dressing a certain way and being a part of a lesbian event doesn’t necessarily imply anything, sexually or otherwise, but Da Brat seems to be more comfortable with discussing her time in prison than who she becomes involved with romantically. At this point Da Brat is also releasing her own music after years of being signed SoSoDef. In 2000, she scored hits with singles “That’s What I’m Looking For” and “What Chu Like,” but found herself in legal trouble that next year gave her a three-year sentence. (She was released after 21 months as part of a work-release program.)
At the height of her career, Da Brat was nominated for two Grammys and was the winner of Billboard and Soul Train awards. She also made appearances in six films and three TV shows, including Sabrina: The Teenage Witch. Like Amanda Perez, she was a part of major pop culture for a time, and it just so happened to be a time where staying in the closet was much more accepted but no less fodder for speculation.
Nonetheless both artists were able to be successful at points in their career without completely ignoring who they are, what they like and how they want to present themselves to their audience. Although today’s hip-hop and R&B community is arguably more accepting than it was 10 years ago, homophobia is still a huge part of it, with rhymes dogging fags and dykes still a part of tracks and “no homo” in daily use. Homophobia in both the black and Mexican communities (Amanda is Mexican-American) is still very present.
If Da Brat did choose to speak more openly about her sexuality, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’d pen a “Same Love”-esque track about marriage equality. In fact we already have out LGBT rappers that have released pro-gay songs, like God-des and She, Melonge Lavonne and the Rainbow Noise team behind “Imma Homo.” But they are also relegated to a kind of “gay rap ghetto,” where their gayness can only exist in a sub-genre that is outside the larger hip-hop community.
In a recent Guardian interview, both rising stars Brooke Candy and Angel Haze said they think out artists can exist in hip-hop.
“I think there’s room in hip-hop for tons of gay rappers,” Angel said. “I’m sure there’s already loads of them who are too scared to come out.”
But Brooke doesn’t think that artists who align themselves with making “queer hip-hop” are doing any good within the existing community.
“What is so bothersome to me, with these emerging gay rappers, is that they’ve created a new genre called ‘queer hip-hop’,” she said. “Why the fuck is there a new genre for the same-sounding music? Half of the people rapping up there are gay and people don’t even know it. I understand people being sick of being labelled as ‘gay rappers’, but stand strong.”
The idea that you can be gay but not too gay is not just a part of the music industry, but in all forms of entertainment or popular culture. Movies or books or TV shows that are are not “about” gayness but feature gay themes are more acceptable in the mainstream than those that are specifically LGBT. A show like Orange is the New Black illustrates that progress has been made in that area, though, whereas characters of all backgrounds, sexual preferences and ethnicities can be a part of a hit television show that appeals to all kinds of viewers. (Still, the woman at the center is white and middle class in a “fish out of water scenario.” )
So can an out rapper reach that kind of scale? Frank Ocean has proven that it can work for R&B, but he still might be an anomaly. In April, Snoop Dogg said a gay rapper would “never be accepted in hip-hop,” which Brooke Candy said is ridiculous.
“I don’t understand why that mentality exists and I don’t understand why Snoop would say that, especially because I’ve met him and he’s such a cool guy,” she told The Guardian. “To say that though is so regressive.”
There’s also the idea that Brooke and Angel Haze might be able to be successful as out MCs because they are feminine enough to pass. For the Amanda Perezes or Da Brats of the world, female masculinity might be too off-putting for some hip-hop fans, which is not only sad but frustrating considering how they dress has little to do with what it is they have to say or what kinds of talents they have.
Last year, DJ/musician Syd tha Kid took some heat for calling out Missy Elliott, Alicia Keys and Queen Latifah, saying they were lying about being straight. She also talked about being “the first openly gay female artist” to make a hip-hop video like she did (starring her and a female love interest) for her song “Cocaine.”
“I decided to do it because I wish I had someone like that while I was coming up. People write on my Tumblr just thanking me for making the video, saying that I really inspire them, and they want to be like me,” Syd told LA Weekly. “But I wasn’t always this way, this comfortable with myself, and I remember what that was like. So I figure, fuck it. Everyday people aren’t given this opportunity and I realize that. And I didn’t at first. I thought I was just lucky to be along for the ride.”
The video for “Cocaine” was hotly contested for its violence against women—at the hand of a woman, no less. And that brings up the point that alongside homophobia in the industry, there is also sexism. Misogyny is alive and well in hip-hop just like it has been in rock and other genres for the entirety of its existence. It’s ultimately what it comes down to, though, when you consider this:
That is to say, if women aren’t interested in what a man has to offer, they will be a lot harder to control.
If Da Brat did come out as a lesbian, openly discussing it instead of being cheeky and mysterious in interviews, would she more successful? Less? At this point, it doesn’t seem like it would hurt her career, and it’s very likely that those she’s friends with and work with are aware by now.
Are LGBT hip-hop artists supposed to leave hip-hop and form their own homo-hop community? Both are options at this point, and it appears the choice is between acceptance or authenticity, depending on if you prefer being closeted or being marginalized. It hardly seems fair, but where will the most progress be made? If women like Da Brat and Amanda Perez have been able to create hit songs and be a part of the industry in times of less acceptance, and out artists like Brooke Candy and Angel Haze are pushing for progress on their own terms, things could be looking up, or at least in the right direction.
Amanda Perez is working on her hip-hop/R&B crossover album, Love Don’t Make Sense and Da Brat can be seen with The Legends of Hip-Hop Live in Detroit on September 28 alongside Big Daddy Kane, Doug E. Fresh, MC Lyte and Slick Rick. Could 2013 be the year of queer women in hip-hop? We can only hope.