I Am Ro
Jennifer Robles is a recognizable figure in her South San Francisco neighborhood: navy-blue bandana folded over her forehead, tattoo of the Golden Gate Bridge scrawled across her right forearm, pants baggy enough to hide her slight, 5'3" frame. She answers her cell phone with the sharpness and urgency of a numbers runner, spitting her habitual greeting three times in a row: "What's the deal, what's the deal, what's the deal?"
"Typical San Francisco-reared gangstress" might be your first impression of JenRO, until you see the random collection of objects scattered around her bedroom: a furry zebra-striped bedspread, a Gay Pride calendar with dates scribbled in permanent marker, a desk cluttered with cologne, amps, lava lamps, empty Pueblo Viejo bottles, CDs from Jen's favorite artists in rap, merengue, and reggaeton. Most noticeable of all, though, are the baby-blue walls covered with images of the standard-bearers of West Coast gangsta rap: Equipto, Snoop Dogg, Playa Rae, Tupac, San Quinn, Messy Marv, Killa Tay, and – larger than all of them – her name spray-painted in black graffiti letters.
It's not unusual for a 21-year-old newbie MC to situate herself in a pantheon of big names. What's striking about JenRO, though, is her inclination to mix the different sides of her personality, making the seemingly disparate worlds she inhabits – queer, Latina, gangsta – all of a piece. On her debut album, "The Revelation," which dropped on the label La Movida in September, she spits lyrics about everything from street hustles to hooking up with fly girls. Watching her take the stage in settings as far removed from each other as San Francisco Pride and San Quentin prison – where Jen has performed with the nonprofit anti-gang organization United Playaz – you wonder how easy it is for a queer female artist to embrace the contradictions of her sexuality and her gangsta consciousness, and express them in a genre whose penchant for misogynistic and homophobic lyrics seems like a prohibition against women in general, and queer women in particular. But JenRO enjoys pushing the limits of the medium, and she looks at the labels others might use to describe her with a blend of ambivalence and disregard. Ultimately, she insists, "I choose to say who I really am." And if her honesty means she can't front like a mack daddy, she's not worried – she's got plenty more to say.
How did you get interested in hip hop?
In eighth grade, I used to hang out with a friend after school and we'd talk shit about people – the way eighth-graders do – and put it into rhyme. So my first raps were mostly cracks about people I knew; I wrote them down and recorded them on a cassette player. The first [time] I actually performed was at summer camp – I was supposed to do a skit about preserving the redwood forest. Instead, I rapped about raccoons getting it on in my bunk bed, to the tune of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice." The counselor picked me up and dragged me offstage.
Rappers like Busta Rhymes and Juvenile were really popular when I was in high school, and it seemed like everyone around me listened to hip hop. We used to form cipher circles anyplace we were hanging out – basements, garages, playgrounds. I even used to panhandle on Market Street, where I made about $13 an hour rhyming and playing beats on a little drum pad. But the main hangout for rappers was at the top of the stairs that led up from the school auditorium. When I first got to high school, I always saw guys rapping there during lunch, and I wanted to join them. I tried to get my best friend to go with me, but she said that hanging out with dudes was too boring, and that I was wasting my time. Eventually, I just came up to them by myself, and started spitting my own lyrics. Whenever I joined the circle, someone would start rapping about how he was annoyed that a girl joined the cipher. So I would come back at them harder, and rap about how I didn't care what they thought. I sucked at first, but as I started practicing more at poetry slams and talent shows outside of school, I eventually got better, and in the end, they always gave me props for being a girl and having the nerve to join.
A couple months ago you signed to La Movida Records, a label that mostly promotes Latino, Spanish-speaking outfits. Why did you choose La Movida?
I'm Salvadorean and Filipino, and I grew up speaking some Spanish at home and in school, even though my first language is English. La Movida appealed to me because they were making a lot of practical decisions, financially. The label is based in Los Angeles, where they have their own office and studio, and they make real glossy music videos. They work with a lot of different Spanish-speaking acts, from thrash-metal groups to R&B-type singers. One of the hip hop groups they work with, called Akwid, is platinum on the Spanish market – since hip hop is new to that world, their album is selling like crazy.
The label isn't advertising me yet – I'm mostly doing that on my own. I guess that once my album drops, they'll play up my Latino side, even though all the raps are in English. They want me to put out an all-Spanish album, and I'm thinking about it. It's easier to rhyme in Spanish because so many of the words end in vowels, but it's harder to write about themes, or things that happen to me, because my vocabulary is a lot more limited than in English. Also, the slang I use in English won't directly translate into Spanish – in my English raps, I use phrases like "I'm thuggin' it" or "I'm posting on a corner." How do you translate that into another language?
What do you like about gangsta rap?
I like the street sound, because that's the beat I can relate to. Plus, the lyrics in gangsta rap tell stories about the kinds of communities I grew up in. The neighborhoods I lived in as a kid were mostly populated by people of color – I lived in the Mission District in San Francisco, and also in [the North Bay city] Vallejo – and all the people on my block listened to hip hop.
Good gangsta rappers give you a lot of details to paint a picture of what [they're] talking about, and have strong voices that fit with who [they are]. More important, the lyrics sound as though they don't care what anybody thinks, and I love people who can do that. Even though I used to hate Eminem because he always dissed gay people, I think he has all the qualities of a good rapper. And I heard rumors that he's really gay, which makes me like him a lot more. I even started spreading the "Eminem is gay" rumor in some of my own songs. I mean, c'mon, look at the evidence: He's obsessed with anal penetration; he talks about gay people in his lyrics with so much aggression, even for the genre he's working in; and he even performed with Elton John.
Are you saying that rappers sound better when they're less aware of themselves?
The better rappers are the ones who talk about what's going on in their lives, and put it in a way that makes it sound believable. They don't have to resort to imitating everyone else, because they can take stories from real life and tell them in creative ways. I like Nas because he talks about the streets, but he tells his stories in a way that a lot of people can relate to – he's not just playing for a street crowd. Take [his] song "All I Need Is One Mic," for example: Anyone who's felt like she was up against the world at one point or another will be feeling that song. I like Jay-Z too, because he's a poet – I wouldn't really consider him gangsta, but he takes the spirit of gangsta rap and uses it in a convincing way.
Do you ever feel limited by the medium?
My dilemma is that I want to appeal to everybody, but I also want to come off as who I am. A lot of people will cast judgment if I say one little word about my sexuality in a song. But the gay thing is only one little part of me; it isn't what makes me. I was rapping long before I knew I liked chicks.
Generally, I do different shows for different audiences – I'll shout out to all my dykes and all my transgendered folks if I'm performing at the Pride parade, but I'll choose different songs for a majority-thug crowd, or for the shows I do at San Quentin. My lyrics aren't just about being gay, even if that's how a lot of people like to categorize me. I have stuff about the lack of opportunities for people of color in this country, about what it's like to fight against authority, or what it's like to feel as though you're stuck in your environment. The fact that I often rap about being gay doesn't matter, because I have the same opinions as people who aren't gay. But I also like to mix the material up a bit, and push people's limits. A lot of people in jail or on the street have the same frustrations that I have, even if our situations are different.
Have fans ever reacted to your lyrics in a way that upset or surprised you?
One time when I was performing in San Jose, there were some gang-bangers in the crowd who knew one of the guys I was rapping with. They tried to rush the stage and flash their rags, pretending they were with me. But I wasn't trying to be affiliated with any of that. I might represent Latinos, but I'm not gonna claim north side, or south side, or anything like that. My friend Florencia (a.k.a. Lady Trajik) and I perform a song called "Gangsta Dykes," which is kind of a joke, but maybe you could say that's my gangsta side coming out.
As for bringing out my gay material, I usually get a feel for the crowd first. Obviously, an audience of dykes isn't gonna react to me like, "You fucking carpet muncher!" Regular thug crowds might not be as eager to accept that side of me, but I always see how far I can take it. Actually, you'd be surprised at how many guys are open to the gay thing. When I rap "If you're a girl with a girl break her off now" on the hook of "Baby Girl," I can usually get a male audience really pumped.
Do you feel that by talking about lesbianism in your raps and speaking as a member of the queer community, you have an advantage over other rappers?
I think the disadvantages are more obvious than the advantages. After all, I might get a stage cracked in San Francisco shouting out to dykes, but there are plenty of ass-backward places in the U.S. where people won't be feeling those lyrics at all – which is why it's fortunate that I have plenty of other things to talk about.
But it sounds like you're able to move between communities in the underground, and find the points of intersection between them. Do you think that as you get more popular, you're going to have to suppress the gay side of your personality?
OK, want to know my big secret? Well, I guess it's not a secret if I'm saying it in an interview, but whatever: Secretly, I really want to be someone who's privileged to have her voice heard in the mainstream. If I have to censor my lyrics in order to rise to that level of fame, so be it. I just want to get to the point where I have enough power to have access to crowds that wouldn't otherwise listen to my songs if they thought of me specifically as a queer rapper. Once I get to that level of popularity, then just give me a few years and I'll put it back on really tough. There will be some kid out there who will have all my CDs and think I'm just the tightest, and then one day I'll come at him with the wildest gay shit, and he'll have to take it or leave it. In my head, I'm thinking it'll be like launching this huge movement, Rosa Parks-style. You know, you can only hold a group of people down for so long.
But then again, maybe I'm wrong for thinking that people who like my music aren't gonna accept every part of me. Basically, your CDs always tell who you are, even if you communicate it in bits and pieces. Think about it: If you have somebody's album, and you listen to all 20 tracks over and over again, then you're gonna find out all the different sides of that person. You're gonna hear everything that rapper has to say, even if the final product doesn't fit your initial impression of her. So if a person really listens to all the songs on my album, he's gonna know my sexuality by the end – he's going to hear that I'm calling out to bitches as much as the next guy, and that's fine with me. If I'm not speaking true to who I am, then I shouldn't be rapping.
I'm intrigued by how the word "bitch" pops up in your speech, and occasionally in your lyrics. Does the word have a different meaning when you use it than when it comes out of the mouth of a male rapper?
I guess some people think it's tight for females to reclaim the word "bitch," but in my case, it's not necessarily a conscious, politically motivated thing. I might call someone a "bitch" or a "ho" if I'm trying to diss her, or fight her, but I try to avoid using it as a uniform substitute for "woman." Even though every situation is different, I'm not gonna come off like a regular old rapper who just refers to all of his girlfriends as "my bitch."
But a lot of people malign hip hop – and gangsta rap in particular – for being misogynistic. Do you think they're right?
I think we can all agree that dudes like to talk about women, and how they desire women, and how they want to control women. But that kind of [derogatory language] was more popular a couple years ago. And besides, I can't knock people for being how they are in real life. They're just rapping about how they normally treat women, and even if I don't think they're right, I can't expect them to be politically correct all the time. I can't expect a rapper to spit lyrics about how much he loves and respects his girlfriend if that's not part of his personality. Sometimes I listen to songs that I don't necessarily agree with politically if I can relate to the sound of the music. I like a song called "Manipulate the Women" by 1st Degree the D.E., because it has a tight beat and a lot of interesting wordplay. It doesn't necessarily have to speak for my views.
You're traveling among three discrete scenes: Latino, gay and gangsta. Do you ever worry about losing part of your fan base?
I've had counselors ask for my CD, just to help youth who are struggling with their sexuality. I've had old white people who have never listened to hip hop buy my mix tapes because they're curious about how I fit into the rap scene. Just the other day, in fact, an old man with a cane came up to me and said he never listens to "that kind of music," but he really likes my lyrics.
Queer sexuality is part of me, but it's not all of me, even if I play for a lot of gay audiences. At the same time, representing that community makes me feel important, like I'm standing at the beginning of something. I mean, we have Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on prime-time television right now, and I think it's just a matter of time before queer acts rise to fame in popular music, without always having to be special. For me, it feels like the beginning of a movement, so just talking about it gets me all pumped up. Maybe not that many people are open about queer issues right now, but eventually, this thing's gonna catch.