Ain’t No Human Resources in Hip Hop

Psalm One Illustration by: Tiffany Burriss
Illustration of Psalm One by Tiffany Burriss

TW: SA

Disclaimer: The accounts and opinions are expressly my own, and not meant to injure or harm anyone. I have left names out to protect myself. These accounts are alleged. While they do correctly reflect my experiences I understand that legally, there is no way for these events to be fully proven. Thank you for reading this.

After years of professional abuse as their lone woman-and-queer-identified rapper, I know where they failed me. More importantly, I know where I failed. It’s taken four years of therapy, a viral boycott and a trip to rock bottom to get here, but I made it. Many people don’t know my story. Oftentimes when fans ask, “whatever happened to {insert any artist who fell out of the limelight}?” they never get an answer.

This is my testimony.

After I publish this article, it will be time to wholly repair the damage.

Imagine getting signed to your dream label only to realize you’re not that important to the powers that be. It’s heartbreaking 💔. I had a manager when I first signed to RSE but very early on I was pressured to fire him. I was told I’d be managed by the label. That never happened. I later realized that was a tactic to make me vulnerable. With nobody calling the office going to bat for me, Psalm One requests and issues would fall on deaf ears. This happens to new artists more than people realize. I was so shook, I never trusted anyone to manage me again. That was a mistake. I forgive myself for not standing up for my manager back then and I forgive myself for taking on the burden of self-management instead of standing up for myself. After more than a decade managing myself, I’m at an advantage. But then I was truly, professionally, alone.

Mistakenly, I felt as long as I could tour I’d be fine. I’d been sharing stages with some of the greatest rappers. I was worthy of being on these stages!

I was determined to not be seen as a token “female” rapper; a vagina to round out the RSE dick-swinging club.

My seat at their table was the culmination of my blood, sweat and tears. I was showing up and rapping my ass off. I was holding up my end of the bargain. I forgive myself for being so naive; for thinking they could somehow see me as more than my gender.

Photo of Megan Thee Stallion by Carmen Mandato for Getty Images

It doesn’t matter if they’ve got a #1 record or toured stages worldwide. Women are disrespected first in hip hop. I rapped my ass off to get my spot and was still written off. I was told my degree in Chemistry was not something to be proud of. I was called a “dyke” very nonchalantly around the office and it’s taken me years to forgive myself for letting that slide. Seeing RSE embrace queer artists after the way they treated me used to infuriate me and while I’ve healed from that anger, it’s not something I can easily forget.

While on the road, I was assaulted by a different RSE artist. I noticed him watching me during soundcheck but didn’t think much of it as we were label mates. As I stepped offstage, he walked up to me and aggressively french kissed me.

When I pushed him away, he told me I should like it because he had “just eaten another woman out and I like the taste of pussy, right?”

Years later I told him about this assault. He denied it and then slut shamed me. Thinking back on this makes me sick to my stomach. He took the opportunity to disrespect me as soon as he got the chance and all I did was push him away. I was very embarrassed and didn’t want anyone thinking I was sleeping with a label mate, so I didn’t say anything. I forgive myself for not speaking up when it happened. This was my dream job and wasn’t this just par for the course? I figured it was.

After this tour, the offers started to slow down. I had to rely on myself more and more to secure gigs. After years of therapy, I know what happened to me is not my fault. I forgive myself for ever thinking it was.

By 2008 I couldn’t get a phone call or an email reply from the front office to save my life. I was under contract, which had options, meaning they could release more Psalm One music if they wanted. But after less than 2 years of touring…no contact. By 2009 I took it upon myself to release music on my own. Out of respect for my contract, I put free songs and projects out through Bandcamp. This was a way to show my fans I was still working while waiting for a “proper follow-up” to my debut. I forgive myself for thinking I couldn’t do more without a label. I forgive myself for waiting so long to release new music. Self-releasing tunes on my own has been my ultimate saving grace. It would take years to get RSE’s attention again.

By 2015 I had released several projects without RSE and was in a rap group that was getting a ton of attention. We were touring quite a bit and had several showcases at SXSW, the (pre-Covid) annual festival in Austin, TX. I hadn’t spoken to anyone in RSE in a few years and had decided to stop worrying so much about another album with them, no matter how much my fans wanted it. Besides, the Rapperchicks (my rap group) was doing amazing.

The RSE showcase at SXSW that year was, in my opinion, the beginning of the end. In addition to being omitted (yet again) from a label-wide showcase, I was very nervous to even attend the show. A mutual friend convinced me to say hello to everyone. To make a long story short, shortly after we arrived the artist who assaulted me got into a screaming match with my then girlfriend. I really don’t know how they ended up screaming at each other. I was incredulous.

I hadn’t spoken to these men in years, and this famous, possibly drunk rapper was towering over my girlfriend, screaming.

At least four other RSE artists and/or staff watched this argument happen and nobody said anything. I am grateful my other bandmate was there. She’s always been unimpressed by rappers and wasn’t intimidated by him. She told him to back the fuck up and he did. I forgive myself for being too shocked and scared to speak up for myself and my ex-girlfriend. I’m thankful my other bandmate protected us. Nobody else stood up to this man.

Before the screaming match, I was having a pretty decent conversation with the head of the label and he invited me to the upcoming Rhymesayers 20th anniversary show. It was only March; he told me to keep my winter dates open for the arena event. It would be the biggest in the label’s history. After the screaming match however, I didn’t know what would happen. In the months to come I kept my touring dates open and contacted the main office dozens of times regarding the 20th anniversary show. I never got a response. They finally announced the show with huge fanfare. They literally had every artist who’d ever done anything RSE-related on the bill…except me. I had been invited then silently uninvited without explanation. Why did I black out touring dates? What was going on? Why had I been uninvited? I was devastated. My phone, inbox and private messages blew up with questions on why I would be omitted from this lineup. Even some RSE acts noticed the exclusion, but none had the balls to stand up for me in any tangible way. This (latest) professional embarrassment was too much for me to bear. I blamed myself and began relying heavily on drugs and alcohol to cope with everyday life. I became angry and depressed. The pain RSE inflicted on my mental and emotional health as well as my professional life is unforgettable. I forgive myself for thinking they wouldn’t exclude me for something personal. I forgive myself for slipping into drug and alcohol abuse to cope with what was happening to me.

Ultimately, I was asked by a Minneapolis publication how I felt about being the only artist not invited to perform. By then, I was tired of putting on a smile and speaking highly of a label that didn’t support me. I mustered all the respect I could and told City Pages how I felt. When the article came out, I was front and center in the court of public opinion. I spoke my truth and was punished for it.

I was silenced by RSE after revealing in the press how I was mishandled by upper management. The head of the label never spoke directly to me but put out statements accusing me of bringing bad energy, being a bad artist and claiming to have no knowledge of my issues with the label. It was damaging to say the least. I was bullied by fans and shunned by a great number of artists. People I’d worked with for years stopped working with me.

I had a rap scarlet letter on me and to add insult to injury, a few months later, they signed another woman and in the public eye, all was forgiven.

Nobody except a small circle of exceptional friends believed me. For years, RSE’s upper management refused to respond to my emails and phone calls. I wasn’t given an opportunity to express my wants, concerns, or grievances like so many of my label mates and in turn, my career suffered greatly. I forgive myself for growing bitter about that.

I did not ask to be boycotting a label I so painfully walked away from five years ago. Personally I haven’t listened to an album by any artist on that label in a very long time, and most of the folks around me haven’t either. A lot of people outgrow their childhood faves yet most people aren’t constantly triggered and reminded of the harm their faves caused. I am reminded over and over of the micro and macro aggressions, the constant belittling, the disrespect, and the sheer attempts at erasure I’ve had to endure over the years. It’s hard to even type these words without crying, but there’s a reason my 2015 story of mistreatment at Rhymesayers went viral in 2020.

I wasn’t held, protected or publicly believed as a survivor of RSE’s harmful practices until it was political.

As the angry fires of Summer 2020 start to even out, I’m realizing more and more how RSE actually lost their power in 2015. Many peers have told me I’m right in my assessment of them, yet they still “play along” — hoping to cash checks from an institution they don’t respect when the cameras are off. One doesn’t get very far in this business by snitching. However, women are asked to keep quiet about so much — even their own mistreatment.

There’s a reason my inbox is oozing with receipts of abuse by not only RSE artists but artists in general. In hip-hop, violence against women happens all too often. I had to tell my story. This is about systemic abuse against women in a genre that doesn’t hide it. When do we stop idolizing “conscious” artists who don’t represent their words in real life? Such a shame to finally get to an elite level of hip hop with poignant, brilliant artists, just to be reduced to another bitch to fuck, woman to tokenize or person to bully. My entire time at RSE I was gaslit and made to feel small. I forgive myself for believing it.

No matter how much erasure has been attempted, I will always be the “First Lady of Rhymesayers” and I forgive myself for fiercely holding onto that.

Truthfully, I couldn’t have grown this much in the role they expected me to play. The professional abuse I encountered at Rhymesayers included sexual assault, sexuality-based harassment, third-party harassment, verbal harassment, gaslighting, cyber-bullying in the form of retaliation harassment and perhaps most insulting, they stalled my career and employed other women in what felt like an attempt to undermine my experience. I forgive myself for sticking around so long. I truly deserved better.

Digital Illustration of Rhymesayers Boycott, July 2020, Artist Unknown

Throughout this boycott, a homie told me to have compassion for myself first so I’m giving myself the permission to refocus. The people I advocate for understand how hard this has been. In centering survivors through a Minnesotan “Me Too” moment I’ve gotten lost in trauma. As mine has bubbled back up to the surface, here I am, stronger than ever and sad as fuck knowing these hip hop dinosaurs are still out here intimidating and allegedly abusing people. I worked through my own trauma years ago and have come face to face with it again in 2020. I forgive myself for letting RSE make me mad in 2020. This anger isn’t from my own bitterness though, it is from a deep sadness. It is through centering survivors. Through stories and pain so similar to mine it hurts.

I do not expect RSE to change.

I do not expect them to “do the right thing.”

I forgive myself for expecting more in the past.

I think the most fucked up part about all of this is that we are responsible for our own healing while knowing our abusers will continue getting celebrated. They can lie and still have careers, while I can tell the truth and get punished. My punishment didn’t fit the crime. Speaking up for myself wasn’t a crime. In fact, the crime was not speaking up sooner. I deserved a fair shot from RSE and never got it. I’m proud of myself for finally going to therapy about all this in 2017 and having the courage to speak up, years later, in 2020. Therapy is a helluva drug. I forgive myself for not knowing I deserved better.

I am not a casualty of this label. Rhymesayers didn’t make me a stronger emcee; they made me a stronger woman. They taught me what I will not tolerate and that lesson has been invaluable. Like so many of you reading this, I wanted RSE to be different. I forgive myself for not believing the red flags sooner and for being blinded by proximity to success. I had to learn some tough ass lessons. I am forever grateful to them. My experience with these people taught me a lot about power, abuse and forgiveness. I am a survivor. I’m on the other side of things. I’m a fucking warrior.

So thank you, Rhymesayers. Y’all showed me how to fight for what’s right. Y’all showed me how to fight for myself.

I forgive myself, and I forgive you.

Psalm One is a veteran musician, educator and scientist from Chicago. Psalm conducts educational workshops, writes fanatically and releases music often.

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