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By Jill Stewart
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Medusa was born twice. The self-described gangsta goddess of hip-hop was first born in the city of Los Angeles, and then spent her childhood in Pomona and Altadena. After a yearlong stint in prison almost 15 years ago, she was reborn ? creatively, spiritually ? in the heart of the legendary Good Life Caf?/Project Blowed hip-hop scene in Leimert Park, where she?s lived for more than a dozen years. A stalwart on the local music scene with her collective, Feline Science, she?s perhaps best known for her womanist anthem, ?Power of the P,? as well as for a high-velocity live show that she performs regularly at Temple Bar and Club Fais Do-Do. She?s appeared in a slew of hip-hop documentaries, acted onstage and had a large part in the HBO prison drama Stranger Inside. With three different projects tentatively set to drop this year, she?s on a career high. She spoke with us about gentrification, doing time, misogyny in hip-hop and more.
L.A. WEEKLY:Why do you live in Leimert Park?
MEDUSA: It has the heartbeat of L.A.?s rich black heritage. I feel it necessary to be there to harness the energy, to bring people to it. You gotta understand, I got outta jail and started going to the Good Life Caf?, and from the Good Life Caf? I was introduced to Leimert Park. It?s been like a mother and a father to me, being over there. I?ve grown there.
There?s some tension in Leimert Park now as it moves toward gentrification. What?s your take on what?s happening?
If you?ve had control of your community for a certain amount of time... and if you haven?t upgraded or gotten it to achieve a certain level to where it?s profitable, or seems profitable from the outside looking in, then eventually the powers that be are gonna come in and take it and make it what they think it should be. We were comfortable in it as an artists? community, but at the same time, there was a level it needed to achieve and it wasn?t. I think the threat of [gentrification] has made us actually pay more attention to what we have.
You mentioned being in jail. How long were you in and what were you in for?
I was locked up for about a year. It felt like forever. For falsified papers, you know ? fraudulent documents, counterfeit. All those minihustles I was doing before. I had to sit my ass down and think about what I was gonna do with my life. It made me really home in on who I was as an artist. I was already there in high school, pop-locking and writing rhymes, writing poetry and music. I was around my aunt when I was young ? she?s Billie Calvin. She wrote ?Wishing on a Star,? by Rose Royce. She was always involved with the Norman Whitfield camp, the Motown vibe. I grew up around that. It was really my love. I started hustling, hanging with the wrong people, and ended up in a spot where I had to sit down. After I sat down for a minute, I said, okay, this is my focus ? this music, this writing.
Who were some of your early musical influences?
How do those influences manifest in your work?
I can?t shake the feeling of that time. It?s united. It?s comforting, soulful. It?s a special part of who we are as a people, music from that time in American pop. The lyrics from that time are what got me to write the way that I do. To be as free and open, to express not just my perspective, but everyone?s perspective.
When did you start rapping?
When I was 13, 14, I wrote my first rhyme. Being down with a crew, you can?t do just the one thing, so I was pop-locking. I could breakdance. I can hit a windmill or two. And then I had a couple of rhymes I could spit.
And when did you actually feel that you could really call yourself a rapper ? having earned the stripes?
That would be about 12 years ago, maybe 15.
Really, that deep into doing it?
Yeah, starting in the scene at the Good Life. It made me realize what hip-hop was at the time. I always felt dope, but I felt seasoned when I started with the band, when I wrote outside of just myself, and when I could affect the crowd and really make a difference in someone?s life. And that was all about 12 years ago.
I ask you that because there?s the school of thought that says that when you start out, you should say, ?I am a writer,? ?I am a director? or whatever... but I believe you have to earn it.
You really do. There?s a seasoning that goes on. It?s just like them trying to give Christina Aguilera the same credit or status as Aretha Franklin. You can?t do that. [Laughs.] Yeah, I always felt that way. My ego didn?t get the best of me. I knew that it took me earning my way, being in ciphers, doing a lot of free shows and just showing people who I am.
In the early days, was your gender a handicap?
I get asked that question all the time, and maybe it?s ?cause of how I grew up or just the type of person I am, but I never felt slighted because I was a woman. I always had a certain respect. Maybe it?s because I respected myself that much. Back in the day, when I stepped in the cipher, nobody dissed me. If anything, they were afraid of the competition. I never looked at it as a gender thing. I really didn?t. And with me being from a pop-locking world ? this is L.A. ? when I pop-locked in the day, you battled the brothers and you better be hard. You better hit, your shit better be tight.
Where do you fall in the ?Hip-Hop Is Dead? argument?
I think when they say hip-hop is dead, they mean a certain attitude that was in hip-hop. You can?t say hip-hop is dead, ?cause hip-hop is running things. But the attitude of just speaking about politics . . . I go back to that thing of hip-hop being ?Human Beings Harboring Opinions of Politics and Propaganda.? That was hip-hop. I think people are missing the little nooks and crannies that pop shit about politics and propaganda. It?s not like it?s not there. It?s just not put in the forefront of the music right now.
How do you feel about the use of the wordniggerornigga?
Well, me hangin? with a gang of guys most of the time... [Laughs.] I understand the endearing term that they?ve developed from that. For me, the word nigga has been ours and we?ve been using it for so long, it?s kinda like abortion. You can?t give us that option and then, years later, try to take it away. It is now a part of the way we move and motivate. It?s a part of choice. [It?s been] our choice all this time to use it, flip it and make it the way we want to ? it?s hip, it?s slang, and it?s a term of endearment when these cats use it, so I understand it.
But what we have to understand, as black people, is that when you use the word nigga in the presence of other cultures... after all them niggas done fluttered around the room and I?m by myself with these other cultures, I?m left the nigga. So, they have to understand that too. It?s a time and a place for our language. You?re not gonna speak the same language at a job interview as you would when you?re with your homies hangin? out.
The last few years have seen certain hip-hop fans, especially a lot of black folk, challenge the materialism and more reactionary, regressive politics. Why do you think the push is coming now?
If you?ve already run through all the gangsta, all the watered-down rap, the only thing left is the real, the pure. You can only funnel through the bullshit for so long. Now, we?re all that?s left. And there are a lot of people that are just putting their foot down. Also, you grow. You?re different at 30 than you were at 18. If Pac and Biggie had lived long enough, we would have seen a change in them too, in their music. I think it?s just a coming of age.
I think a lot of people outside L.A. don?t realize how hard a place this can be. You can?t be a punk and survive L.A.
For real. Just the attitudes alone. [Laughs.] It?s not even a danger factor, you getting shot or something. It?s more like an attitude factor. If you are not the right person in a particular sector, then you gon? get a hard time. Period. Black, white, Latino ? it don?t matter. It?s not a color thing. It?s just, ?I ain?t never seen you before. Who are you?? L.A. is strong with that. And L.A. heads carry that wherever they go. They so cold wit? it. Mean-mugging is a profession out here. It?s interesting, though, because there is a softer side, too, that people don?t get to see. But yeah, if you come out here and think you just gon? slip in and it?s gon? be easy, we?re real protective of our areas. We?re real protective of our neighborhood, our people, our children. We funny style. We gotta feel you.