It's an equatorially hot Wednesday afternoon on Melrose Boulevard when the “Gangsta Hello Kitty” meets the genuine article. Rapper Bonny Billionaire, the G.H.K. in question, is walking along the famous shopping strip, only to stumble upon a white pickup truck wrapped in an image of the famed Sanrio cartoon feline.
“Is that yours?” a store owner asks Billionaire, pointing at the colorful Hello Kitty tattoo on her arms and its identical twin on the Toyota Tacoma.
“No, but it ought to be,” Billionaire quips. “Then I'd match perfectly.”
Suddenly, a street team advertising Hello Kitty Con 2014 materializes and offers a Hello Kitty crown to the young rapper. Wearing a black “I Heart Long Beach” tee, ripped white jeans and high tops, Eastside Long Beach's own Azma Hermida immediately adds to the crown to her outfit.
The royal headgear isn't undeserved. Earlier this year, Billionaire released “#RNS,” a caustic retort to the glut of contemporary rap songs that slander women. It's effectively the “Roxanne's Revenge” of L.A.'s ratchet rap era.
The hook wonders, “Whatever happened to the real niggas?” Over a sinister piano loop, the bars eviscerate every lame and lying fraud who ever crossed Billionaire's path. She even bends the gun back on Kurupt's “If I ever gave a fuck about a bitch” verse from Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle.
“I wanted to step out and say something, because we have all these dudes coming out with records like, 'These ho's ain't loyal' and, 'It ain't nothing to cut that bitch off.' They're always talking down on women,” Billionaire explains as she walks past boutiques and marijuana dispensaries.
Melrose served as one of the settings for the “#RNS” video (which Billionaire directed), in which she and four girlfriends playfully taunt the opposite sex, voluptuous and defiant, affirming a message of female empowerment somewhere between the Powerpuff Girls and Queen Latifah's “U.N.I.T.Y.”
“I felt like I had to mention that there are real women out here, but where are all the real niggas?” Billionaire says. “Because there's a lot of broads and lames running around out here.”
Billionaire's backstory is as hard-knocks as any of her peers. Raised in the same Long Beach Crip-dominated neighborhood as Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Nate Dogg, she was 2 when her parents split.
“It was a crazy period. My mom was starving us at the time because she had mental problems,” says Billionaire, the eldest of three children.
After the divorce, Billionaire's mother went to live with her own mother. But about eight years ago, her grandmother moved to Atlanta. In order to stay close to her kids, the then-teen rapper's mom decided to live out of her car, which she's done ever since.
“I'm starting to see her a lot more now. She'll stop by the house sometimes. I'll bathe her, take her to eat, take her to the movies,” Billionaire says. “No matter what happened between us, I'll always love her. She's definitely my motivation. I do this all for her.”
Her father, a power generator engineer of Puerto Rican descent, mostly raised Billionaire and her siblings. She speaks proudly of how hard he's worked to support them and her career — in spite of other familial tragedies that included a mother wracked by substance abuse and a brother who committed suicide.
Billionaire started rapping in high school at Long Beach Poly; her first performance was at a lunchtime pep rally. When asked what she was like during those years, she replies with a mischievous laugh: “Bad. … I used to hang around with the gangsters, party and smoke weed … but I also had a 4.0 grade point average.”
Between the color ink sleeves, lip ring and long eyelashes, she could be the heroine of The LOX's “Ryde or Die, Bitch” or Apache's “Gangsta Bitch.” But she also has a softer side: She loves classical music and the color pink, and has tattoos of flowers and cartoon kittens — which somewhat balance out the gun tatted on her neck.
As lacerating as “#RNS” can be, it doesn't demonize men but merely vents frustrations and chronicles her quest for someone willing to “meet me halfway.”
“My Hello Kitty side is girly, softer and more emotional,” Billionaire says. “The gangsta comes in because I can also be a thugged-out tomboy. I like to run and compete with the boys.”
Her foray into the rap world hasn't been without its share of struggles. A boyfriend with whom she lived in her late teens grew so jealous of her that he began demanding to accompany her to every studio session and professional obligation. The relationship eventually turned physically and emotionally abusive.
“It got so bad that all my hair fell out due to stress,” Billionaire says. “I was literally bald and looked like a chemo patient. But I learned that I can't let anyone stop me from chasing my dreams.”
Following the dissolution of that poisonous relationship, she redoubled her focus on music. Things started to build after she released her first video, 2011's “You Ain't No Barbie.” Soon after, she joined the crew of New York Bad Boy–signed rapper Red Café. But promises of a recording budget and label deal failed to come to fruition, and the pair parted amicably.
Around the same time, she released her debut mixtape, Gangsta Hello Kitty, hosted by Power 106's influential DJ Carisma and featuring contributions from Compton rapper Problem and renowned local producer Terrace Martin.
“She's definitely a hustler, can really spit, and her music has that West Coast slap to it,” Carisma says. “We don't have a big female rapper in the West and it's refreshing to hear that point of view. It's the kind of thing that women can bump in our cars.”
Billionaire's emergence comes as a welcome antidote to the near-monopoly that male rappers have had over the last few years. While the jerkin' years at the tail end of the last decade witnessed ephemeral runs from Pink Dollaz, The Bangz and Asia Lynn, the “ratchet era” has mostly featured songs that are misogynist at best and Henry VIII–like at their worst.
Over the last several months, the imbalance is starting to be redressed. Billionaire's “#RNS” might be the fiercest, but songs from the DJ Mustard–affiliated Cocc Pistol Cree, Cam & Chyna (formerly of Pink Dollaz) and Ill Camille herald a resurgence of L.A. female rappers rarely seen since the mid-'90s heyday of Yo-Yo and Lady of Rage.
As for Billionaire's next move, she's finalizing the release of Bonny vs. Clyde, an EP expected to drop sometime in the next few months. There's also a forthcoming remix of “#RNS” with a major West Coast rapper, whose name she declines to divulge.
“The new EP is going up against all the dudes. It's basically me saying I'm here and I'm raw as fuck and I don't care what people have to say or what they think,” Billionaire says.
“Being a female in this industry is crazy. You'll be in the studio with dudes and sometimes they don't even know who I am. … They're just, like, 'Oh, who's this groupie bitch.' Then I get up on the mic and I prove myself every single time.”
Bonny Billionaire opens for Problem at the Observatory in Santa Ana on Sunday, Sept. 28.