Author Danzy Senna recently published an essay that struck a deep chord in me.
The piece, “I Got a Rapper to Take Me to McDonald’s in His Limo“ ran in Lenny and was about a night she and her sister (ages 15 and 16 at the time) had in a hotel room with Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew in 1984. The grown rappers acted like gentlemen in front of the clearly underage girls they picked up, but the potential for what could have happened reminded me of an incident I experienced when I was 14.
I will not tell this rapper’s name, because this story doesn’t paint him in the most positive light. Today I’d have iPhone proof of it, but this happened in 1987, so all I have are my teenage memories. He was quite famous at the time, and he still rode mass transit. So it was on the Philadelphia subway that he saw me and two friends, following us and chatting the entire time as we walked to the free transfer for the trolley. I was on my way home from high school. I listened to Power 99 FM religiously and knew that he was in town for a concert.
He told me I was cute. I wasn’t…or at least I didn’t feel like I was that day. It was the middle of exams and I went to an all-girls school, so I had put in minimal effort that morning. No cute outfit, no lip gloss, no mascara snuck on in the school bathroom— just a ponytail, a little vaseline and lack of sleep.
This was not the first famous man who had hit on pre-legal me.
Maybe he didn’t think I looked as cute as I could either. Because this conscious rapper said he’d like to take us to Benetton and buy outfits. Benetton meant a lot to me in 1987. I had begged for a Benetton sweater that could rival any worn by a Huxtable and finally got one for my birthday (I still remember its jumble of blue and white swirls on an oversized pink background). A healthy portion of my summer job money had gone to a striped white and green Benetton rugby shirt. This rapper had struck where I was vulnerable. I did not have the kind of parents who would ever take me on a Benetton shopping spree. But I did have the kind of parents who had taught me about predatory men. Which is why I told him no. He offered Generra and the Gap, instead. I told him no. He told me where he was staying and how nearby it was. I told him my trolley was coming and got on. That night listening to the radio, I heard his song on the Hot 9 at 9 Countdown and felt both great and gross.
This was not the first famous man who had hit on pre-legal me. Two years earlier, when I was 12 and walking down a Manhattan street, a huge R&B star didn’t beat around the bush with offers of shopping trips. Instead, he stopped in front of my friend and me, told us he was staying in the hotel we happened to be standing in front of and said we should come upstairs and have sex with him. Years later, E! True Hollywood Story told me how many substances this star abused, but at the time we just thought he wanted us. Feeling desired, we still said no.
This isn’t about race— it’s about men’s feelings of access to girls.
Before I was old enough to vote or drink, I had a music mogul ask me about my virginity, a rapper I idolized tell me I had nice “titties” and another grab my ass when I walked past him one afternoon in the park. I’m sure if I was white, these stories would involve people who topped the rock Billboard charts, not the R&B and hip hop ones. I know for a fact that there was a girl at my high school who had sex each time one of the biggest (white) pop stars of 1988 came to Philadelphia—he had picked her up after driving past her in his limo and put her on speed dial. This isn’t about race— it’s about men’s feelings of access to girls.
It is hard being a girl in a country that has scant respect for the bodies and sexuality of women. It becomes even harder when the lure of fame and the promises of grown men are thrown at teens just a few years past playing with dolls. Now, old enough to have daughters the age I was when these men hit on me, I feel rage and disgust. But at the time, my predominant emotion was confusion. What did it mean that these men who could have anyone had noticed me? Should I feel affirmed or afraid?
Senna’s essay ends on this same note of confusion about what it meant—and how it would be interpreted by others—that she’d spent a night in a hotel room with Doug E. Fresh. The answer is she, her sister and myself, were all too young to be the ones with a clear read on the situations; we were children. The answer is that the men should have been the ones asking themselves the hard questions.