On the third floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., one photograph in particular stands out amid the generally august and serious portraits. While the image looks like it could have been taken at a hip-hop slumber party, the four women laughing in the photo are pioneers: rappers Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim, Da Brat and the late singer Aaliyah, posing together 21 years ago to celebrate their chart reign and newfound music-industry power. And while there was no shortage of women who achieved successful solo careers in the ’90s, these four dominated in the most masculine genre of all.
Two decades later, Elliott — who was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019 — and Kim are largely resting on their musical laurels; Aaliyah tragically died in a 2001 plane crash at the age of just 22.
But Da Brat, whose 1994 album “Funkdafied” made her the first female rapper to go platinum, is getting more airtime than ever — four hours a day, five days a week — now that she’s crossed over from artist to radio personality and joined the nationally syndicated “Rickey Smiley Morning Show” in Atlanta. On top of that, every weekday afternoon she’s in front of the cameras as a co-host of Fox’s syndicated “Dish Nation,” and she serves as executive producer of WE tv’s reality show “Growing Up Hip-Hop Atlanta,” having joined the cast in 2017 when the show debuted. This fall, she’s scheduled to tour the country in “Set It Off,” the stage production of the beloved 1996 female heist movie that starred Vivica Fox, Jada Pinkett and Queen Latifah (tickets are being sold for a planned Sept. 25 start in New Orleans).
In it, Brat plays the lesbian character, Cleo, which was originated by Latifah and suits Brat for a number of reasons. “I love being a badass, and I love being a part of an ensemble of women,” she says. Writer and director Je’Caryous Johnson (“Whatever She Wants,” “For Love or Money”) gushes, “She was my first choice — I couldn’t think of another soul who could do this role — and it’s going to enhance the opportunities for Brat in acting: When we come to L.A., a lot of studio people will be in the house to see her brilliant performance. She has raw talent along with work ethic — the girl gets up at four in the morning for her radio show, then goes to tape ‘Dish Nation’ and she comes straight to rehearsal staying until 10 or 11. She is literally working around the clock.”
The role fits Brat, 46, for another reason: She came out publicly in March, confirming her relationship with Kaleidoscope Hair Products CEO Jesseca Dupart via a tearful Instagram post celebrating an early birthday gift (a white Bentley, complete with a red bow). It’s a move that would have been unimaginable at the beginning of Brat’s career.
While people had long speculated and made assumptions, “the social landscape was very different when she first came on the scene,” noted African American-focused website The Grio. “Both misogyny and homophobia created a culture where coming out would have been career suicide for a Black woman in hip-hop.” Now, industry insiders are buzzing about other female hip-hop pioneers who might be inspired to follow Brat’s example.
“I’ve always felt like being private is the better way to go, because then you don’t have so many people in your business,” Brat says. “I was fine staying quiet, but my partner is a social media mogul — that’s how she became who she is. And when you get with somebody, you have to meet in the middle. So to me, the middle was just letting everybody know: ‘Hey, she’s the one.'”
The announcement wasn’t planned; Brat didn’t even think to give her longtime manager a heads up. “Jesseca was showing me some pictures and we were going back and forth, joking ‘I’ll post it,’ ‘No, I’ll post it.’ So when she did, I was like, ‘Oh s—! I just came out after 20-something years!’ But it feels good to share with the world when you’re happy.”
Brat stresses that it was her choice to stay in the closet, and not the result of pressure from label execs or managers. “I was always told you want to be f—able to men and women to sell records — you don’t want anybody to discriminate,” she says. “It was absolutely my decision. I mean, you saw what happened to people like Ellen: Remember when she lost her TV show, and all these horrible things were happening? People were totally against it.”
That group included Brat’s religious family. Born Shawntae Harris, she hails from the West Side of Chicago and grew up in church, attending service five days a week. While she learned to play seven different brass instruments at school, in church she played piano and drums and directed the choir. “All that musicality from church plays into who I am as an entertainer today,” she says. The strict dress code and traditional ideas about gender roles — Brat had to wear long skirts — also had a strong influence.
“I can be a tomboy or an absolute lady — I gave myself the title ‘The Best of Both Girls,’” she jokes. Her grandmother even enrolled her in etiquette classes. “My grandmother has passed away, but she was sanctified,” says Brat. “I would not want anyone in the church to judge her because of what I do. You never want to hurt the people that raised you; you don’t want to disappoint them.”
However, Brat’s mother probably isn’t going to join PFLAG anytime soon. “Yeah, my mom is not, like, jumping for joy,” says Brat. “She’s not going to condone it, but she loves me unconditionally. No one in my family has said anything bad or degrading.”
And the response from the public has been overwhelmingly favorable. “Oh, my God, the reaction made me feel like, ‘Why didn’t I do this s— years ago?’” she laughs. “I got so many positive messages, phone calls, and I had at least 1,500 texts. My DMs were flooded too.” Granted, some of the comments were served with a side of snark. “There were some people saying, ‘We knew it,’” says Brat. “Well, good for you! Now I know it, and I’m able to say it. I did this on my own terms.” (For the record, Brat says of her sexual identity: “I had boyfriends in high school, and then I dated guys and girls, so I guess for a long time I was bisexual.”)
Brat also seems to be enjoying her newfound visibility as one-half of a power couple — she and Dupart are like Atlanta’s answer to Ellen and Portia. “We just complement each other,” says Brat. “Some of my exes wouldn’t be able to take how social media drags people — the hate and the trolls. But this one that I got now? She’s built for it. She teaches me! So I’m learning, and when you have a partner that you can learn from, grow with, who inspires you? I love that.”
This will be Brat’s first time celebrating Pride out loud and proud, and the significance isn’t lost on her. “To me, Pride is loving myself and not making excuses for anything: Live in your truth,” she says. “If I can inspire someone or help somebody to deal with their issues and their sexuality, then I’m here for it.” She definitely doesn’t miss the baggage she carried around for two decades: At least twice during this interview, she says, “It feels like a weight has been lifted.”
And while she’s grateful that young LGBTQ artists like Lil Nas X have found acceptance in the industry, she fears that some things will never change. “Men still run the labels and they probably will forever, and if they have to create you, they will,” she says. “So it’s still tough for female MCs, producers and writers if you don’t have the support of a major male artist backing you — or if you’re not super-duper sexy and have some big titties and a nice ass and can twerk.
“You can’t go in there looking [tough] like I did [back in the day] and be like: ‘I’m a rapper.’ They’re going to say, ‘Let’s get you out of those tomboy clothes and dress you up in a teddy.’ But that changes who you are — and then your rhymes start changing because you look different. Then you’re not so relatable because you’re not being yourself anymore. Now you’re somebody else. Who are you?”
That’s a question Da Brat is proud to answer unequivocally today.