Behind the Photo: Roxanne Shanté

Narrated by LL COOL J

Photographer Janette Beckman was just adjusting to her new life in New York City when a teenage Roxanne Shanté exploded on the New York City Hip-Hop scene.

At the time, Beckman was primarily shooting for British publications like Melody Maker and The Face, which saw her as the perfect conduit between what was happening stateside and the people who were pining for coverage from across the Atlantic. For impressionable Brits, the tale of “Roxanne’s Revenge” was something they wanted to know more about. Who exactly was this young woman with a knack for verbally dismantling men twice her age?

Since the story aimed to give context to what prompted the “Roxanne Wars,” Beckman first shot UTFO — the group who released “Roxanne, Roxanne” in 1984 — and their producers, Full Force, in a Brooklyn schoolyard. It’s a moment Beckman humorously recalls.

“I remember being on this roof with [Full Force] taking pictures, and one of them said to me, ‘You want me to drop my pants?’ And I’m like, ‘Okay.’ He’s got a full workout body suit on and he’s standing there with his arms in the air. He’s like the most muscly man ever, and his pants are on the ground.”

Roxanne Shanté’s photo shoot spanned multiple locations; first at her school with classmates and several school monitors, then at Beckman’s studio on the corner of Great Jones Street and Lafayette Street. The space was flanked by a parking garage and a coffee shop often frequented by a young Russell Simmons, who would conduct business on a brick-sized cell phone. Beckman shot a couple frames with her Hasselblad before opting to go outside.

“I really like to shoot outside, and daylight’s my favorite thing,” Beckman says.

Roxanne Shante

Roxanne Shante / Photo by Janette Beckman

“So I’m looking off at her and bent down, and she’s giving me this look that’s just so wise beyond her years in a way. I really love this portrait and it says everything. The Fila top, the gold hoop earrings, and 14-year-old Roxanne Shanté on the street with a huge hit song.”

Since both Hip-Hop music and Hip-Hop journalism were primarily a boys’ club in the early ’80s, Beckman was moved by the moment they shared on the street that day.

“It was really nice to me actually to hear a girl’s voice on a record — especially since it was a reply to this cute, sexy song that UTFO had done,” Beckman says. “It registered to me that the girls are finally getting their voices heard.”

* Banner Image: Roxanne Shante / Photo by Janette Beckman

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