It’s been quite some time since we last heard or seen from Lil’ Mama. The 24-year-old New York rapper seemed to be laying low over the years—we haven't heard much from her since that 2011 radio interview with Power 105.1's The Breakfast Club, in which host Charlamagne Tha God taunted her for (among other things) the incident at the 2009 MTV Music Awards, where Mama walked on stage during Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ performance of “Empire State of Mind.” An incident she hasn't been able to live down, despite her successful stint as a judge on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew.
“Sometimes I get very angry. Why is it that my community does not accept me and respect me for being a young, Black woman coming out of East Brooklyn and Harlem, and still being in television and whatever else I can be a part of to be a positive influence?” she said at the time. “I’m born to do music. I’m born to act. I’m born to dance and all of these things, and I will be respected.”
Well it seems that time has come. Since landing the role as Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes in the VH1 original movie, CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, Lil’ Mama appears to be a new woman. “I’m born again,” she tells EBONY.com. “Everything that I’ve been through has taught me something.” Not only is she older and wiser, but she also seems to finally be getting the respect she deserves. Her on-screen performance as Left Eye (the rapper was tragically killed in a car wreck in 2002) got the public singing quite a different tune these days. Any and everyone who’s seen her in the film have declared her as the breakout star.
In an exclusive interview, Lil’ Mama says she discovered that she and Left Eye had far more in common than music. She also opens up about some of the lessons she learned over the years being in an industry that hasn't always welcomed her with open arms.
EBONY: What went through your mind when you found out you got the role [of Left Eye]?
Lil’ Mama: I kind of had a feeling that I already had the role because I wanted it that bad, and I was working so hard at it, but I wasn’t quite sure. You can never be sure. When I got the call I was about to go go-cart racing to get my mind off the pressure. I was ecstatic. It felt amazing. It’s something I truly wanted.
EBONY: How has TLC and Left Eye impacted you as a musician?
LM: TLC has helped me to know that as a musician I can talk about anything; that there are no barriers, and that you can be yourself. That’s what I love about them. Left Eye in particular helped me to stay on top of my A game. She’s one of the best female MCs that I’ve heard. Her lyrical content was up there with the MC Lytes, the Lauryn Hills and Missy Elliotts of the world. She helped me to understand that if I’m going to go in and talk about something, [I have to] be poetic, be expressive and do it in a way that the average person can’t.
EBONY: How was it vibing with the other ladies, Keke Palmer (Chili) and Drew Sidora (T-Boz)?
LM: You would think we were a group. The chemistry was real. Whatever it was, it was just organic.
EBONY: Keke and Drew had the privilege of getting first-hand accounts for their roles from Chili and T-Boz. How did you prepare for the role?
LM: There was a lot going on during the time of starting to film the movie. I wanted Left Eye to be there, but at the same time I knew she couldn’t be there. I knew I had T-Boz and Chili, but I didn’t know them as well in the beginning. I was trying to figure everything out. But what worked for me was that I was being productive in preparation for the role. I would go online every chance I could and I would research everything possible from the Vh1 special with Left Eye to early stages of Left Eye. I looked at her mannerisms; the way she felt about situations, what pissed her off or turned her off, or what turned her on. I was able to capture the essence of who she was.
A few days before we [started production] I was going crazy in my mind, so I went online and started going through her pictures. One was a flashing picture, and she was saying, “Just believe in yourself, the rest is up to me.” I’m like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard that part of “Waterfalls” in the way that I heard it just now.’
EBONY: How was it shooting the scene where Left Eye burns up all of the clothes in the bathtub? That’s got to be the most dramatic scene in the entire film.
LM: There were so many people in the room with me that it was hard, especially with this being my first movie. I had to block everybody out and really embody what she was feeling at that moment.
EBONY: What was the most exciting part of filming?
LM: I would say being able to wear the “Scrubs” outfit that Left Eye wore. The exact one. I was like, ‘Wow this is everything.’ It was like a Cinderella moment. Chili and T-Boz had all these costumes in closets at home. Chili had it in her garage, and they had this red patent leather one and I was like can I get it?! Chili was looking at me laughing like 'This girl is crazy,' but I don’t think she understood how excited I was…for her, it was something old and for me, it was something new.
EBONY: What would you say was the most difficult scene to shoot?
LM: When we shot “Diggin’ On You” I was like 'Oh my god.' That was the first time I was able to take it all in. Everything was moving so fast with the other performance scenes. Since then, that has become my favorite song.
EBONY: I heard there were some eerie things going on at the set during your scenes…
LM: Yeah, an ambulance or fire truck siren would go off whenever I did a really dark scene. They would have to shut down all the sound and equipment for it to pass, and then we would go back again.
EBONY: What’s something you learned about Left Eye while shooting this film that you didn’t know before?
LM: I didn’t know that Left Eye’s dad passed away right when she wanted to tell him that she just signed to LaFace Records. After I signed to Jive Records and just before I put out my first album, my mother passed away. It was very odd how much we had in common. I was able to pull from those experiences for the film.
EBONY: You’ve carried yourself with a lot of grace, especially after people judged you or had preconceived notions of who you are. Do you look at this role as a re-introduction of Lil’ Mama?
LM: Of course, It’s a re-surge. I’m born again. It’s a new me. Everything that I’ve been through has taught me something. When I was younger coming up in this industry, I was 17, 18 years old. You couldn’t tell me Beyoncé wasn’t my friend. You couldn’t tell me that Janet Jackson wasn’t my girl. You couldn’t tell me that once I signed to my label that me and J.Lo weren’t going to have tea in L.A. What I’m saying is that, I felt that once you were in the industry that everyone is your peer, that you all love each other and show each other respect.
I’ve grown to understand that this is a business. I understand that everyone is not going to embrace you and think it’s OK for you to be in their personal space, or whatever zone they created. You can’t just go into someone else’s section. In growing and learning all of that, I’m in a new place. But more importantly, it’s not about them…it’s about me. It’s about what I’m doing.
Gerren Keith Gaynor is a freelance writer in New York City and a graduate of Morehouse College and Columbia University Journalism School. He’s also a movie and television writer for XXLmag.com and contributor for JET and DELUX Magazines. Read more of his work on his blog, MrGerrenalist.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MrGerrenalist.