I always knew I could rap and wasn’t surprised by my early success. I was a kid, though, still in high school, still hanging out on the block in the Bronx. Everybody was rapping, so I wasn’t interested in committing fully to being an emcee. Then I met Big Pun,  who changed all of that. He was already a platinum-selling artist and immediately took me under his wing and ushered me into the music business.

Following the success of “Lean Back” in 2004, I traveled and performed all over the world—Japan, Denmark, Germany. I was experiencing different cultures and receiving genuine love from fans in each place I landed. When I think back, I realize that my youth and the fact that my success came so quickly kept me from really understanding what an amazing life I was having. There I was, a Black girl from the projects, living my dreams, heading into film and television and preparing to move to Los Angeles.

Then everything changed. Instantly.

When I was on trial, I watched the jurors’ faces as the prosecutors made me out to be a monster. I wasn’t a monster. I was a loving mother who, if convicted, was not going to be able to raise my son and watch him grow. I was a sister, a friend and a support system for many. Where I grew up, vulnerability was a liability, but keeping those walls up meant that I had no public life to counter the lies being told about me. One of my biggest regrets from that period was that I didn’t show the world enough of my true self. It’s why I later agreed to join the cast of Love & Hip Hop: New York, to show the world more of who I really am.

I didn’t grasp how successful I was until I went to prison in 2008. It hit me hard one day in the shower that this was my new life; I wasn’t going home anytime soon. I’d hear the news: “Grammy-nominated rapper convicted of assault.” It was awful that I hadn’t recognized all my achievements before they were mentioned in relation to my case.

When my husband, Papoose, initially mentioned marriage, I was doubtful. I didn’t grow up around married couples, and everything I knew about men said they don’t get married and not one of them would ever wait for a woman to get out of prison. Pap was 27 at the time, with his own great rap career ahead of him, and I just didn’t believe he was serious about sticking by my side. I was wrong.  My husband is a wonderful man. I can’t even begin to name all the sacrifices he’s made for our family, or how much he encouraged and kept me going while I was away. He’s taught me a lot about relationships and life overall, especially that we have to judge people individually and not by who we imagine them to be.

I tried to go right back into the studio when I was released from prison, but I realized that I needed to recover, rebuild and experience the everyday things I’d missed so much. I wanted to cook for my family and go camping. I wasn’t interested in returning to the life I was living before. So when [Love & Hip-Hop executive producer] Mona Scott-Young approached Papoose and me about doing the series, I immediately saw it as an opportunity to offer an authentic look at us rebuilding our family. I also wanted to show people who might be struggling through a difficult time that they can overcome the worst experiences imaginable. I hoped to counter the kinds of relationships we often see on reality TV with something more genuine and relatable.

I’ve been fortunate to create a new life for myself. It is not lost on me that many people leaving the prison system lack the loving support—and the opportunities—I have. I’m now the happiest I’ve ever been! I’m on television, I just had the wedding of my dreams, and I returned to the studio to work with Fat Joe again and on a solo project. I’m even delving into my new passion: wedding and event planning.

I’m back and better than ever. I’ve grown in ways I never could have imagined, and I’m very grateful for it all.

As told to Josie Pickens 

Read more compelling, captivating stories like this one in the March issue of EBONY.  Out on newsstands now.