By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
"That's Remy Ma!" a teenage girl says to her friend in disbelief.
The friend responds with a nudge: "Follow her!"
"Hell, no! She just shot her friend!" the first onlooker says, staying right where she is.
Well, perhaps just is unfair: It's been more than three months now since the 26-year-old Bronx rapper (born Reminisce Smith, variously known as Remy Smith, Remy Martin, Remy Ma, and now "the accused") was arrested for putting a bullet into the abdomen of her good friend, Makeda Barnes-Joseph, after a July night at the Pizza Bar, a hot spot in the meatpacking district, that ended in an altercation over Remy's purse, or the $2,000 that went missing from it, or whatever was bugging Remy that nightit's not really clear. These days, after a not-guilty plea, $250,000 in bail, and a new dye job, Remy is on her best behavior, avoiding conversation about her legal troubles and the prospect of spending up to 25 years in prison for first-degree assault, criminal possession of a weapon, and tampering with a witness.
Barnes-Joseph herselfstill recovering from three surgeries (the bullet passed through her, damaging her intestines and exiting from her buttocks)isn't talking about the incident. But her attorney, Lauren Raysor, expresses some exasperation that press reports haven't put the shooting in the context of Remy's past behavior. "I'm not clear as to why no one realizes this didn't happen in a vacuum," Raysor says. There was an altercation between the rapper and video vixen Gloria Velez in 2004, and Raysor also alludes to reports of Remy pulling a gun on someone in the Bronx (something the Voice was unable to confirm). But Raysor claims that the music press has been too thrilled by the idea of a rapper backing up her tough lyrics with felonious behavior to take the case seriously. Prosecutors have already reduced the charges from attempted murder to assault, suggesting that they have doubts Remy intended to shoot the weapon. Remy's extended network of friends and backers, meanwhile, have questioned Makeda's role.
"Once my client testifies, the jury will be convinced that [Makeda] played no part in the shooting, that she didn't take anyone's money. Remy got into my client's car with a loaded firearm and felt [Makeda] took some money, and [Makeda] didn't. My client was shot," Raysor says.
Remy, meanwhile, is watching what she says about the shooting, perhaps not only because there's a reporter hovering, but also because of the videographer that is an ever-present part of her life, taping for a possible reality-TV show that has yet to find a buyer.
If she's staying mum about the July incident, Remy isn't holding back on other subjects. In a wide-ranging discussion, for example, she happened to be asked if she had an opinion about who the next woman selected with the usual slate of nearly all-male VH-1 Hip Hop Honors winners should be.
"I don't give a fuck," she replied. "The politically correct answer would be, 'Of course we need more women; we need to stick together.' I don't care. Everyone is my competition, not just the women. . . . I don't care who's the next dude they're going to honor, let alone the next chick. When are they going to honor me? Everyone dwells on having something for the ladies. Fuck outta here! They always want their own shit, but then they want to be treated equally. Which is it? I don't need something for the ladies. Get with the program. Do what the niggas are doing."
After years of doing what the niggas have been doingfirst as a protégée of Big Pun, then, after his death in 2000, gaining notoriety as the lone female member of Fat Joe's Terror SquadRemy has always held her own in a field with very few successful women. Before the July incident, however, Remy's career was stalling. It had taken her six years to get out a solo album, There's Something About Remy, after Big Pun's death. And acrimonious accusations about how that album was promoted led to a split with Fat Joe and Universal records.
So Remy's looking for a new deal, and it may be too early to judge whether facing 25 years in prison was the smartest way to attract a new contract. On the other hand, she didn't need to pull a trigger to prove her credentials. For years, she's been a fiery performer who can leave a room of hardened hip-hop heads breaking into a sweat. "She's attractive and she can rhyme," says Chuck Creekmur of AllHip Hop.com with measured restraint. "She's so headstrongreally a strong-willed woman. A lot of guys can respect that, as opposed to the more docile women that are presented in the culture."
Remy's voice is hard, raspy, commanding, not melodic. When she belittled a man by singing, " You know I look way too good to be stuck with you," on her album track "Conceited," there was no doubt, listening to her voice, that it was simple fact. (And it didn't hurt that she did look good, and that she has always carried herself in a way that was as much a woman in control as sex symbol.)
"I don't really think too many people want to mess with Remy," says Creekmur. But, he suggests, there's more to Remy Ma than comes across in her music. "By the same token," he adds, "she seems to have a vulnerable side that she buries. Sometimes it's behind a smile or behind the lyrics."
Perhaps. But to find that out, we're going to have to do what that young fan didn't dare, and that's follow Remy around for a few days. And be careful about offering to hold her purse.
Although born in the Bronx, Remy Ma spent much of her childhood in Astoria, Queens ("That's off the record!" she says, laughing), helping her mother, Amanda Smith, raise younger siblings. The family had little, and she characterized her mother as "strict," meaning that Remy had little freedom and resented it.
"Do you remember how I couldn't come outside? I had to take my little sisters everywhere, and my little brother," she says to childhood friend Mo, who is with her as this conversation in a restaurant takes place (and didn't want to give her last name to the Voice). Remy also had an older brother. And one of her most painful childhood memories, she says, is the neighborhood reggae party, which her mother banned her from going to.
"Do you remember how I cried?" she asks Mo, whom she's known since she was 11. "I hear the music from my house and couldn't go. I sat in the window!" Mo's uncle was a DJ and threw house parties on the weekend. "This was the thing that got me so pissed. Why couldn't I go?"
"Because you had to baby-sit," Mo says.
"That was the worst day of my fucking childhood. It was! I was so stressed."
Remy was 13. And soon things got even worse: Her mother was locked up, and the family faced homelessness. That's when, Remy says, everything changed.
"I found out the man I thought was my father my whole lifewe weren't biologically related!" The man she had called "Daddy" left New York with his son, her younger brother. Her little sisters went to live with their father, another man, and her older brother was on his own. Remy was alone.
"I don't know what my other choice was than to live with Moeither that or go to a home somewhere. I ended up living in her bedroom, on the floor. Moved in when I was 13 and moved out right before my 18th birthday. Seemed like my whole fucking life. I swear, those were the years that mattered. That's when everything went crazy. Everything I learned that makes me who I am today I learned at that point in my life."
Three years after the man who turned out to be her stepfather had left, Remy and her mother went to visit him in North Carolina. "We had a family discussion," she says. And Remy got aggressive. "He really couldn't take it. Long story short, he told me to shut up. I wouldn't. He punched me in my face."
To make matters worse, she says, her mother and stepfather told her she wasn't going back to New York. "I think they were scared I was going to tell the cops or something," she says. To make sure she didn't leave, they took her suitcase and bus ticket. "They were talking about how I was living there now. What? Operation: I'm Outta Here!" she says. "I broke out somehow." Her younger brother recruited a friend's mother to drive Remy to the bus station. "I never spoke to that nigga since that day," she says of her stepfather. "That was in 1996. I used to call that nigga my daddy. That was like my father. I had his last name at one point."
She came back to town with a black eye. "You remember that trip?" she asks Mo. "Tell them what I came back wearing, so they'll believe me."
"I remember," Mo says with a laugh.
"My shit was black for like two or three months. That was when Aaliyah was wearing her eye patch. I was wearing mad eye patches," Remy says. "I would say, 'I'm on my Aaliyah shit.' "
The incident, she realized later, would have a direct result on what would later make her famous: her ability with words.
"Especially after I got smacked and felt my face swelling, oh, I was going to say everything. Now I'm cursing. And after that, I just got worse. Somewhere along the way, I realized how powerful my words are. I could come up with something to really crush someone. I stab people a lot with my words."
Remy's biological father didn't surface until she was 18. Then, as her career was beginning to take off, he started coming around more. He also began coming up with schemes to cash in on her success.
"He wanted to sell 'Remy Ma' baseball caps," she remembers. "Not the fitted kind that were in style, but the snap-adjustable ones. Then he would ask for posters of me to prove to people that he was my father." She'd tell him: "I'm mad that you're telling people you're my father!"
She didn't need much more than her two best friends, Mo and another girl named Monica, she says. "We were raising ourselves. In our minds, we were like, 'Fuck it, we'll manage.' Looking back, we were out of fucking control and had no guidance. No one could stop us."
Today, she has attained that familiar hallmark of Big Apple success: a house in New Jersey. And a nice car. Her chocolate-colored two-story lies on a modest, tree-lined suburban block. She's just minutes from the George Washington Bridge, and from the outside there's nothing to advertise that the occupant is anything but a typical bridge- and-tunnel resident.
Inside, however, posters of Remy adorn the walls, and in the dining room there's a thronered velvet, bejeweled, and with her initials embroidered on the backrest. The majestic prop is a leftover from the art production for her album. She was calling herself the Queen of New York, and in a way, she's looking to be a new sort of monarch over the other women of rap: Lil' Kim, after all, recently served a year for perjury, and Foxy Brown, relic of the '90s, is serving a measly year for violating probation.
Downstairs, Remy's basement serves as a gym, studio, and bar. Martini glasses hang from a rack. The room is decorated in wood paneling that says "hunting lodge" or " '70s porno shack." The studio portion of the space is padded in soundproofing from floor to ceiling and features a microphone stand and a Mac laptop. She cues up some tracks from her new unreleased album, PunisHER. Singing along to her own voice, she is oblivious to the video camera, still taping.
The place is a sanctuary, a reminder that, until recently, things have been going very well for the girl from the Bronx. But, she says, there's a part of her still grappling with the past. "There are a lot of things I'll never forget and never forgive. But I'm not dwelling on that shit every day."
The cameras and red carpet are gone by the time Remy pulls up to the Hammerstein Ballroom for the Entertainers 4 Education Alliance "Stay in School" concert. At five-foot-10 (six-foot-one with her heels on), Remy is hard to miss in her denim cat suit with plenty of cleavage showing, red boots, and jet black hair that falls to the middle of her back. The event will be a rare performance for her: Since the July shooting, promoters have canceled her shows for fear of the police showing up. "During her guest performance with 50 Cent at Rum Jungle in Jamaica, Queens [September 16], plainclothes cops were on the stage with a video camera," says someone who was backstage at the performance. "I mean, they weren't trying to hide it, either."
To avoid the Hip-Hop Cops, some promoters have taken to not advertising Remy at all. Tonight, the hundreds of kids in the audience don't know that she's coming. Security guards usher her inside. Soon she's backstage, navigating past male rappers Papoose, Juelz Santana, Jim Jones, and their entourages. Most appear affected by her looks. She poses for a photographer with her thumbs in her pockets and a half-smile on her glossy lips.
"She's gorgeous," says a crew member.
In the press room, reporters ask softball questions about her stance on education. "Education is very important," Remy finds herself repeating throughout the night. (She doesn't have a high-school diploma. When the Voice had asked what high school she attended, she answered, "I went to every high school. I kept getting kicked out and switching up schools." She insists that she was actually an excellent student, but never stayed in one place long enough to finish.)
"Just me coming from the bottom, from the 'hoodthe more education you have, the more intelligence you have, the better plan you have for the future," she tells the reporters.
"Can we talk about the case?"
"No!" her publicist Duran Brown blurts out.
"Definitely not," says Remy.
After the abbreviated Q&A session, she goes to a dressing room to kill an hour. Then, minutes before she's to go on, Jenn Turner, her manager, reminds her that she's been asked to do a short interview for the kids in the audience.
"Why me?" she asks, referring to the other artists on the bill.
"The kids love you, and they want to hear what you have to say," says Jenn.
"I'm not the only one here with a case," says Remy, who is growing frustrated with all the special attention her legal woes are drawing. She turns to her DJ, Bed Tyme. "When I say, 'Drop my shit . . . ' "
"It's kids out there, Remy," interrupts Jenn.
"I mean my stuff." Everyone laughs. And they get the message: If she doesn't like the line of questioning, she'll cue Bed Tyme to start her music.
There's a knock on the door and she's off to the stage, unfazed by the men lining the walls trying to get a look at her. The emcee hushes the restless students (after all, it's hard to think about stay-in-school messages when all the kids really want is to see rappers perform).
"Next, we have a special young lady who is going through a lot right now. . . . "
Suddenly, Jenn is nowhere to be found. Remy looks around for someone to take her purseand gestures to the Voice reporter who's been tagging along. Moment of serious indecision. Ah, what the hell . . .
Remy steps out, and the kids erupt into cheers and rush the stage, pulling out cell phones to take pictures. A boy in a wheelchair is so taken that he can't keep his mouth closed.
"Can you tell us what's going on with your case?" asks the host.
"No, but I can tell you how important it is to stay in school," says Remy, not missing a step.
She makes it through the rest of the questions and breaks into her three-song set. The kids sing along to every word, even the ones not really appropriate for school. Her signature song "Conceited," especially, seems to resonate with the young girls in the audience:
Dip it low, pick it up, slow-poke it out, now roll with it
My thong is showing, but it's cool, my shoes go with it
Now all I need is a room with a pole in it
See, I look good and I'm knowing it
But I was never too proud to be showing it.
After the performance, Remy takes back her purse and pauses to reflect. "I know people are going to read this article and say, 'I like her.' Or they'll say, 'She's a stupid bitch.' "
If Remy won't talk about what put her in jail, she's got plenty to say about the several hours she stayed there before making bail.
"First of all, it wasn't my first time. It was my first time as Remy Ma. Big difference. First of all, I saw this chick I grew up with when I was in there. I'm in a cell next to this bitch I hate my whole fucking life. She asked me, 'What are you doing in here?'
"Me: 'Same thing you're doing here.'
"Then this other chick was talking mad shit: 'You're supposed to be a fucking role model. You should be ashamed of yourself.'
"Me: 'Where's your kids?'
"Woman: 'My fucking kids look up to you.'
"Me: 'Your fucking daughter should look up to you! What fucking type of role model are you?'
"The guard was like, 'Remy, don't listen to them. They just want to be able to say they spoke to you.' After that, the [officers] wanted autographs. The chick that was cleaning up, she wants to be a rapper. She brought me a book to read. . . . A lot of the girls were really humble and nice."
Not her first time in jail?
"I got community service because a chick ran over my foot with her car. I went crazy on her. We got into a fight. She called the cops." Remy says the incident happened when she was still a minor, but doesn't specify an age. She says that when she didn't complete the sentence, she was remanded and had to serve nine days on Rikers. "The first day I get there, they have a raid. They took my sneakers. I never felt so violated in my life."
Well, at least until it was time to be released after the July shooting. "Oh, God," Remy says. "I'm already pissed, and after court they put me on the bus to Rikers Island. Another three or four hours [in jail]I'm getting out at 1 a.m. I'm positive the newspapers paid the bus driver. I know where the bus stops when you come from Rikers, because I used to live out there. But the bus goes past that stop and to this little corner. I get out and there are mad paparazzi, like it was their home base. I can't even walk. This dude is like, 'Yeah, go ahead and touch this camera. Your ass will be right back on Rikers Island.' [They're saying things like,] 'That's how you treat your friends?' . . . things purposely to get you to react."
At least, she says, she was spared worse press by an unlikely event: the explosion in midtown that shoved her off the front page of the tabs. "The steam-pipe explosion, that's what saved me," she says.
She also caught a break when prosecutors knocked down the charges from attempted murder to first-degree assault. But Remy then apparently made things much worse for herself: Prosecutors allege that she tried to intimidate a friend to keep her from being a witness in the upcoming trial. Remy reportedly ran into the boyfriend of the witness at the Players' Club in the Bronx and complained that the friend had changed her cell-phone number. "Your girlfriend is changing her number on me. People are talking on the stand," Remy is accused of saying.
Later, members of Remy's entourage allegedly beat the boyfriend and another man badly.
Remy is scheduled to be in court November 11 for a pretrial hearing. Her attorney, Ivan Fischer, is hopeful that Remy will receive a fair trial. "So far, her being a rapper has not affected the case," he says. "There are people who have a high regard for rap and her music."