MC Sha-Rock was, is and will always be first.
Sharon Green Jackson, otherwise known as MC Sha-Rock, was the first female MC of hip-hop, a truth unbeknown to most millennials. As a member of the group Funky 4 + 1, she was part of the first hip-hop group to receive a record deal, and the first group to appear on national television (with Deborah Harry of Blondie on Saturday Night Live). Through her success, she earned her titles – the “Luminary Icon,” and “Mother of the Mic.”
One would think that this legacy has been permanently solidified in the hearts and minds of hip-hop and pop culture fans in general.
Yet, Sha-Rock has found herself in a rather unusual position – having to educate people about her history, and the history of original hip-hop culture. But she welcomes the challenge, confident that her legacy is crucial not only to honoring her individual achievement, but also to respecting, understanding and learning from the history of hip-hop.
Hip-hop developed as a broad cultural movement that consisted of “The Five Elements:” MC-ing, DJ-ing, B-boying or B-girling, graffiti art, and knowledge. It was a potent form of self-expression and an opportunity for people to take a break from their lives. As one of the originators of this cultural movement, Sha-Rock’s intro to hip-hop began with her becoming a B-girl.
“It was built on fun … for us to get away from all the craziness that was going on around us at that time. It was a way for us to get away from all of the negativity that was going on at night. I’ve lived it – I’ve seen the violence. We used to have to walk over dead bodies and people shooting up the clubs. This is the reason why we embraced these elements that surrounded us, to make up the culture. It was a way for us to get away. For me, it has always meant peace, unity, love and having fun,” Sha-Rock told me.
“I started break dancing before I became an MC. I started on the streets of New York, in the community centers. I’m there – B-girl in ’76 – I’m there. What’s so pure about hip-hop are the elements that we celebrate. It’s the culture. This is what I tell the people in the Bronx, and now I’m telling you.
“Hip-hop is something we live.”
Sha-Rock’s ascension in hip-hop culture grew from her appreciation for great artists who were also great entertainers. She explained how she grew up revering musicians who could both create great music and electrify the crowd.
“I grew up on the Millie Jacksons, the James Browns, the Michael Jacksons, the Elvis Presleys, the Nikki Giovannis, and the Tom Jones’s. It opened up the love and respect for the artist and the music, and for how they put everything together . I grew to have a love for the music and artistry in general,” Sha-Rock explained.
“I always liked the way these people commanded their crowds. How they always had the engagement – the partygoers, the crowds, whoever was there at that time – how they mesmerized them.”
Sha-Rock’s entire focus as an MC was to deliver and hold the crowd’s attention. “The only pressure that you had was being the best that you could be and having your rhymes ready so that you can get another jam. The only pressure was to make sure that you were on point with your rhymes the next time you came to that park jam, schoolyard, park, community center, or little hole-in-the-wall club,” she described.
“The partygoers – I gave them what they came for – to feel that they were right there with me. And everything I was saying, they were living it with me. It’s about engaging the crowd and about your delivery. Even if they paid a dollar or two to get into a party, when they left, they knew that dollar was well worth it because they knew they were going to get a good delivery from Sha-Rock.”
According to Jackson, one of the most salient aspects of hip-hop culture back then, was that with the focus being on skill, hip-hop had a very egalitarian community in which men and women were treated equally.
“I grew up in the era of the inception of hip-hop, when everything started and was on the front line in ’81. So I didn’t experience sexism or misogyny. We were all trying to make sure that we solidified ourselves in the hip-hop culture – ensuring that I’m the best at what I do and I’m the best here. So what I had to do was basically be able to say that I was as prolific as the next man or male artist at the time because we were trying to prove ourselves to our communities,” she said.
“I didn’t have resistance back then because everything was truer and raw. It was going on my skills. I always took my craft seriously as far as MC-ing and being focused on delivery if the people took the time out to come see me or the young kids, or whatever. I was a young child at that time too, but I wanted to be able to give you everything that you came for. This is why I was always focused.
So they didn’t look at me as ‘Sha-Rock is a female MC’.” “They looked at it as ‘Sha-Rock is a prolific MC’.”
Sha-Rock found that this sense of equality extended to the fans of hip-hop. Specifically, she soon found that people of all races and backgrounds were embracing hip-hop. She recalls a special bond between the hip-hop and punk rock community in downtown Manhattan.
“What I’ve found growing up is that white Americans have always embraced Sha-Rock, hip-hop culture – all of that. “When I was one of the first females who took hip-hop down to Soho and to the Mudd club with the Funky Four, guess what, they were jumping all over the place,” she explained.
“It was the first time I’d seen the hip-hop and punk rockers mixing together. Hip-hop has crossed all boundaries. I still think that it has brought people together in so many ways that we can’t even imagine.”
Sha-Rock’s impact on hip-hop has certainly been acknowledged in the hip-hop community. That’s the Joint was identified by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time. Hip-hop artists such as Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and the Beastie Boys have also identified MC Sha-Rock as a major influence.
“DMC – from Run-DMC – said that I, Sha-Rock, was better than 85% of the fellas that were out there at the time …That I, Sha-Rock, encouraged them to do the Tougher than Leather album and to use the echo chambers behind me. He told Jam Master Jay, ‘Make me sound like Sha-Rock’,” she said. She recounts how she was in the crowd when the Beastie Boys got the BET and VH1 awards. “They asked them right before they got their award, who influenced you? ‘Sharock and the Funky 4 + 1’,” she said.
But unfortunately, over time, Sha-Rock has been frustrated that many do not recognize her accomplishments – particularly her role as an originator of hip-hop culture. She particularly bristles at a list of the best or most important hip-hop artists, particularly female artists, that does not include her.
“It doesn’t take anything from what anybody else is doing, because everybody has their history. So my name should have always been on any list from day one,” she said. “Why? Because I was on the front lines. I was there. Most people know who I was, and most know that I carried New York City.”
Several factors may have contributed to this shift. One possibility is simply that as time goes on, maybe they didn’t take the time to know who’s who,” Sha-Rock said. “What was the important part of the history of hip-hop? Maybe they don’t take the time because they only want to know what’s in their face at that time. They don’t want to do the research.”
Another reason for the lack of acknowledgment of Sha-Rock’s accomplishments may be that some people fear that recognizing others somehow minimizes their own achievements. “I just think it’s human nature. Why? Because sometimes people are not secure in their being, and anything that may be a threat, or that they may think is possibly a threat, they eliminate in any way that they can,” she explained. “The problem I have is that you can’t take away from what someone did just to make yourself look a little bit better, because we all contributed. But give those people their respect for what they did.”
Sha-Rock also feels that as hip-hop became a universal phenomenon and a multi-billion dollar industry, people began to fear for their own bottom line.
“You know, back then they weren’t paying a whole lot of money to go see them, but then it was packed. When you get into the money game, then you get into people saying they are first and this and that,” Sha-Rock described. “And no one wants to relinquish that hold on what really went down. This is how people make their money. It wasn’t until the money, and where everybody started scrambling to try to outdo each other in a way that you would not believe, (I never saw that), until it became a money business.”
Something else we cannot ignore is that sexism began to be part of hip-hop culture, which Sha-Rock also ties to the role of money in the industry. This sexism, as well as the conflicts that currently exist between some female artists, was a stark contrast to Sha-Rock’s early experience in hip-hop culture.
“Women got to fight harder. Fight harder to claim your fame, and you put the women against each other. But I never had to deal with that growing up. At the time, I never had to deal with the problem of women putting one against the other because there were men at the time respecting me for my skills, what I brought to the game, not just as a female MC, but as an MC in general. I never had to deal with the cattiness of the industry or the women. So I think that when it’s money, it’s business-driven. Once you put people against each other, I just think that it’s like a dog-eat-dog world where everybody’s fighting to be heard,” she said.
“But the thing is that men always get their accolades. You know what it is to say that a female was like the first MC in hip- hop? Not just a female MC, but an MC? What does that take away from men? They don’t want to compete against a woman. For a man to compete against a woman, that’s like taking away their manhood and saying a chick is better than them.”
“No man wants to compete with a woman.”
That juxtaposition – being the first female MC but not always being acknowledged – has left MC Sha-Rock with mixed feelings about her legacy. “It’s a blessing and a curse. So it’s a gift because I have the knowledge. God gave me the talent to still be able to do it today,” Sha-Rock explained. “But it’s also a curse because the acknowledgment of it is not from the masses. You know what I’m saying? People are trying to say it, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah Sha-Rock, yeah okay.
“It is more than that.”
MC Sha-Rock has dedicated herself to fighting not only for her own legacy but to continue the original spirit of hip-hop culture. “The essence, the core of what it’s supposed to mean is coming together as one, enjoying music, sitting with your families listening to music. We are missing community, we are missing a mother and father, brothers and sisters, everybody just enjoying life together as a community. Back then it was about love – loving what you’re doing. Loving the culture. The money was never the issue,” she said.
“My thing was that to me, it’s never about money, even to this day. You get paid – I’m not going to let nobody take that from me. But to me, if you solely do everything around money, then you lose the sight of what you’re here for. That is to share your craft or share whatever you’re sharing, whether it’s MC-ing or deejaying with the people who came to see you.”
Sha-Rock encourages people at any level of success to learn about and be true to the roots of hip-hop.
“The question is, are you willing to open up for the learning process in hip-hop culture? I have knowledge of hip-hop culture. It makes you a better person, and a better person in your craft if you are open to continuous learning. But once you’ve made it, are you just stuck in time? Or do you want your legacy to carry over in time?” Sha-Rock asked. “Because for me, I love the hip-hop culture so much, that I felt that it’s not about being a role model, it’s about making sure that you uphold what the culture means. Now that may sound corny, but this is what got me through life.”
Thanks to her strength of character, MC Sha-Rock still has hope. The Bronx has just declared June 1st ‘MC Sha-Rock Day’, and the movie about her life story, Luminary Icon is in the making.
She is also working with the Universal Hip-Hop Museum to establish a museum in the Bronx that will promote and educate people about hip-hop culture. One of her highest accolades to date is that she received a Certificate of Recognition from Mayor Bill de Blasio for being “Hip-Hop Queen Sha-Rock”.
“I’m fighting for my history and my story. Someone stepped up and said, ‘We will honor you. We know what you did’,” Sha-Rock said. “The people in the Bronx are talking about it. You need your day, and they gave it to me.”
“It was all worth it.”
Photography: Sidney Kirk
Creative Direction: Timeekah Murphy
Designer: Alani Taylor
Stylist/MUA/Hair: Breona Moore
Accessories: Tiffany Dimanche