Six years in prison hasn’t softened the New York rapper’s iron will. With her freedom back, can she rule again?
BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. — From the parking lot, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility looks like a sad junior college. A 45-minute drive north of the Bronx, where rapper Remy Ma grew up, it’s located on the fringes of Bedford, N.Y., the town where Martha Stewart keeps a house. The facility itself is an imposing, early 20th-century stone building, but visitors are welcomed in through a trailer, where the women’s bathroom doesn’t lock.
I’ve driven up to Bedford to visit Remy (real name Reminisce Smith) with her publicist, who since 2008 has also represented her husband, the Brooklyn rapper Papoose. Remy is set to be released from Bedford in seven days — in prison lingo, “six days and a wakeup.” She’s getting out after serving six of the eight years she was sentenced to in May 2008, after being found guilty on two charges of assault. (Those stemmed from a July 2007 argument with friend Makeda Barnes-Joseph, during which Barnes-Joseph was shot twice in the abdomen. In court, Remy’s lawyer called the shooting an accident.)
Back in 2004, after earning her place in one of the era’s power player rap crews with opponent-demolishing rap battle wins, Remy Ma hit No. 10 on the pop charts and with posse cut “Lean Back,” which also got nominated for a Grammy. Her 2006 solo debut album sounds surprisingly fresh today; the hook of album single “Conceited” — “I’m conceited, I got a reason” — comes off like a proto version of Beyoncé and Sheryl Sandberg’s 2014 “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss” refrain. Still, the album was a commercial disappointment, arriving after a delayed release at the tail end of a profitable time for big label pop rap; to some, its yacht water-splashed Scott Storch beats sounded stale.
At the visitors’ entrance we’re greeted by a cheerful female guard, and, after passing through a metal detector, walk up a flower-lined path outside. In another building, we’re separated for an ion scanner drug screening, which entails having your hands, pockets, and shoe tops rubbed with a piece of paper.
After it’s certain there’s no drug residue on my shoes, we’re seated at a numbered table in the visiting room, which smells like a middle school cafeteria; outside there’s a small playground and, on the side wall, a seasonal photo backdrop for family photos that’s currently depicting a forest. Recorders, phones, and pens aren’t allowed here. Hoping to be able to take some notes for this story, I’ve snuck in a gray crayon. I consider looking for paper in the children’s area at the back of the room, but it’s dim and vacant today, and Remy’s not supposed to be doing interviews.
When Remy arrives, she’s paired her issued green pants with a white scoop-neck pocket tee and high-top Nikes. Wearing clear lip gloss and maybe some eyebrow pencil, with her hair gathered in two doughnut buns at the crown of her head, she’s stunning. Gesturing around the room, where there are only around eight guests, she points out that there are about 900 women at Bedford — and all but a few have the opportunity to receive visitors.
This week she’s in trouble for doing an unapproved interview with New York radio jock Angie Martinez over the phone a couple days earlier. For punishment she’s been barred from any group activities, which she feels is an unnecessary flex of authority; she reasons that she didn’t even bad-mouth the prison — she could have, for instance, brought up the guards recently arrested for having sex with inmates. (Ultimately, Remy’s release from Bedford is delayed one day. A public information officer for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision tells MTV this is “due to a misbehavior report involving a July 21 incident for phone violations, particularly third party calling,” possibly in relation to the Martinez interview. But prison staff don’t bother to share news of the delay with Papoose, who shows up at Bedford on the morning of Remy’s scheduled release with a fleet of luxury cars.)
For a person who’s served six years for shooting someone in the stomach, Remy says stuff like “I was so mad I could kill her” a lot. These statements are clear jokes, delivered by a good storyteller with laughter. But those barbs, just like the small, pre-prison fight scar on her upper lip, are transparent signs of Remy’s bluster, which Bedford has not extinguished. She says her time at prison has helped her realize that at the height of her fame, she’d let her temper get the better of her, telling Martinez on the phone that she’d acted “really crazy.” But Remy hasn’t undergone a holistic personality transformation while away. She likes to tell the truth, even when it might be better left unsaid. As she looks to revive her career in the social media age, this quality may prove both a blessing and a challenge.
There’s a chart that shows exactly how word of Beyoncé’s self-titled fifth album spread around the world after its out-of-nowhere release last year. Rendered in purple neon, conversations on the graph explode on the U.S. coasts and bleed into the flyover states. The U.K., Turkey, Brazil, and South Korea go ablaze; then Australia wakes up. All told, it takes 12 hours.
Remy’s a huge Beyoncé fan, but she says inmates only caught wind of the album a couple of days later, once newspapers and magazines arrived to spread its legend. Since Bedford rules don’t allow inmates to have iPhones, MP3 players, CDs, or even cassettes recorded by hand — and an official cassette version of the album wasn’t released — Remy had to have a custom tape made and sent over from a real distributor. The copy she received, which arrived at Bedford in regulation commercial packaging, was recorded over Splash One, a ‘90s reggae compilation released by Queens-based VP Records. The original reggae tape ran shorter than Beyoncé’s record, so Remy’s version cuts off before “Blue” is finished. This annoyed her.
In the “Lean Back” era, Remy and Beyoncé were almost-peers, each with top 10 pop singles. But in the decade since, the gap between them has grown canyon-sized. When Remy goes back to work in August, she’ll be jumping back into the rap game at 34 as something of a beginner: She’s never touched Twitter or Instagram (both her accounts are currently run by Papoose), and the last time she was signed to a major label, today’s 360 deals were unheard of. She’s coolly aware of the unenviable position this puts her in, but confident in the team she’ll work through it with: a stylist, manager, her old hairdresser, her publicist, and her husband. And she’s certain of her skill. Over the past couple of years she’s had plenty of time to write material, and says she still feels as eager as someone in their twenties. Prison interrupts a person’s natural maturation, she posits, using a friend who was locked up at 18 and a decade later still acts like a teenager as an example.
When I ask who’d win in a freestyle battle now, her or her husband, she shakes her head then asks with a smile, “Who’s the judge?” I say it’s her, and she says she’s winning, hands down. Other judges may not be so kind. When Louisiana rapper Lil Boosie was released from prison after a four-year stint back in March, he was heralded with a live-streamed press conference thrown by his label, Atlantic. Since, he’s appeared on remixes of hit singles by other artists on Atlantic’s roster, but has yet to chart a track of his own. Even Lil Wayne, who left eight months at Rikers in 2011 ready to reclaim his title as hip-hop’s king, has struggled to win back critics’ love, and now, partially eclipsed by protégés Drake and Nicki Minaj, says his upcoming album will be his last.
Around prison, Remy’s got a reputation as an important person, brainy and relentless. She’s mastered the art of making a pie with a crispy crust on a stove top (inmates can’t use ovens) and once meticulously polled the prison population for a college class paper she titled “Situational Homosexuality.” Remy didn’t finish high school as a teen, but became the valedictorian of her GED class at Bedford. She says her graduation day speech was moving, and surprising to people who thought rappers weren’t smart.
She went on to take courses toward a bachelor’s degree — she grins when I can’t add up the math for how many credits she’d be able to earn in a couple years as quickly as she can — and got into sci-fi. Her strategy for once-weekly library visits, she says, was to go for thick-as-possible books released in the past decade. She loved the Acheron and Game of Thrones series, and seems genuinely concerned about how she’ll find the time to binge-watch all four seasons of HBO’s GOT adaptation in the week after her release, which she says she’s taking off from work.
Remy refers generally to her fellow inmates as strangers and says she didn’t usually bother to show up at communal breakfasts. She says that’s because they were too early for her to get presentable for, and that it bummed her out when other people showed up with last night’s saliva on their cheeks. But inside she has made a crew of about five close-knit friends, and she’s visibly sad she can’t take each of them home with her. One friend serving a long sentence has requested Remy find her a man on the outside with whom she can have a baby — women at Bedford are allowed to carry children and stay with their newborns in a nursery area for a number of months — and Remy says she will take the task seriously.
But looking toward the weeks ahead, Remy tears up and says she thinks she’ll have PTSD when she leaves here; at times, she says, staff at Bedford have made her feel like “the Emancipation Proclamation has been torn up and slavery’s been reinstated.” And she’s consistently been annoyed at prison’s arbitrary rules. Recently, her husband brought up a pair of Tom Ford sandals to wear on her release day. She felt she should be able to store the shoes in their box, and a guard demanded they be placed in a cloth bag, like everything else. The two couldn’t come to an agreement, so Remy gave the sandals back to her husband. The sandals cost $2,500. That’s more, Remy hypothesizes, than most outfits guards in this place have worn. It’s also about the same amount of money Remy allegedly accused Barnes-Joseph of stealing from her in 2007, prompting their argument.
In prison, even when you’re alone, you’re never really alone, but you also have a great deal of control over the small world of your cell. Soon, Remy will be able to decide when she wants to shower, and she’ll have a new house to spread out in. She suggested to Papoose that they keep separate quarters in the home, like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, but he wasn’t into it, so she’ll have to deal with his socks around the kitchen and family members who want to sleep over in the guest room — all while planning a wedding ceremony, which they never had. (She bought a dress for an April 2008 ceremony that got interrupted by her trial; jailhouse nuptials planned for May 2008 were famously canceled after correction officials found Papoose with a key they thought could be used to open handcuffs. Remy says he used the key in his “basement.”)
Years after the peak of his career, Papoose is flamboyantly stubborn. In 2013, he released an album shelved by Jive back in 2006; this year, he called himself better than Jay Z. But in their marriage, Remy is his unflagging equal, if not the boss. She’s made sure he’s looking after the pink Benz she bought before prison, and even had him drive it up to Bedford one day so she could make sure. Papoose is close with his large family, and Remy says he’s been ready to have a kid for years, using “every line,” like the fact that Tupac was born in prison, to persuade her. When I ask if she’ll be ready for a baby now that she’s going home, she pops out her eyes and giggles.
If this all sounds like perfect fodder for reality TV, perhaps it will be. Remy, who was in talks with VH1 to star in a reality show back in 2006, says she’s been approached with contracts. At a time when even top-selling stars are abandoning the album format, arguably television is Remy’s best shot at reclaiming fame, or even notoriety. Still, she’s not sure she wants to sign on just yet. Remy adores Beyoncé, but she notes that they’re not alike. Bey can carefully control what she says, and that’s just not Remy. She’s a Gemini, “tri-polar,” with “five sides.”
Remy says she’s never had to be as “fake” as she had to be in jail, and that biting her tongue for all these years has been a humbling experience. At home, she’ll struggle to find a balance between truth-telling and peacemaking. A lot of friends from her heyday who never came to visit will soon start calling, and she says she’ll have to decide whether to forgive everyone, or be mad at everyone. Ultimately, she tells me, she doesn’t want to be mad.
When a guard calls out the end of visiting hours, we stand to leave. Remy’s publicist asks if she can come up with a caption for the video Bow Wow’s recorded for her homecoming countdown on Instagram. She says, “Something like, tell him I’ll be with him on that couch in no time.” (Posted later that day, the final caption reads, “Soon as I got Back I’m straight to @106andpark to see my Homie @bowwow 7 Days Till.”) We linger against a rail near the room’s entrance, like three girls waiting for our manicures to dry. Then we hug and turn our backs to go.
Ten days later she’s returned to the studio and released a new remix. “You don’t got no balls, just a big cranium,” she spits over a DJ Khaled radio hit. “Shoot me down, I won’t fall, iron titanium.”