As a child, life looked bleak to Toni Blackman. She was taunted for being overweight, her father was a drug addict and later as a teen she was depressed and suicidal.
Then she discovered her voice, the mic and that black people can have what she calls “white boy arrogance.” These were the first steps on the path to becoming known as “an international champion of hip-hop culture.”
She grew up in small town Pittsburg, Cali, surrounded by a lot of cousins, spending a lot of time with them at her grandmother’s house.
“If you weren’t an athlete, it was hard to have an identity other than just being a good student,” said Blackman.
Severe asthma and allergies shut down any possibility of succeeding in sports. She found her niche instead in reciting, then writing, poetry. It allowed her to dazzle others while releasing her sadness.
“I started writing poetry because grown-ups didn’t want to have a conversation about poverty and war with an eight-year-old,” said Blackman, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
For years she did not read her own poetry in public. “I was the kid who got invited to read the Maya Angelou or Nikki Giovanni poem at a political event.”
She recalls suffering from depression up until seventh grade. “When this happens in communities of color, people don’t do anything; they pray,” Blackman said. “When I look back at my journals, I was suicidal and cried every day. Then in eighth grade things broke through and I realized I was responsible for my happiness; that certain people in my family loved me but they couldn’t give me happiness. That realization made me very independent.”
She found comfort in food. “On my father’s side there was a lot of addiction (to drugs), so I was very clear I would never be on cocaine or heroin,” she said. “I ate to feel better.”
“My freshman year I realized that one way to deal with pain and frustration was to be busy,” said Blackman. “I became a workaholic, an overachiever. I spent most of life, until recently, doing more, to feel good enough.”
She earned good grades, became president of the black student union, held several other offices, was on the volleyball team and became a homecoming queen. While she always had an international group of friends, she said she decided to attend Howard University.
“I needed to be around black people who were successful in various fields,” she said. “I had friends, white boys, who were working class, too, and we had honest conversations. They operated from an audacity. I knew I wanted that.”
At Howard University, she said she found black people who had audacity.
She was still writing poetry, still reading other people’s work in public. But when she needed money for school, she asked her speech team coach for a strategy to follow to earn a scholarship. The plan included her writing and reciting her own poetry.
“I followed the plan, won trophies and got a scholarship,” said Blackman.
She had a gift for the mic and a voice that commanded attention. The confidence to freestyle would come later. Meanwhile, she excelled on the forensics team with the help and encouragement of older members who mentored her.
After graduation, she began hosting Free Style Union, a gathering where rappers came to freestyle off of different topics. She held workshops for rappers, fashioned after poetry workshops of the 60s. Meanwhile, she taught writing classes for immigrant mothers and then hip hop writing to teachers and their students.
“When you really do what you are supposed to be doing, it’s amazing how things line up,” said Blackman.
She moved to a larger stage, New York City, and had just been offered some major opportunities in an art program when September 11 happened and the program was cut.
“I didn’t have a Plan B, but then the State Department called,” Blackman said. She was named the first ever hip-hop artist to work as an American Cultural Specialist, performing, running workshops and lecturing on hip hop music and culture. She traveled the world, mostly working in Africa.
Blackman also started “I Rhyme Like A Girl” workshops, which she has said are “rooted in the idea that poetry, lyrics and performance can be used as a tool for building self-esteem, self-worth and self-understanding.” The workshops also act to nurture emerging female hip hop artists.
In 1999 she was awarded a prestigious Echoing Green fellowship, given annually to some 20 social entrepreneurs chosen from thousands of applicants. Blackman expanded her concept of Freestyle Union, using “oral improvisation as the basis for creative development of emerging artists.”
“She’s gifted not only as an MC, but as a human being,” said Didier Sylvain, senior associate of Echoing Green’s alumni programs. She has a powerful presence. It’s an interesting way to live life, that wherever you walk you encourages people to live authentically and free.”
Grammy-award winning engineer and producer Gordon Williams expects to have Blackman’s CD completed by early next year.
“She minds me of KRS-One,” he said. “Some people call it conscious rap. Toni is extremely intelligent and articulate, very proficient with language. But she has the ability to speak to those who aren’t.”
Last month, Blackman was chosen by Dove to be part of its “Real Woman Role Model/Women Who Should Be Famous” campaign. Dove describes the campaign as spotlighting “women whose lives and careers are focused on boosting young girls’ self-image and esteem.”
Blackman, once a girl who considered suicide now implores her girls to “rock the mic,” a concept she explains as “being bold, being audacious, and using your smarts and not diminishing your intelligence, your brilliance, your light.
“The reason I still do freestyle workshop after so many years is I believe freestyle, when approached the right way, is spiritual, no different than prayer and meditation. For me art is not a luxury; it is a necessity and it saves lives and changes minds and has the power to change our world.”