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A question that I asked all of the interviewees in the first phase of research for The Ride or Die Project was: How would you define what it means to be ride-or-die? In the numerous varied responses that I received, there was one name that kept coming up. When the name was said, I would smile and nod in recognition and we would laugh and shake our heads as though reminiscing over an old friend. However, she was not someone any of us knew personally. She also was not a celebrity or well-known actor. She was not a rapper or a b-girl or a graf writer. This person did not preside over turntables, host radio shows or direct music videos. In fact…this person was not even “real.” The name that kept coming up, over and over again when I asked these women to define what it means to be ride-or-die was Keisha. Keisha is a fictional character from the 1998 Hip Hop cult classic film Belly, directed by highly acclaimed music video director Hype Williams. The year before Belly’s release Hype had cemented himself in the history books of Hip Hop with his direction of classic music videos such as Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems,” Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” and Ma$e’s “Feel So Good.” In January of 1998, he began work on his first (and to date only) feature film: Belly. However the movie was beset with problems even before its release. According to KING Magazine’s 2008 oral history of Belly, the film was over-budget, constantly behind schedule there were on-set clashes between the directors and producers and the script was being cut and edited during filming as a reactionary response to all of these things. Once released it was destroyed in critical reviews, maligned for what was perceived as a glorification of excessive violence and banned from Magic Johnson Theatres for apparently casting a negative image of African Americans. Although receiving only a 13% critics approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score of 89% reveals that there was and is an audience who appreciate(d) it. Belly retains an unrelenting attraction for a public who reveled in its all-star cast, epic cinematic visuals, familiar narrative, redemptive possibility and a soundtrack that could be seen as a who’s who of Hip Hop in the 90’s (it featured D’Angelo, DMX, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, RZA, ODB, Raekwon, Gang Starr, Rakim, Drag-on, the Lox, Sean Paul, Mr. Vegas, Sparkle, Ja Rule, Jay-Z, Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, Noreaga and Mya to name a few – just that list is a blast to the past). Similarly to other Hip Hop adopted cult classics such as Brian De Palma’s 1983 Scarface and the HBO series The Wire, the success of Belly came not with its initial release but rather its VHS and DVD sales in the years following.
I was in middle school when it came out and I remember faking that I had watched it and memorizing all the big lines and character names that people mentioned because it would have been social suicide to admit I had not seen it.
Starring DMX, Nas, Taral Hicks, Tionne ‘T-Boz’ Watkins and Method Man the film follows the narrator Sincere (Nas) who has entered a cross-roads and is reconsidering his life as a hustler as a result of his reflections and studies as a Five Percenter (something that is not made clear in the film but was articulated in the KING Magazine oral history of Belly). He envisions a different future for the family he is creating with his girlfriend Tionne (Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins) and infant daughter Kenya. His shift stands in stark contrast to the decisions being made by the other narrator of the film, his homeboy and partner in the game Tommy ‘Buns’ Bundy (played by an oiled down DMX) who is addicted to the power that comes alongside the drug dealing lifestyle and this greed and short-sightedness leads to unwise decisions, interesting consequences and a final moment of truth. The film travels from Queens, New York to Omaha, Nebraska, the island of Jamaica and finally….Africa (they never say exactly where in Africa…just…Africa, cue Tionne: “Africa’s far!”). Complete with one of the most classic opening sequences and a Scarface-like action scene with a Jamaican remix featuring Ox (the one and only Louie Rankin who forever in my mind is known as Teddy Bruckshot), the film has many classic moments and lines that have been sampled by artists and deejays over the years (including by us on The Ride or Die Project Mixtape Volume 1). However there is one character in particular that has become a legend in her own right. Although not the lead of the film, whenever Keisha (played by Taral Hicks) came on the screen, she owned the moment. Back in the day, when I was in middle school, and even continuing into high school, if you were compared to Keisha, that meant you had been given one of the ultimate compliments. It was an accepted fact that she was the female don-dada of the film and over time her ascension has continued without much critical analysis or disruption. An entire thesis can be written on Hype Williams and the casting directors’ decision to cast Taral Hicks as the epicenter of female desirability in the film. As the online blog Words About Sounds notes in their essay “Belly: You Don’t Realize How Good This Movie Actually is”:
Since the eighties, there had been a very specific type of beauty, a very specific type of woman who had been shown in music videos. And Taral was none of that…Especially given the time this movie came out, you can be sure of one thing: the fact that Taral is a darker-skinned woman and made darker by the way the film is shot is no accident at all. Her blackness is celebrated. She’s also taller than most people in the film—that too, is celebrated….Her strength and physicality don’t run counter to her femininity, her beauty is not something that exists despite her blackness—Hype Williams portrays her strength, physical presence, and blackness as deeply integral to Keisha’s desirability.
There has been a significant absence of women who looks like Keisha in contemporary Hip Hop culture. Her dark-skin, physically toned physique and even her clear braces seem almost subversive when one considers the light-made-basically-white, surgically enhanced, highly photo-shopped images of beauty paraded with little disruption in today’s Hip Hop scene. But that is another article for another time.
Keisha did not have many scenes in a film that attempted to address a wide array of issues that North American Black communities were concerned with in the 90’s including, the drug trade, migratory violence, the competitive individualistic nature of capitalist enterprise, religion and its opportunity for redemption, the prison system, black conceptions of beauty AND FBI conspiracies to assassinate progressive Black leaders.
The few but key scenes Keisha did have helped to shape the public imaginary of what defines a ride-or-die chick. Throughout the film we see Keisha call and cuss off a young girl (Kiona) who is paging Tommy and admits to Keisha that they have had a long-standing “affair” (to put it mildly). We see Keisha get into an intensely violent verbal argument with Tommy and then proceed to have intense make-up sex after accusing him of cheating. We see Keisha call Tommy while he is in a car with Kiona and express her concern for his well-being. We see Keisha shopping with Tionne and seeking relationship advice on what to do about Tommy. We see Keisha get arrested during a raid at her home by the FBI who have been investigating Tommy’s involvement in the drug game. We see Keisha abandoned by Tommy while he goes on the run and she sits in jail refusing to snitch on him. We see Keisha get bailed out of jail by Tionne. And finally we see Keisha defending herself when attacked in her own home by Shameek (Method Man) who is looking for Tommy. Although each of these scenes are significant moments that illustrate various levels of strength, vulnerability, loyalty, pain, sensitivity and perseverance by this character they also consistently depict a woman whose life circumstances, decisions and motivations are a reaction to that of the man she is with. Beyond seeing her flip through fashion magazines, watching the television, smoking a spliff and window shopping, there are no other clues to the things that are interesting to Keisha. We know nothing of her interests and hobbies, her passions or desires outside of her relationship. One of the most revealing scenes is her conversation with Tionne (this dialogue is sampled on the The Ride or Die Project Mixtape Volume 1). In it, we realize that they are not close friends, that this moment is a unique one, instigated by Keisha in her loneliness and need for an outside perspective, a second opinion on the decisions that she has made and the chances of her achieving the healthy relationship she wants with Tommy. We see the distinction in perspective between she and Tionne. Tionne is direct and clear: her capacity to be happy is not defined by or dependent on Sincere.
The story and writing credits for Belly are attributed to Anthony Bodden, Nas and Hype Williams. The three male writers conclude the film with Sincere in Africa with his family (something we unfortunately only hear but never see, apparently as a result of production issues), Tommy in the forgiving embrace of Rev. Savior (a character loosely based on Minister Louis Farrakhan) and Keisha…what happens to Keisha? Although Tommy decides to make a transition in his life choices, they do not show him for a moment consider Keisha after witnessing the raid on his house. Tommy never apologizes to Keisha, he never shares his transition with Keisha, he does not invite her on his new journey as a changed man. Keisha’s last scene is not an opportunity for redemption like Tommy or an escape to a new life like Sincere but rather a mad dash towards survival after an attack from someone who was seeking a person from her past: Tommy. She is brutally assaulted and in defending herself kills the intruder. What happens to Keisha? She is traumatized, left alone and now stands with blood on her hands.
When I search for Keisha from Belly on Instagram I see numerous images of her on the accounts of both men and women alike. Keisha’s body glistening under blue lights in a white bra and silky robe, her face surrounded by a sleek bob she is captured as sexy and confident, fierce and beautiful. Admiration and celebration for this ride-or-die chick abound with hashtags of:
#EveryGoodManDeservesKeisha #blackandbeautiful #shewasabadbitch #aghettoNaomiCampbellLikeNasSaid #SheWasFine #WittheBisniss #BadAss #BlackBeauty #HotChocolate #SheBad #glistenating
Yet this admiration does not transition into curiosity or concern. Absent are the images of her fighting for her life, in the moment left to pay for the decisions made by her lover. What happened to Keisha? What happens to a woman who is repeatedly betrayed, abandoned, incarcerated and assaulted? What happens to a woman who puts her lover at the center of her world when that lover leaves? What happens to a woman who does not have homegirls or support systems that can build her up when the world tries to break her down? What happens to a woman who loves someone that is targeted by the state and in turn becomes the state’s target? What happens to a woman who has learned how to fight for someone else but has no one to fight for her?
The little girl in me who had Keisha on a pedestal, the grown woman in me who re-watches Belly with a certain appreciation but numerous questions left unanswered, the Black woman in me who has a deep seated desire to see women who look like her on the screen, the writer in me who wants those characters to be full and layered with context and possibility…all of those parts of me want to know what happens to Keisha.
I want to believe that she survives. I want to believe that she takes what she has learned in her relationship and she transfers that loyalty to herself. I want to believe that progress is not a straight line for Keisha because it is not a straight line for any of us and she messes up sometimes and falls for the wrong guy more than once because squares bore her and thugs excite her but eventually she realizes how dangerous her patterns are. I want to believe that these experiences make her stronger, more sensitive, more aware; they heighten her instinct and she learns to trust her gut. I want to believe that she stays in touch with Tionne, reconnects with homegirls from high school and makes friends at her job. I want to believe that Keisha will spend a lifetime learning how to heal her various wounds. I want to believe that in the midst of it Keisha learns to love the woman she has become and has no shame in the experiences that led her to this moment. I want to believe that Keisha learns how to become ride-or-die for herself.