Exploring the stories of women who live by a ride-or-die philosophy

[INTERVIEW] 100% Loyal: Exploring the Layers of Latoya Rodney aka Jane From Finch

By Amanda Parris | @amanda_parris

If you Google the name Latoya Rodney, a number of sites pop up including radio, television and print news outlets fascinated by the redemption story of this young woman. The description in every article or news report is a riff on a familiar and often compelling narrative: a former gang member turns her life around to become a social worker, motivational speaker and rapper. It’s not hard to see why so many seek out her story. I too, was intrigued when our mutual friend described her to me one evening. The name Jane from Finch was recognizable, it has been floating around Toronto for some time. When he shared some of the details of her life I knew immediately that her story was one I wanted to feature on the blog.   Her story made me think about some of the women who filled the Don Jail visitors waiting room and inspired me to create The Ride or Die Project.

However the young woman who used to go by the aka Jane from Finch in the Hip Hop world has other elements to her rarely mentioned in these news beats that complicates assumptions and reminds me of the layered realities of the girls I went to high school with.  They were girls who I would ride my bike on Jane Street with, girls who hooked me up with the livest braid-ups, girls who would sneak into Sheridan Mall movie theatre with me and girls who would not hesitate to swing when someone disrespected them or the people they loved. Perhaps these are too many layers for a news story that wants to fixate on the seemingly more provocative transition of a gangster turned social worker. Perhaps it does not fit their news story to describe how incredibly charismatic she is. Latoya, I quickly learned possesses an endearing sense of humour. Generous with her perspective and knowledge, in our first conversation she was sharing insight on where to get the best acrylic shellac manicure and who specifically to ask for at the shop near the intersection of Jane and Wilson (because apparently you can’t trust all of these girls to get it right). Fascinated by astrology she explained that it was because we are both water signs (she’s a Cancer and I’m a Scorpio) that I understood and connected so easily with the things she was saying.

I wanted to find out more about the layers that drive and inform this young woman.

Similarly to The Ride or Die Project, Latoya’s definition of a ride-or-die philosophy comes down to the key element of loyalty. She locates this loyalty at the core of who she is. From a young age Latoya always attempted to protect those around her:

I’ll tell you straight up I’m a ride-or-die chick. Like I don’t play around with riding for people, whether it’s my man, whether it’s my family, whatever. You have to ride. A ride-or-die is somebody that’s 100% loyal. Somebody that even if they can’t help you out financially they’ll still try to help you out. Somebody who gives their whole self.

 A ride-or-die is somebody that’s 100% loyal. Somebody that even if they can’t help you out financially they’ll still try to help you out. Somebody who gives their whole self.

Many trace their first introduction to the ride-or-die philosophy with Hip Hop culture and more specifically rap music. When I first began The Ride or Die Project, various people would respond to the idea with dismay at what they perceived was my attempt to popularize one of the “negative” and “dangerous” elements that had come out of Hip Hop culture. They argued that I was encouraging young girls to romanticize a way of being that would put the needs of someone else ahead of their own. However, since starting this project, we have always been interested in tracing the roots of the ride-or-die concept before and beyond Hip Hop. Latoya credited the roots of her ride-or-die mentality not to Hip Hop but rather to the values of her family and the tenets of her Christian religion.

My family is very family oriented so I have 6 brothers and sisters, 5 physically. We were always close so that was something our mom instilled in us, to make sure we’re there for each other, make sure we’re there for people, make sure we give. Having a Christian background, God says to be true to thyself, be true to others so that’s something to remind me to be loyal too.

My family is very family oriented so I have 6 brothers and sisters, 5 physically. We were always close so that was something our mom instilled in us, to make sure we’re there for each other, make sure we’re there for people, make sure we give. Having a Christian background, God says to be true to thyself, be true to others so that’s something to remind me to be loyal too.

pic007Latoya grew up in a neighbourhood called Jane and Finch that has been made infamous to Toronto residents, (mis)informed by less than favourable media reports. However these negative perceptions are juxtaposed by the fierce loyalty of many who live, love and work there including LaToya. She refuses to romanticize it however, and identifies the challenges as equally as important as the benefits:

They try to portray it as bad and all these horrible things, although it is traumatic it was also beneficial in terms of being a critical analyzer from such a young age. Being able to critically analyze things at a young age is a gift. That’s something that the hood, where we grew up, taught us.

The 1983 National Film Board documentary Home Feeling directed by Jennifer Hodge and Roger McTair captures the strained relations between members of the Jane and Finch community and local Toronto police. As a result of policies such as police carding and specialized forces such as TAVIS, this strain has endured in the decades since it’s release. In this context, protection is rarely seen as something that will come from a state institution such as the police. It was not a desire to escape the hood or the hunger for material wealth that pushed Latoya into a life of criminality. Rather, it was this need to protect the people she loved and finding no other way to adequately ensure their safety that led Latoya into gang life:

I’ve just always been a person that’s like that bigger sister. I’ve just always been close to people where I have to protect them. That’s why I got involved in the gang stuff when I was younger because I had to protect my friends and that was my way of showing them my love for them. So I know about being a ride-or-die person. I’m 100% loyal. There’s not even 1% less.

Laoya holds a commanding presence that emanates through her music videos and even over the phone. When I asked her about the back-story behind her old moniker Jane from Finch (she also goes by Latoya Jane), she said the name was suggested by someone who saw potential in her natural capacity to lead:

I didn’t even make it up. Somebody made it up for me and they said it’s because I was the female voice of Jane and Finch. Before I used to be the baddest girl in Jane and Finch, anybody will tell you that and my name was Creature. Everybody listened to me when I was bad so when I changed, when I got baptized and stuff he was like you should name yourself Jane from Finch.

Formerly known as Creature, at the age of 14 she got caught up in the game. “I always wanted to be the baddest one because I was just being told that I was bad all the time.” Latoya was suspended 26 times, attended 16 different schools and to complete this school-to-prison pipeline trajectory she was incarcerated for 2 years.

 

Formerly known as Creature, at the age of 14 she got caught up in the game. “I always wanted to be the pic002baddest one because I was just being told that I was bad all the time.” Latoya was suspended 26 times, attended 16 different schools and to complete this school-to-prison pipeline trajectory she was incarcerated for 2 years. In the midst of it was the inevitable pain that comes along with a chaotic lifestyle. During this time Latoya attended 40 burials for friends and relatives who were killed violently. A documentary that focuses on this period of her life entitled Creature was released last year.

As a self-professed ride-or-die who values her ability to be loyal and protect those she loves, these losses weighed heavily.

I was very angry. And then when my brother got killed 2 years ago I was way more angry on top of that and I was like, I don’t even care I’ll reveal it to the world. I think that the way that I was mad…it was just not a normal type of upset.

There is evidence that much of her strength – as is true for so many of us – is a protective armor. She wears this armor in part because she knows that most cannot understand who she is or why she is; they do not have time, space or the capacity to get her layers.

I’m not an average girl. You could say I come off a little hard or whatever…people always want to know my story and because I have a wall, a thicker one than most women, they don’t like it.

This hardness may be an effective means of protection for a teenage girl but it has serious limits for a grown woman. There is little space for emotion, for softness, for vulnerability and for fragility; necessary elements for anyone’s full humanity.

Her description of herself reminds me of so many girls I grew up with, girls I teach in middle and high  schools through Lost Lyrics and even girls who grill me on the bus. This hardness may be an effective means of protection for a teenage girl but it has serious limits for a grown woman. There is little space for emotion, for softness, for vulnerability and for fragility, for lightheartedness, for the freedom to be carefree; necessary elements for anyone’s full humanity. With her armor on, Latoya is comfortable in speaking about her loyalty; she professes her love for her parents, her siblings, her friends and even God but second-guesses her right to speak the moment the focus shifts to herself.

I feel like I’m boasting or something but hopefully I’m not. It’s very hard for me to talk about myself but I’m getting better with it. I do not like this bigging up myself type of thing.

Recognizing that it is ok to make space for herself and finding the balance between the parts of her old self and her growing and evolving self is where Latoya is now. Her stance on the importance of loyalty has not changed, but she has refined it, made it more specifically focused on those who are most deserving:

You don’t really want to go out there and just spread yourself to all of these strangers because they take advantage of you.

pic004She spoke about the changes in her style and presentation in recent years as she begins to allow different parts of herself to emerge from behind the layers.

I never seen myself as the feminine girl…I don’t know what happened when I did my documentary cause I was talking about the fact that I couldn’t do certain things but it turns out that I’m doing those things that I said I couldn’t do. I’m trying to wear pumps now, I’m trying to wear makeup and wear softer hairstyles now. I’m trying to be that girly-girl now because I wasn’t before. I’m growing into a lady. I think I’m at a happier place in my life right now. I was angry before so I just wanted to fling on my army pants and fling on my Tims and fling on my Jersey top and dress like one boy because I didn’t feel good about myself and now I feel good about myself. I’m more confident now.

When I asked how she came to the realization that she needed to begin letting go of this anger that was rooted in so much pain, her response was simple:

I feel like God said, you’re ready now. I don’t know how to describe it in any other way.

LaToya’s faith has been an integral component to her grounding and strength. While incarcerated much of her time was spent in solitary confinement and it was in her faith that she found guidance and solace:

When I was in jail I was in the hole for a long time and that’s all I had to myself, my Bible.

Letting go of the anger that shaped so much of who she was is an ongoing process. Unlike many heroes in Hollywood movies, Latoya does not act as though this process happened alone. She acknowledges that it has been inextricably connected to the multiple inspirations, experiences, skill sets and support systems that provide her with motivation, perspective and strength:

When I said, ok, I’m gonna put it in God’s hands, I’m just gonna leave it, just forgive them, I guess that’s when I felt the anger kind of lifting off because it strapped me down for a while still. I had good mentors around me and good family members, especially my son. I had a lot of support and I got through it. I didn’t go to classes or anything but I assessed myself because I have a social work background so I can assess myself and figure out my triggers. I can’t just be angry. I’m such a positive person to be angry. I mean it’s traumatic what I went through but I don’t have to stay mad like that for the rest of my life.

Today Latoya has found channels for her anger and creative ways to explore how she defends and stands up for her community. A co-founder of the non-profit organization Redemption Reintegration Services, Latoya remains committed to social work and supporting communities. Her music has also become a space for her to share her story and she is currently working with producers in Jamaica on a new album and recently released a new music video.

She has plans to write a book about her life, tour the world and spread her message. Her journey seems to be moving into a different place, one that has tangible outlets for her layers.

I’m changing. I feel good too! My son motivates me a lot as well as I guess my faith, my beliefs…keeping my eye on the prize type of thing, my goals. I always execute my goals, as long as I’m focused. My dad was the one that was writing me lyrics since I was a little girl. My dad is a big motivation. He’s big time. And then my mom, my mom, that’s like my back-bone. She’s just there for me. So parents motivation is crazy to have. I need that. And honestly my faith in Christ, in God. God’s my brederin. He comes first before anything else and that’s what starts my day. My fellowship with him. And obviously my music.

When I asked her what advice she would give to her 15 year-old self, she paused and then spoke directly to her, articulating an insight that comes from a real desire to ride-or-die for self:

Latoya sweetie, don’t follow friends. Value family and people that actually care about you. Don’t get caught up in defending people. Defend yourself and what you believe in and when you have children, defend your children. But don’t get into mix-up, don’t follow friends. Be a leader.

 


 Amanda Parris | Co-Founder and Blog Editor

 

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