When you google the word ‘notorious’, two names pop up. Both are Brooklyn born and notorious, although in completely different ways.  Meet ‘Notorious BIG’ and ‘Notorious RBG’.

Notorious BIG, aka Biggie Smalls, is a rapper from Brooklyn who took the music industry by storm in 1994 with his debut album, Ready to Die.  Sadly, he did – die that is, and it happened just two weeks shy of his second album being released.

notorious, RBG, BIG, Beale Street, race, gender

BIG’s music is shockingly honest with genius lyrics that call out injustices and challenges faced by African Americans who still suffer racial inequalities.

The other ‘notorious’ earned her nickname in 2013 when a law student named Shana Knizhnik drew attention to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s (RBG) dissenting vote in Shelby County vs. Holder.

The case stripped the 1965 Voting Rights Acts of its power to fight discrimination.  But the name ‘Notorious RBG’ stuck in 2017 when MSNBC decided to do a feature on Ruth.

The nickname blew up on social media and T-shirt sales with Notorious RBG appeared everywhere. Ruth’s role as a Supreme Court Justice who has labored for more than five decades to free American women from discriminatory laws became the stuff of legends.

Today we’re stretching WomanScape’s usual #FunFriday post in the name of these two notorious figures in history by comparing them to two much-talked-about movies in our pop-culture: “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “On the Basis of Sex”.  The first movie crusades for racial justice and the second, gender equality.

I escaped to watch both movies in one day and was swept away first by the cinematography and artistic perspective of Barry Jenkin’s “Beale Street” film.

It’s a romantic but tragic tale of beautiful young love doomed to fail but the injustice is maddening.  I left feeling the systematic enslavement of Blacks was one big charade disguised as liberation in our society.  The movie’s setting takes place in 1970’s New York City but more about that shortly when I discuss where Notorious BIG fits in.

Photo credit: Landmark Cinemas

Heading over to the second theater to see “On the Basis of Sex”, I had to shake the staggering incarceration rates of young Black men from my mind – their sentences, vastly and grossly unjustified.

But as always, the magic of the movies takes over and I am lost in Mimi Leader’s directorial take on the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

It’s filled with an impeccably dressed Ruth in form-fitting dresses and picture-perfect hair.  She’s gloriously spunky and infectiously brilliant – Ruth’s character and Felicity Jones!

But the rosiness doesn’t diminish the pure pleasure and enjoyment I feel watching petite Ruth slay the justice system.  She does it while raising a family and aided by her husband’s unwavering support.  The message: we women can do anything with grit, a little help from our men, the right lipstick and high heels.  Teasing (a bit) but seriously, I am triumphant watching ‘Notorious RBG’.

As soon as Ruth’s character runs across the yard at Harvard law as a first-year student, I know how she’s going to win. It’s foreshadowed when she ducks into a second-year class to take notes for her sick husband.  Her success turns on the words she hears in that class when the professor says:

“The court can not rule on the weather but it can consider changes affecting our social conventions.”

These two words – social conventions – are powerful enough to reverse historical precedent.  Graduating at the top of her class from Columbia Law in 1960, and heading the Law Review, might make getting a job in New York difficult but we know how the story ends.   Ruth is a notorious crusader strategically overturning rulings under the Equal Protection clause of the American Constitution.   Along the way, the rights of women are improved even though there is more work to do.

But “Beale Street” is a different story.  Biggie Smalls – Christopher George Latore Wallace (BIG) – is our other ‘notorious’ who grew up during the movie time frame for Beale Street.  When Biggie was born in Brooklyn in 1972, Ruth was beginning to hit her stride in academia and forming the Women’s Rights Project as part of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

By the time BIG is twelve, ‘Notorious BIG’ is living up to his name by selling drugs and getting arrested on a weapons charge five years later.  Add another five years to that and he’s making overnight headlines in the East Coast Hip-Hop music scene after performing on a radio spot.

People respond to his dark storytelling lyrics that focus on the violence and hardships he sees on the streets.  In a different way, BIG is a crusader too, calling out injustices and the lack of opportunity and choices in life.  But the problem is he’s is Black and weighs 380 pounds – hardly a hero prototype.  But his truth hits a chord:

“The street is a shortstop. Either you’re slanging crack rock or you’ve got a wicked jump shot.” (BIG)

At twenty-two, BIG climbs the charts as the top-selling male artist in the U.S. in the Rap and R&B industry.  That’s great except BIG’s words don’t change anything.   His lyrics cut big record deals, big monies, and big trouble, as his gang affiliations and a feud with the West Coast Hip-Hop scene grows.

What social conventions make it okay for kids to die in their neighborhoods and on the streets? 

Notorious BIG calls out societal rifts and an urban life ruled by gangs, drugs, and poverty.  Biggie is Beale Street talking.  And, what’s worse, BIG’s world has nothing to do with  the motto that sits over the chairs of the Appellate Court judges where Ruth argues her legal cases:  ‘Reason is the soul of the law.’

When Biggie is killed in a drive-by shooting in 1997, his crusade is over.  But his music lives like the songs in Maya Angelou’s book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  Ruth and Biggie are notorious crusaders.  Neither is perfect, a reflection of our human condition, but both have much to sing about.

Their performances in life are riveting and carry hope, which rests in the volume and the readiness of a world willing to listen.

Rose McInerney

Rose McInerney

Rose combines her love of all things artfully-designed to connect women to a shared community of learning and a richer, more fulfilled self. As a passionate storyteller, published writer, and international traveler, Rose believes women can build a better world through powerful storytelling.

2 Comments

  • Catie Barron says:

    Thank you Rose for sharing this heroic pop culture paradox of characters. While RBG and Biggie, from the outside, could appear very different, as you indicated they are similar in their desires to show the shortcomings we face in equality and how we must be better. I admire your presentation of the two here and congratulate you for putting them both in this post. While methods may differ and the path to find our voices may differ; the final outcome that we all represent is always clear. How fortunate that we have strong illuminating souls in our world whose voices rise above the fray as a beacon for the rest of us to continue to pursue the best we can all be together.

    It always amazes me how much history teaches us. We often don’t wish to look back, but it’s often in looking back with empathy and a want of understanding, that we choose better. Cheers.

    • Couldn’t have said it any better Catie! Thanks for engaging in conversation and your reflection on the lessons of history say it all. Cheers to following the path that leads to better decisions. Best, Rose

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