In 2007, I ran across a recording by a Charlotte rapper who called herself Cleo Jones. The name is what caught me — I was a big fan of the two early-’70s blaxploitation movies starring Tamara Dobson — but the music that this Cleo made is what turned my head. It was very women-positive with a political edge. It was unlike most of the hip-hop that I was hearing on the radio at the time. I got in touch with Cleo, whose first name is also Tamara, and interviewed her over a vegetarian lunch at one of my favorite Charlotte restaurants. Turns out that she was not only a rapper, but also a talented clothing designer; she grew up on military bases and spoke fluent German as well as English; and she’d once worked with Public Enemy frontman Chuck D. on forming an all-women rap trio called Crew Grrl Order. Today, her name is Tamara Shanell (it’s Tamara McIlwain in the story), and she’s a holistic nutritionist who posts motivational videos to her social media pages. The many hats that Tamara has worn over the years is true to her nature as a sort of renaissance woman for positivity. I’m just happy that I got the opportunity to write about her for The Charlotte Observer when she was still making music.
Charlotte’s Tamara McIlwain is speaking up for women in hip-hop
By Mark Kemp, The Charlotte Observer, December 10, 2007
“Don’t you hear our ancestors crying cause they see our souls are dying?”
Tamara McIlwain remembers a time when powerful young female rappers ruled the airwaves with positive messages. It was the late ’80s and early ’90s. The queens were Latifah, MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, and the sassy Salt ‘n Pepa. “Women like that — they had something to say,” says Mcllwain, a Charlotte rapper and entrepreneur who goes by the stage name Cleo Jones.
Hip-hop’s golden age faded like a smoke signal by the mid-’90s, when Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown burst into the limelight with raunchy rhymes celebrating careless sex and ultra-materialism. Aside from a few exceptions — Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu — things haven’t evolved much since. Today, many young women in hip-hop equate success with getting the chance to shake their booties in videos by 50 Cent.
“There just aren’t enough strong women role models in hip-hop,” says Mcliwain, who’s having a vegetables-only lunch at Dish in Plaza Midwood on a Thursday afternoon. She’s dressed in earthy colors — jeans, brown boots, a light orange top, and a blue-and-brown scarf. Wooden hoop earrings brush against her mocha-colored skin as she gazes out the window and continues: “You barely see women in hip-hop at all, and when you do, it’s borderline porn star.”
As Cleo Jones, she aims to explode those negative images. Together with her husband and producer Demario, she’s just wrapped up recording sessions for her new album, Freedom. She plans to release it through a subsidiary of SlamJamz, the independent label run by Chuck D of the pioneering political hip-hop group Public Enemy.
One track is “Destiny,” a song in which Cleo — named for the lead character in the ’70s Cleopatra Jones films — raps over a laid-back groove, “I’ve never been a follower, always a soldier.”
Demario, who calls himself “Demac,” confirms the accuracy of the lyrics. “She’s always looking for something that’s different from anything else out there,” says her husband, who met his “soldier” in 2004 when she asked him to help her produce a mixtape of female rappers.
“Someone mentioned that he would be a good person for me to work with,” Cleo remembers. “We ended up talking a lot throughout the project, and we just became the closest of friends.” She giggles. “That’s how we ended up where we are now.”
They ended up married — on June 16 of this year. Demac, who creates the music tracks for Cleo’s lyrics, says the two improvise in life as well as in the studio. “There’s never a firm direction, we just come up with something that has the right feel, whether it’s a touch of neo-soul or an old-school juke-joint feel,” he says. For “Destiny,” he put together a spare track with just a beat, bass line, and snippets of piano.
Aside from her work as Cleo Jones, Mcllwain also aims to help other artists navigate the music industry with integrity and a sense of adventure. In July, she and Demac founded OneMynd Management, whose roster includes R&B singer Lawrence Levine and Raleigh-based jazz-hop duo Move Jimmy. “There’s so much good music here that’s under the radar,” she says.
A time of pride and womanhood
Mcllwain has the credentials to change things. In the early 2000s, she walked away from a potentially lucrative solo career on a major label after executives at Universal Music Group told her to not be so serious — and recommended that she sex up her routine just a bit. “They wanted a totally different image for me than what I wanted for myself — you know, the hair extensions, the jewelry. That’s just not me.”
This is Mcllwain: a 31-year-old wife and mother; a social activist who works with local organizations like Girl Talk to help empower young African American girls; a clothing designer and businesswoman; an Internet talk radio host and music fan — and, oh yes, a rapper. “Actually, I didn’t want to be in the spotlight at first,” she says.
What she wanted to do was put together an all-female rap group and work with the women behind the scenes. She got the idea after meeting Chuck D in Charlotte in 2000. The two talked about working together on a project. But they couldn’t find the right mix of rappers and singers for the group, which they called Crew Grrl Order. So Mcllwain decided to become a Crew Grrl herself.
Chuck D was impressed with McIlwain’s tenacity. “Her mission,” he says, “is to level the playing field in rap for women. She’s very strong. She harks back to a time of pride and womanhood in hip-hop.”
After performing with the original version of Crew Grr Order — the group still exists, but with different members — Mcllwain realized the travel was keeping her away from Demac and her daughters, Angel, 8, and Imani, 10, for too long at a time. “I was constantly in New York, constantly in Atlanta, constantly in Florida,” she says. “I was thinking, this just isn’t going to work. I want to see my kids’ first steps. ” That’s when she and Demac decided to pursue Freedom.
Born into a military family in Fayetteville, Tamara Lytch was a toddler when her father was transferred to a base in Germany. She remembers early rap groups like the Fat Boys coming to the base and signing autographs. But back then, her musical tastes ran more towards Michael Jackson. “I had the belt, I had the jacket — I was that kid, ” she says.
Not for long. Her family moved back to the United States when she was 14. It was a culture shock for the Army brat. For one thing, hip-hop had grown beyond the nursery-rhyme raps of the Fat Boys. More serious crews, like Eric B. & Rakim and Public Enemy, were taking hip-hop to the next level, rapping about street life and political issues. She liked this new school of rap, what it stood for. But her new school in Charlotte was something else.
“I was traumatized,” she says of her first day at J.T. Williams Middle School. “I saw lots of fights. If kids got into a fight (at her school in Germany), it was serious.” The educational focus was more serious, too. “In Germany, our schools were big on the arts, and we also learned different languages,” she says.
After a few years in Charlotte, she found herself going down the wrong road with a man who eventually went to prison. “Luckily, I put him out before he could have me more involved with the situation that put him in jail,” she says. She made other changes, too. “I started working with kids and being more involved with things that would benefit women and children.”
One of those things is the Girl Talk Foundation. Mcllwain has helped Girl Talk executive director Janine Davis with slumber parties and designed clothing for a dance. She’s currently putting together a seminar for Girl Talk on women in hip-hop, scheduled for June 2008. She wants to show young girls that there are more roles for women in the music industry than just dancing and rapping. “We’re going to bring in female producers, women who direct videos, and women who have other occupations behind the scenes that a lot of young girls don’t get to see,” she says.
McIlwain hopes her life experiences — getting out of a dead-end relationship and realizing her artistic dreams — might inspire other young girls. Most importantly, she wants to be a positive role model for her own girls and her 1-year-old son, Marcquelle. “They are my driving force,” she says. “You know, I listen to what they listen to on the radio. I’m very aware of their environment, of the things they’re exposed to, some of which I’m totally against. That’s what inspires me to do what I do. In order to make big changes, you have to start at home first.”
To Cleo Jones, that’s what freedom is all about.