Long before I knew I was magic I wanted to be an “Around the Way Girl.” At the height of his career, LL Cool J released a song he wrote specifically for Black girls in the hood. The video for the song opens up with a frustrated LL rejecting the premise of what he called a “stuck up girl” and lyrically painting the picture of the type of Black woman he wanted. LL didn’t introduce me to the “Around the Way Girl”, he just loved her out loud.
I’ve always known her. For the 11-year-old version of me she was goals. She was familiar—the “Around the Way Girl” LL described felt like one of my cool ass aunties and older cousins. I didn’t need Yo! MTV Raps to show me what was hot—all I had to do was go to a family event. Whenever Aunt Allison walked into a family cookout rocking shoulder length medium-sized box braids that were burned on the ends with her baby hair slicked down, I knew I was about to beg my mom to take me to 125th Street in Harlem to get my hair braided. When Aunt Iris pulled up to the joint and hopped out of her black BMW with bright pink knee-length bikers shorts, an oversized shirt and high-top Reeboks, I knew I was going to try to sneak a similar outfit on the counter when my mom took me shopping at VIM on Fordham Road in the Bronx. My older cousin Stephanie would show up with her long nameplate and her doorknockers and talk shit with the guys, crack jokes with the girls and make sure all of the elders were smiling. I loved the way she moved the crowd. She was the dopest MC to never pick up a mic.
My real life “around the way girls” moved me, but little did I know the very essence of an “’Around the Way Girl” would move generations and transform the fashion industry.
Nothing about an “around the way girl” capitulated to respectability politics. She was unapologetic before it was a trendy term. She walked through the hood swinging her hips, refusing to shrink herself, not giving a damn about how she would be perceived for shunning “the kings English.” Or as LL stated “She can walk with a switch and talk with street slang. I love it when a woman ain’t scared to do her thing.” Fearlessly operating in the fullness of who you are has always been a form of resistance. This was just as true in the early 90s as it is today. In the early 90s, the “around the way girls” in our lives dared to be exactly who they wanted to be even when a huge portion of our community was measuring “Black excellence” through a narrow lens.
For every person that was drawn to the raw and honest charm of an “around the way girl,” there were two more who scoffed at her distinct departure from a “Huxtable” character. The Cosby Show premiered in the 80s and was immediately beloved in our homes. A lot of us loved it because it was a funny show with a positive depiction of a Black family. Some of us enjoyed the direct way the show introduced us to Black artists. Yet, if we are being honest, there are those amongst us whose attraction to The Cosby Show was predicated on their own respectability politics—the Blackness displayed on The Cosby Show was the only signifier of “Black excellence.” For them, “Black excellence” exclusively meant a two-parent home with children groomed to become third generation college grads. Of course, their family friends were probably fellow Jack and Jill members who were born knowing exactly which “D9” organization they wanted to pledge.
If that was your litmus test for “Black excellence” then you missed the magic of the 90s “around the way girls.” Some of them may have never stepped foot on a college campus but they were intelligent and creative with an ingenuity that can’t be taught. They had the emotional intelligence to fortify respect and relationships with guys and girls on the block. Every younger girl wanted to be them and every older guy wanted to be with them. LL wasn’t lying when he said “Around the way you’re like a neighborhood jewel, all the home boys sweat you cause you’re crazy cool.” Hell, one of the hottest rappers at the time was singing their praises and any girl lucky enough to get named checked in that song will never let you forget it. When LL said the name Renee, I had to let the whole hood know it was my middle name.
I was so proud at the thought of being associated with these dope Black women. They successfully juggled multiple streams of income without ever dropping their creative skills. They worked a standard 9-5 and still ran a home-based business on the side. You could walk into their kitchen and leave with perfect “goddess braids,” silky weave or the slickest long, high ponytail. The “around the way girls” were “Black excellence” personified. Respectability politics be damned. They hung in the hood, slicked their baby hairs, and engaged with the world on their own terms while simultaneously influencing a generation of Black women that would grow up and call themselves magic and carefree.
We didn’t have hashtags to see what was trending in the world—we had the girls in the hood creating the trends. “I want a girl with extensions in her hair, bamboo earrings, at least two pair. A Fendi bag and a bad attitude.” At 41-years-old this is all I need to get me in a good mood. I will still throw my extensions in a high bun, grab my bamboo earrings, put on my lip gloss and go anywhere from a professional meeting to brunch with the girls. It’s one of my favorite looks.
Apparently I’m not alone. Since the first season of the critically acclaimed show Black-ish Tracy Ellis Ross’ character “Rainbow” rocked signature “around the way girl” esthetics. “Dr. ‘Bo”— mother of five dope Black children and wife to a successful Black dude—was no stranger to some extensions and a pair of bamboos. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that Ellis herself influences “Bo’s” style. Ellis, as beloved for her acting as she is her fashion, enjoys a good pair of door knockers. I doubt she ever had to paint them with clear nail polish to keep the fake gold from tarnishing like I did, but the fashion influence of the “around the way girl” isn’t lost on any of us.
The impact of the “around the way girl” is extensive. This is especially true in the music industry. In 1992, when Yonkers native Mary J. Blige gave us the “411,” she two-stepped into our hearts with her complete “around the way girl” vibe. Come through silky weave, bandana, and a long gold chain! Sexy, edgy and bold with two table spoons of hood. Mary’s look in the “Real Love” video helped propel the iconic New Jack Swing fashion movement. Her look (and later Lil Kim’s bright clothes and hair) was the brainchild of fashion stylist Misa Hylton.
Hylton seemingly allowed the essence of the “around the way girl” to underscore her fashion eye. You can see it in her signature styling preferences—bright colors, large jewelry, and massive hoop earrings. This look is still inescapable in hip-hop. Look no further than the video of the mega hit song “W.A.P.” With about 26 million views in 24 hours the video featured Cardi B and Meg Thee Stallion rocking bright colors and door knockers with “W.A.P.” written in the middle. Their style was reminiscent of the “around the way girl” a la Misa Hylton. Newer hip-hop lovers may look at that video and see Kim, or Nikki. They aren’t wrong but when I look at the video I see the source— 90’s Black girls from the block.
It’s not surprising that we still see traces of the “around the way girl” in different aspects of our culture and fashion. Stare at any Black woman long enough and you’ll see her roots. If you know what to look for, attributes of her grandmother’s face become visible in hers. If you know the aesthetics and essence of an “around the way girl” you can see “her” in Black women daily. She’s present whenever you witness a Black women refusing to shrink herself to accommodate a world that would rather we played small. She lingers within every Black girl who starts trends by casually playing online and making videos. “Her” influence still reigns. “Lisa,” “Angela,” “Pamela,” “Renee”—“she” shaped us, she’s from around the way.