When Marlanna “Rapsody” Evans stepped onstage in Oakland, Calif., for her Wisdom Is Power Tour, the tiny emcee with the commanding voice behind her lyrical wizardry was met with an ovation unlike any other she had ever experienced.
“I tried to address the crowd before I started, and I couldn’t even talk because they were going crazy,” the North Carolina rapper tells The Root. “I’ve dreamed about a day like this when you get that kind of love.”
Less than 24 hours prior to that performance, she woke up to a text from her mentor-producer 9th Wonder that would rock her universe.
“I started seeing all of these text messages,” the 29-year-old recalls. “The first one I check is from 9th, and it says, ‘You’re officially two times Grammy nominated.’”
In a land where rap music’s commercial giants are normally recognized by the Recording Academy, Rapsody proved to be the little engine that could. Her critically acclaimed and lyrically dense solo album Laila’s Wisdom will stand shoulder to shoulder with Jay-Z’s 4:44, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Migos’ Culture and Tyler, the Creator’s Flower Boy for Best Rap Album at the 60th Grammy Awards; her song “Sassy” was also nominated for Best Rap Song.
It’s a massive coup for Rapsody, and hip-hop as a whole, that she landed both nominations despite not having a hit single on the radio or a major label push.
“This was as organic as it could possibly be,” she says of the album, which has achieved critical acclaim. “This is really hip-hop, and that’s what makes it even more refreshing.”
More important, Rapsody becomes only the fifth female emcee to have a solo album nominated for Best Rap Album since the academy added the category in 1996. The others? Missy Elliott, Eve, Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea.
When told of this accomplishment, she takes a moment to let it sink in.
“At least I’m solidified as top five in something,” she says with a laugh. “That’s a crazy accomplishment. For me to be only the fifth one is unreal.”
It’s a remarkable journey for Marlanna Evans, a product of Snow Hill, N.C. (population: 1,600), who took an unorthodox route to get to where she is today. What started as part of a rap collective at North Carolina State known as Kooley High ended up getting her discovered by fellow North Carolinian—and Grammy-winning producer—Patrick “9th Wonder” Douthit in 2008.
The two forged a bond and embarked on a journey together that would see Evans garner critical acclaim for her mixtapes and EPs. That acclaim eventually led to the lone guest-rapper spot on Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-nominated album To Pimp a Butterfly on “Complexion.” That was the moment when Rapsody realized that a Grammy Award could one day be hers.
“I used to only have dreams of getting the BET or Soul Train award,” she says. “That was for our culture. The Grammys weren’t really on my radar until Kendrick was nominated. But even then, I had made a statement that the Grammys don’t know real hip-hop.”
But today they do.
Her nomination came as a surprise to many, considering that 2017 has been a banner year for hip-hop as the heavy hitters made significant impressions on the mainstream with their albums. Jay-Z, Lamar and Migos all had widespread mainstream appeal and/or a smash hit song. Tyler, the Creator has cultivated an enormous cult following with over 6 million Twitter followers.
And then there’s Rapsody. The only woman in the category with under 100,000 followers, but an album that, pound for pound, can compete with the heavyweights in rap.
“I don’t even care who wins because this is good for the culture,” she says about the category’s diversity. “Being a female in hip-hop, and the ability to compete with the best of the best based simply on skill and nothing else, is an accomplishment. It’s a statement.”
As for her Best Rap Song nod, that came as a shock. Initially she wanted to submit her collaboration with Lamar titled “Power,” but there were label issues that prevented the submission. After some deliberation, she decided to go with the upbeat “Sassy.” Although it’s a fan favorite, it wasn’t being played on radio and hadn’t crossed over into mainstream America. The announcement that it would be competing against Cardi B’s record-breaking single “Bodak Yellow” was a pleasant surprise.
It also signals an intriguing dynamic in the category where the gritty wordsmith will be up against the upstart who, one could argue, isn’t quite as talented. When asked about rappers like Cardi B getting more recognition in the mainstream, she refused to have a negative take on her counterpart.
“There’s a lane and a purpose for everything, and for the record, I like ‘Bodak Yellow’ and was turning up to it the other night.,” Rapsody says. “I’m all about balance and happy that Cardi B is nominated because she deserves it. She represents something else in hip-hop. I think there’s room for everybody.”
The “Sassy” rapper admits that the fact that, moving forward, she’ll be recognized as “Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist” Rapsody still hasn’t completely sunk in, but she’s certainly reminded every time she hits the stage during her current tour and fans greet her with a huge ovation.
“I can’t lie, I cried a little bit,” she says of the overwhelming emotion when she first heard the news. “I thought about all of the times that I got frustrated and wanted to quit but I kept going. Sometimes you just feel like you can’t keep going, but you do because you love it. And then you have these moments and it makes everything that you went through worth it.”
Rapsody’s nomination as a woman in hip-hop who hasn’t sold sex or been forced to make pop music is a huge moment for female emcees who haven’t had the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Hopefully that will all change with Rapsody’s recognition from the Recording Academy.
“What I hope this will do for women in hip-hop is show that you can’t box us in as one-dimensional,” she says. “We can come here, spit bars, and be acknowledged for our talent and skill alone. If this can help open the door a little more for female rappers, just like those before me had opened it, that’s what it is all about.”