Longtime Memphis rapper Princess Loko died in obscurity. Will a Beyoncé feature grant her the ‘Renaissance’ she’s overdue? (2022)

Thisprofile of Princess Lokowas originally published by Scalawag Magazine.For more reporting that explores the intersection of popularculture and justice,sign up for Scalawag’s pop justice newsletter.

In May 2020, a woman named Andrea Summers, a mother of three, died in Memphis just two months before her 41st birthday. Local media didn’t cover it; most public reactions came from social media posts, YouTube comments, anda GoFundMe page created for her funeral expenses. But more people should have paid attention: Andrea Summers is a local legend, known to many people by her rap name, Princess Loko. If you listened to the first track on Beyoncé’s latest album, “Renaissance,” then you know her now too—“I’m That Girl”opens with and then underlays a sample of Princess Loko’s verse on the 1995 Tommy Wright III track“Still Pimpin.'”

Loko’s rap career spanned a 20-year period, from her first verses in the early ’90s to a slew of guest features in the mid-2010s. Many of her most famous lines came out before she could buy a beer—her first appearance was when she was 14 years old—spread exclusively through cassette tapes and CDs sold through car stereo shops or mail orders. She put out two solo projects, 2006’s “It’s All On Meand 2012’s “Long Ovadue,and recorded a tape called “Game Recognize Gamein 2001, which was never widely released.

As far as I can tell, pretty much every artist she worked with was from Memphis, like her. Many of them came from the same southwest section of the city where she grew up. And her start, her initial success, and her legacy are intertwined with the career of Tommy Wright III—the innovative Memphis rapper, producer, and head of Street Smart Records whose eccentric sound and DIY approach have inspired major Southern rappers like Gucci Mane and Denzel Curry—and earned him a cult following that’s allowed him to claim legend status long after his time in the music business fell apart. Loko was Wright’s“childhood friend,”he tells fans on Twitter,“the first girl that I produced,”and a key member of his rap group Ten Wanted Men.

Her raps documented law enforcement surveillance, nosy neighbors, haters waiting to undercut her success, and the gaze of no-good men who want to use intimate relationships to exert power over her.

Princess Loko’s music with Street Smart Records fits neatly into some major trends coming out of Memphis rap in the ’90s: fast-paced triplet flows, booming 808 drums, dense bursts of hi-hats, and moody, bleak lyricism. But a couple of things make this early work stand out to me, one of them being that the Street Smart sound isweird—even among other experimental contemporaries like Three 6 Mafia, who famously sampled horror movie soundtracks and ’70s soul records. Loko’s style was often off-kilter and forward-thinking, but shared the grimy sensibility of her Memphis rap peers. Her career also foreshadowed some of the styles that define my favorite Southern hip-hop now, running through crime stories and hyping herself up with technical prowess and a unique aesthetic.

Longtime Memphis rapper Princess Loko died in obscurity. Will a Beyoncé feature grant her the ‘Renaissance’ she’s overdue? (1)

Police have been spying on Black reporters and activists for years. I know because I’m one of them.

Many ’90s Memphis releases were recorded on cheap, analog equipment; there’s a constant graininess, the hiss of the tape in the foreground. Tommy Wright III used these things to his advantage, crafting a lofi sound that was incredibly versatile. So much of what he produced between 1992 and 2001 sounds different from song to song—and strikingly different from what other cutting-edge Southerners like Three 6, 8Ball & MJG, and Gangsta Pat were doing. On tapes like “Runnin-N-Gunninand “Wanted: Dead or Alive,”the Street Smart roster raps over beats that feel warped and purposefully fuzzy, like the 4-track recorder Wright used was waterlogged and tangled in weeds. Instruments move between octaves in unexpected ways, and harmonies in the background almost feel dissonant if you listen to them on their own—but as part of a whole, they mix seamlessly.

Still, Loko’s flow also stands out from many of her contemporaries because it’s just so dynamic. At times, her words drip into each other, sounding almost glued together in the way that Memphis accents often do; at other points, they’re punctuated, measured, like a pinhead whizzing in midair towards a balloon. Her vocals are animated and full of energy, but never feel melodramatic or overpower the beat.“Loko 4 Real”feels anthemic, for example, with a thick wall of bright synths and sampled crowd noise in background, as she chants:“Lo-ko, Lo-ko, lays low, lays low / Lo-ko, Lo-ko, got no time for none of you hoes,” in the chorus.

Her raps documented law enforcement surveillance, nosy neighbors, haters waiting to undercut her success, and the gaze of no-good men who want to use intimate relationships to exert power over her. Throughout all of it, Loko succinctly paints a picture for what it means to feel watched while people don’t see you, a natural dynamic of her life as a young woman in Memphis’ Whitehaven neighborhood, struggling to put food on her table.

I first heard “Loko 4 Real” around three years ago, when I was working as a community organizer at a Memphis nonprofit. One of my coworkers blasted it in the office, raving to me about how futuristic it sounded when it first came out. The moment the song went off, a switch flipped in my brain: I knew I had to find out as much about her as I could, hear as much of her work as I could find, anything that was within reach. Turns out, Loko’s music is incredibly scattered and largely untracked—at least, not in any formal way. But as I sifted through indie music blogs and cassette recordings buried on YouTube, a stark irony emerged: Loko ultimately died in an obscurity that has no bearing on her far-reaching talent.

Her inclusion on “Renaissancehas certainly introduced her name to millions of listeners—Beyoncépartly dedicates the album“to all of the pioneers who originate culture, to all of the fallen angels whose contributions have gone unrecognized for far too long.” But I still don’t think it’s led to a deeper recognition of what Loko brought to Memphis rap, what made her unique, or how her outlook on the world shines through her songs. There’s a difference between being visible and being seen. The tension between the two is embodied in Loko’s life, her music, and the political pressures of Memphis that helped shape them both.

SOMEBODY’S TRYNA CALL THEM BOYS

Princess Loko’s lyrics intimately capture what it feels like to be surveilled in a city built on over-policing. The Memphis Police Department has always been a thorn in the side of Black Memphis; an occupying force, a set of shears for life expectancy, a pair of eyes on the bluffs along the Mississippi. And throughout Princess Loko’s long career, the techniques of Memphis police surveillance grew more and more invasive, while the department’s financial and political reach kept ballooning. For example, theCity of Memphis’ 2021 operating budgetgranted almost 40 percent of the general fund to police, a whopping $281 million—an almost $8.7 million increase from the previous year’s allocation. Thanks to a successful sales tax referendum in 2019, something that had sat in a political dead-end in Memphis for over a decade, voters approved even more public spending to go toward officers’ healthcare and retirement benefits. Instead of getting community centers and libraries, buses and parks, we’re paying for a never-ending stream of cops with military-grade equipment, always just too few in number to do their jobs effectively.

Many of MPD’s current tactics, especially those used in low-income and majority-Black neighborhoods, are types ofpredictive policing, or policing that aims to identify potential sources of crime before it actually happens. Campaigns for high-tech cameras, data-driven crimefighting programs, flirtations with stop-and-frisk, and the illegal surveillance of activists have defined MPD’s approach in the past 20 years as much as the beatings and murders of my Black neighbors. As a result, local rhetoric has focused more and more on how preventing crime requires constant vigilance—anything to keep us from getting put on another list of the “Most Dangerous Cities in America.” And that vigilance is racially coded, always. Even though I’m not doing home invasions, I feel like I get Princess Loko’s paranoia.

When you have enough power, you can pay to be seen. When you live on the margins, like many Black Memphians are forced to do, the cameras aren’t meant to protect you—they’re meant to catch you.

Some of the most common forms of police surveillance Memphians see every day areSkyCops—cameras in many Memphis neighborhoods that feed directly into MPD’s “Real Time Crime Center,” allowing officers to scope out crimes in real time, or record footage for investigations. The cameras are equipped for detecting gunshots, recognizing license plates, and thermal imaging. The interesting thing about SkyCops, though, is thatcitizens often request the cameras themselves. Businesses and neighborhood associations can donate money or apply for City Council grants, and then get to decide where the cameras are placed.

When you look at a map of where these cameras are located, they’re almost exclusively in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods—where people can afford to place them themselves—even though Memphis’ never-ending focus on Black-on-Black crime would suggest that poorer Black neighborhoods might need the cameras more. That is, if they were actually effective.In 2016, the wide Whitehaven area west of the airport had just one of the city’s 136 SkyCop cameras—meanwhile tiny, rich Mud Island had seven, and majority-white East Memphis had 21. And that one Whitehaven camera wasn’t even in a residential area, but at a hospital. Most of these cameras are meant to protect the places that the city values most: shiny downtown developments, mansions with matte white columns, places where white people and money tend to live together.

When you have enough power, you can pay to be seen. When you live on the margins, like many Black Memphians are forced to do, the cameras aren’t meant to protect you—they’re meant to catch you.

KNOW THE STREETS LIKE I KNOW MYSELF

In my experience as an organizer in Memphis, neighborhood identity fundamentally shapes the city’s cultural landscape. When you live here for a long time, you grow this strong feeling of how to answer the question:Where do you stay at?North Memphis, South Memphis, Orange Mound, Douglass, Binghampton, Westwood, Raleigh. For the city’s rap scene in the ’90s, this was especially true. Ina 2018 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Tommy Wright III talks about how hyperlocal their approach was, even as they started to find success: “We’re making tapes just to be bumping in the hood, just to impress our friends, and we didn’t even know we was creating a whole era. Every hood was doing it.”

Princess Loko grew up with Tommy Wright III in Whitehaven, or as a lot of Memphians call it, “Blackhaven.” She mentions the southwest Memphis neighborhood all the time in her lyrics. On a 2003 track by Paper Boyz called“BHZ (Black Haven Zone),”she shouts apartment complexes like Kingsgate and subdivisions like Lakeview Gardens. At the start of her verse, she urges: “If you gon’ claim your hood, rep it, then.” For tourists, Whitehaven is where you go to visit Graceland, just a stone’s throw from the airport. For me, it’s where I go to visit my favorite chicken spot in town, where several of my friends visit their church homes, and where I ran a town hall a couple of years ago talking about the subpar #46 bus.

Longtime Memphis rapper Princess Loko died in obscurity. Will a Beyoncé feature grant her the ‘Renaissance’ she’s overdue? (2)

Sometimes you’ll hear folks say that it got the name because it was ahaven for whites: its early residents, they’ll tell you, didn’t want Black people to be there. That may just be the kind of foggy origin story that Memphians have about lots of local landmarks. (Wikipedia says it came from a 19th century landowner named Francis White, but am I really supposed to trust that over a sweet old Black lady?) It is true that the area was a majority-white suburb for much of its history, until it got annexed by Memphis proper in 1970. By the early ’90s, when a teenage Princess Loko was recording her first verses in Tommy Wright III’s bedroom, Whitehaven’s white folks had fled in droves. For the apartments, projects, and one-story houses wrapped in tall grass, the city’s attention had fled, too. In 1995, Loko rapped, “Society don’t give a fuck about me, so I pack a gun.” Left unseen and under-resourced, many young Black residents used the underground economy to stay afloat. They still do.

When you compare what neighborhoods getseento what neighborhoods getwatched, Memphis’ racial divide is impossible to miss. You can’t talk about geography in Memphis without talking about race by default, and MPD’s Operation Blue C.R.U.S.H. program is a perfect example. First piloted in 2005 with the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of Memphis, Blue C.R.U.S.H. (short for Crime Reduction Using Statistical History) is adata-driven policing strategythat tracks past and present information about where certain kinds of crimes are concentrated, what days and times they happen, and who is arrested for them. MPD then uses this data to identify “hot spots” of criminal activity in the city that require extra surveillance and intervention. They’ll send cops to certain neighborhoods at times when they think crimes might occur, or install extra monitoring technology to make sure potential criminals know they’re looking.

When Blue C.R.U.S.H. is in your neighborhood, it’s not subtle. The big trucks plastered in blue capital letters, sitting in gas station parking lots; the boxy gray stations with barred metal columns jutting up like small radio towers; the glow of blue lights overhead when you drive through at night. You never get a chance to forget it’s there.

In aMemphis Flyercover story from 2007, now-retired professor Richard Janikowski was quick to get ahead of any assertions that the program is racist: Blue C.R.U.S.H. tracks streets, wards, and precincts, but doesn’t technically track the race or ethnicity of offenders. It’s just not relevant, he said, even though most people arrested through the program are one race in particular: “The reality is that [with] arrests in Memphis, just like nationwide, the overwhelming number identified in criminal activity are young African-American men,” Janikowski told theFlyer.

While crime and racial unrest continue to shape Memphis politics, elected officials and MPD leadershiphave touted the program as a huge success. But in a city like Memphis, claiming that “geography trumps ethnicity” is straight up dishonest. When my classmates at Rhodes College, an overwhelmingly white private school in Midtown, told me I would die if I went to Orange Mound, they weren’t just talking about geography. When they never drove north of Jackson Avenue to get anything except weed, it wasn’t just about geography.

Blue C.R.U.S.H. allows police to target Black neighborhoods for surveillance under a veneer of objectivity; they can send extra police every week to blocks that are 95 percent Black without ever mentioning Blackness directly. But at its root, American policing has always been about race. R. Joshua Scannell, Assistant Professor of Digital Media Theory at The New School’s School of Media Studies, argues as muchin a searing critique of predictive policing: “Policing does not have a ‘racist history.’ Policing makes race and is inextricable from it. Algorithms cannot ‘code out’ race from American policing because race is an originary policing technology, just as policing is a bedrock racializing technology.” In other words, when the police occupy Black Memphis, they reaffirm what Blackness means in Memphis’ broader society. There is no race-neutral surveillance, because race always colors which things are looked at—even online.

5-0 TRYNA HUNT ME DOWN, SEE

A few years ago, someone I’ve never met added me on Facebook, and I never accepted it. It’s happened plenty of times: as an organizer, I often get added by people who are aware that I do community work and want to support, or to keep up with social justice events in town. The account’s name was “Bob Smith,” and when it first popped up in my friend requests, I have to say I wasn’t in any rush to respond. When your profile picture is a Guy Fawkes mask, and your cover photo is a flaming car spray-painted with the anarchy sign, you might as well just post a status that saysI might be a cop—even if we have a few mutual friends. So I let the request marinate, thinking that I could always look at it again if I got any real idea of who the guy was.

Eventually, I found out that Bob Smithwasa cop—specifically,Sergeant Timothy Reynolds, a white member of MPD’s Office of Homeland Security. With at least two other officers, Reynolds mobilized the account to gather intel on activists, progressive politicians, and protesters, many of whom were directly associated with Memphis’ Black Lives Matter movement. That intel was then used to monitor events across the city that, in MPD’s view, could have fostered civil unrest: not just high-profile protests, but vigils, town halls, concerts, and even food trucks during Memphis Black Restaurant Week. Based on the Office’s findings,MPD shared joint briefingswith local and state officials, the Department of Justice, the U.S. military, and Memphis-based corporations and nonprofits likeFedEx, Autozone, and St. Jude Hospital. This kind of political surveillance is patently illegal: a federal consent decree, in place since 1978, bars the City of Memphis from using surveillance tactics that directly interfere with citizens’ First Amendment rights. In fact, a couple of years ago,the ACLU of Tennessee sued the City over it and won. Two of my coworkers were plaintiffs. Many of Bob Smith’s Facebook friends were my actual friends. Bob Smith liked my office’s page and several of our programs, along with pages for anarchists, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Rickey Smiley.

When Sergeant Reynolds testified about the Bob Smith account in a federal hearing, he claimed that it was created in 2009 to track gang activity, but shifted focus in the mid-2010s. In fact, Bob Smith was friending activists as early as 2015, when Black Lives Matter was becoming a formidable political force in American cities, right around the timean MPD officer murdered a unarmed 19-year-old black man named Darrius Stewart, and I found myself weaving through the streets of Hickory Hill after a vigil, yelling out his name into the summer’s dark. That was the year I started training to be an organizer, the year I helped with a widely-publicized campaign for civilian oversight of police, when people all over the city were saying out loud that cops needed to be watched, too.

MPD’s seamless transition from tracking gangs to tracking a youthful Black-led social movement is dripping with racial animus—and it makes perfect sense. Gangs, rappers, and progressive activists in Memphis all share an antagonistic relationship to the police that isn’t really about morals. People who know way more about gangs than me could tell youthe complex dynamics of why they exist.Countlessstorieshave been written about how rap’s moral outlook has been repeatedly taken out of context. But I think all three groups share an awareness of how much the police surveil them, and often like to shove it back in their faces.

When Princess Loko says “Fuck the fucking 5-0” on her 1995 track“Gangsta Bitch,”she’s speaking as much to the cops as she is to the listener. She says it in the middle of a drive-by, her voice impatient and rushed; she stops by the store and heads home to smoke in just the next two lines.

It’s like she knows they’re looking for her to slip up, to linger just a little too long.

Like she’s telling them,I know you’re waiting for me, but I already left.

I GOT NO TIME TO FUCK WITH YOU

As much as Princess Loko talks about law enforcement watching her, they were not the only ones. Many of her peers were always watching, too, hoping she wouldn’t survive her hustle. On“Comin’ for the 94,”Loko lays out her distrust: “Keep a low profile, because these bitches be behind your back / talk that shit, but weak as hell, and smile up in your fucking face / plotting to the next nigga how they can get my fame erased.” Although her music makes her feel seen, she gets that not all of that visibility is in her best interest. She’s careful about who gets to share in her vulnerability: “I don’t have associates and sure don’t have no fucking friends.

Potential love interests are cause for suspicion, too. “Still Pimpin” finds her urging women to take men’s approaches with a grain of salt: “Niggas try to run that sad ass shit, expecting me to go along / I don’t trust these cowards, so I tell them to take they ass on.” In Loko’s view, men take advantage of their relationships, creating unbalanced situations where those men don’t contribute equally. Her use of the word “pimp” is a pointed reversal of rap’s masculinist language that has strong echoes in rap even now; chart-topping artists like Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B are doing the same thing today. Pimping, in this context, is often a metaphor: “Niggas pimping hoes, hoes pimping niggas too,” Loko says. It’s about the power that shines off of you, about how people see you walking through the world. There’s real tenderness in Loko’s insistence on self-preservation. The new Beyoncé album draws out that tenderness—as “I’m That Girl” moves through dreamy synth lines and swelling vocal harmonies, we hear Loko beneath it all, lifting us up: “Please, motherfuckers ain’t stopping me.”

Loko was part of a rich crop of Black women rappers in Memphis during the ’90s and 2000s. Maybe the most famous among them is Gangsta Boo, a former member of Three 6 Mafia who has consistently worked with artists outside the city, but plenty of less-remembered women were crafting their own styles at the same time, too—like La Chat, Boss Bytch, The Legend Lady J, and Ms. Vicious. Some of them have projects you can hear on YouTube right now, likeLa Chat’s “Murder She SpokeorLady J’s2 “Hot 2 Handle.”Some of them, like Princess Loko, probably have verses spread out across other artists’ tapes, tiny gems embedded in the black, glossy film.

In her bookDark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness,Simone Browne, Associate Professor in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, asserts that “surveillance is nothing new to black folks. It is the fact of antiblackness.” Being Black comes with an awareness that society is always watching you, that you alwaysmightbe a threat to its comfort and security, and that there’s always a chance society might snap back at you in response. This is complicated even more when you’re a Black woman with a low income, when the state and the male gaze can follow you in ways that I’ve never experienced.

Often, Loko talks about the idea of pimping as a critical outlook on life, and describes hustling, robberies, and murders in vivid scenes. Her language is lean, with straightforward similes and metaphors: when she wants us to know that she’s not sweet, for example, she says, “ain’t no koolaid in my blood.” And these scenes are emotionally complex; as much as they suggest fear, alienation, and paranoia, they also show a cold, ruthless insistence on survival, a deep trust in her ability to maintain and provide for her household.

Take“Murda in Da 1st Degree,”a song off of Tommy Wright III’s 1994 project “Ashes 2 Ashes, Dust 2 Dust.”Released when Loko was in high school, her verse details a crime spree, her attempts to avoid arrest, and her eventual capture by police. As she carries out a home invasion, she foregrounds her cautions about being seen:

“Chiefed a couple sacks before we fell upon the killing site
Going through the back so we won’t get picked up by the motion light
Dodging bullets, ducking and diving, running and gunning, sneaking and creeping
Looked behind my back, I saw the motherfucking neighbors peeping.”

Before the robbery and murder actually happens, Loko’s lyrics show us motion detectors, the watchful eye of the neighborhood’s other residents, and her strategies for passing by them undetected. After hearing police sirens, she finishes the job and leaves, ends up in court on suspicion of being involved, but is found not guilty. Later in the verse, she continues adding victims, but realizes that she’s pressed her luck:

“On a rampage, out to kill another nigga on my path
Shanked that boy, took his shit and split that coward boy in half
The narcs were knocking at my door and windows, looking for my ass
Tried to hit that back door, got caught slipping and didn’t get away fast
Got one right behind me and another one coming at me quick
Ran the other way, I jumped that fence, Loko ain’t barring shit.”

The murder itself is quick and efficient: her description is simple, grim and visceral without being drawn out. Again, the images Loko lingers on most are the gaze of the police, and her escape: we follow her as she tries leaving one way, slips up, and is forced to adjust, like we’re watching her make these decisions in real time. Her voice is measured the whole time; it doesn’t betray the fear that clearly lurks behind it. Holding out in a liquor store and taking hostages, she tries to call for help as cops box her in, but the line ends up dead.“Damn, my nigga,” she says resignedly, like she was just delaying the inevitable. The song moves on to the next verse without pausing for breath.

FUCK YOU MEAN, LOKO WAS GONE?

After I started grad school and the pandemic arrived, I came back to Princess Loko when talking with friends and teachers about Memphis music. This made me wonder how much music she’d actually released, but my initial searches online told me very little. I grew determined to fix this, if only to satisfy my curiosity, and ended up compiling almost every Princess Loko appearance that can currently be found online. This process took several nights, and was hard as fuck for several reasons. One is that Princess Loko switched between several monikers—on several projects, she’s simply called Ms. Loko or Loko, or Princess Loco without a K. Websites like Discogs, that rely heavily on users adding lesser-known releases to their databases, sometimes confuse her with another underground rapper named Loko who was signed to Atlanta-based Big Oomp Records around the same time. Another is that her verses often went uncredited, especially on group releases like those of Ten Wanted Men and the Manson Family. Sometimes she’s listed on the album’s physical packaging or on lyric sites like Genius, but not actually referenced in the liner notes. So in many cases, I just had to listen—waiting for her metal-sharp voice to confirm she was actually there.

It’s like if you’re actually hearing her, you’re in on something that she knew would only reach people who did the work to seek her out, to watch for her—like your ear’s literally pressed to the cold, pebbly asphalt of Raines or Millbranch, waiting for the verse to come in.

Many of these projects are just really hard to find. You can actually listen to a lot of obscure Memphis tapes on YouTube, uploaded by the record label or ripped straight from cassettes by superfans, but YouTube’s search algorithm is often tied to the videos’ total views. A track with only 300 views, or with unusual spelling in the title, is almost guaranteed to not come up on the first couple pages of a search unless your terms are really, really specific. And of course, knowing that an album exists does not mean that it’s available on an online store or streaming service. Even as sharing music has become easier and easier, many underground Memphis releases can only be heard by getting them from somebody who has a copy.

I’d guess that many people who listen to Princess Loko, especially her post-2001 output, are not using streaming at all. I’d bet you that many of those people still have physical tapes and CDs, or purchased albums on iTunes before streaming became the standard for music consumption in the U.S.. This inability to pin down Loko’s trajectory, her name changes and uncredited vocals and obscure projects, lend her music a certain secrecy—one that her cult following has surely jumped on. It’s like if you’re actually hearing her, you’re in on something that she knew would only reach people who did the work to seek her out, to watch for her—like your ear’s literally pressed to the cold, pebbly asphalt of Raines or Millbranch, waiting for the verse to come in.

One of my favorite Princess Loko tracks is“Street Shit,”an uncredited solo track that appears on Tommy Wright III’s 1998 record “Feel Me Before They Kill Me.”As some twinkling synths quickly fade in, her first words are a caustic affirmation that she’s in music: “It’s a shame how you bitch ass cowards wanna splurge false accusations. I heard all this weak ass shit about Princess Loko stopped rapping—fuck you mean, Loko was gone? These maggot ass hoes hate my style, but dig my motherfucking pimping.

When Tommy Wright III lost the Street Smart Records office and studio in an early 2000s court battle over rising expenses, Princess Loko went her own way for a while, linking up with a new crop of underground rappers and producers like Mac E, Montana Trax, and Lil Ad. She also ended up working with stalwarts of ’90s Memphis who hadn’t recorded with her before, like MJG and Kingpin Skinny Pimp. Her music from this period is less compelling to me, personally—it feels more indebted to the traditional sounds and style of her Memphis rap peers than her earlier work.But it’s also comforting to hear her in moments of retrospection on her later verses, while maintaining her sharp voice and cadence.

Longtime Memphis rapper Princess Loko died in obscurity. Will a Beyoncé feature grant her the ‘Renaissance’ she’s overdue? (3)

On 2014’s“All Good Now,”she addresses her rivals with a slick acknowledgement of their creative influence: “All the ones who hated me, I love you the most / you gave me inspiration for the hardest shit I done wrote.” (A far cry from her Street Smart days,when she once rapped: “Princess Loko never had love for your bitches or haters, so stay outta mine.“) On“Meal Ticket,”she apologizes to her oldest daughter for not supporting her better as she kept their family afloat, and gives her son advice about staying true to himself and confronting his frustrations head-on. It’s poignant without feeling dramatized: it feels like a mother passing on her experiences to her children in a straightforward, genuine way. It’s clear how much her self-perception as a parent shifted: She gained a visceral understanding that her kids were watching her, too, even when they didn’t have the perspective to understand why her life had so much turbulence. The song isn’t a course corrective; it’s just speaking a truth to keep in your back pocket.

When most people who learned about Princess Loko’s death in 2020 found out from Tommy Wright III, it felt like her career had tragically come full circle. Four days after she died,Wright posted a 47-minute video to YouTube, surrounded by a small group of her friends and family, all choked up, on the verge of tears. In the video, he softly and candidly tells her fans that “she been fighting a couple of health battles that, we, you know, never really spoke on”—she had lived a long time with congestive heart failure, and a more recent struggle with alcohol. After talking about the family’s request for a small, intimate funeral, much of the discussion is spent on memories. He reminisces on the secretive ways they’d record songs together as teenagers, cutting class in high school, sneaking equipment in and out of her house. He talks about how he first gave her the name “Princess Loko,” how much he wanted her to go on tour with him, and the raps he heard her spit in the studio that no one else has heard. He shouts out the names of places where they ran together in Whitehaven:San Bernardo, Havenview, Oakshire.

The way Wright tells it, they were always creating, just out of sight.

Justin Davis is a writer and labor organizer. His poems are published or forthcoming in places like Washington Square Review, Anomaly, wildness, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Apogee Journal. He’s published non-fiction with Science for the People and Labor Notes. He’s been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Microfiction, and the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee. More by Justin A. Davis

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