Whenever she picks up a mic, Melanie Carter performs as Blak Rapp Madusa. But to call that handle her “stage name” is to sell it a bit short.
Carter crafted the name as an extended acronym that stands for “black liberation and knowledge, rhymes and political poetry, making a difference using skills and activism.”
She regards it as a movement as much as a name. Likewise the word she’s chosen to describe her avocation: artivism, a discipline blending art and activism.
Carter, who lives in Wilkinsburg, is known as a rapper, but this week she takes to a new stage when she premieres her one-woman show at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. Mary’s Daughter: Memoirs of an Artivist, tells a story of struggle and self-discovery that Carter believes will resonate widely, but especially among African-American women.
“I'm hoping that it opens dialogue about black women's experience in America,” says Carter. “That doesn't get talked about a lot. I think that we know everyone else's story but we don't get to hear as much as what has happened to her.”
With her long braids woven with white fabric, and tattoos including an Eye of Horus on her forehead, Carter stands out; the metal facial plugs she wears in each cheek are a tribute to her mother’s dimples. Her biography, too, is unique.
Carter was born in Harrisburg and went through the foster-care system. She attended college at Texas Southern University, in Houston, and at the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned a degree in Africana Studies. She’s bisexual, and as an adult began practicing Islam. For most of the past seven years, she’s been based in Pittsburgh, working as a teaching artist and community organizer. She’s worked with groups including New Voices for Reproductive Justice – on issues like prison reform and gender-based violence – and the Community Empowerment Association, as an after-school tutor, among other jobs.
In Pittsburgh, she is most associated with 1Hood Media, a collective that teaches urban youth how to use media for social justice and personal expression. Carter teaches for 1Hood and frequently performs as part of the group’s hip-hop shows.
“She makes movement music,” says Paradise Gray, the hip-hop pioneer who founded 1Hood. “She’s a real artivist, and she lives what she speaks.”
In February, Carter drew attention for a form of activism she hadn’t planned. One evening, she accompanied a friend to pick up the friend’s kids at a North Versailles mall, where the kids were playing at the trampoline park. Driving past the movie theater, Carter saw a police officer and another man arguing with some African-American girls outside.
Carter stopped to videotape the encounter on her phone. She heard the other man, who proved to be a manager at the Phoenix Theatres North Versailles Stadium 18, calling the girls “animals.”
“See how they treat our kids out here? They call them animals,” narrates Carter on the video.
“Yeah, because you’re behaving like an animal,” said the manager.
The officer, a North Versailles cop named Christopher Kelly, told Carter to leave. When she refused, Kelly took Carter to the ground, cuffed and arrested her. She was hit with charges, including defiant trespass and resisting arrest.
But Carter’s 90-second video of the episode – which shows her keeping her distance from Kelly, and him approaching her – went viral, garnering more than one million views.
Carter describes the incident as traumatic; she says she feared for her life at the hands of the officer. But she doesn’t regret filming. As an activist, she said, “It was my duty to take my phone out and start recording.”
The theater manager was fired. And on Thursday, in a preliminary hearing held the day before Mary's Daughter was set to open, a North Versailles magistrate threw out two of the charges against Carter. The three misdemeanor charges held for trial include disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and defiant trespass.
The hearing was preceded by a gathering in the magistrate's office parking of about 50 supporters of Carter's, who decried her treatment and arrest as racist and called for a boycott of the movie theater.
That all this transpired as Carter was preparing to stage her first one-woman show seems both ironic and, given the show’s themes of racism and personal growth, appropriate.
Mary's Daughter – which is backed by Advancing Black Arts In Pittsburgh, a partnership of the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation – is directed by Kim El, a local theater artist.
“When I read her script, I was like, yesss!” said El, whose resume includes her own autobiographical one-woman show. “I want to do this because this is edgy. … I think her portraying this powerful, fist-in-the-air, dark-skinned sister who has all these challenges, is a poster child for people who are voiceless.”
The 75-minute show begins with an autobiographical statement: “I was raised by five mothers: four black women and hip hop. Two mother Mary’s, Kim and Lena. But hip hop was my real teacher, for whom I bare all my real features.”
The show blends monologues, rap and spoken-word poetry, and incorporates performer Candace Michelle Perdue, who joins Carter on stage as a wordless but lively character embodying the spirit of hip-hop, Carter’s main artistic inspiration. (Expect dance sequences.)
And the show finds Carter as a performer not only being herself, but for the first time portraying characters including Big Nat, a lesbian she met in college.
“You know, Big Nat taught me about loving women from a masculine perspective,” she recited during a rehearsal 10 days before the premiere performance. “I felt like I was meeting me for the first time.”