Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

Who Gotcha? :: The Story Behind The Story Behind The Roxanne Shante Story

By Wayne Marshall and Jeff Chang

X-Posted at Wayne and Wax

If a rapper claims to be a killer, no one cares. If she says she has an education, they send in an investigative reporter, or at least someone who purports to be.

Oh don’t we love gotcha journalism. But who’s really getting got here?

Two weeks ago, the New York Daily News ran a story in which legendary rapper Roxanne Shante says she forced Warner Bros through a contractual clause to pay for her education, earning degrees from Marymount Manhattan College and Cornell University.

Yesterday, lawyer and “pro-copyright” blogger Ben Sheffner published his piece of gotcha journalism, claiming that not only did Warner not have direct contracts with Shante, but that she hadn’t finished her coursework at Marymount Manhattan and never enrolled in Cornell.

Perhaps most annoying to Sheffner was that “the story was endlessly blogged and tweeted, heralded as an example of a heroic triumph by a girl from the projects over her evil record label.”

Commenters around the web have praised the Slate piece as a fine bit of investigative reporting by a disinterested journalist. Here’s our gotcha: he’s not disinterested, and the investigative reporting wasn’t all that investigative.

First, his “disinterest”: his Slate piece contains, at the bottom, what seems like a standard statement of disclosure: “While an attorney in private practice in the early 2000s, he represented numerous AOL Time Warner entities, including several Warner Music Group companies, on issues unrelated to Roxanne Shanté.” Yup, he was defending the “evil record labels,” even then.

And still is. His bio on his blog states that he is an attorney currently employed by NBC Universal, and his job description includes — we presume — looking sometimes at exactly the kind of artist contracts Shante would have signed.

By his own writing, he is not really a disinterested observer. The bio reads:

“Ben Sheffner is a copyright/First Amendment/media/entertainment attorney and former journalist. Ben is currently working as a production attorney in the NBC Universal Television Group. Preiously [sic], he worked as an associate at O’Melveny & Myers LLP, as Senior Counsel, Content Protection Litigation at Fox, and as Litigation Counsel at NBC Universal. From July-November 2008, Ben served as Special Counsel on Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign where, among other responsibilities, he handled the campaign’s copyright, trademark, and other IP issues” (emphasis ours).

Clearly, Sheffner’s interest in this story, which motivated his questionable “investigation,” grows out of his ongoing efforts to protect the interests of his former and current (and future?) employers and, more generally, to advance the pro-copyright, pro-corporate side of the intense public conversation around the present state and future of the music industry.

Sheffner has backed the same interests in his coverage on his blog and for other online outlets, on the two cases involving the RIAA and alleged copyright-infringing filesharers that have, to date, gone to trial. He’s pretty much in the pocket, as they say.

We can imagine him looking at that piece and going, “Aw shit. Now I’m gonna have to give those kiddie actors a college clause — no way!” Then firing up his word-processing program and emailing Slate’s editors.

OK, so Shante didn’t have Warner pay for her education directly — and perhaps we’ll never know if one of the subsidiary labels made such an agreement with her because Pop Art’s contracts were supposedly lost in a flood. Cold Chillin’s file with Warner, according to Sheffner, didn’t have that level of detail. (Makes sense the file might be incomplete — they ended up at odds with each other after the big judgment against Biz Markie over his sampling case.)

Here’s what WB’s counsel wrote to Sheffner: “If Cold Chillin’ guided this artist’s compensation to education expenses that would certainly be a worthy one.” Then Sheffner makes what seems to be his main point right after that: “None of the half-dozen music industry sources contacted by Slate for this article had ever heard of a record label making an open-ended commitment to finance an artist’s education.” Gotcha!

But what of her education? Sheffner makes a big point of alleging Shante did not receive her Ph.D and is not listed as a practicing doctor. Gotcha again! (Sheffner seems to fetishize this “Doctor” thing. Maybe he’s sharpening his knives for Dr. Dre next?) But according to her, Shante has received her BA and MA degrees. Her passionate message in her talks to hip-hop youths across the country is about the importance of education. Clearly much more of the story here is begging to be told.

Most importantly, Shante said she attended college under another assumed name–not even her birth name–because of a domestic violence situation. Sheffner didn’t follow up on, we think, a reasonable, relevant, and obvious lead here. If she was right, he must have known at that point the story might have required real investigative reporting. Yet Slate’s editors didn’t put the brakes on the story even at this point. Instead, the piece ran with Sheffner’s slander that she failed to “substantiate such claims.”

So what did we learn here? One, Warner Brothers didn’t, but perhaps someone in the industry did fund Shante’s education. Two, Shante may not have a Ph.D.

We think that’s all pretty thin for a so-called expose.

Too bad this couldn’t be settled with battle rhymes. We all know who’d win that one.

posted by @ 11:30 am | 64 Comments

64 Responses to “Who Gotcha? :: The Story Behind The Story Behind The Roxanne Shante Story”

  1. Jeff, You let us down. This story is important because 1) She is a pioneer 2) It is a rags to riches, street to school, rapper to Doctor tale we would like to believe. 3) If true it would rock the internet and give hope to lots of people.
    As stated all she has to do is provide some paperwork (they even give certificates from Kindergarten) or is it like Bob Marley said “got no birth certitificte (ibid) on me”. Attacking the writer instead of checking the facts on her is sloppy, yes, he may have an agenda, but did he do his research? If so explore some new areas. Such as calling me or e-mailing me for the facts and more hard background. I’ve known her since 1987. Ernie Paniccioli

  2. John P says:

    What a lame piece of writing. Did she get those degrees or did she not?

    My sheepskin is on the wall in my office. I could scan it and email someone an image in 5 min. I could snap a pic with a digital camera and do the same thing. National student clearinghouse will email a letter certifying my degree to anyone who asks. Cornell contracts with national student clearinghouse to provide degree certification. Get the info from Ms. Shante and verify the degree. Hell, I’ll pay the $5 fee. What’s the name on her degree, Ernie?

    There is no evidence that she has the education she claims to have had. Are you arguing that uplifting stories are cool even if they are lies?

  3. […] This post was Twitted by rolandobrown […]

  4. @ Ernie Panniccioli

    We’ll I’m not a journalist but I am a huge fan of Shante'(and true school Hip Hop in general) since her inception into the game with Roxanne’s Revenge, a college graduate (JSU), a former Hip Hop artist, music industry exec, author (waiting for my 1st book to come back from the press as I type) and soon to be #1 motivational speaker in the world (watch me!).

    I read the story a while back where Shante’ spoke talked about the clause she had in her contract that forced WB to pay for her education, which I thought was genius and now this! As a fan and a supporter of Hip Hop pioneers doing big things with their lives and their community after the music I really want to know the truth. All I want to know is the truth (for inspirational purposes only). As much as I’d love to use her as an example in my own public speakings I wouldn’t want to promote a lie (if that’s the case). So tell me, since you know her, did she receive her bachelors degree, did WB or whatever subsidiary pay for her education and/or does she have a PHD in psychology?

  5. radioraheem says:


    You are playing the infamous “Captain-Save-A-Ho” role. I can’t for the life of me think as to why you are trying to save this woman from the consequences of her very own shameful actions.

    You stated in your very own article that Shante said she only received a BA and an MA, rather than a PhD. But because you are so focused on “saving” this chick, you have failed to read and watch all of the evidence where she clearly states that she did in fact earn a PhD! She’s stated this clearly for years! She’s all over YouTube saying she has a PhD, all over websites, etc.

    And now suddenly she admits, according to your very own article, and other sources, that it wasn’t a PhD, but rather an MA? With that tidbit alone, it proves that she is in fact a LIAR! And I’ll say this again — A LIAR! Her entire credibility comes into question just from that alone.

    Anyone who earned an undergraduate and/or graduate degree should be offended by the unethical tactics of this chick. She deserves everything she is getting as a result. And I for one am not about to sit here and try to “save” this cold blooded liar.

    Cut out the “Captain-Save-A-Ho” crap. You are not Superman. Defending her nonexistent honor is really disgusting.

  6. Peter says:

    Jeff –

    As much as I’ve enjoyed listening to Shante over the years (on Pop Art and then Cold Chillin’), the dubious credibility of her academic credentials is of little concern personally.

    The American (vis-a-vis Hollywood) narrative arc would be a (Horatio Alger) rags-to-riches story of person-made-good – tailor made w/ a natty conclusion that appeals to the winsome spirit that possesses a cloying charm; problem is that life is rife w/ more mistake-laden episodes than truly emboldened paths. Hard to subscribe to the veracity of what she says in light of this incident, but it doesn’t dispel from her compelling sonic performances on wax. It’s just a matter of separating her artistic persona from her civilian personality.

    Hope and trust you’re well – Jesse Ohtake’s procrastination is the culprit as to why the Toronto interview has yet to be uploaded after all this time… I will offer my own mea culpa although the onus remains his.

  7. Jennifer says:

    Now why is the domestic violence lead important? Because it might provide an explanation for why Sheffner could not locate all of her school records.

    Oh, bullshit. BULLSHIT. You don’t go to school under freaking aliases. Legal name changes, yes. But made up names with no legal documentation? Hellllllll no. You can’t even go to college without immunization records! Is Roxanne so afraid of the big boogeyman that she still can’t tell us what name she used? Now? In 2009? That’s funny – I’m sure Mr. Mike Tyson can find out where she is now.

    When I was a child, I had to memorize so many lies to keep my father from finding us that I didn’t know where I was BORN until I was about nine or so. Even with that, I can tell you where I went to college. Hell, I can tell you where I went to high school. Hell, I can tell you where I went to JUNIOR HIGH. You know why? Because I’m grown, that’s why! Even if I was using an assumed name, I could show you papers proving that I at least attended that school.

    Why are you guys so determined to hang on to this obvious lie, when even Roxanne – who had one of the biggest mouths in the industry for years – has clammed up? There’s giving a person the benefit of the doubt, and then they’re condoning their bullshit. You’re doing the latter.

  8. invincible says:

    First and foremost, Much Respect Jeff and Wayne for writing this piece.
    It is so sad when people comment online and say things they would never say to that person’s face (Dr.Shante in this case, Jeff/Wayne being scolded as accomplices), and at least not in such disrespectful ways. We are talking about a real human being here, not some 2 dimensional cookie cutter cut out.
    Roxanne Shante is much more than an artist. She is a motivational speaker, an activist, a mother, and she runs an icee shop in Queens (hip-hop icees) for youth who are failing out of high school to receive extra credit and job experience. She had her first child at age 13 with a man nearly 3 times her age, has survived many horrific experiences, and lived to inspire thousands of people who may be faced with similar situations. She has also inspired and supported dozens of female hip hop artists by paving the way for us. I had the honor of touring last summer in Europe with her, Bahamadia, Stacy Epps, Eternia, DJ Shortee, and several more up and coming female artists. She taught all of us much more than any academic hip hop studies program could ever teach.
    I honestly don’t care whether she has a diploma or not, because it doesn’t discredit anything else she has achieved. The fact that most people are so upset with the potentially false college credentials makes me think its less about caring whether she lied or not, and more so people caring deeply about those credentials, as if her voice is any less valid without that piece of paper.
    Diploma aside, the second most important point to me is finding out the Slate article author’s motivation behind writing the piece at this time. Was he motivated to advance his own career in the “pro copyright” industry? Was it an inside request from a former colleague at Warner? Was it, as Jeff and Wayne reference, to protect the “industry standard” which could affect his negotiation leverage at his current position at NBC?
    Most importantly: Instead of arguing whether she has her diploma or not, i wish this comment board was filled with conversation of why labels wouldn’t pay for artists college education? What type of scholarships could we create for young artists? What if they were REQUIRED to provide education for them.
    We are always complaining about the stupidity on the radio, but a majority of these artists come from failing school systems with limited opportunities to advance their own education. Who is proposing those type of long term solutions?
    And in the case that Shante was to come out and say she doesn’t have a diploma but would really like to earn one, who would come to her support to fund raise for Hip-Hop legends hoping to return to school later in their career?
    Or if she finds a way to “prove” to the public that she has a masters but no PHD and would like to pursue one, would you support her with that path? Or… just dwell on her “misrepresentation” of herself as a doctor?
    If nothing else, Shante’s story opens up that deeper access-to-education-for-artists conversation in a way that Slate’s writer attempted to quickly shut down and spin as another “lying rapper”. All of you focused on that latter aspect are missing the point. I hope we can move past it and get to some real solutions, not witch-hunts.

  9. Catherine says:

    Wayne & Jeff – Thanks for writing this. While I don’t feel personally moved one way or the other about the level of Shante’s educational attainment, as a journalist I did find the Slate piece a pretty poor piece of “investigative journalism.” Not only did the author fail, as you said, to follow some pretty obvious leads in an effort to get a full story, his personal and professional biases were also obvious (not to mention his poor writing skills – how many times did he switch from the journalistic third person to the first?)

    Your point about the validity of this investigation is a good one too. Even if Shante is lying — who cares? What about the rest of hip hop? Why are her claims so dubious, relative to the sensational lies and personas of male rappers?

    And, lastly, shame on the commenters of THIS article, who have stooped to making inexcusable sexist remarks about the artist in question — specifically the idiot who made the “Captain save a ho” remark.

  10. Mike says:

    Jeff, I was a fan of Shante’s growing up but I don’t find your argument to have much force. Your main points are (a) the journalist was biased and (b) that he did not follow-up on on the claim that Shante used an alias while is school. To the first point, the crux of the story had to do with Shante earning her PhD through funding by her label. By her own admission, she never earned a PhD and it is questionable whether she earned a master’s. Whether the journalist was biased or not is pretty irrelevant here. Further, as you note, he disclosed his interests at the end of the article (and it is not common to express more than what he did).

    To the second point, the journalist clearly states that Shante was not able to substantiate the claim that she used an alias. So apparently he did make an attempt at obtaining that information. Shante, the best source for this, did not provide it. Nor did she provide any diploma which would have at least clearer part of this story up. To me, the evidence is pretty clear.

  11. OW says:

    “Even if Shante is lying — who cares? ”

    And therein lies the major division of the camps.

    One could just as easily turn this around ask “who cares if the Slate author is a pro-copyright attorney?”

    Looks like we’re not going to find common ground here.

  12. OW says:

    “Why are her claims so dubious, relative to the sensational lies and personas of male rappers?”

    If Shante was rapping about being a doctor in a song, we wouldn’t be having this debate. The problem was that she wasn’t rapping about her degree in a song.

    If “real life” and “a song” are now equal, we’re all in trouble.

  13. Peter says:

    Oliver –

    Hypothetically, if Shante came a calling at LBSU and applied for a tenured vacancy, would you approve her candidacy if you sat on the committee deciding her fate? Especially if she claimed the sort of CV that’s apparently bogus? I’m not coming @ you belligerently/antagonistically, just curious as to your take given the time and energy you invested for your doctorate.

    If she indeed lied, she lied – people do it all the time, some get caught, others don’t – but not everyone is prepared for the ramifications/consequences if they’re “rumbled” (to borrow a British term). Using insipid excuses such as “she’s gone through the proverbial school of hard knocks and thus gets a free pass” is a spurious claim and a non-sequitur. Providing a copy of her bound dissertation alone would begin to assuage some of her critics and doubters. But silence is what’s most telling at this juncture. Iconoclasm versus blind idolatry…

  14. Gypsy says:

    Sounds like a bit of a misunderstanding. This gentleman seems to be doing his job in trying to display the facts as far as he knows about Roxanne. We can’t let the fact that we love her get in the way. She or someone she knows broke the story first. So now it’s up to her to just show & prove like she did in the 80’s. Show us the diploma/s & she will shut everyone up, The End!!!!

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