By Kate Kilpatrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009
On a hot summer afternoon, Ryeisha "Rye Rye" Berrain -- wearing turquoise-and-black leggings, gold hoop earrings, fake lashes -- walks up Fayette Avenue in her East Baltimore neighborhood, holding a bag of Cheetos and a blue drink. She passes the store where kids buy candy and sodas; the public housing units where her sister Elisa, 12, hangs out; the steps where the guys used to chill at night -- until they got shot up.
She describes the neat red-brick homes and manicured lawns as looking "more civic" than when she was coming up, sneaking into clubs, holding dance parties in her basement, getting chased by cops after curfew.
"Before I started touring, I really used to hang on the corner all night until 3 in the morning," Rye Rye, now 18, says.
That was before the shy, around-the-way dancer from the projects became an underground dance darling and the protege of Grammy-winning indie-rap artist M.I.A. Now Rye Rye is on a path to become Baltimore's ambassador of club music -- a frantic blend of hip-hop and house, with nods to D.C.'s go-go music.
"Bang," the first single from her forthcoming debut album (via M.I.A.'s N.E.E.T. label under Interscope Records), began ricocheting around the blogosphere in March. And mainstream hip-hop outlets -- which have long ignored or dismissed Baltimore club music -- have started noticing Rye Rye.
"She's definitely on our radar, and we're just waiting for the right moment to break her into our audience," says Rob Markman, music editor at XXL, a hip-hop magazine. "If anyone can do it, Rye Rye can."
If all goes well, fame could be just around the corner for Rye Rye. But when you live in a neighborhood where 13-year-old girls push their babies in strollers and .45-caliber bullets punctuate sultry summer nights, sometimes life gets in the way of success. Rye Rye has found that out the hard way. The girl who once wanted nothing more than to sneak into clubs and dance has had to grow up faster than she wished and take on much more than she ever imagined she could.
* * *
Two years ago, Baltimore-based DJ Blaqstarr, 23, who's known Rye Rye since they recorded "Shake It to the Ground" when she was 15, called her to the studio; someone wanted to meet her.
It was M.I.A., the Sri Lankan British musician and tastemaker recently named by Time as one of the most influential people in the world. M.I.A was accompanied by then-boyfriend Diplo, a Philly-based DJ.
"People from Baltimore, we heard about typical hip-hop artists but not the people on the more creative side," says Rye Rye, who initially thought it was "creepy" that M.I.A. sought her out. But she listened to M.I.A.'s music and was intrigued by what she heard.
"I can do my Baltimore club dance to that track," thought Rye Rye, who's been dancing since she was 8 years old. "It made me instantly like her because I'm a dancer."
M.I.A., in an e-mail interview, says she was impressed with Rye Rye's tone and rapping ability, and her "willingness to understand what me and Diplo were doing."
They booked her shows and introduced her to a new scene.
"We were just interested in taking her out of her environment to show her a way to get out of Baltimore," M.I.A. says. At the time, Rye Rye was in her junior year at Dr. Samuel L. Banks High School.
"I was always the type of person very connected with everyone," Rye Rye says. "[People would] sing my song and imitate my voice in the hallways. But it was cool. Everyone knew who I was."
Later that year, M.I.A. invited Rye Rye and Blaqstarr on the 2007 Kala Tour. Rye Rye took her schoolwork on the road and e-mailed assignments to teachers.
"I was kind of worried because I couldn't go with her," says Rye Rye's mother, Diana Ross (no, not that Diana Ross).
But after speaking with M.I.A. over the phone, Ross felt her daughter was in good hands.
Before the tour, Rye Rye, who also lives with her older brother and two younger sisters, had never left Maryland.
"I knew about close places like D.C.," she says. "And I never really dreamed of going other places."
* * *
M.I.A. exposed her to new scenes and new styles of music, but Rye Rye says there's one thing she didn't inherit from her famous mentor: "A lot of people say I make M.I.A. music, but that's really the Baltimore club sound."
In "Bang," Rye Rye tells listeners to "Throw your [expletive] sets up" and "Ride up, throw it out and bang!" The tough-talk lyrics are sweetened by Rye Rye's candy-pop voice and kid-sister persona.
"Here in Baltimore, some people look at 'banging' as gangbanging. Some people look at it as rocking out in the club. And some people look at it in a nasty way," she says, giggling at the last definition. "So I just addressed 'banging' different ways."
Rye Rye's lyrics revolve around typical teenage concerns: showing off for boys, ripping on fake girls and dancing crazy in the club.
"It's all about fun," she says. "It's not me trying to deliver a message to people. I feel like I'm young. And there's not really much I can say to people right now."
Fans say it's the raw, youth energy -- not deep stories -- that define Rye Rye's performances.
"When I see the effect she has on the crowd, and they really be going crazy . . . I still cry," her mother says. "I cry a lot. It's amazing because I really never thought she'd be doing this."
* * *
The venues where Rye Rye performs -- mostly filled with white, hipster kids drinking cheap beer and falling all over the dance floor -- are a world away from the Baltimore clubs she grew up in.
"In Baltimore, if you can't dance you stand against the wall and try to look cute. It's so serious," she says. "And the hipster crowd, everyone's not afraid to be themselves. Even if they don't know how to dance, they dance. They express themselves more. . . . You can bump into someone, they don't try to start a fight. You can just jump in and do the silliest dance."
DJ A-Trak, who describes Baltimore club as a "ghetto, 'hood style of club music," says Rye Rye "makes sense" performing at DJ parties that draw a mostly indie-kid following.
"This is a crowd that's very much into artists that make a loud fashion statement and music that has exotic sounds," he says. "That all translates. Her image fits with that. She appeals to the same fans."
A-Trak invited Rye Rye to be an opening act on his 17-date 10,000 Lb. Hamburger Tour that kicked off July 5 in Tampa.
For Rye Rye, it was an opportunity to hit the summer festival circuit and rally support for her upcoming album.
But two days before the opening show, she pulled out of the tour.
* * *
On July 9, Rye Rye posted an explanation on her blog. She was six months pregnant.
Things happen for a reason. Some happen at the wrong point of ya life but no one knows why or for what reason only God. So yes I was blessed with a child. At first I was teary eyed and my first thought was to get rid of it. I asked God for guidance and I went to the hospital 4 times and each time I had a breakdown and I knew what direction God was pulling me in. WHAT GOD HAS FOR YOU, NOBODY CAN TAKE!!! AND HE DOESN'T GIVE YOU MORE THAN WHAT YOU CAN HANDLE.
After seeing the sonogram, Rye Rye decided not to go through with the abortion. "When [I saw] the picture, I just started crying and then I came out, my mother was like, 'Well, you the only girl here crying. Apparently, somebody telling you not to do it.' "
Rye Rye says the hardest part was having to tell M.I.A.
"We was all like, 'Dag, M.I.A. gonna go crazy,' " Rye Rye remembers. "We didn't know how she was gonna take it."
Rye Rye's boyfriend, Evan Battle, 20, worried that keeping the baby would derail Rye Rye's career.
"I definitely didn't want to kill my daughter at all. I felt so strong about that. But I wasn't gonna be the one to say, 'You better not have an abortion,' " he says. "This is something you worked so hard to get. I really didn't put any work in like you did to get it, so who am I to take it from you?"
Rye Rye also worried Interscope would drop her from its roster. (A representative from the label confirmed that she's still signed, but the album release date has been delayed.)
What Rye Rye didn't divulge on her blog was the other reason she pulled out of the tour. On June 23, the rapper flew to Norway as the first stop on a short European set of dates. While she was napping before her show in Oslo, she received a call from home.
Battle had been seriously injured in a quadruple shooting in East Baltimore.
Police recovered shells from three calibers of guns from the scene. Four of the bullets landed in Battle, piercing his shoulder, back, arm, lungs, backside and spinal cord -- paralyzing him from the waist down.
"I was crying a lot," Rye Rye says of her reaction to the news.
Still, she got dressed and went on with the show.
"I could be sad or I could be angry before I get onstage, but when I get onstage you can't tell. I just cover it up," she says. "I got through it like that -- smiling."
The next morning she flew back to Baltimore.
"I don't want to come around him crying and stuff because it affect his mood," Rye Rye says, sitting in the spinal cord injury unit of Baltimore's Kernan Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation. "He alive and he still here. That's the main thing."
Battle sits beside her in a wheelchair.
His face is boyishly handsome. A thin teardrop tattoo decorates the outer corner of his right eye. Dressed in a green-and-pink polo shirt, he politely offers up a Styrofoam cup filled with Starburst candies.
Rye Rye, wearing a pink T-shirt and matching Chuck Taylors, is by his side, snacking on chips. Her hair is stylishly curled, her nails elaborately painted.
"I told him I'm not gonna leave him, but it's still hard because he thinks I am," she says. "I'm always stick by his side because [that's] the type of person I am."
Battle says he doesn't know who shot him. Or why. He thinks it was mistaken identity. Still, he accepts his lot. Before the shooting, he says, "I was really not full headfirst in the streets, but I was there enough for something like this to happen."
He says his friends who were also struck by bullets are doing fine.
"I caught the worst of the worst," he says. "Everybody else walking, talking, living they normal life. I'm the only one stuck in a chair."
Even after the shooting, Rye Rye planned to do the A-Trak tour, but decided to take a break.
Her daughter, who'll be named Kennidi, is due in October.
Battle hopes that all that has happened may somehow add up to a blessing.
"She has a lot of integrity," he says. "Career, money, fame -- none of that came between what she thought was right or wrong. And a lot of people, when they see that, they'll know she's a real person for real."