The first time I see the 21-year-old Austin rapper G-Baby perform, it’s not at a hip-hop club, or on BET’s 106 & Park, where last summer she became the first woman ever to enter the show’s “Freestyle Friday” Hall of Fame for winning five consecutive on-air rap battles against different opponents. The first time I see her perform, it’s not as G-Baby at all. She’s going by her real name, Whitney Perkins, and she’s not wearing the baggy polo shirts she’d come to favor on her BET performances. She’s wearing the stripes that everyone wears when they’re incarcerated at the Travis County Correctional Complex (TCCC).
Perkins’s performance at the jail—she was held for a probation violation after being arrested on a misdemeanor charge that was later dismissed—was facilitated by an organization called Conspire Theatre, an all-volunteer group that provides theater, music, and creative writing workshops to women incarcerated at TCCC. I was invited to watch the performance, along with a number of jail staff, constables, prisoners and community members because my wife founded Conspire.
G-Baby was all over the makeshift stage—beatboxing behind a fellow inmate’s vocals, running up to support another woman when she broke down reading a poem about her family, and sharing her own poem about what she would do post-release: namely, get on stage and take her music to a bigger audience. I respected her ambition, but didn’t like her odds. Hip-hop is hard enough on women who want to be rappers, and it’s even tougher on people, like Perkins, who are the one thing a rapper is never supposed to be: openly gay.
In hip-hop there are black rappers and white rappers, skinny rappers and fat rappers, smart rappers and dumb rappers, beautiful rappers and ugly rappers, rich rappers and poor rappers, but—officially, at least—only straight rappers. Openly gay performers in hip-hop are all but unheard of. Perkins has been out and in a relationship with the same woman for four years, since she was seventeen. “That’s hard even for most straight couples,” she points out.
Hip-hop isn’t easy on women, period. The list of women who’ve had rap careers on par with their male counterparts is short: Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, Eve, and Nicki Minaj. “Girls are looked down upon when it comes to the music. You have to really prove yourself. It’s a lot of pressure,” Perkins says.
Perkins discovered performing when she was a teenager, after some run-ins with the law. Perkins has no criminal record as an adult, but as a juvenile she faced charges for assault.
“I was a real angry kid,” she says. She mentions growing up without a father figure—“my mom’s been my mother and father for 21 years,” she says—and brings up sexual abuse she suffered as a child without offering details. “I had so much anger toward a lot of people. I got into fights and hung with the wrong crowd. I was just a hothead, and I liked to get into trouble, which led me to places I didn’t want to be.”
Perkins was sent to the Texas Youth Commission’s Brownwood facility on a nine-month sentence when she was 14. “I went in fighting, not obeying the rules, feeling like Hercules,” she says. She ended up staying three years. “I hated the world.”
When she got out, her relationship with her mom helped provide incentive to turn her life around. “I was tired of hearing my mom cry each night,” she says, “and I wanted to do right by her.”
In middle school Perkins discovered a talent for freestyle, or improvised, rapping. “I started when I was about twelve, in the hallways of school, beating on a trash can. I learned that I was good with words, and quick.” After she got out of Brownwood she channeled that passion into slam poetry, which soon led her to perform at rap events in Austin. Austin’s battle-rap subculture, based at the Bayou Lounge and Club 1808, embraced her. “I started winning money each night battling,” Perkins says. “And I realized I was good at this.”
For most artists, “success” is hard to define. Is it commercial viability, critical acclaim or something else entirely? For a battle rapper like G-Baby, the answer is easy. You’re successful when you beat your opponent. Within six months of being released from the Travis County Correctional Facility, G-Baby was on 106 & Park, overcoming challengers both male and female on her way to the championship, trading freestyle lyrics over a beat selected by the show’s trio of judges in front of a live audience. The rap battle custom is to trade insults and wordplay—think of the end of 8 Mile—and whoever has the sharpest put-downs wins.
When I saw her perform in jail, Perkins seemed inbeatable, but that didn’t stop her 106 & Park opponents from trying to dominate her with easy attacks on her sexual orientation. That’s a subject Perkins has little interest in discussing—she seems comfortable with her sexuality to the point of barely mentioning it. Her opponents showed no such restraint.
G-Baby’s second battle, against a Houston rapper named Ami Miller, provided the template for the rest of her run: “I’ll do you so bad / you’re gonna want to be with a dude,” Miller exclaimed, to “ooooh”s from the studio audience. A New York rapper named A-Game picked up the theme later, hitting Perkins with rhymes like, “You’re the opposite of my money / because my money’s straight,” and ending his thirty seconds on the mic by spitting, “This lady’s scary / I think she kissed a girl and liked it / somebody call Katy Perry.”
So how did Perkins manage to succeed in front of a mainstream rap audience? “If all they have on me is something on my sexuality, that’s not enough,” she said after it was over. “After a while, when they all have to come at you with the same thing, you realize how great of a person you are. That’s all they were trying to throw at me, and so I was able to throw it back at them.” To Ami Miller she insisted, “You look so good / I’m about to make you a dyke.” She refuted A-Game with the time-honored battle trope of threatening to steal his girl: “Your girlfriend sent me a text / and you know what happened next,” she rapped in the audience’s favorite line of the episode. Where wordplay and honesty are king, being a lesbian isn’t necessarily doom, as long as you know how to respond cleverly and stay true to yourself. “You don’t win battles by disrespecting people,” Perkins explains. “Downing somebody is attention-getting, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t make you a winner.”
The last time I see Perkins perform, it is on television, on BET. In mid-March she was placed in a bracket with seven other successful battle rappers as part of the Freestyle Friday “tournament of champions.” Undefeated in her earlier run, G-Baby entered the tournament as top seed, taking on a familiar face: Houston’s Ami Miller, a wild-card entry who battled her way into the tournament through a series of auditions.
From the get-go Miller looks energized and G-Baby seems off-balance. It reminds me of something she’d told me at the Texas Roadhouse when I asked her if she preferred battling men or women. “I love going up against guys, way better than girls,” she explained. “I’m real sweet on girls. I don’t like being disrespectful. Going up against dudes, I like that a lot better.” That dynamic seems to play out as Miller hits her with shots about her appearance, her demeanor, and—yeah—her sexuality.
For her part, G-Baby is downright civil. With thirty seconds to spit her lines, she spends time imploring the audience to “give it up for [Miller]” and explains, “I could be mean, but I’d rather chill, Ami.” The harshest she gets is a line about not liking Miller’s shoes. Maybe Perkins is right and you don’t usually win battles by disrespecting people, but this particular Friday, it’s clearly more effective than praising them. Miller gets the unanimous decision and G-Baby, for the first time in her life, loses a rap battle.
“I’m not a negative person,” Perkins says after the battle. “If someone goes on there and they win and they do well, then I’m proud of that person. We’re both women, and I was happy for a woman to get that far. As far as the end result is concerned, I wasn’t too happy with it, but I took the experience for what it was worth. It was a blessing to be on BET.”
While G-Baby’s not finished with battle-rapping and freestyling, her focus now is on establishing a recording career. She released her debut album, Lyrically Blessed: First Taste on July 23. “They’re gonna get to see that I do a lot more than just freestyle,” she says of people who first saw her on 106 & Park. “It takes a lot of dedication and focus to get in the studio and drop a full album.” She’ll be appearing this fall on BET’s new season of the network’s Music Matters reality series, performing material from the new record. She’s also considering her options. Music remains her top priority, but the drive to make her mother proud has opened other avenues as well: She graduated this spring from Austin Community College with a degree in computer technology.
No matter what Perkins’ future holds, she’s already fought a number of tough battles to enter an industry that tends to render people like her invisible. Everyone is undefeated until they lose, and what matters is how they respond to getting knocked out. In G-Baby’s case, there’s no reason to believe she’s down for the count.
Watch G-Baby freestyle on BET.
Hear more at G-Baby’s website.
Dan Solomon lives in Austin. His work has appeared in The Onion A.V. Club, Spin, and Parade.