Photos By Erik Paul Howard
Featuring the likes of Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Sha-Rock and others, the recent Netflix series Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop has been applauded as “a capable, invigorating tribute to female trailblazers” in the rap world (The Guardian). The four-part documentary has been executive-produced by dream hampton, whose own contribution to the hip-hop world— from attention-grabbing journalism to groundbreaking filmmaking— has also been significant and perhaps not as widely appreciated as it should be.
hampton was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of 2019” for her Surviving R. Kelly series, generally credited with prompting the investigation that culminated in the singer being found guilty of sexual abuse and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. But when asked how that all impacted her, she deflects to the women who told their stories on camera, “who dealt with the blow-back, who were disbelieved, doxed, disrespected.”
Those who participated in the documentary took an “unbelievable risk” because Kelly had beaten a previous trial on similar charges, says hampton. “We were just thinking people in our community need to know when they go to the R. Kelly concert exactly what it is they’re supporting.”
While Surviving R. Kelly earned her admiration, it was only the latest project through which hampton has sought to make a difference—an activist thread that can be traced back to her childhood in Detroit. Aged 12 or so, she was inspired by a Soul Train interview with Stevie Wonder, in which the singer spoke about apartheid in South Africa, urging disinvestment, sanctions and a boycott.
“And I went to the little Shell gas station,” she recalls. “I didn’t know anything about franchises. This poor little Arab guy, he was like, ‘What is this 12-year-old girl doing outside in my gas station lot boycotting?’ But Stevie had said that Shell was one of the companies that wasn’t going to pull out of South Africa. So, I went to the gas station on Harper and Chalmers—I remember it was February—with my little sign that said, Free South Africa. So, I was activist-minded [from a young age].”
She fell in love with film as a preteen watching The Red Balloon, a classic 1956 French short movie played in the public school she attended on bad weather days when the kids couldn’t go outside. Later, she would be a regular at the Detroit Film Theater, “often foreign films again. I knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker… I’m definitely one of those kids who was practicing my Oscar speech at 12.”
hampton attended Wayne State University and then New York University (though she didn’t graduate) before landing her first journalism gig at The Source, the big hip-hop magazine. Among her other writing clips, assignments for Vibe, Essence, The Village Voice and Spin. Her filmmaking opportunities began to take off as the publishing world changed with the advent of social media (“At one point, I was being paid $3 a word, and then overnight they asked me if I would write something like a 1,000-word piece for $500. And I was like, ‘Yeah, no, I’ll just tweet about it for free.’”)
Though hip-hop weaves a significant thread through her career, hampton has a complicated relationship with the genre: the title of a recent online profile in The Atlantic was “Hip-Hop’s Fiercest Critic.” Growing up, she listened to house music, Michael Jackson and Prince, “and then hip-hop happened and changed my world.” While working at The Source, she wrote about Dr. Dre’s 1991 notorious assault of singer Dee Barnes, “so my relationship with hip-hop has always been a contentious one,” she says. hampton also worked with Jay-Z on his 2010 memoir, Decoded.
Like anyone involved in the media and the arts, hampton has had to learn how to handle criticism, which she believes can be a growth point if you’re open. In facing criticism herself, she has “just had to, like, sit with it” and parse out what was true about the criticism.
“We think that criticism is hate,” she says. Growing up on the east side of Detroit, “this idea of being disrespected was so big in my community. And I’ve seen the way that it has resulted in actual violence; literal deaths have happened because people thought they were being disrespected. But more than that, you walk around with this defensive armor on, thinking that the waitress didn’t come to your table because you’re Black. And maybe she didn’t. But, like Prince said, you can’t play me. You’re only playing yourself, right? There’s this way that we take all criticism as an attack, and for me, criticism is a love language. It’s a way for us to grow.”
There’s this way that we take all criticism as an attack, and for me, criticism is a love language. It’s a way for us to grow.dream hampton
Despite her impact, hampton doesn’t think in terms of her personal legacy. “I want Black girls to be free,” she says. “If we can get to that, and I can be a small part of that, I don’t need credit… I just need us to be free.”
Pushed to consider her contribution, with Black History Month approaching, hampton speaks of introducing Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. “I think about that and how impactful that was to my life,” she says, then pivoting to talk about her next documentary project. It Was All a Dream draws on archive material from the early 1990s. “Biggie’s in it, and I just had his son come and look at that footage, and it’s just such a shame to me that he’s not still here,” she says. “R. Kelly being put in jail has somehow affected my life, you know, but those aren’t, like, good things…
“The good things that happen in my life, they happen in small doses.” She speaks of taking a wonderful walk earlier in the day, enjoying the desert cactus in the Los Angeles area, the trip she is looking forward to taking with her daughter and going to the movies later in the evening with “someone that I’ve loved for 30 years… it’s like the small moments that make up life. I guess that’s Black history; it should be.”
Describing herself as “a Virgo from Detroit,” hampton points anyone wanting to know more to biographical information at her website (www.dreamhampton.com). “Anything else requires so much more exposition and living and getting to know someone,” she says. But “we have all become a generation of skimmers,” she observes, Googling someone and thinking we know who they are from whatever comes up on the first page. “I’m a work in progress… I’m a filmmaker, I’m a writer, I’m an activist. I’m a mother. I’m a feminist. I’m all of those things.”
hampton speaks affectionately of her “maligned” hometown and how growing up there shaped her. It is too often dismissed by others as a failed Democratic Black city, synonymous with being “violent, Black and poor, right?” she says.
“And so, when you come from a city like that, it’s kind of why we have a chip on our shoulder, why we have the Detroit-versus-everybody thing… we have constantly been dismissed. And so, when you come from a place like that, it requires that you know yourself, that you know about the beauty of your own self. [Being] deeply rooted in Detroit means that I went out into the world with this sense of place in my heart and in my body and with a sense of like, ‘I’m not necessarily who you think I am,’ you know? And that’s true of Detroit, too.”
One of the city’s most famous adopted sons, Malcolm X, was a formative figure in hampton’s life—“his truth-telling remains like a beacon of light for me,” she says. His influence can be seen in hampton’s co-founding of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in the early 1990s, which ran know-your-rights programs and successfully sued the New York City Police Department to end stop-and-frisk practices.
In particular, hampton notes how Malcolm X “wasn’t about the brand, wasn’t about protecting ‘me.’” Rather, he was “about protecting Black people, about loving Black people, about, at the end, building a pan-African, a diasporic movement that would mean power.” Indeed, rather than protect what he had birthed, “he was actually willing to burn down the thing he built, right? Like, what an organizer.”
hampton also recognizes his courage. “Malcolm was also concerned with Black girls; to his peril, he spoke out when he saw abuse happening… and that is what ends up getting him killed… Asha Bandele, the poet and author, gave me that framework. It was something I had never considered, really… and it’s one that folks will deny, but it’s so plain. That’s the great thing, that he spoke it out loud, so we don’t have to wonder what was happening in the back channels. Like, he wasn’t protecting his brand.”
Despite championing straight talk, hampton, like others, was raised with the idea of not airing dirty laundry in public. But now, “that’s not my concern, actually,” she says. “I’m not a laundress, right? My concern is truth.”
hampton’s career path has zigged and zagged; what has she learned about creating options for yourself? Show up, she says. “By which I mean more than, ‘I’m present.’ Being present is huge—a lot of us are in spaces and not quite present—but I try to show up for my full self.”
There’s a lot of talk about work-life balance these days, and she’s all for that. But “I also believe that there’s a period in your life where you go hard, right? You show up and you impress folks with your ability to show up. And you learn, obviously—like, you make mistakes—you learn how to be better, how to work with folks better. And then that creates more opportunities.”
While it’s good to watch and learn all you can from others around you, stay in your lane, she adds. She tells of being hired to work on shows for BET: “I was there to deliver copy and to rehearse talent.” She had opinions, such as that inviting Hillary Clinton to the 2016 Black Girls Rock! event was a mistake—“but did any of that come out of my mouth? No, I was there to write copy. So, what I said was, ‘What times do you need the copy by, and how long does it have to be?’ Because I knew that the other conversations about the why and the who were happening amongst the producers.”
hampton believes that “you create opportunities for yourself by being flexible, by being adaptable, by having the humility to know that you’re not always going to be at the top of the line, as we say in the credits world, ‘Above Line.’ Sometimes you’re below line, and that’s fine. I still wanted to show up and do my best even then.”
While this sort of attitude can bring opportunities your way, you may also need to go their way. “Like, if you want to like log timber, you should probably move to Oregon, right?” she says.
That can be challenging if, say, you’re pursuing a media career in markets where the cost of living is high. But “if you want to be in some of these industries, you should be willing to move to those places. That doesn’t mean that home isn’t an important place and that you shouldn’t return to home. It just means that you have to be adaptable and willing to go where the opportunities are.”
From an interview with Louis Carr