Before breaking barriers in Hollywood, the history-making director was writing bars.
Ava DuVernay is widely considered one the most important directors in Hollywood. This weekend, she became the first African-American woman to lead a $100 million film with the opening A Wrinkle in Time. Along with stars Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Storm Reid, she’s empowering viewers to find their own inner-heroes through the latest Disney blockbuster. But what many people might not know is that long before breaking barriers in this industry, the Oscar-nominated director was a rapper in one Los Angeles’ most influential hip-hop scenes the 1990s.
Back then, she was known as MC Eve, one-half the melodic and jazzy rap duo Figures Speech, which also included Ronda “Jyant” Ross. Their bars were on display in DuVernay’s directorial debut, 2009’s This Is the Life, a documentary about the legendary Good Life Cafe open mic sessions, where underground luminaries like Freestyle Fellowship and Jurassic 5 honed their skills. Alejandro “2Mex” Ocana, one the rhymers featured in the film, says she wasn’t just a participant; DuVernay was a star.
“Figures Speech was very dope,” he tells Billboard. “They were two queens. Ava and Ronda were, to me, collegiate. Their music was respectful…Their music was empowering. I remember everything Ava would say would be regal…intelligent, loving and positive. I think that’s the best way to put it. She was always positive.”
Raised in Compton, California, Ava first explored art with the guidance her late aunt Denise Sexton. She went on to major in English Literature and African-American Studies at UCLA, while her artistic zeal grew. It was around this time that she attended the iconic Good Life, where she met artists like Pigeon John, Chali 2na, Myka 9 and Abstract Rude. This era was so impactful, in fact, that DuVernay said she “never again found a place with such creative camaraderie]” during a 2009 interview with BlackFilm. That motivated her to self-finance This Is the Life for $10,000 while simultaneously running a public relations firm. She didn’t have a film school background or a major financier, but she did have a story that she felt “had to be told, both for the amazing artists whose legacy should be recognized and for hip-hop fans in general.”
Her love hip-hop remained prevalent as her career bloomed. In 2010, she directed My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip-Hop, highlighting the importance artists like MC Lyte, Roxanne Shanté, Salt-N-Pepa, Missy Elliott, Eve, Trina and Good Life alum Medusa, among many other iconic women in rap history. DuVernay called this film “a love letter to the art the female emcees” during an interview with NPR. “It's really time that we look at these sisters and give them their due,” she added. By this time, her own rap career had long been sidelined due to the success she’d found in public relations and then film, but clearly, her passion for the craft had not waned.
Rap’s impact on her life shined brightly once again when Ava directed the Oscar-nominated Selma, which Black Panther director Ryan Coogler recently called “the best film about Dr. Martin Luther King that anyone will ever make.” DuVernay tapped into hip-hop for the soundtrack, enlisting Common, Rhymefest and John Legend to craft the stirring “Glory” single, which went on to win best original song at the 2015 Academy Awards. It would be a sign more rap connections to come.
By 2016, Common pleaded with DuVernay to include “Letter to the Free” on the soundtrack for her powerful 13th documentary about mass incarceration. The Chicago MC — who once said “We need more Avas” on “Black America Again — became the first rapper ever to win a Grammy, Emmy and Oscar, thanks to those collaborations with DuVernay. Once again, her love for hip-hop led to an important cultural moment, and Common didn’t take that for granted. “Any time I get a chance to work with Ava DuVernay,” he told Deadline, “it leads to something positive, something strong.”
That bond with rap continued earlier this year, when Ava teamed up with hip-hop royalty. JAY-Z and Beyoncé called on her to direct the video for their “Family Feud” collaboration, and she responded with a star-studded short film that featured a beautifully diverse cast, including the couple's daughter Blue Ivy Carter, Michael B. Jordan, Jessica Chastain, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, Constance Wu and Rashida Jones, just to name a few. Even A Wrinkle in Time’s Storm Reid and Mindy Kaling appeared in the stunning, cinematic and futuristic visual, which once more showcased DuVernay's hip-hop spirit.
Ava kept those rap roots alive when she made the groundbreaking A Wrinkle in Time. The Disney-backed soundtrack not only features one the most prominent voices in hip-hop with DJ Khaled’s positive affirmations on Demi Lovato’s “I Believe,” but it also includes Good Life legends Freestyle Fellowship with “Park Bench People” f their beloved 1993 album, Inner City Griots. That move tells 2Mex that DuVernay has remained genuinely linked to her days as an MC. “She’s always grounded in where she came from,” he says. “That’s respect.”
But the fact that DuVernay has remained this true to hip-hop throughout her iconic career isn’t actually surprising to 2Mex, who says she always demonstrated a special beaming quality. “Ava glows,” he explains. “I’ll give you an example: There was a time when it was super lean for me, broke rapper shit, eating Top Ramen. I remember Ava would come over with, like, 10 Top Ramens and we would just talk. She would leave and then I’d go for a Top Ramen and there was like 40 bucks in the bag.” Years later, in 2016, when 2Mex’s right leg was amputated due to complications from diabetes, DuVernay showed her generosity again, donating money toward his medical bills GoFundMe. “Ava was always paying it forward,” he adds. “Always kind.”
Ava may or may not write raps these days, but her voice as a strong black woman inspired by hip-hop is clearly making a meaningful mark. 2Mex says he’s proud to see her monumental moves, while her Good Life spirit glows wherever she goes. “Ava is a beautiful example somebody from the Good Life] family really making it and really making an impact on the universe,” he says. “It couldn’t have happened to a better person.”