The lights are dimmed, the DJ is spinning some throwback jams, and echoing chatter rings through a private party room at the Tribeca Grand Hotel. Tylibah Washington is wearing a black dress that hugs her figure, gold earrings, a gold bangle on her left wrist and matching eyeliner. The short sleeves of her dress are cut as though neatly run through a paper shredder. But the thin strands of material don’t dangle; they remain attached to the bottom of the sleeves resembling a birdcage where Washington’s toned biceps are displayed inside.
The celebration is a book launch for Thembisa S. Mshaka, who as a creative executive at Sony Music, helped skyrocket the careers of Beyoncé and 50 Cent. Currently a creative director, Mshaka has compiled her experiences in the entertainment business as well as the experiences of some 100 other women in her new book Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [Entertainment] Business. Washington, a rising sensation in the music world, is one of those women featured in the book alongside “Missy” Elliot, Vanessa Williams and Mona Scott.
In the book, Washington describes her early encounters during the time she was trying to make her way into the business and retells instances in which established music industry insiders propositioned her with promises to provide the opportunity she was looking for. “I was disappointed and shocked,” Washington says. “These were people you were supposed to respect, but they didn’t respect you. It’s hard for a woman, but that never discouraged me, it just made me stronger.” She breathes in deeply, lets out a sigh and stops herself from going into further detail. “I don’t even want to think about it.”
Washington is not only a rapper but also a singer, songwriter, poet, radio host and author. She’s also the CEO of her own company, Leebah Baby Productions LLC, which distributes her mix tapes and clothing. And she’s not even 30.
“She’s the total package,” Mshaka says. “She’s drop-dead gorgeous, is a trained Alvin Ailey dancer, a self-published author and poet, and has a flow like no other lyricist in the game. She says she wants to bring to rap what Janet did to R&B and pop. I believe her.”
A mini bar is setup at just about the middle of the room up against the ledge of a huge window. Small oddly-shaped tables with candles on top, stand in front of couches on each side of the room. Washington is mingling with everyone in her presence, posing for pictures and getting to know who’s who, but more importantly, making sure they know who she is.
Even though it’s not her party, Washington still shines. “Everyone keeps asking me, who is that with the camera crew,” Mshaka says jokingly to Washington. Her response is a humble laugh.
She’s been going all day and the non-stop work fiend is tired. She has two big meetings tomorrow to discuss the release of her single. After convening with her team for a brief moment in the hotel lobby, Leebah slowly makes her way first through the revolving doors and then to her apartment in East New York where her 2-year-old Lhasa Apso impatiently waits up.
Amid an ongoing debate over whether hip-hop is losing its essence and going commercial, female artists also seem to be disappearing from the genre. Besides “Missy” who continues to produce records and write songs for other artists, women have in general had a minor role in hip-hop, other than serving as video vixens.
“Tylibah is emerging at a time when the industry is undergoing a seismic shift,” Mshaka says. “Her music will amplify the collective voice of strong, smart women emcees who are about more than being sidekicks and side chicks. She calls to mind powerful women rappers like Queen Latifah, The Lady of Rage and MC Lyte.”
Queen Latifah is just one of the female artists Leebah draws a connection to. Others include Roxanne Shanté and Lauryn Hill. “They paved the way for me,” she says in a reverent voice. “I take from each of them and incorporate it into what I do. I relate to Foxy Brown in that she’s also a dark-skinned female rapper and I also embrace the physical appeal of Lil Kim. As females, we all have things in common. We’re alike but different.”
Filling a gender gap in hip hop, however, is not what drew Washington to fall in love with the art form. Music was always an inspirational tool for Washington. “I grew up in church, so I was used to instruments and familiar with the different emotions that music could evoke,” she says.
When she was just six years old, Washington performed Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” in front of 300 people at The House of The Lord Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn. “It took a long time for me to get it,” she says with a laugh, recalling that the pastor’s daughter spent two months drilling her on the poem until she perfected it. “She said as long as I had feeling I’d do fine,” Washington says. And she did. That’s why she kept performing. “I don’t remember being nervous, but just saying to myself God please let me do a good job. The event definitely helped fuel my passion for performing arts. I felt like I belonged on stage, in front of people.”
Performing one of Maya Angelou’s most famous works, however, was not the only memorable moment for Washington at age six. While she was still in first grade, her father left the family, an experience that she says traumatized her. “It’s hard for any child to not have their father around, but for a little girl especially,” she says. “Your father is the first man you learn to love, and he’s the one who teaches you how you should interact with boys. It’s challenging picking a mate if you don’t have that.” Her parents are now back together after separating three times since being married.
Born and raised in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Washington, also known as Leebah Baby, was sent away by her mother to live with relatives in Raleigh, North Carolina because she wasn’t doing well in high school.
Though she always felt a connection to music, she didn’t know until her senior year that she wanted to pursue it as a career.
“I remember my girl Nikky G banging on lunch tables giving me a beat, and we’d just be dropping bars off the top,” she says. Besides freestyling in the cafeteria, Leebah also started the first hip-hop dance crew at Garner Senior High School in Raleigh. She named the crew of 40 girls the Brooklyn Stars.
After graduating in 2002, Leebah moved back to Brooklyn with nothing on her mind but music. “When I got back to New York, I hollered at everybody that had an ear, letting them know I was serious about this music thing,” she said.
Ready for another night of work, Leebah struts softly into the Kings County Hospital T-Building auditorium where she’s participating in the annual woman’s history month celebration organized and sponsored by New York State Senator Eric Adams. Almost 100 people fill the room including children and babies. All ears are drowned by the sounds of The Boys and Girls High School Jazz Band. Bouncing to the beat of the drums in her seat, Leebah taps her feet and chats with her 3-year-old nephew before she is suddenly called to the stage.
She’s reciting a poem titled “If I don’t do it,” published in her book “Streets in Poem Form: A Compilation of My Thoughts”. Her younger brother plays a soft melody on the piano and her parents watch their daughter pour her heart out as she speaks, her words directed to young women especially. “Doing it for the empty and lonely inside/For the battered women with black eyes/ For all the brothers on the corner trying to make the paper/ For the little foster girl who knows no one will take her/ For the teenage girl who’s lost and confused/ For the broken hearted daughter who watches her mother get abused.” Her tone is a mixture of frustration, understanding, anger and compassion. She sways from left to right adding hand gestures that intensify her portrait of misguided souls stuck in unfortunate and uncomfortable situations.
She’s now recited the poem more than 100 times and says that it’s a crowd favorite. “It’s a real social piece and works well for anyone’s situation,” she says. It was her own situation, in fact, that inspired the poem. “I was just on the block just not feeling good about myself,” she recalls. “I was upset and sad, looking at the curtains in my old house. It dawned on me that I should write during these moments when things feel the worst.”
Hands clasped as if in prayer, Leebah profusely thanks the audience for allowing her to share her talent with them. She strolls back to her seat where she would stay for the rest of the night, following the program and turning every so often to whisper to her mom sitting behind her. She’s also chatting on BBM, displaying her long pink painted nails.
The event is over and everyone’s putting on their coats and heading to the door, except Leebah. She’s hanging around to introduce herself to longtime rapper Queen Pen, who was an honoree at the celebration. “Yeah, I’m trying to do a song with Queen Pen,” Leebah says.
Even as she reaches out to other artists, whether established or on the rise like herself, Leebah has no problem holding her own, a skill she learned growing up as the only girl in a family that included five brothers.
“It was difficult,” she explains. “They would hang up the phone when boys called for me. I felt like they didn’t understand me, I had no one to relate to.” Though it was a challenge, things weren’t all bad for the lone diva. “Having my brothers around, I learned the game that guys run on females, so I knew what tricks not to fall for. They made me tough.”
Keeping the business in the family then, was an easy decision for Leebah to make. Her mother serves as her manager and her younger brother Keyz is one of her producers. “Family is extremely important to me,” she says. “I know that they got my back and have my best interest at heart, and that whether my record goes platinum or gold they’re still gonna love me.”
In a male-dominated industry, Leebah feels that there are a lot more female artists than just those who are given the chance to make a name for themselves. “To the public there’s a void but there are a million female artists out there,” she says. “It’s all about who’s next to blow. We’ve been silenced but there are many of us out there.”
Even though she’s bum-rushing the game, Leebah acknowledges the fact that she hasn’t made it yet. “I don’t ever want to make it,’’ she says. “I always want to aspire to be better everyday, even five years from now.”
“Tylibah is still an emerging artist but her name gets recognition from some of the industry’s greatest and that is key for her up and coming career,” says Marisa King-Redwood, President and CEO of The Buzz International Group. “She has established a great foundation in the industry with her personal and professional relationships with some of the top artists, executives and influencers around.”
Despite all of her achievements thus far, there’s still much more that Leebah wants to accomplish. “I haven’t sold out a stadium yet, I haven’t released an album, I haven’t topped the charts…there’s a million things I haven’t done.” Aside from her music related endeavors, Leebah also wants to go back to NYU where she was once majoring in TV Journalism and Performing Arts.
Besides working on her album, Leebah is also shooting her web-based reality show called For the Dream. The show airs on Fedstv.com and documents her journey through the industry. “I want to show people that this is real,” she says. “The hardest part of it is letting loose knowing that the camera is there.”
In addition, she continues to promote her book, which she wrote while living in North Carolina. A compilation of poems, it was her way of staying connected to the people she knew. The book has three sections; personal, political and social. Self-published in 2005, more than 20,000 copies have been sold, all through word of mouth. Leebah makes sure to take advantage of every venue that presents the opportunity to boost sales, including churches, schools and prisons.
As far as the album goes, she’s done 45 songs and is still recording even though only 10 tracks will make it onto the disc. She hopes to release it sometime next year. Though the process of making the album has been a grueling one, she’s enjoying it. “I’m always writing, always creating, always listening to new material, and I love it!”
Her single “Y U Mad,” is a piano-heavy track produced by Keyz, who also adds vocals that are altered by auto-tune so that it sounds like a little kid who’s repeating the lyrics “don’t be mad…/ y u mad.” The beat is a neat blend of more than 20 different sounds, including three drum patterns and a live flute that brightens the chorus. “Don’t be mad/ cuz I made it to the spotlight top spot bright you standing there mad (like)/ y u mad/ cuz my neck on froze and my wrist on glow all cuz of my flow/ don’t be mad/ you say I wasn’t like this miss I been like this hood rich/ y u mad/ don’t hate me hate the game the money and the fame.”
Leebah dances on the downbeat and stretches words so that her lyrics are emphasized. It’s a self-assuring song that boasts of her multiple talents, alluring figure and attention-grabbing fashion style. “It’s a catchy record,” she says. “It’s for the young demographic. There are people who are angry because we’re black, educated and from the hood. I want it to be known that we have a lot to be grateful for, so I posed the question, why you mad?”
Leebah raps with a vocal sassiness that exudes indestructible confidence. Her voice is soft but delivers a secure presence. Her words do not run together, but are instead projected with an elegant swagger. It’s the Brooklyn in her.
But she doesn’t want anyone to forget she sings too. “I was raised in church so my whole family sings,” she says. Leebah admits, however, that she sometimes refused to sing simply because everyone wanted her to.
On her album she delivers a blend of street intelligence and diverse concepts. “Her music is confident and empowering,” King-Redwood says. “Mixing fun, positive lyrics with great beats, the music will make hip hop heads nod for sure!”
Leebah wants to rejuvenate hip-hop and dreams of doing a full performance with a live band and dancers. “I want people to not be able to sleep the night before coming to one of my shows,” she says. She remembers having exactly that feeling when she was about 12 or 13 years old and anxious to go to a Janet Jackson concert. “I want to inspire little girls to want to learn the dance moves they see at my performances.”
Though fully aware that the music business is no longer profiting from record sales as a result of the new digital age in which everyone is downloading, Leebah is still determined to shake things up in the industry.
“No matter what happens, music will still be around,” she says in a tone absent of doubt or uncertainty. “It’s not about the money; it’s about me being able to express life beyond what I see and the possibilities that I’m living into. I want to make records that people can connect with.”