If you read Mercedes Ladies, a book based on the true story of Mercedes Ladies founding member Sheri Abernathy, you’ll see that many of the same struggles of sexism and inequality that female rappers experienced in the past, still take place today. From major labels only promoting a "certain kind" of female hip hop talent, to the overall lack of women in the rap game, these occurrences have haunted hip hop from the very beginning.
The plight of the female MC goes back to a group known only among hip hop aficionados of the past. The Mercedes Ladies, made up of four teenage girls who dared to dream beyond their circumstances, had several different incarnations in its early stages. But the most popular version of the roster consisted of Sheri Sher, Eve-a-Def, Zena-Z, Tracy T and two DJ’s, Baby D and RD Smiley.
Discussing her novel Mercedes Ladies, published on Vibe Street Literature, hip hop original Sheri Sher takes it back to 1976.
“We were all from the Bronx and all from single parent homes. We used to go to the corner to watch Grandmaster Flash and all of them. At the time, we were really young, and we decided to form a female group. It was actually RD, Lil’ B, Tracy T and me. We would see the guys with females in their entourage, but we didn’t really see no female empowerment.”
“From the very beginning, the goal was to be independent and fly." says Sheri. “We started going to parties and we didn’t want to be up under no males, but we had to think of a powerful name. Mercedes was a classic car and we thought ladies was very powerful. So, we came up with the name Mercedes Young Ladies.”
The novel Mercedes Ladies is based on the actual real-life exploits and hardships of author Sheri Sher and the rest of the Mercedes crew. Although names have been changed to protect the innocent, it describes the story of hip hop’s Original Dreamgirls as told through the eyes of protagonist Shelly Shel − an ambitious young lady often left to fend for family while her mother works nights to support 12 children. Seeing rhyming as a way out, the highs and lows of the game aren’t anticipated. Sheri’s fiction comes close to real-life facts.
“It was a struggle. We were getting a lot of street popularity because we were putting our work in. From corner to corner, then they started setting up shows for us and everything, but we would never get paid. The promoters would pay the L Brothers and Grandmaster Flash, but when it was time to pay the Mercedes Ladies we didn’t get paid. We started going through managers until we were almost about to beat up the managers.”
Those who grew up during the hip hop era of the 1980s, recall a time when sweatshirts, t-shirts, and gold medallions featuring the hood ornament or logo from a high-end luxury car were all the rage. One can easily imagine how this added to the street credibility of the female dominated rap collective named after a German car manufacturer. But Sheri says they harbored dreams that were bigger than the streets.
“Our first record deal was actually with Russell Simmons. It was when Def Jam first started. We were on "Don’s Groove" (by Donald D),” she explained. “Russell had us in the studio, got us a vocal coach and had us just working and working. At the time, we were just a bunch of Bronx girls from single parent homes living in poverty. My Mom gave birth to a lot of siblings and we were living from pillar to post. We never had a steady home. We grew up deprived of a lot of things. We were doing this with no car fare, no nothing.”
“We did a song and Russell told us was coming out the next morning. We were like ‘Wow, we’re finally going to get our big break.' That night, he called and told us he had taken the song (“Yes You Can Can”) to let Alyson Williams sing it instead of putting it out as a rap. You wanna talk about hurt? We had put so much work into it. We never really arrived, but I don’t think we knew what we had then.”
Eventually, the Mercedes Ladies disbanded and went about their lives. But Sheri, who’s a police officer today, keeps their memory alive by doing dozens of interviews, and writing the Mercedes Ladies novel that chronicles her life and the story of female MCs who dared to do it first.
“I kept pushing, even though the girls left, thought we were finished, and all that. I kept writing and kept pushing," says Sheri. "I didn’t want my book to be all about how the females got done wrong in the game. I wanted this book to be a real journey.”
Mercedes Ladies by Sheri Sher is available for purchase at Amazon.