I was tempted to open this one up with a pithy, timely Shakespeare quote. You know the one from Romeo And Juliet: “What’s in a name?” But truthfully, it felt a little too on-the-nose — and for lack of a better term, cute — for a discussion that frankly, we should be done having by now. With rap Twitter in a tizzy over so many aspects of the 2020 XXL Freshman Class list, it’s a bit exhausting that one of the biggest names in hip-hop today is one that stands out so glaringly in the context of a year of long-overdue racial reckonings.
Yet, here we are. The tide of public opinion on Atlanta rapper Mulatto stands at a tipping point, incidentally just as the artist herself is at the most critical point of her career. She’s on the cusp of releasing her major-label debut after a half-decade of independent grind and a near-immaculate rollout. That process saw her collaborate with one of her hometown’s most iconic heroes on a remake of one of his most iconic songs. She’s also garnering unprecedented attention as one of the 12 artists selected by XXL for its annually anticipated list of artists expected to break out. Plus, she’s in the most talked about video of the year, courtesy of freak rap pioneer Cardi B.
But instead of celebrating a triumphant introduction to the world outside of rap’s ever-insurgent online underground, she’s just as likely to be fielding apt complaints about her chosen alias. Born Alyssa Michelle Stephens, “Mulatto” isn’t even her first pass at a suitable stage name. Originally appearing in 2016 on Lifetime reality series The Rap Game as Miss Mulatto, she cut down her rap name to make it more marketable, because the “Miss” was obviously the part that so desperately needed fixing.
Before I get accused of needlessly dissing or “hating on” an emerging talent, let me be clear. I absolutely love Alyssa Stephens, the rapper, and I have since she was on Jermaine Dupri’s teenie-bopper-centric competition show. She has a real gift for clever turns of phrase (as illustrated by the title of her recently-released single “Muwop”) and her swag is just about unmatched by most of the onslaught of new rappers that have appeared on the scene since 2016. But I can’t fully support her because of how truly problematic her name is — and how easily the controversy could have been foreseen and avoided.
For those who need it, here’s a really quick history lesson. The term “mulatto” is a reference to a person of mixed Black and white parentage. It’s extremely f*cking offensive because the term was originally used for livestock, specifically the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey. It’s a really rude way of calling someone “mixed” deriving from an era when Black people were literally treated as livestock and a white parent would not even acknowledge their mixed child, instead discarding them to the harsh life of a slave. Their own kids.
Mulatto’s rap name is obviously a reference to her mixed ancestry (her father is Black, her mother is white) and there’s nothing wrong with being proud of where you come from. But to dub yourself a term that categorizes you as less-than-human is kind of a big fail. Mulatto’s name also evokes ghosts of the colorism problem. When it’s combined with her typical, pretty girl boast-rapping, it prompts a discomfort that stems from 200 years of systemic inequality filtered through the lens of light skin privilege. After all, those owners may not have exactly freed their lighter-skinned children from slavery, but they historically privileged them with jobs working inside the house and sometimes even education, which they denied their darker field hands.
It’s not like there aren’t plenty of highly successful rappers with mixed heritage who’ve had to grapple with questions of identity and colorism; just look at Drake, Doja Cat, J. Cole, or Saweetie, who are all tremendous stars who’ve dealt with hiccups in their presentation along the way. But how you talk about these things is important, too. Logic’s constant harping on his “AfricAryan” background (dear God, just look at that abominable portmanteau) earned him so much scorn from the rap establishment, he quit rap this year to go play video games for a living.
That’s not what we want to happen to Big Latto (an alternative that has been proposed by fans, riffing on the title of a 2019 EP). She’s at the outset of what could very well be a strong career thanks to a cameo in Cardi B’s “WAP” video, a wealth of genuine talent, and a business savvy that led her to turn down the recording contract offered by JD for winning the first season of The Rap Game in lieu of building a following organically. But that savvy should have alerted her to the potential pitfalls her nom de plume could lay in her path to stardom.
It’s not like she’s the first or only rap star to give herself a problematic pen name to start out with. Rich Brian, the Indonesian born performer who helped launch LA-based, all-Asian label 88rising to fame, started out his career as Rich Chigga — a play on a racial slur referring to Asian people who “act Black” (I shouldn’t even need to explain this one for you). The ever-controversial Noname cut her own pseudonym down from Noname Gypsy, citing ignorance of “gypsy’s” origin as a pejorative for the nomadic Romani people. Some Roma believe the name connotes criminality — a stereotype exploited by Nazis during World War II as justification for a systematic genocide of anywhere from 220,000 and 1,500,000 people.
Both the aforementioned rappers were smart enough to change their names after taking flak for them at first and both are ostensibly fine in terms of public regard (Noname’s various run-ins with other artists’ fanbases notwithstanding). It would probably behoove Mulatto to take her own fans’ advice and make a name change before the quiet rumble of dissent becomes an all-out cacophony of complaints. Big Latto deserves to be the star her unofficial nickname implies. If the thing that winds up holding her back is the way she chooses to introduce herself to potential fans and business partners, she’ll have no one to blame but herself.