The Queen Of Ratchet TV Gets Candid
Reality TV producer Mona Scott-Young introduced the world to the real-life people you love to hate. But the woman behind Love & Hip Hop tells BuzzFeed News why she's not to blame for the so-called negative portrayal of black people on reality television.
At about 8 p.m. on Monday every week, Twitter goes off the rails.
We've become mind-numbingly obsessed with a weekly dose of reality TV served on VH1 that's heavily peppered with salty language, baby mama drama, and, well, mama drama via the Love & Hip-Hop franchise.
We love to hate it — emphasis on love, emphasis on hate.
And there's one woman we can hold responsible: Mona Scott-Young.
"People are watching it not just for the train-wreck factor of it all, which we all admit exists and I don't think any one of those guys wouldn't look at some of the things they've done on the show and go, Oh, shit. That was crazy. But I think also there's a relatability factor," Scott-Young told BuzzFeed News. "There are certain things that we might not do in open forum, we would do in private, but we watch those shows, we watch these people who are brave enough to do it in an open forum, on television and we go, Oh, shit! I don't agree with what she did, but I get it. I get her. I recognize her. And I think we're being a little bit dishonest with ourselves about that sometimes."
If you know anything about Scott-Young's story, it's natural how she landed here. The former hip-hop manager — who co-founded Violator Management in the '90s with the late Chris Lighty — oversaw the careers of top talent, including LL Cool J, 50 Cent, and Missy Elliot. The things she saw happening backstage, off the road, and in the studio, would make for one hell of a documentary, she surmised. The women, the tough-as-nails mama's boy rappers, and the street tales that never quite made it on wax could garner an audience that no one had tapped into just yet.
Her lightbulb moment kicked off a second career when she started her film production company, Monami Entertainment. Together with TV producer Jim Ackerman, she created the Love & Hip-Hop franchise. The first season dropped in 2011, and introduced us to the behind-the-scenes antics of rappers and the women who love them. But mostly, the women.
And life as we know it hasn't been the same.
Love & Hip Hop: New York has produced four successful spin-offs — Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, Chrissy & Mr. Jones, The Gossip Game, Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood — and there's another one on the way, K. Michelle: My Life. The shows are hits, even though they have very little to do with the music itself. And love? Not even close. Yet, they continually break network records. The Atlanta Season 3 premiere in May, for example, grabbed 5.6 million viewers.
Audiences are tuning in for the love-gone-wrong storylines, the messy romantic entanglements, and the career relevancy narratives. There are also fights. Not only are the women scrapping with one another, but there was one moment, during the third season of Atlanta, where viewers were to assume a male cast member hit a female cast member. Though cameras cut out, there was a later scene that alluded to what may have been assault. There are unplanned pregnancies. In the first season of Atlanta, producer Stevie J's secret stripper girlfriend, Joseline Hernandez, was expecting a baby, but she terminated the pregnancy an episode later. And there are off-camera Twitter beefs that include, but are not limited to, full body nude photos, private, explicit direct messages, and profanity-laden tell-offs. And then there are the arrests. The brawls. The miscarriages. The subtitles. The subtext. The infidelity. The side chicks. The secret marriages. The fake marriages. The break-ups. The makes-ups. The sex tape. (Oh, the sex tape.)
You can't write this kind of drama.
The standard-bearer for infidelity and over-the-top storylines was set in the first Atlanta season with producer Stevie J and stripper turned Spanish rapper Joseline. They flirted with each other on camera, but denied any romance. And, of course they did. They had to. Stevie J had a longtime live-in girlfriend, Mimi, who's also the mother of his youngest daughter, and who's also a cast member. There were plenty of explosive scenes that inaugural season and several did-that-really-happen moments, including Stevie J, Mimi, and Joseline all going to couple's therapy together.
Since then, we've seen other equally crazy love triangles play out — Peter Gunz in New York with his secret wife/side chick Amina Buddafly, and in the current debut season of Hollywood, there's producer Mally Mall and his longtime girlfriend, Nikki Mudarris, and new girlfriend, Masika Kalysha.
All of those men — many of whom were unknowns in the music world or had just a glimmer of fame years ago — are known better for their infidelity than their music, perhaps. In the world of Love & Hip-Hop the men are by and large the bad guys. They're the never-marry men who have children by multiple women, secretly marry their mistresses (only for their live-in longtime girlfriend to find out from said mistress on camera), and are the impetus for bar brawls between lovers and ex-lovers and so on.
"I really pass no judgment about the way these folks are living their lives," Scott-Young said when asked if she feels guilty giving men like this a larger platform. "I see myself as a quasi-documentarian. I'm just turning the cameras on to reconstruct it in a way that's cinematic and looks different from everything. We're not making up the stories that we're telling. We're not fabricating the things that are going on in their lives. These guys are who they are, and I encourage and applaud them to be themselves when we turn those cameras on."
But not everyone is applauding the men and women on Love & Hip-Hop. The franchise's critics are just as loud as its millions of cheerleaders, saying the show depicts black people — and specifically women — in a negative light.
Professor Nsenga Burton wrote in 2012 that she refused to watch another episode, calling the series "an exercise in men abusing and humiliating women whose self-esteem is so low that they would allow themselves to be mistreated for the purposes of stardom in the reality-TV world."
"When you look at some of the great scripted shows that are out there, all of the same themes exist — infidelity, discord — there's all those things there that you see in reality television," Scott-Young said in response to her critics. "I think what people may have a visceral reaction to is that this isn't being fabricated or conceptualized by some writer sitting in a room. I'm not making up these people. I'm not making up what's going on in their lives. These are real people who deserve a platform, deserve a voice."
Scott-Young argues against the idea of editing out the real-life personalities of some of her more nefarious characters, most of whom have gotten more famous via the reality show than their music ever could earn them.
"Who are we to decide who should and who should not be exposed to the masses?" she asked. "I just feel like this is a very specific slice of the population. And for those detractors who feel like it's a negative portrayal, that's subjective as well because this is the way these people are living their lives, so who are we to decide what's negative, what's positive? They may not respond to things or react to things in the same way that you and I would, but we're all different people. And even as African-American women, we are not monolithic. We come in different shapes, sizes, experiences, thought processes that shape who we are and how we react to different situations. So to make the statement that, Oh, this is a negative portrayal. Well, of who? These people actually exist, and this is how they live their lives... And I just sometimes take offense to this sense of judgment that exists when people make those determinations."
But, as genuine as they may be, there are plenty of private moments on the Love & Hip-Hop franchise that seem unnatural to play out in front of cameras organically and unscripted. Scott-Young's team seems to capture even the biggest reveals — like the ones that were right as side chick Joseline reveals to Stevie J that she's pregnant with his baby, and later being there in the aftermath of the abortion.
"I think bravery is the key word here, because there is a sense of trust and a sense of understanding," Scott-Young said. "[We have to find] people who are willing to be honest and open, because not all of us can do that. I certainly don't know if I could live my life that way for everyone to not only watch, but to judge."
At the end of the day for Scott-Young, it's about making the most gripping reality show, chock full of the kinds of tidbits that make viewers go wild and create outlandish memes in celebration of or finger-pointing at what's happening on the show.
"Whether it's fame, fortune, visitation, exposure, whatever it is that is [the cast members'] motivation for doing [the show], once they make that decision, the next point becomes, We have to make the most compelling television," Scott-Young said. "So, if you're going to put your life out there and you're going to expose yourself to all the things that come with that, good and bad, then let's make sure that at least we're making something that is compelling to watch and is going to be successful by the measure that television is judged. I [tell the cast], 'You have to think about what motivated you to do this in the first place, because you can't be doing it for the heck of it' — I don't think anybody wants to get on television for the heck of it — and just say, "I'm going to air all my dirty laundry and expose all my deepest, darkest secrets for the heck of it." So as long as you can understand what the motivation is, then put that at the end of the bed of hot coals, stay focused on that goal, and lock in and get through it. It's going to get hot and it's going to get uncomfortable — it might be painful at times — but just stay focused on what it is that you want to get out of it.' And that is kind of the contract that we have."
Right now, Scott-Young has plenty of so-called contracts to keep in order as her company operates year-round to keep up with what the audience wants: more Love & Hip-Hop. The Hollywood installment is currently airing and Atlanta in production. In December, New York will be back on air, and the cycle continues.
"The challenge is always keeping it fresh, and trying to make each city feel unique in its own way so it doesn't feel like more of the same. What's interesting is a lot of the feelings are universal. There are infidelities and the balancing of these men, who are so tethered to their moms...That's when people go, Oh, this is the same story! This is the mom!," Scott-Young said of the common thread of cutting the umbilical chord from the music-making man and his mom throughout the franchise. "I think if they look at it a little differently and understand that these are the themes that run rampant within this specific world that we've tapped into, then they'll understand how these are not recurrences of the same storyline, but kind of different incarnations as told by these different people. Because I think that Omarion and Apryl's story with Leslie is very different than say, Erika and Scrappy with Momma Dee, or Jim and Chrissy's with Mama Jones. It's about keeping it different and fresh and what's beautiful about the brand is it's built in a way that we can cycle talent in and out so that they're not reliant on it being cast contingent and that cast maintaining. There's always an opportunity to bring in fresh faces and fresh stories to tell."
And there may soon be some new cities from which to draw those fresh faces and fresh stories.
"I think New Orleans is a great city. It has this rich culture and an incredible backdrop to shoot against. I don't know if the stories are there, but I certainly would love to do something in that city, even if it wasn't Love & Hip Hop. Houston, Texas, is a great backdrop for these kinds of stories as well," Scott-Young said. "It's really about where the people are who want to make television, and who want to share their lives with the world and who are prepared for everything that comes with it, but are open to living their lives in front of the camera."