All guts, no glitter

Rapper Century Got Bars battles misogyny, major labels and illness to emerge as one of Sac's fiercest emcees

Detroit native Century Got Bars, who ditched her major label and moved to the 916, crafts some of Sacramento’s toughest hip-hop.

Detroit native Century Got Bars, who ditched her major label and moved to the 916, crafts some of Sacramento’s toughest hip-hop.

Photo By wes davis

Being a successful female rapper usually means one of two things: Either you’re half-naked and covered in glitter, or you’ve outrapped every dude in your crew at some point. Consider the paths of Nicki Minaj, Lauryn Hill and every MC Lyte, Jean Grae, and Lil’ Kim along the way.

Then there’s Century Got Bars. The Sacramento rapper usually sports a hoodie (and a noticeable lack of glitter) whenever she takes the stage. But it only takes about half a verse to see how she’s earned her moniker.

“Bars”: n. [Slang] referring to the measure rappers use to count the length of their verses.

The artist considers it her calling card of sorts.

“After every show, there would always be someone who walked up and said, ’You got bars,’ like they were surprised. I wanted to warn people,” she jokingly explains.

Misogyny in hip-hop is nothing new, but Bars’ recent rise to popularity in the Sacramento music scene mirrors the recent successes of women on a global level with the rising prominence of artists such as Azealia Banks, Siya and Iggy Azalea.

It’s not just sexism, however. Bars, whose latest project is set for release on February 22, has also traveled the country and endured illness to make her mark.

In 2012, Bars made history as the first female rapper nominated for a Sammie Award in the Outstanding Emcee category, and her latest solo album, Forget Today Remember Tomorrow, made ripples with listeners who embraced its raw lyricism and fearless vulnerability.

That album brought about her current project, Midtown Marauders, a Tribe Called Quest tribute mixtape recorded with Sacramento heavyweight Bru Lei.

The inspiration for the collaboration happened after Lei heard Bars practicing for the Forget Today Remember Tomorrow record-release show—a set that included Bars performing a medley of classic verses from female emcees such as MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Lauryn Hill.

Now, the mixtape also promises to deliver a throwback track list that will play like a guide to the grid.

Here, Lei and Bars trade verses back and forth like Quest’s Q-Tip and MC Phife Dawg, but also manage to keep it local, giving shout-outs to the likes of Pieces Pizza by the Slice and The Press Club.

“It’s funny because neither of us is from here,” says Lei. “But I feel like this city, especially Midtown, has totally embraced both of us like its own.”

For Bars, the 916 shout-outs play meaningful homage to her new hometown—but her music is definitely rooted in a wider geography.

Born in Detroit, the Motor City’s historic soundtrack always played an important role in the rapper’s life.

“I was raised up on Motown. Diana Ross and the Temptations went to my high school. My mom grew up with Smokey Robinson’s niece.” Bars says. “It’s just in you when you are from Detroit.”

After high school, Bars enrolled at Howard University to study radio and television broadcasting. During her fourth year, she was approached by a major record label (the name of which she declines to reveal for legal reasons) to join an all-girl rap group. Century inked the deal and moved to New York. After the deal fell apart due to complications with other members of the group, Century moved to Atlanta to study the audio recording arts.

Eventually, she relocated to the 916 and made her stage debut at Capitol Garage in 2009 as part of the rap trio Major League Sluggas before going solo in 2010. Later, she joined the ranks of the local rap conglomerate the People’s Revolution.

In those early Sac days, Bars says she hit the stage with something to prove. There was an overt aggression to her rap style, and she attacked the microphone with an intensity seldom rivaled by her counterparts, male or female.

Brian “AlienLogik” Baptista, who recorded, mixed and mastered Forget Today Remember Tomorrow, says her stage presence is impressive.

“She’s a force on the stage and in the studio. Not only does she keep up with the boys, but a lot of times they could take notes on how she does it,” Baptista says. “She’s like dynamite. This little, thin frame of a package and then boom! Here comes this incredible passion exploding out of her.”

Still, over the course of the last few years—a span of time in which she released three albums—Bars has evolved from the aggressive newcomer with a chip on her shoulder to a more seasoned, self-aware and personal emcee.

“I was battling a lot of things myself, personally, and back then, it was all about making sure people heard me,” she says. “I don’t have to do that now because I’ve been blessed enough to have people really listening.”

But no caterpillar turns into a butterfly without a cocoon.

Behind the scenes of 2012’s Forget Today Remember Tomorrow, for example, is the story of an artist who faced illness and recovery to gain a new perspective.

It started one August morning in 2011 when Bars woke up in excruciating pain and was unable to move. Over the course of the next several months, Bars underwent extensive medical testing as doctors checked for various illnesses including lupus and cancer.

While facing her health issues, Century turned to some of the same people she’d squared off against onstage.

“I feared for my life,” Century explained of the day her cancer results came in. “Mic Jordan [of Tribe of Levi] went with me. He sat there and literally held my hand until [they told me], ’You don’t have cancer.’”

Then in March, doctors diagnosed Bars with fibromyalgia, a musculoskeletal disorder characterized by pain, fatigue and memory issues, and she embarked on various treatment routines, including medication and physical therapy.

Finally, as her condition improved, Bars turned her attention back to music once more. Forget Today Remember Tomorrow was recorded and released in just a four-month span. The album combines the same lyrical intensity heard on the rapper’s previous albums, with content inspired and driven by a new lease on life. Hence the name.

“It’s really about letting go of everything. The past, your own mistakes and unhealthy relationships, and having faith that it gets better if you keep working to make it better,” she says.

The first single, “Nola,” chronicles the complications of relationships. The video features two girls falling in love—but wanting different things out of life. There is an accepted normalcy to the video’s somewhat controversial theme. Unsexualized in all of its boom-bap glory, “Nola” is relatable throughout all walks of life. This was a calculated move.

“The fact that it’s two girls doesn’t really matter, because the song is about relationships, and we all have those no matter if you’re gay or straight,” she says.

And while it’s significant, listeners shouldn’t invest too much thought into the connection between the artist’s personal life and her music, says Forget Today producer Baptista.

In other words, no labels are necessary.

“She doesn’t need the disclaimer, nor does she want it,” he says. “She’s not dope for a girl or dope for being gay. She’s just a dope emcee. Gimmick free.”

Now, with another video in the works and the mixtape about to drop, Bars is keeping busy. Once Midtown Marauders wraps, Bars says she plans to tackle all of the feature requests that have been lining up from other rappers; she’s also set to tour the West Coast in March.

Those looking for a new full-length album, however, will have to keep waiting.

“I just want to be and write for a while,” she says.