infant timberlands Bet On Free Having Shot At Stardom
December 4, 2001By Vanessa E. Jones The Boston Globe
You could call 106th Park, Black Entertainment Television’s popular music video countdown show, a Total Request Live for the hip hop and r crowd. It’s become an essential stop for a Mariah Carey or an Alicia Keys, who visit the set to premiere their videos.
But the breakout star of 106th Park is not one of the artists; it’s one of the hosts.
When asked her age Free teasingly replies, “I never tell”; she’s 31. Initially, friends and family called her by her birth name, Marie Wright. relax on a couch interviewing r crooner Jimmy Cozier. When the cameras turn off she leans forward to continue the chat with Cozier, often breaking into laughter. Her warmth extends to the high school students in the audience, who stomp and cheer through two tapings. She answers their questions and offers words of thanks before they leave.
“There’s something about her that makes people pay attention to her,” says Biff Warren, a J Records senior director of publicity who spent the day shepherding artists Keys, Cozier, and Busta Rhymes through the show. “She’s just got this whole, I don’t know, appeal, that really, really works for people that you haven’t seen since an Ananda,” referring to Ananda Lewis, the former BET host and MTV VJ who recently launched a syndicated TV talk show. “She knows how to talk to people and make people feel good.”
Kim Osorio, music editor at The Source, has another explanation for Free’s success: “It has a lot to do with the fact that she’s a woman and she carries herself well. In hip hop, we don’t have a lot of women who represent us. She’s one of a very few in terms of video hosts.”
Like many in the business, Free envisions a rap album and perhaps even a film role in her future. But the cliche ends with her plan to launch a foundation, Free4Life, next year in her native Boston, which will provide life skills seminars for teens, guidance for teenage mothers and extracurricular activities for youths.
“My mother and father kept me in dancing school,” says Free,
an alumni of jazz, ballet, and tap classes at the Roxbury Center for the Performing Arts. dressed in Timberland boots, jeans, and an oversized black hoodie, looking completely unlike the co host wrapped in trendy clothes and the latest boots that viewers usually see. She’s a 5 foot ball of energy topped by an explosion of golden afro that morphs daily from weaves to naturals to braids. In her sparsely decorated dressing room, she surrenders to the ministrations of a makeup artist, who dabs moisturizer and foundation on her face.
“They tell you you need a lot of makeup for TV, but,” Free says, circling her hand over indentations on her forehead, “I like the people to see me. I like to look like the same person that they see on TV.”
Free, who grew up in Dorchester’s Four Corners neighborhood, still defines herself as “ghetto.” She bursts out laughing, “I mean, we all have it in us. I can pull it out.”
Although she sang and rapped in Boston area groups, she initially took a more traditional career path, studying criminal justice at Northeastern University, then picking up a computer certificate at Boston University. Only in 1998 did she quit her job as a computer network engineer and move to New York as a rapper signed to Wyclef Jean’s label; the label was later dropped by its owner, Columbia Records.
The story of how Free was discovered last year sounds like a tale straight out of old Hollywood. She was at a Busta Rhymes party in New York when Stephen Hill, BET’s vice president of programming and talent, saw her strolling across the floor. Days later, Free was auditioning at a cable station known for hiring traditionally beautiful women with weaves and smooth, radio ready voices.
“At first,” admits Hill, “it had people scratching their heads like, What? What is it about her?'”
The answer, he says, is “she didn’t go through years of media training. What she did was live her life, which is a lot like our audience’s lives. That’s why she relates so well. She says things in front of millions of people that our audience kind of wishes they could say. She’s real. She won’t say things on air that she doesn’t believe.”