Becoming Isis Tha Saviour: Hip-Hop And Giving Birth In Prison : Louder Than A Riot Hip-hop loves a hero's come-up, but the culture often has a hard time seeing women as heroes. Two years ago, when Louder Than A Riot editor Chiquita Paschal discovered she had a sister — who rapped — she quickly saw how that double standard can take shape. Chiquita's sister is Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter, aka Philly rapper Isis Tha Saviour. In this episode, Chiquita takes us on Mary's hero's journey — from her time as a ward of the state to finding her voice in rap. And together, they delve into incarceration's ripple effects on families like theirs, and how hip-hop can help transform trauma into freedom.


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A warning before we begin - this podcast is explicit in every way.


Now, Sid, as you know, in hip-hop, we love a hero's come-up.

MADDEN: Yeah, we do. We do. But another thing about hip-hop, it has a hard time seeing women as heroes.

CARMICHAEL: Let's talk about it.

MADDEN: Some of the most successful women in rap are still seen as accessories to the boys club, because in hip-hop, like larger society, misogynoir dilutes Black women into tropes for the male gaze, always in some sort of supporting role - sex symbol, sister, mother.

CARMICHAEL: No, that's true. That's true. And, you know, the same way that women are written off in hip-hop, they tend to be left out of the conversation around mass incarceration, too, which is interesting because the number of women in prison has actually been increasing at a rate 50% higher than men for the last 40 years.

MADDEN: Yeah. So when we were looking for stories to tell about women in rap and the prison system, one of our editors, Chiquita Paschal, told us about her sister. What's up, Chiquita.


CHIQUITA PASCHAL, BYLINE: Hey, Sydney. Hey, Rodney. Thanks for having me.

MADDEN: Yeah. Thanks for bringing us this story about your sister.

PASCHAL: Totally. Let me introduce you to her.

MARY ELIZABETH BAXTER: My name is Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter. But I also go by my hip-hop name, Isis Tha Saviour.


BAXTER: Ladies and gentlemen, you are now witnessing - what up - just a girl form north Philly that refused to give up. It's not a school-to-prison pipeline. It's a prison-to-prison pipeline. And it begins and ends with your mind.

PASCHAL: Mary, as Isis Tha Saviour, is a well-known rapper in Philly's underground hip-hop scene. She makes political art. Her music is based on her experiences in the system, giving birth to her son, my nephew, while imprisoned.

MADDEN: Wow. That's a lot.

PASCHAL: Yeah. And unfortunately, Mary and I didn't even know each other at this point in our lives. We both grew up separately with our moms in Philly. And we didn't discover our dad, middle sister and extended family until two years ago through a DNA test. Before meeting Mary, I knew that one out of every three or four Black millennials my age had incarcerated relatives. But learning about her story made it super personal.

MADDEN: So what was it like getting to know each other?

PASCHAL: (Laughter) It was just like this flurry of text in the first few days. Because we had each separately found our way to the family within months of each other, we already shared a unique bond. And then we immediately connected over the Tierra Whack song "Only Child," not only because of the Philly connection, but because before we each found our way into the family, we were. Mary summarized her backstory for me with, like, basically, a press kit of all these headlines - formerly homeless and incarcerated, ward of the state turned award-winning rap artist and activist. Basically, I felt like I was cramming for a test since there was only, like, a day or two between when we discovered each other and when we first met up.

BAXTER: The day before my 37th birthday.

PASCHAL: And then we met. And I met you at 30th Street Station.

BAXTER: Like a movie.

PASCHAL: Like a movie.

BAXTER: So cliche.

MADDEN: Oh, that's cute.

PASCHAL: I remember seeing her from across this huge train station. Like, Mary's got these really sharp cheekbones and springy hair, both of which are very novel and extremely familiar to me because they were already on me first - even down to, like, she had this huge afro puff on top of her head.

MADDEN: That's real. Only a Black girl. I know the specificity in those coils. You are my relative.

CARMICHAEL: (Laughter).

PASCHAL: I'm not going to lie. When I learned she was a rapper, I got, like, that dread, you know, like when your cousin keeps trying to get you to listen to their SoundCloud.

MADDEN: Oh, yeah.

CARMICHAEL: (Laughter).

PASCHAL: But then I actually watched her music videos as Isis Tha Saviour and I got goosebumps. She had just undeniable skill and a really powerful message.


BAXTER: (Rapping) The prison system just another version of the plantation. Seventeen cents an hour - can't even purchase Top Ramen. All the government, all this power, and they keep us medicated.

PASCHAL: She definitely stands out in Philly's underground scene even down to her name. In fact, Isis refers to the cunning Egyptian goddess of motherhood who always managed to find a way to save herself and her people.

MADDEN: Yo, I love that. So this is the story of how Mary became Isis Tha Saviour. And, Chiquita, as her sister, it's only right that you tell it.

PASCHAL: Thanks, Sid. So my first stop in telling Mary's story begins at MoMA PS1.

All right. So I am approaching MoMA PS1 - here to see my sister's art show.

Isis Tha Saviour is on the come-up right now. Her music videos have been featured in several art shows this year. The biggest is "Marking Time: Art In The Age Of Mass Incarceration" at MoMA PS1 in New York. It's curated by Dr. Nicole Fleetwood and features formerly and currently incarcerated artists. I wanted to find out how my sister's work got here.

MOLLY: Hello, are you Chiquita?


MOLLY: Hi. I'm Molly (ph). Come on in.

PASCHAL: Nice to meet you.

MOLLY: I just need you to check in here with our security team.

PASCHAL: Of course. Yes.

MOLLY: And then I'll just meet you up here at the top of the stairs...

PASCHAL: After a minute, Dr. Fleetwood appears and walks me through the gallery. We take in the carceral oranges and blues of the work by the formerly incarcerated artists. As we approach Mary's video installation, she starts to talk about how radical this work is.

NICOLE FLEETWOOD: What happens when unfree people resist the brutality and the dehumanization of prisons and use that space and that time and those material constraints at the service of art-making? To take that kind of really punitive rendering of oneself and to turn that into, like, a kind of claiming of artistry and aesthetic practice to me is quite revolutionary.

PASCHAL: Then I start to hear the sounds of my sister's voice echoing through the space.


BAXTER: Remember when I used to read to you? Look; it's just me and you against the world.

PASCHAL: The museum escort leaves me alone in the final room of the exhibit. My sister's voice engulfs the space. And on a huge screen in front of me is an image that's seared into my heart, Mary, pregnant in an orange jumpsuit, shackled to a gurney, rapping in anguish.


BAXTER: (Rapping) Middle finger at the plaintiffs - spoon-fed (ph) the fed arraignment. Explained two cases for the judge - issued a new detainment (ph). I'm in the Matrix feeling Like Morpheus. Law library - was searching habeas corpus. Then my water broke, and that was really unfortunate. Handcuffed to the bed - rights fold like a contortionist. Damn, can I live, can I live, can I live?


PASCHAL: I'm Chiquita Paschal. And this is LOUDER THAN A RIOT, where we trace the collision of rhyme and punishment in America. In this episode, Mary takes us on her hero's journey from her time as a ward of the state to finding her voice as Isis Tha Saviour. Together, we delve into how incarceration dehumanizes people and its ripple effects on families like ours. And Isis shows us how the art of hip-hop can help transform trauma into freedom.


PASCHAL: It's a hot, summer day. And my sister, Mary, and I are standing outside Eastern State Penitentiary in the middle of Philly's Spring Garden-Fairmount art district.

BAXTER: That was where the birthing scene took place.

PASCHAL: This is where Mary filmed part of the video that I watched at the MoMA gallery. It's a big, Gothic, stone prison that's now a museum. It always felt haunted to me.

Because it looks like a garden. But then you're like, wait.

BAXTER: You know, they always try to make Hell look nice.


PASCHAL: As we're talking, I can't help but play little sister and admire how cool she looks with her waist-length box braids, a bandana and a streetwear set. She stands out.

BAXTER: This is Meek Mill's baby mom, Milano. I try to - you what I mean? - support the hood.

PASCHAL: (Laughter) Yes.

Mary picks a piece of lavender growing from the bottom of the looming watchtower as we walk along the long, stonewall block in the shadow of the prison. Eastern State looks medieval. Mary tells me the prison was built in 1829. She knows a lot about it because she used to work here as a tour guide.

BAXTER: Three hundred prisons around the world have been modeled after Eastern State Penitentiary's radial design. So like, they're, like, the authors of mass incarceration.

PASCHAL: Even though it's not where she served her sentence, Eastern State's widespread historical influence made sense as a backdrop for her story. Shots from Mary's video triptych "Ain't I A Woman" showed the dismal inner landscapes of long, endless-looking corridors, with bars as far as the eye can see. It was a strong visual Mary used to capture the feeling of being trapped in a system with no way out. Mary began the journey of what she calls the prison-to-prison pipeline just on the other side of Eastern State.

Where we are, there's, like, signs for Francisville, which is like...

BAXTER: Oh, this is gentrified ass neighborhood (laughter), nothing but cafes and dog boutiques. And...

PASCHAL: It looks like an outdoor Pottery Barn.

BAXTER: (Laughter).

PASCHAL: The borders have shifted since we were kids. But Francisville is actually a subsection of the notoriously rough North Philly. Wealth and poverty separated by a prison, a theme she's witnessed her whole life. In Philadelphia, like most places, your zip code can determine your life expectancy. Mary's mom always told her education could be the way out.

BAXTER: You know, I can just hear her always telling me that education was essential. And, you know, very early on, she always, you know, gave me books and, you know, purchased me books.

PASCHAL: Growing up in the early '80s in an under-resourced, overpoliced neighborhood, especially in the wake of the MOVE bombing, Mary, like all the kids on her block, learned a keen distrust of the police. Still, Mary has some good memories of being a kid in a row home on Clifford Street, like how her mom taught her to take care of herself.

BAXTER: My mom stayed with bread (laughter). As a ritual, whenever she got her, you know, first-of-the-month check, we would walk to Center City. She would take me to the bank with her.

PASCHAL: But Mary's mom also has schizophrenia. And when Mary was a kid, her mom was hospitalized like clockwork.

BAXTER: She would have, you know, a episode. And she would lose her apartment or her house or whatever she was renting at the time. Like, her whole life would just have to start over after that.


PASCHAL: Now it's the summer of '92. Mary is 11. And life at home is unstable and dangerous. During a really bad episode, Mary's mom kicks her out of the house in the middle of the night. She has nowhere to go.

BAXTER: And my other family members at that time - like, they were just over it. You know what I mean? Like, they didn't want to deal with me or my mom because, you know, prior to all this, like, once a year, my mom would come to the house on Clifford Street and flip over the flowerpot and break all the windows.

PASCHAL: Mary ends up crashing at different houses around the neighborhood but mostly is left to the streets to fend for herself. And it's on one of these homeless nights when she was out with a play cousin that the course of her life shifts direction. Mary notices an abandoned car.

BAXTER: The car had been stolen because in the ignition, there was a screwdriver instead of a key.

PASCHAL: Intrigued, she gets an idea - a very bad idea.

BAXTER: I had always wanted to drive.

PASCHAL: They didn't make it far before they hit the bumper of a parked car and their car flips over, trapping them.

BAXTER: I just landed on my arm. So it was just like my arm and the window became one.

PASCHAL: The thrill of the joyride turns to shock. Just as fear is setting in, a guy she knows from around the way sees the wreck and kicks in the windshield to free them. Once they're out, Mary assesses the damage under the streetlight.

BAXTER: That day, I had on cream pants and a striped blue and white polo shirt with a little red horse, blue and green Chucks at the time. They were wool. I don't know why. It was the summer. They were low tops. And just - you know, like, the blood just was like candy stripes, like, all the way down my pants.

PASCHAL: Even though Mary is hurt, she senses that getting the authorities involved might spell real trouble for her.

BAXTER: I just remember, like, trying to get out of there because I didn't want to be arrested because I knew that was a real consequence.

PASCHAL: But before she can make it around the corner, a police van shows up. The next thing she knows, she's in the hospital.

BAXTER: I went to St. Joe's, and I woke up handcuffed to the bed.

PASCHAL: Even though Mary is forced to grow up fast on the streets, the reality is she's a kid in a scary place with no adult and no comfort. She has multiple surgeries and skin grafts to repair her arm.

BAXTER: After about a week or so, my mom came to the hospital along with a DHS worker. And at that time, like, to me, my mom was visibly having, you know, still this episode.

PASCHAL: At 11, she's given a choice - go back with her mom or leave with the worker from the Department of Human Services.

BAXTER: I just wanted to be, you know, in a place where I would have a routine and people that cared about me and, you know, some structure, maybe a sense of community, family.

PASCHAL: Hoping for some sense of safety, Mary makes her choice.

BAXTER: I just had to make the hard decision to say, you know, I didn't want to go home with my mom. I opted to go into the system because they were going to release me to her care even though she was visibly not in a state to be able to parent. That day, from the hospital, they drove me to South Philly to Southern Homes (ph).

PASCHAL: When she arrives at the orphanage, which used to be called Southern Home for Destitute Children, Mary is still recovering from the surgeries to repair her arm. She's basically leaving one type of hospitalization for another.

BAXTER: I just remember it being, like, really institutional - you know, like, white walls everywhere, you know, heavy, gray doors that lock once you entered. You had to be buzzed in and off the unit.

PASCHAL: This is her introduction to being a ward of the state. And Mary is barely there a few hours when she witnesses another kid in the unit being disciplined.

BAXTER: He had to be, like, around 8 or 9. I remember him being, like, thrown to the floor with his arm behind his back and being restrained. I definitely wasn't feeling too safe anymore. I don't know. I had this new awareness like, this is not going to be, like, a place where you meet, like, family, brothers and sisters and, like, kids your age and, you know, have fun.


PASCHAL: Mary says the best way to understand her childhood is straight from the records, so one afternoon I visit her home in South Philly. She takes me to a spare bedroom full of boxes of artifacts and achievements. She eventually finds a stack of old files that document her path as a ward. I'm slowly being buried in paper. She pulls file after file. These records show Mary's early encounters along the prison-to-prison pipeline, starting with what she calls baby jail.

BAXTER: It felt like it was, like, a form of the carceral system, yeah - an extension.


BAXTER: A earlier - a baby version. It was prepping me...


BAXTER: ...For my eventual incarceration.

PASCHAL: At first, Mary isn't allowed to leave the grounds to attend public school. Because of her new car theft record, she says Southern Home put her into a behavior modification program.

BAXTER: There was a point system in place. And I remember having to stand, like, and face the wall a lot.

PASCHAL: In the classroom, at the hospital, in the dorms, Mary is constantly looking for an escape.

BAXTER: I think, like, after maybe, like, the third week was, like, the first time I AWOLed (ph). I collaborated with a couple other kids that wanted to leave, but it wasn't successful because it took a lot out to run with the arm still, you know, just filled with glass.

PASCHAL: Mary pulls a file and points to it.

BAXTER: Oh, you want to see my ACEs test?


BAXTER: Adverse childhood experiences.

PASCHAL: Oh, right, right, right. So I'm guessing you scored pretty high on this.

BAXTER: (Laughter) Highest ever.

PASCHAL: You're like, aced it.

The ACE test measures adverse childhood experiences - in other words, childhood trauma. It indicates risk factors that can lead to future incarceration, poor health outcomes and early death. Mary jokes about it now, but each experience in her youth stacked up to impact her in a way a score on a test could never fully explain. Even though I share similar risk factors as Mary, I had a lot of support from extended family and school, and that makes a huge difference in outcomes, according to researchers. Mary wasn't so fortunate. The files and transcripts paint Mary as an outspoken, sometimes rebellious teen.

This patient was angry, hostile, irritable and oppositional through the bulk of her hospitalization.

BAXTER: Somebody stick you in the ass with something and you pass out and wake up in a lockdown fucking facility. Like, what are you going to do?

PASCHAL: Mary is diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder. Studies have found the same behaviors in white kids are more often read as ADHD, while Black and Latinx kids are more often diagnosed with ODD. One definition calls kids with ODD, quote, "more troubling to others than they are to themselves."

Mary seemed to be very angry at the, quote, "system"...

BAXTER: (Laughter).

PASCHAL: ...For failing to meet her needs.

BAXTER: (Laughter).

PASCHAL: Even though Mary's still a kid, the adults in charge expect her to have the rational and emotional processing of an adult. That's adultification bias, something that disproportionately affects Black girls and can play a key factor in their criminalization.

BAXTER: Just like with all of these systems, they don't exist without people that, quote, unquote, "need them." And as you was reading this, they paint a picture like this is working yet not working enough. She has to stay. You know what I mean? So it was, like, a necessary evil.

PASCHAL: A 2017 Georgetown Law study found that Black girls as young as 5 are viewed as less innocent than white girls by adults. And the ACLU found that in Pennsylvania in particular, Black girls are five times more likely to be arrested at school than white girls. For Mary, she felt it when she was 13 and her seventh-grade teacher tried to take her to court over a dirty look after an argument. But the case was thrown out.

BAXTER: You can't - you know what I mean? - like, try to press charges over - for someone giving you a dirty look.

PASCHAL: Mary spends the bulk of her adolescence in and out of residential treatment facilities, creating a spiral of Mary pushing back against authorities and being punished. By high school, she's sent to a facility outside Philly, reserved for what the state - her guardian - deems their most difficult cases. As a teen preparing for the outside world, Mary has few adults that she can go to for guidance. But she does have a close circle of friends, and there is one teacher who becomes very invested in Mary's potential. She gives Mary what becomes a sort of personal Holy Grail - a book.

BAXTER: "Nile Valley Contributions To Civilization."

PASCHAL: "Nile Valley Contributions To Civilization: Exploding The Myths" by Anthony Broader.

BAXTER: It was a thick book. I remember it was, like, a high-gloss cover, and it had, like, a pharaoh. I mean, I just would just read it from cover to cover, honestly.

PASCHAL: Suddenly, Mary's whole worldview is expanded.

BAXTER: And that was, like, I guess one of the first books I had that shared a different narrative about Black people because up until then, it was just a bunch of Black dysfunction that I was indoctrinated with. And in the book, it talked about various customs that melanated (ph) folks partook in, different ideas around their genius. And also, it introduced me to different deities and archetypes. And Isis was one of them.

PASCHAL: This goddess, known for getting out of tough spots, becomes like a mother figure, a role model, a way to feel connected, even hopeful.

BAXTER: You know, for me, Isis being a savior goddess helped me figure out, like, you know, who better to save you than you? - you know, like, really just personifying that. Isis represents, you know, like, the ultimate creative energy, creative force. She's a nurturer, a healer. And, you know, growing up where I did and where I came from and having to basically parent myself, I had to become my own caretaker, my own nurturer, my own healer.

PASCHAL: She feels empowered. Soon she's expressing herself through poetry and visual art, even performing for small audiences at the group home.

BAXTER: Everything was happening in sync. Like, I was finding, you know, my voice as an individual, as a young Black woman but also as an emcee. You know, a lot of the earlier experimentation with hip-hop and music definitely came from just being in, you know, cyphers in school and, you know, with other people in the community.

PASCHAL: Mary starts trying to define herself outside of being an orphan and sets a new goal - readying herself for independence and going to college. At 5'10", she figures sports will look good on applications and help fast-track her options. So she goes out for the basketball team at a predominantly white, wealthy public school near the group home. She becomes the team's star athlete and is excited to maybe even take classes there, too. But the group home and DHS won't allow her to enroll. As a teen, the rules feel arbitrary to her. But she knows she won't get the benefits, and it makes her feel used.

BAXTER: We were good enough to play sports but weren't good enough to sit in the same classrooms. That was evident - that my mind and my intellect wasn't weighed in the same value, you know, as my athletic abilities.

PASCHAL: Adding to her sense of alienation and demoralization, close friends that she grew up with in the group home were involved in a fatal accident just days before the state finals, a car she would have been in had she not missed the call about the meeting point. She's shaken, and she has to play the biggest game of the season while mourning the loss of her friends.

BAXTER: I just really did not care about basketball at that moment.


BAXTER: But yeah, it's like they didn't even care.

PASCHAL: Mary quits the team the following year and is now totally isolated. Left without the few people she counts as family, she struggles to break through the educational barriers that she knows are her only hope for a better future.


PASCHAL: There's no fairy godmother to save her. But for her 17th birthday, her auntie gives her the next best thing - a Discman and "The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill" on CD. That album becomes her constant companion and her favorite escape.


PASCHAL: She listens to it walking around the group home, during car rides and bus trips, before bed, between classes.


LAURYN HILL: (Rapping) It's funny how money change a situation. Miscommunication lead to complication. My emancipation don't fit your equation. I was on the...

BAXTER: You know, if I'm feeling a certain mood one week, I might just play, you know, a particular song, like - you know, "Lost Ones" was definitely one of the top battle rap diss tracks ever where she was coming at Wyclef and LL. Like, that was crazy.

PASCHAL: She feels empowered as she sings and raps along, taking in the lyrics and hyping herself up with her solo Discman performances.


BAXTER: "That Thing," you know, just encouraging young girls to hold themselves up to a higher standard - I was on top of the world. It was everything that you would want an album to be. So yeah, that was really inspiring for me.


HILL: (Rapping) Don't think I haven't been through the same predicament. Let it sit inside your head like a million women in Philly, Penn. It's silly when girls sell their souls because it's in...

PASCHAL: She also loves Nas. And when he releases a collab featuring Lauryn Hill, it was the best of both worlds.


NAS: (Rapping) No welfare supporters, more conscious of the way we raise our daughters. Days are shorter...

BAXTER: I just remember in the song, it was just like, imagine this; imagine that; imagine that - like, really just, you know, trying to help the listener envision a life without a carceral system, without oppression, without all the stuff that we face on a daily that, you know, is meant to diminish and just crush your spirit.


NAS: (Rapping) Law with no undercovers, just some thoughts for the mind...

PASCHAL: So she doubles down on her efforts to get into college. And finally, her ticket comes.

Do you remember finding out when you got into Penn State?

BAXTER: Yeah, I got the letter at the group home. I was excited. It felt kind of like a fresh start.

PASCHAL: But she still has to figure out how to pay for school. Mary's caseworker helps her officially emancipate from the state after graduation to get full financial aid. This means living at a shelter until school starts. Finally, on the first day of school, her caseworker comes to pick her up.

BAXTER: Drove me to State College with my two trash bags and dropped me off.


PASCHAL: Even though Mary has been looking forward to being free of the state for so long, she soon realizes that college won't solve all her problems. And she doesn't have a backup plan.


PASCHAL: On Mary's first day of school as a freshman at Penn State, she couldn't help but feel out of place.

BAXTER: I just noticed all of the other students, majority mainly white, being dropped off as well, and you know, unloading their stuff and packing, just noticing, like, you know, they got microwaves. They got, you know, all the stuff that they need. And I just got, like, these two trash bags.

PASCHAL: Still, Mary settles in the best she can as an underclassman. She follows her curiosity about her favorite Nile Valley book and declares a major in African American studies. And she adopts Isis as a nickname. She even spends half a semester abroad in Kenya to study the roots of Black culture up close for herself.

BAXTER: It was the first time I had gotten a passport. And I mean, the trip was beautiful - the people, the culture, the time that I had there.

PASCHAL: But after her immersive cultural experience abroad, it was especially hard returning to Penn State, where she was a minority on campus again.

BAXTER: I mean, I was working it. But honestly, I needed mentorship and support.

PASCHAL: By her junior year, exhausted from the academic and financial struggle, Mary can't keep her grades up or afford tuition. Eventually, she drops out. College had been Mary's only plan, and there wasn't a lot of foundation to return to once that prospect faded.

BAXTER: 'Cause when I came back to Philly initially after failing out, you know, I tried to get jobs. I tried to - you know, even McDonald's. And I was never hired.

PASCHAL: Mary has nowhere to live. She's sleeping in parks around Philly and couch-hopping again. She evaluates her options.

BAXTER: So out of just, you know, survival, you know, for me, selling narcotics was, you know, a survival crime. I mean, for me, it's like, if I don't make this choice, then how am I feed myself or, you know - for me, it was no other alternative. For me, this is the American way. This whole country was founded on criminality.

PASCHAL: She returns to Centre County, where Penn State is, where she knows that all of these well-resourced college students are waiting as potential customers.

BAXTER: It was very lucrative and relatively easy to operate, you know, on a cellphone. I didn't have to stand on a corner and, you know, deal with what people in the inner city had to deal with.

PASCHAL: Mary's hustle is providing some resources, but she's still struggling. So Mary crosses a new line. One day, while going to pick up weed with a friend, Mary saw the dealer had a lockbox in her apartment for both the drugs and the cash.

BAXTER: We decided to come back later and relieve her of those items.

PASCHAL: But the lockbox was empty by the time they got there. Instead, Mary took a ring of keys with a supermarket credit card attached to them. She swipes for a couple hundred dollars' worth of groceries, first at one store. Then she tries a second store, but the card gets declined. So she tries at a third.

BAXTER: I don't know - greed or whatever. I decided to go get more groceries. And that's when the police arrived.

PASCHAL: She was arrested and charged for burglary and receiving stolen property. The judge allows her to be released on bail.

BAXTER: So the case drug on for, like, a year. I remember having to go in for sentencing. Like, I was sentenced, but I had to go in to serve my sentence at a certain date. And I just decided that that's not what I wanted to do.

PASCHAL: Mary has graduated from ward of the state to fugitive of the state. Mary keeps a low profile for a couple of months, but she stays in Centre County, only going out at night. One day, she goes out to rent a movie and grab some snacks. On the way back, she takes a shortcut through an alley by campus. A cop car rolls by her. Then it slows down.

BAXTER: And I tried to, you know, put a little pep in my step. And I got, like, maybe, like, another block. And they swung around a corner and hopped out and, you know, asked me what my name was. And I gave him some sort of alias, so I felt like it was now or never. Either go quietly or, you know, try to escape it somehow. So I ran. And I would have gotten away if I didn't run into a dead end inside of a parking lot.

PASCHAL: She was cornered between the cop and his car.

BAXTER: I did the little football shimmy where you just go from side to side. And...

PASCHAL: What was that for?

BAXTER: You know, it's just, like, you throw them off.

PASCHAL: But it didn't work. She's arrested again. Mary's thinking this is the beginning of the sentence she never went in to serve. But then, on the fifth day in jail...

BAXTER: A guard came to my cell and told me that - you know, to pack up my stuff. I was leaving. So I was surprised (laughter). I didn't say anything. I said, OK, it's time for me to leave.

PASCHAL: She doesn't know why she's being released. Mary says she later found out it was a clerical error. But she's not questioning it either. Mary contacts a friend who picks her up and drives her to Philly. Already practiced in avoiding capture in Centre County, Mary was prepared to make the uncertainty work.

BAXTER: I laid low for about almost a year. But you know, just the economic opportunity was too alluring. So I made my way back.

PASCHAL: This time, she has to be completely off the grid, living hand-to-mouth. She's selling narcotics, including cocaine, moving between Philly and Centre County. That way, she can always leave whenever she's looking over her shoulder too much.

BAXTER: So it was pretty much like second nature, like, to always be moving.

PASCHAL: There may have been borrowed freedom, but there's no peace of mind.

BAXTER: I was always paranoid. I never took pictures. I often switched vehicles. Sometimes I would just disappear from my customers and pop up, you know, months later. Yeah. But at no point did I feel it was easy or safe or sweet.

PASCHAL: Did you have any, like, dreams for yourself in that point, like, beyond survival? Could you see at that point a life beyond survival?

BAXTER: I mean, I knew I loved music. I knew I loved making music. But, yeah, I knew, you know, in the back of my mind, like, I was already convicted of something. And I knew that at some point that I would have to serve time eventually.

PASCHAL: Mary is on the run for five years. Then everything comes to a halt.

BAXTER: I was actually staying at a trailer of a customer at a trailer park. And I decided to take a pregnancy test because I hadn't been feeling well.

PASCHAL: The test comes back positive. Now, after years of living moment to moment, Mary is forced to consider the future.

BAXTER: I finished up whatever business I had there and came back to Philly. I definitely was scared. But then, I mean, also, I felt like, finally, I might have something to live for.


PASCHAL: A trip to the hospital early in her pregnancy reveals that she's carrying a boy.

BAXTER: Through all the drama, I definitely still was excited to hold my son, to see my son and, you know, build a life together.

PASCHAL: She and the baby's father decide to move in together in Philly to co-parent. Despite the timing and the fact that she's on the run, it feels like a miracle that she'll soon have a family. She's far from her days of needing the myth of Isis as a proxy mom. Now she herself will get to experience the power of motherhood. She channels her anxieties into nesting.

BAXTER: I was excited. I remember, you know, buying baby clothes and stroller and, you know, getting all the things that I needed, reading books, you know, on motherhood and what to expect and, you know, talking to my son.

PASCHAL: Part of the preparation for starting this family was figuring out legal ways to provide for the baby, which included getting an ID to be eligible for food stamps, as money was getting low.

BAXTER: I was closer to my delivery date. And I was thinking about actually going back out of town to hustle. So I had to call one of my main customers to see - to get a vibe of, like, what was going on. And that's when I learned - you was on the news - I was, you know - my face was on the news. And I was in the paper as a fugitive on the run during, you know, a roundup of dealers in the area.

PASCHAL: The charges she's on the run for are starting to stack up - first the groceries and now her street-level dealing. She realizes her time's run out. On a December night in 2007, she's staying at her son's father's house in Philly when she hears a knock on the door.

BAXTER: I had just, like, eaten dinner. And I had laid down. I came downstairs. And then I heard someone say, there's movement in the house - and flashlights. And I was just like, I don't know. Maybe I shouldn't open the door.

PASCHAL: But she decides to open it anyway. She can't keep running. It's the first major decision she makes as a mother.

So you went to the door. You opened it. And what was on the other side? Like...

BAXTER: It was, like, four or five bench warrant police (laughter). And they had a picture. And they was like, oh, yeah that's her. And that's it. I was arrested on the day I turned nine months pregnant.

PASCHAL: After years on the run, the past caught up with Mary and her unborn child. But at Riverside Correctional Facility, she's processed like any other inmate.

BAXTER: You get told to strip. You bend over. You cough. You get your jumpsuit.

PASCHAL: Even though she's nine months pregnant, she's subject to protocol that was originally meant for cis male bodies since that's all that prison health systems are designed to accommodate. Yet thousands of pregnant women are incarcerated every year. And the available numbers don't even account for non-binary and trans prisoners who might also be pregnant.

BAXTER: They don't give you extra food because you're pregnant. Like, it's no - yeah, they don't make any accommodations.

PASCHAL: Dozens of states don't require medical examinations or prenatal nutrition counseling for incarcerated pregnant people. Mary has no idea how long her sentence will be, when she will go into labor or what her birthing plan will be.

BAXTER: It didn't get really real until - went in labor, I think, like, three days after I was there.


BAXTER: It was like 4:30 in the morning. I had to call for a guard. My water broke. And because it was, like, so close to the shift ending, the guards were trying to convince the doctor on call to deliver my baby in the prison because they didn't want to go out to the hospital and, you know, extend their shift or do the paperwork. I remember the doctor saying, like, I'm not delivering her baby. She needs to go out to the hospital. And I remember being shackled at the hands and feet, nine months pregnant, while in labor, you know, getting into the van, getting out of the van and just being shackled - well, handcuffed to the bed during that whole ordeal.


PASCHAL: After 43 painful hours of labor, Mary finally has an emergency C-section.

Were there complications along the way that made the C-section necessary?

BAXTER: I guess just the amount of stress that I was under. Like, it was no walking around. And it was no one - you know, I didn't have any family or anybody there to support me. So I think all of that played a role. It was just my body just didn't want to let the baby out.

PASCHAL: Yeah. And you didn't know what would be on the other side for this baby either.


PASCHAL: I'm so sorry.


PASCHAL: Shackling during labor creates unnecessary stress that can jeopardize the health of the baby and parent. Currently, despite national standards condemning the practice, 12 states still lack policies around the use of restraints during pregnancy.

BAXTER: When you're incarcerated and you're pregnant - I mean, you could be in prison for something like shoplifting. But if you're in prison, you will be shackled during the birthing process, before the birthing and after.

PASCHAL: Just one year before Mary gave birth in 2007, the U.N. told the United States that shackling during childbirth is a violation of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In the context of African American motherhood, it's also a relic of the torturous institution of chattel slavery. In 2010, Pennsylvania law prohibited shackling during birth except for in, quote, "extraordinary occurrences." Even though her imprisonment determines the inhumane conditions and isolation of her birthing experience, Mary is granted one request.

BAXTER: So my only request in the hospital was that they not handcuff my hands and just handcuff my legs so that I would be able to hold my son.

PASCHAL: Mary is determined to make the most of what little bonding time she has with her son in his first few days of life.

BAXTER: Right after, like, the C-section, you know, like, they're cleaning him off. And I just thought, like, that's not my baby (laughter).


BAXTER: He looked old.

PASCHAL: (Laughter).

BAXTER: It's not what I envisioned.


BAXTER: He was. He was a little wrinkly. And I'm like, I don't see a resemblance.

PASCHAL: (Laughter).

The only part of her son's birth that she was certain of beforehand was his name, Rasir.


BAXTER: From the story of Ra, being like - embodying the energy of the sun, the life force, chi - and then Sir taken from Osir (ph), which is also Osiris in the Greek version.

PASCHAL: Taking pieces from the mythology of Isis, Mary crafts a new story for her son composed of a sun king and Osiris, the god of resurrection. After the fourth day, Rasir is taken away from Mary and sent to live with his father.


PASCHAL: But the birthing process doesn't end there. There is, of course, postpartum care, which is especially crucial for Black women, who have some of the highest maternal death rates in the U.S. Mary stays in the hospital for another six days due to medical trauma and complications from the birth. When she returns to prison, she advocates to go to the medical unit in hopes of getting the care that she needs. But her recovery from giving birth become synonymous, instead, with punishment.

BAXTER: I didn't realize that the medical unit was essentially solitary confinement (laughter).


BAXTER: So I was locked in a little six-by-six for, like, a week straight, 23 and one. And I was just, basically, sleeping on a metal sheath. Yeah, it was torture. I don't know. I can't even describe it because, for me, it's like, the fact that they don't even discriminate - like, I wasn't there for murder. I wasn't there for (laughter), you know, physically hurting anyone. Like, just the lengths and measures that they went to just dehumanize me was just unfathomable. So...


PASCHAL: When the prison gives Mary a clean bill of health, they send her back to general population for about a month. She doesn't learn the terms of her sentence until nearly three months after she's arrested. Ultimately, she's charged with possession, intent to deliver, delivery of cocaine and criminal use of a cellphone. At arraignment, the judge sentences Mary to a minimum of six months at Centre County Correctional Facility, nearly four hours away from Rasir.

BAXTER: Everything really started from that day.

PASCHAL: She's taken to Centre County Correctional. She's completely alone and with no access to postpartum care. This is the time when people who have given birth during incarceration are at their most vulnerable to mental health crises. Stripped of her child and her dignity, Mary faced some of the darkest nights of her life there.


BAXTER: I just remember just definitely being really depressed, really isolated because it's four hours from Philly - not having any visitors. I think, towards the end, one of my cousins did put some, like, $50 on my books, but really not having money for commissary or any of the things I may have needed in terms of hygiene.

PASCHAL: But it's from this deep pit that Mary recovers a small seed of hope planted within her. It's the history of our shackled ancestors, the myth of Isis, a mother-goddess who healed the world around her, and a little ray of sunshine that she longed to see again. She imagines the future that she might have with her son.


RASIR: And that's why they call me the son of light. All right. Here we go. Here we go. (Rapping) I'm like the merchant. I came from the sun. My name is Rasir, but I came from Kemet.


PASCHAL: Finally, in July 2008, eight months after she was first arrested, Mary set foot into the blinding light of a midsummer day, free at last.

BAXTER: The day I got out, I just remember them dropping me off at Greyhound with a bus ticket, one-way to Philly.

PASCHAL: Mary's godsister Teisha picks her up from the bus station. The excruciating wait is over. But Mary is nervous as they drive to where Rasir is living with his dad.


BAXTER: I came in, and he just crawled right to me. And then I picked him up. And it was - it wasn't like I was foreign, you know what I mean? Like, I did have that apprehension, like, is he going to recognize me? Is he going to cry? Is he going to know me? But it was just, like - he knew I was his mom.

PASCHAL: Mary's first month home was a crash course in parenting but also getting caught up with the life that she'd been barred from - getting to know her son, celebrating his developmental milestones and just soaking up the joy of their long-awaited reunion.

BAXTER: When I look back in retrospect, had I, you know, not served my time, imagine two, three, four years down the line, and I have, like, this relationship with my son. And then I'm - just disappear for months, you know what I mean? It would probably be more traumatic for both of us. So it was good to get it out the way.

PASCHAL: It was now time to rebuild her life. She's determined to not let Rasir's birth into the prison system define the story or trajectory of his life.

BAXTER: Now you have this life to be accountable for that's not your own. And you know, they're innocent. It's a baby. So it's like - I don't know. It's, like, this pure thing that you don't want to mess up. So - and it's also like, I don't want my child to go through what I went through. So I have to show up in a different way.


PASCHAL: It's 2011, and it's three years since Mary's been freed. She and Rasir have built a life together. One of the biggest challenges of reentry is getting and keeping a job, especially when you have to check the box on conviction. But Mary is persistent and eventually finds work and an apartment for her and Rasir. She takes him to preschool and goes to work, reads to him before bed. They fall into a routine. Around this time, she connects with an old friend from the group home who was a fan of some of her earliest cyphers.

BAXTER: He came to the house one day, and he was, you know, really hounding me about, like, you know, when you going to start rapping again? What happened? And that was kind of, like, me starting to, like, want to revisit hip-hop 'cause by then, I had - you know, had a 1-year-old baby. I was trying to find a job and, you know, just get the basics down.

PASCHAL: In quiet moments between work and taking care of her son, Mary picks up her pen and starts writing. She's playing with the rhythm of her words, finding her voice again.

BAXTER: (Rapping) Blessing from heaven, now I was pregnant, stressing...

I set up a studio in my bedroom.

PASCHAL: Any spare funds go towards her music.

BAXTER: My first tax return, I went and got an iMac and an Mbox and a mic. And that's pretty much how I revisited the music.

PASCHAL: Her bedroom studio is like a playground for Rasir.

BAXTER: For him, it's like, new toys, oh.

RASIR: (Unintelligible).

BAXTER: (Rapping) Y'all really need to pop reality pills. They call me in the morning 'cause reality's ill, complaining 'cause you can't buy the latest and get fly. A scene like this come alive when childhood dreams die.

PASCHAL: Mary extracts the venom from her own life and begins to mythologize her experiences as Isis.

BAXTER: In the Egyptian mythology story, she avenges her husband's murder, which is a metaphor for consciousness and how it's fragmented. So Isis Tha Saviour is a goddess, and she fights for the consciousness of humanity. And she has this virgin birth and puts the pieces back together of her consciousness and her willpower, which is her son.


PASCHAL: As a rapper, she fully embodies the persona of Isis Tha Saviour, a bit of herself that had long been developing, keeping her company in all of her hardest times. She starts performing at open mics. And at first, she's full of nerves.

BAXTER: I always used to wear sunglasses so I didn't have to look at the crowd when I performed.

PASCHAL: She starts competing at cyphers in the underground Philly rap scene, then playing showcases at some of Philly's biggest indie theaters, like the TLA on South Street and the Trocadero. She makes flyers and posts DIY music videos on YouTube. From marketing to merch, she does it all herself, all while working a job, going to school and being a mom to Rasir. Mary uses music like a scrapbook to gather all her memories in one place, like in her early song "Street Chronicles."


BAXTER: (Rapping) Street chronicles, crime rate astronomical. White coroner sheets from feet to abdominal. Hood in bad shape, but the coke flip phenomenal. I promise you the ghetto only does what it's designed to do. Before you turn 12, a package of 12 12s, a fistful of snuffed shells. You better hope that don't sell. Raised with the vultures, well...

PASCHAL: And her audience eats it up.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Make some noise real quick.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ayo (ph), it is officially confirmed - one of the toughest females in the game in Philly. I need you all to show some love for Isis Tha Saviour.


PASCHAL: As she develops her stage presence, she eventually gets comfortable enough to lose the sunglasses. She's not afraid to be lethal on the mic. She even has stage uniforms, from Adidas tracksuits to fatigues and camo. In 2011 and 2012, the Philly Hip Hop Awards nominate her for female freshman, lyricist and female rap artist of the year. Basically, she has clout. Then in 2013, they invite her to compete in a high-profile cypher.


PLEX: Ayo, what's good? It's your nigga Plex, aka the Diddy of Philly without the money, but I'm working on it. We in The Status Shop live on South Street. 2013 Philly Hip Hop Awards - man, let's get it.

BAXTER: They had started - maybe even the year before, they had started emulating BET's freestyles. You know, like, mid-award show, they'll show, like, a little freestyle cypher. And at this particular cypher, Meek Mill was there. So it was definitely pure chaos.

PASCHAL: She's paid her dues, but everyone is there to see Meek and get their own shine. Meek spits, and the energy is sucked out of the room when he leaves. Then Isis steps to the mic.


BAXTER: (Rapping) Yo, yo, it's a dirty game, but somebody got to play.

So we do the take. I do my take.


BAXTER: (Rapping) Get the fucking money, then put me on the A-list. We all from the streets, looking for a way out, investing in narcotics, hoping that it pay out. As soon as y'all rob the shop, look how it plays out.

And I'm like, I'm out. And I had to get home to my son.


BAXTER: (Rapping) You was just trying to get money to pay your light bill. Living off the fantasies that play in your head, but the blessed ain't sidewalking (ph). Devil is real. Complaining 'cause you can't buy the latest and get fly. A scene like this come alive when childhood dreams die. Isis Tha Saviour, spread the gospel. North Philly, stand the fuck up.

PASCHAL: When the awards play on TV, she waits to see her part, but it never comes. She's been cut out.

BAXTER: So the next day or I think later on that night, I went to Facebook and just started, like, a whole campaign, like, the Philly Fraud Awards and just went in on them.

PASCHAL: She pressures the awards to give her the footage and then edits it herself to post online. Despite her fans throwing their support behind her in the comments section, praising her representation of the culture, Mary realizes that being in the room is not the same as having a seat at the table. Mary says that a lot of well-meaning peers in the scene advised her to put some medicine in the candy, but that never felt authentic to her.

BAXTER: I mean, why can't your intellect be sexy? Why can't intelligence be sexy, especially when you think about all of the issues that are impacting specifically the Black community? The origins of this platform started with the need for folks to have a voice, to articulate all the poverty and systemic oppression and things that they were enduring in the ghettos of America. And then somehow, corporate America got a hold of it, and it's about selling products and your ass, which - I mean, think about it, like, in the context of slavery, like, when we were, you know, products.


BAXTER: Our physical bodies were products. And who was behind, you know, that industry? - old white men. Think about the music industry. There's really, like, only five labels in the world. And who owns them? - old white men funding Black toxicity.


BAXTER: Same story.


Frustrated that her music isn't being taken seriously, Mary decides to get her associate's degree in art and design at CCP, the Community College of Philadelphia. She graduates with offers from top-tier art schools like NYU and the University of Chicago. But she can't afford the tuition.

BAXTER: Felt like most of my life, like, you know, you're this close, you know, to reaching, like, this milestone or being able to, you know, get yourself out of this generational poverty. So for me, it was another blow, like, fuck. Like, you know, you're just hitting the ceiling again. And I was in a funk for, like - I don't know - maybe, like, a month or two and then, like, at a, you know, last-minute, like, what the fuck do I do?

PASCHAL: So she changes gears and returns to CCP to study human services. It was a bumpy few years. Mary's juggling school, music and several jobs. Then the apartment she's renting goes into foreclosure. She and Rasir become homeless and start couch-surfing. But Mary keeps Rasir in his Afrocentric private school, and she refuses to leave college, somehow even maintaining a 3.7 GPA. She wants to set a good example for her son.

BAXTER: Education was a pathway out and was something that no one could take away from you and that you always can use to your benefit in terms of creating a stable life.

PASCHAL: The endless grind finally gives way to a big breakthrough in 2017. A friend she volunteers with tells her about the Right of Return Fellowship, a brand-new program for formerly incarcerated artists. She applies, and out of 300 applicants nationwide, she's one of seven winners. Her prize was $20,000. Just a day earlier, she had $3.56 in her bank account.

BAXTER: It was, like, really one of those moments. It was like, I could do this, you know what I mean? Like, this is a real thing. I was able to get right to work and have total autonomy of who I wanted to hire, what equipment I wanted to purchase, you know, as an artist, especially a formerly incarcerated artist, where, you know, you have all the stigma against you and your character and what you're capable of. So for me, that was really liberating and empowering.

PASCHAL: Things quickly shift into high gear as her art and activism converge. News of Mary's fellowship begins to make headlines.


COMMON: There are 200,000 women behind bars in America today. How do we recognize their voices?

BAXTER: I mean, next thing you know, I'm in Rolling Stone and I'm doing PSAs with Common and Topeka Sam.


BAXTER: Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women has risen 700%.

TOPEKA SAM: Four out of five women behind bars are mothers.

BAXTER: All of a sudden, like, at the forefront of this, you know, statewide campaign in PA but then also, like, nationally of restoring, you know, dignity to women and really advocating for mothers and children to stay connected and highlighting, you know, all the damage and trauma, you know, it causes not only for the women, but the children who are innocent, you know, in this situation.

PASCHAL: Her art becomes a gateway to push for dignity for incarcerated people and other measures, like free phone calls for caregivers of children, free menstrual products and requiring parents to serve their sentences no more than 100 miles from their families. Like the goddess Isis, Mary is able to extend her own healing into the world around her. For Mary, it's not just political; it's personal.

Do you have a sense that you're, like, also building family, like, through your community work?

BAXTER: Of course. I mean, that's kind of one of the main goals - you know, bridge community, heal community, uplift community, empower community. I mean, even with prison, like, there is - you know, wherever people go, we create a sense of family. We create a sense of community for our survival. No man is an island.


RASIR: (Singing) To you.

BAXTER: That was stanky (ph).

RASIR: (Singing unintelligibly).

PASCHAL: (Laughter) You getting them vocals ready?

RASIR: Yeah.

PASCHAL: In the early summer of 2020, Mary and Rasir found a house to rent in South Philly. She's just about finished unpacking when I show up for dinner on a Sunday.

How many guys are in Boyz II Men, three or four?

BAXTER: There used to be, like, five.

PASCHAL: (Laughter).

Decembers are still a complicated time for Mary. It's the anniversary of losing and gaining the world in a single moment. But now, it's also the month we celebrate finding the family that we longed for as kids. At 12, Rasir is now just about the age that Mary was when she chose to give herself up to the state. As they settle into their new home, Rasir's life couldn't be more different. He's free to be a kid. Mary's done everything in her power to protect and nourish his talents, including rap battle training.

BAXTER: (Rapping) This winning looks staged. You over there crossing your legs. Your teeth is beige. Put me in a rage. They tried to put me in a cage. But I'm back. Turn the page - a new chapter, no happily ever after.

PASCHAL: Your mom just owned you. Your teeth is beige.


RASIR: I got you. So she wants to talk about people now. I got you.

(Rapping) You said that I'm the first loser. You said I'm a loser. I'll make you regret those words. I'll break you down. I'm going to put you in the grave where you belong and bury (unintelligible) in the grave now. I'm going to tell you. I'm going to break you. I'm going to cremate you, and then I'll wear you on a necklace and then throw you in the trash (unintelligible) cremated again. Then I'll bring you back.

PASCHAL: OK. OK. I mean, you might have to just cut it out.

BAXTER: Chiquita?

PASCHAL: I don't do that shit.

BAXTER: (Laughter).

PASCHAL: Thank you for inviting me to the rap battle.

But I have to decline. We may share DNA, but I'm pretty sure I missed the rap gene.


MADDEN: That was LOUDER THAN A RIOT editor Chiquita Paschal. She wrote and reported this story.

CARMICHAEL: It was produced by Sam Leeds, with help from Matt Ozug, Dustin DeSoto and Babette Thomas.

MADDEN: The whole team edited this one. Special thanks to Cher Vincent, James T. Green, Megan Detrie and Gene Demby. This episode was mixed by Josh Newell.

CARMICHAEL: Senior supervising producers are Rachel Neel and N'Jeri Eaton.

MADDEN: And shoutout to the bigwigs - Steve Nelson, Lauren Onkey and Anya Grundmann.

CARMICHAEL: Original music by Kassa Overall and Ramtin Arablouei.

MADDEN: Our digital editor is Jacob Ganz, with help from Marissa Lorusso. Our fact-checker is Sarah Knight.

Hit us up on Twitter. We're @LouderThanARiot. Rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. And to follow along with all the music you heard in this episode, check out the LOUDER THAN A RIOT playlist on Apple Music and Spotify now. And if you want to email us, we're at

CARMICHAEL: From NPR Music, this has been LOUDER THAN A RIOT.


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