Erica Hailey, whose stage name is Lady B, uses her music to chart a path out of poverty, raise awareness about mental health.

Erica Hailey began showing symptoms of her bipolar disorder around age four, one year after her mother was brutally murdered by an intimate partner in her west Baltimore home.  Hailey spent her adolescent years in and out of juvenile lock-ups and institutionalizations; moving in and out of foster care and periods of homelessness.

She has continues to survive, all the while navigating a mental illness that the gaps in the social safety net made almost impossible to treat on a regular basis. And she has found a way forward in a style of music that evolved precisely to give voice to stories like hers, stories of people who have been dealt the worst of America’s limitations and yet have sought to persevere.

“When I started doing music I was told my mental illness would be a problem; people were not going to be willing to deal with a person with my mood swings; people were not going to be able to deal with a person that was mentally ill period; and basically I just beat the odds,” said Hailey in a recent interview with the AFRO.

And those odds were long. Saddled with an illness that is near impossible to manage without medication because of the dramatic mood swings that accompany it, Hailey had to learn to deal with the difficult terrain of Baltimore City while coping with the trauma of her mother’s murder combined with the emotional instability of her bipolar disorder.

She spent much of her early adolescence in juvenile institutionalizations. She had a grandmother who could not handle the behavioral issues caused by Hailey’s bipolar disorder, and there were precious few services for city youth dealing with such issues.

“I lived there,” said Haley of psychiatric hospitals like Sheppard Pratt and Taylor Manor.  “I can’t say I grew up home.”

The staff at these and similar “residential” programs (lock-ups) became surrogate parents at times, even guiding Hailey through the physical changes of early puberty.  But these hospitals were also the places where Hailey learned to act out in even more aggressive ways, learning from her fellow juvenile detainees how to run away and survive on city streets.

Around the age of 16, a time when she was running away from increasingly abusive foster homes, Hailey survived a sexual assault that left her pregnant with her first child.  She would eventually turn to exotic dancing while still not old enough to have a lease in her own name and be free of the foster care system.

Later, she would turn to selling drugs in order to keep her children fed and maintain a marijuana habit that was her only relief from the mood swings that could have her perfectly fine one minute and suicidal the next.

Consistently remaining on medication has been a real challenge within the context of the bureaucracies that impoverished persons have to seek services from in Baltimore City.

“As an adult, the only time I get my medicine is if I’m incarcerated,” said Hailey, referring to a 15 month prison stint she did after her house was raided around 2007 and police found drugs and firearms.  “On the streets it’s always a run-around, always a whole bunch of extra paperwork, all these things and for a person with my mental capacity—I have anxiety attacks, panic attacks, I would get frustrated and just say forget it.”

Hailey’s is a story from America’s underbelly, where options often range from ugly to uglier, and people seek to survive as best they can. After returning home from prison, Hailey continued to struggle with homelessness, spending nights in buses, parks, and vacant homes with her two youngest children (her eldest son was living with an aunt at the time).

But it was also a time when Hailey turned to Hip-hop music in order to chart a path toward a better tomorrow for her family.

“Being able to voice my opinion,” said Hailey of what first drew her to rapping. “And then, noticing that people were actually listening.”

Hailey first began rapping under the name Lady Blackface, taking a term referring to a vaudeville practice intended to denigrate African Americans and seeking to make it into something positive. She now performs as Lady B, with the ‘B’ now standing for ‘bipolar,’ another term she is looking to turn into a positive.

“I want people to know me for more than just being aggressive,” said Hailey.  “I want people to know I’m not crazy, I have bipolar but I’m very artistic, I’m very articulate. I’m not conceited, but I’m very cocky: I love me.”