Becoming Isis Tha Saviour
Chiquita Paschal is an editor for Louder Than A Riot, a new podcast from NPR Music that investigates the interconnected rise of hip-hop and mass incarceration in America.
One in every four Black millennials — closer to one in three for younger Black millennials — has an immediate family member who has been incarcerated. Two years ago, this became personal to me when a DNA test connected me to one of my long-lost sisters: Mary Baxter, aka Isis Tha Saviour, a Philly rapper and activist.
Mary's stage name comes from the Egyptian goddess of motherhood, who always found a way to save herself and her people. As Isis Tha Saviour, she makes autobiographical work stemming from her experiences as a ward of the state and the circumstances which led her to give birth while shackled in prison.
Mary has always had undeniable skill and a powerful message – from her early days in the city's underground rap scene to now, as a well-known Philly rapper and nationwide activist whose videos are shown in art galleries.
Women's individual stories tend to be forgotten in hip-hop – where even some of the most successful women rappers are still seen as accessories to the boys' club – and in the prison system, even though the number of women in prison has been increasing at a rate 50% higher than men for the last 40 years. So, I set out to understand Mary's story through her art, starting with her lyrical assertion, "it's not a school-to-prison pipeline, it's a prison-to-prison pipeline..."
In Philadelphia — like most places — your zip code can determine your life expectancy. Mary's journey of the prison-to-prison pipeline begins in Francisville, a subsection of the notoriously rough North Philly.
Mary's mom always told her education could be a way out, and she has some good memories of being a kid in a row home on Clifford Street. But growing up in the early '80s, in an under-resourced, over-policed neighborhood — especially in the wake of the MOVE bombing — Mary, like all the kids in her block, learned a keen distrust of the police from jump. Added to that was her mom's schizophrenia; when Mary was a kid, her mom was hospitalized like clockwork.
"She would have an episode," she says, "and would lose her apartment or house or whatever she was renting at the time — like, her whole life, and we'd just have to start over after that."
By 1992, Mary was 11 and life at home was unstable and dangerous. During what Mary calls "a really bad episode," her mom kicked Mary out of the house in the middle of the night. She had nowhere to go.
She crashed at different friends' houses in the neighborhood, but mostly was left to the streets to fend for herself. On one of these homeless nights, when she was out with a play cousin, the course of her life shifted direction. She and a friend tried to go for a joyride in an abandoned car, but hit the bumper of a parked car and flipped over. Mary got hurt pretty badly — glass from the broken window was embedded in her arm — and she got picked up by the police. The next thing she knew, she was in the hospital, handcuffed to the bed.
Mary was forced to grow up fast on the streets. But in that moment, she was just a kid in a scary place with no adult and no comfort. After the accident, she had to have multiple surgeries to remove the glass from her forearm and skin grafts to let her arm heal.
After about a week, her mom showed up at the hospital — still visibly in the midst of a schizophrenic episode — along with someone from the Department of Human Services. At 11, Mary was given a choice: Go back with her mom or leave with the DHS worker.
"I just wanted to be in a place where I would have a routine and people that cared about me and some structure," Mary says. She opted to go into the system, she says, because she knew her mom wasn't in a state to be able to parent.
Mary was taken to an orphanage, which used to be called Southern Home for Destitute Children, when she was still recovering from surgeries to repair her arm. Basically, she says, she left one type of hospitalization for another.
"I just remember it being really institutional, you know?" she says. "White walls everywhere; heavy gray doors that lock once you enter; you had to be buzzed on and off the unit."
This was her introduction to being a ward of the state. She was barely there a few hours before she witnessed another kid in the unit being disciplined. She says he was around 8 or 9 years old.
"I remember him being thrown to the floor with his arm behind his back and being restrained," she says. "I definitely wasn't feeling too safe anymore. I had this new awareness, like: This is not going to be like a place where you meet family — brothers and sisters and kids your age — and, you know, have fun."
At first, she wasn'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. In the classroom, at the hospital, in the dorms, she was constantly looking for an escape.
Mary still has stacks of old files that document her path as a ward. These records show her early encounters with the "prison to prison pipeline." She says her time at Southern Home felt "like it was like a form of the carceral system — or earlier ... a baby version. It was prepping me for my eventual incarceration."
The files and transcripts paint Mary as an outspoken, sometimes rebellious teen; eventually, she was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Studies have found that 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 "more troubling to others than they are to themselves."
Even though she was still a kid, the adults in charge expected 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. A 2017 Georgetown Law Study found that Black girls as young as 5 were viewed as less innocent than white girls by adults. And the ACLU found that in Pennsylvania in particular, Black girls are four to 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. The case was thrown out.
Mary spent the bulk of her adolescence in and out of residential treatment facilities, creating a spiral of pushing back against authorities and being punished. By high school, she was sent to a facility outside Philly reserved for what the state — her guardian — deemed their most difficult cases.
As a teen preparing for the outside world, Mary had few adults to tend to her personal growth. But she did have a close circle of friends, and there was one teacher who became very invested in her potential, even giving Mary what became a sort of personal holy grail: a book, called Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization: Exploding the Myths, by Anthony Broader. It revolutionized her whole world view.
"That was one of the first books I had that shared a different narrative about Black people," she says. "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 folks partook in — different ideas around their genius. It also introduced me to different deities and archetypes — and Isis was one of them."
This goddess known for getting out of tough spots became a mother figure, role model, a way to feel connected and hopeful.
"Isis represents the ultimate creative energy creative force," she says. "She's a nurturer, a healer."
Mary felt empowered to try expressing herself through poetry and visual art, even performing for small audiences in the group home.
"Everything was happening in sync," she says. "I was finding my voice as an individual, as a young Black woman, but also as an MC."
Mary started trying to define herself outside of being an orphan and set a new goal — readying herself for independence and going to college. At 5'10", she figured sports would look good on applications and help fasttrack her options, so she went out for the basketball team at a predominately white, wealthy public school near the group home. She became the team's star athlete and was excited for the school's access to better resources than what she had at the group home — but DHS wouldn't allow her to enroll there. The rules felt arbitrary to her; it made her feel used.
"It was evident that my mind and my intellect wasn't weighed in the same value as my athletic ability," she says.
Adding to her sense of alienation and demoralization, close friends she grew up with in the group home were involved in a fatal accident just days before the State Finals — in a car she would have been in had she not missed the call about the meeting point. Shaken, she had to play the biggest game of the season while mourning the loss of her friends. She quit the team the following year, becoming even more isolated. Left without the few people she counted as family, she struggled to break through the educational barriers that she knew were her only hope for a better future.
There was no fairy godmother to save her, but for her 17th birthday, she got the next best thing: a Discman and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on CD. That album became her constant companion and her favorite escape. She listened to it walking around the group home, during car rides and bus trips, before bed, between classes. She felt empowered as she sang and rapped along, taking in the lyrics and hyping herself up with her solo discman performances.
She says "That Thing" was inspiring, an encouragement to young girls to hold themselves to a higher standard. And she was a big fan of Nas, so she loved Hill's collab with him, "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)."
"I just remember, in the song, it was just like: 'Imagine that, imagine that, imagine that,'" she says. "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 is meant to diminish and just crush your spirit."
So she doubled down on her efforts to get into college — and finally, her ticket came when she got accepted into Penn State. "It felt kind of like a fresh start," she says. Her case worker helped her officially emancipate from the state after graduation to get the full financial aid, which meant living at a shelter until school started.
On the first day of school, her case worker came to pick her up. "He drove me to State College with my two trash bags and dropped me off," she says. Pretty soon, she started to feel out of place, as she noticed the other students — the majority of whom were white — being dropped off and unloading all their belongings.
"They got microwaves; they got all the stuff they need," she says. "And I just got these two trash bags."
Still, she settled in the best she could. She followed her curiosity about her favorite Nile Valley book and declared a major in African American studies, even spending half a semester abroad in Kenya to study the roots of Black culture up close for herself.
After her immersive cultural experience abroad, it was especially hard to suddenly be a minority on campus again. What she really needed, she says, was mentorship and support.
By her junior year, exhausted from the academic and financial struggle, Mary couldn't keep her grades up or afford tuition. Eventually, she dropped out. Since college had been her one plan, there wasn't a lot of foundation to return to once that prospect faded. She says she tried applying for jobs without much luck.
With nowhere to live, she was sleeping in parks around Philly and couch-hopping when she started to evaluate her options.
"Selling narcotics was a survival crime," she says. "I mean, for me, it's like: If I don't make this choice, then how am I to feed myself? ... There was no other alternative for me."
She returned to Centre County, where Penn State is; she knew all those well-resourced college students were potential customers. Her hustle provided some resources, but she was still struggling. So she crossed a new line: One day, while going to pick up weed with a friend, she saw the dealer had a lockbox in her apartment for both the drugs and the cash — and she and the friend decided to return later to take them. But the lockbox was emptied by the time they got there, so Mary took a ring of keys with a supermarket credit card attached to them. She swiped for a couple hundred dollars worth of groceries — first at one store, then at another— but the card got declined, so she tried at a third. That's when the police arrived.
She was arrested and charged with burglary and receiving stolen property, and was released on bail. The case dragged on for about a year, and when Mary went for sentencing, she was told she'd have to serve her sentence at a later date.
"I just decided that that's not what I wanted to do," she said. Suddenly, she had gone from ward of the state to fugitive of the state.
She kept a low profile for a few months in Centre County, only going out at night. Eventually, she got stopped by the cops and arrested – but she was released after a few days. (She later found out it was due to a clerical error.) Already practiced in avoiding capture, she laid low for about a year before returning to her previous hustle. But this time, she had to be completely off the grid – selling narcotics, including cocaine and moving between Philly and Centre County — and always ready to leave when she needed to.
There may have been borrowed freedom, but there was no peace of mind. But Mary had dreams beyond survival.
"I knew I loved music," she says. "But I knew, in the back of my mind, I was already convicted of something. I knew that I would have to serve time eventually."
She was on the run for five years before everything came to a halt. She hadn't been feeling well, so she took a pregnancy test. It came back positive. After years of living moment to moment, Mary was forced to consider the future.
"I was definitely scared," she says. "But then, I felt like, finally, I might have something to live for."
A trip to the hospital early in her pregnancy revealed that she was carrying a boy. Mary and the baby's father decide to move in together in Philly to co-parent. Despite the timing, and the fact that she was on the run, it felt like a miracle to her that she would soon have a family. She was far from her days of needing the myth of Isis as a proxy mother; now, she'd get to experience the power of motherhood herself.
Mary remembers being excited about buying baby clothes, reading books about motherhood and talking to her son. But she also needed to find legal ways to provide for the baby, which included getting an ID to be eligible for food stamps, as money was getting low. She was thinking about getting out of town to hustle and called one of her main customers. That's when she learned she was on the news and in the paper as a fugitive on the run in a round-up of dealers in the area.
The charges she was on the run for were starting to stack up: first, the groceries, and now, her street-level dealing. She realized her time had run out.
On a December night in 2007, she was staying at her son's father's house in Philly when she heard a knock at the door. She heard voices at the door and saw flashlights, and thought maybe she shouldn't open it. But she knew she couldn't keep running.
In the first major decision she made as a mother, she opened the door, where she saw police with several bench warrants. She was arrested the same day she turned nine months pregnant.
Even though she was pregnant, Mary was subject to protocols at Riverside Correctional Facility that were originally meant for cis men — since that's all that prison health systems are designed to accomodate, even though thousands of pregnant women are incarcerated every year. (The available numbers don't account for non-binary and trans prisoners who might also be pregnant.) Dozens of states don't even require medical examinations or prenatal nutrition counseling for incarcerated pregnant people.
Mary had no idea how long her sentence would be, when she would go into labor, or what her birthing plan would be. And three days after she arrived, she says, her water broke. It was around 4:30 in the morning.
"I had to call for a guard," she says, "and because it was so close to the shift ending, the guards were trying to convince the doctor on call to deliver my baby in a prison, because they didn't want to go out to the hospital and extend their shift or do the paperwork. I remember the doctor saying, 'I'm not delivering her baby. She needs to go out to the hospital.'"
She was shackled at her hands and feet, in labor, and put into a van. When she got to the hospital, she was handcuffed to the bed. After 43 painful hours of labor, she finally had an emergency C-section.
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. Just one year before Mary gave birth in 2007, the United Nations told the United States that shackling during childbirth is a violation of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. And in the context of African-American motherhood, it's a relic of a tortourous institution of chattel slavery.
Even though her imprisonment determined the inhumane conditions and isolation of her birthing experience, Mary was determined to make the most of what little bonding time she had with her son in his first few days of life.
"My only request in a hospital was that they not handcuff my hands and just handcuffed my legs," she says, "so that I'll be able to hold my son."
And she was certain of his name: Rasir. The name is taken from two Egyptian gods: Ra, who embodies the energy of the sun; and Osiris, the god of resurrection.
After four days, Rasir was taken away from Mary and sent to live with his father. But the birthing process didn'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 stayed in the hospital for another six days due to medical trauma and complications from the birth. When she knew she had to go back to prison, she advocated to go to the medical unit, hoping to get the care she needed.
But her recovery from giving birth became synonymous instead with punishment. The medical unit was "essentially solitary confinement," she says. "It was torture. It was horrible."
When Mary got a clean bill of health, she went back to general population. Then, nearly three months after getting arrested, she learned the terms of her sentence; she was charged with possession, intent to deliver, delivery of cocaine and criminal use of a cell phone, in addition to her previous charges of burglary and receiving stolen property.
At arraignment, the judge sentenced Mary to a minimum of six months at Centre Country Correctional Facility — nearly four hours away from Rasir. She was completely alone with no access to postpartum care during 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.
But it's from this deep pit that Mary recovered a small seed of hope planted within her. It was the history of our shackled ancestors, the myth of Isis, a mother goddess who healed the world around her, and the little ray of sunshine she longed to see again.
In July 2008, eight months after she was arrested, Mary set foot into the blinding light of a midsummer day: free, at last. Her godsister Teisha drove her to where Rasir was living with his dad. Mary was nervous.
"I came in and he just crawled right to me," she says. "I picked him up and it wasn't like I was foreign, you know what I mean? I did have that apprehension, like: Is he gonna recognize me? But he knew I was his mom."
Mary's first month home was a crash course in parenting, and in getting caught up with the life she'd been barred from: getting to know her son, celebrating his developmental milestones and soaking up the joy of their long-awaited reunion.
Mary was determined to not let Rasir's birth in the prison system define the story, or trajectory, of his life. One of the biggest challenges of re-entry is getting and keeping a job, especially when you have to "check the box" on having a conviction on your record. But Mary was persistent, and eventually found work and an apartment for her and Rasir. Over time, Mary and Rasir built a life together: She took him to preschool and went to work; she read to him before bed.
In 2011, after a few years of this routine, she reconnected with an old friend from the group home who asked her when she'd start rapping again. It rekindled her interest. In quiet moments between work and taking care of her son, Mary picked up her pen and started writing, playing with the rhythm of her words and finding her voice again. She set up a studio in her bedroom and any spare funds went towards her music. She extracted the venom from her own life and began to mythologize her experiences as Isis.
"In the Egyptian mythology story, [Isis] avenges her husband's murder, which is a metaphor for consciousness and how it's fragmented," she explains. "So Isis Tha Saviour is a goddess and she fights for the consciousness of humanity."
As a rapper, she fully embodied 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 started performing at open mics. At first, she was full of nerves, wearing sunglasses so she didn't have to look at the crowd when performing at cyphers in the underground Philly rap scene. Soon, she was playing showcases at bigger indie theaters, making flyers and posting DIY music videos online. She got comfortable enough to lose the sunglasses and she was lethal on the mic. And she did it all herself — all while working a job, going to school and being a mom to Rasir.
In 2011 and 2012, the Philly Hip Hop Awards nominated her for female freshman, lyricist and female rap artist of the year. Then in 2013, they invited her to compete in a high-profile cypher. Even Meek Mill was there. When the awards played on TV, Mary waited to see her part — but it got cut out. So she started an online campaign, calling it the Philly Fraud Awards, and pressured them into giving her the footage. Then, she edited it herself to post online.
Despite her fans throwing their support behind her in the comments section, Mary realized being in the room is not the same as having a seat at the table. She says a lot of well-meaning peers in the scene advised her to "put the medicine in the candy," but that never felt authentic for her.
"The origins of [hip-hop] started with the need for folks to have a voice," she says, "to articulate all of poverty's systemic oppression and things they were enduring and the ghettos of America. And then somehow corporate America got ahold of it. Think about the context. Slavery, where we were products — our physical bodies were products — and who was behind that industry? Old white men. Think about the music industry: It's really, like, only five labels in the world, and who owns them? Old white men funding Black toxicity. Same story."
Frustrated that her music wasn't being taken seriously, Mary decided to get her associate degree in art and design from Community College of Philadelphia. She graduated with offers from top-tier art schools, like NYU and University of Chicago, but couldn't afford tuition. So she decided to change gears, returning to CCP to study human services.
It was difficult to juggle school, music and several jobs; on top of that, the apartment she was renting went into foreclosure, leaving her and Rasir to couch-surf. But she kept sending him to an Afrocentric private school and refused to leave college, even maintaining a 3.7 GPA. She wanted to set a good example for her son about the power of education to help create a stable life.
The endless grind finally gave way to a big breakthrough in 2017: A friend told her about the Right of Return Fellowship, a brand-new program for formerly incarcerated artists. She applied, and out of 300 applicants nationwide, she was one of seven winners. Her prize was $20,000. Just a day earlier, she had had $3.56 in her bank account.
"For me, that was really liberating and empowering," she says, "as an artist — especially a formerly incarcerated artist, where you have all the stigma against you, your character and what you're capable of."
Things quickly shifted into high gear as her art and activism converged. News of Mary's fellowship began to make headlines. Next thing she knew, she was in Rolling Stone, in PSAs with Common and part of nationwide campaigns advocating for mothers and children to stay connected.
Her art became a gateway to push for dignity for incarcerated people. Soon, she was working with celebrities and politicians — including future Vice President Kamala Harris, on legislation to ban the shackling of pregnant people during birth, and other measures, like free phone calls for caregivers of children, free menstrual products and a requirement that parents serve their sentences no more than 100 miles from their families.
Mary's work isn't just political. It's personal. Today, at 12 years old, Rasir is just near the age Mary was when she chose to give herself up to the state. And his life couldn't be more different than hers was at that age. He's free to be a kid. Mary's done everything in her power to protect and nourish his talents.
Mary's work is gaining recognition in the art world, and her music videos — including work she made during her Right of Return fellowship — 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. Curated by Dr. Nicole Fleetwood, it features formerly and currently incarcerated artists. When I visited earlier this year, Fleetwood walked me through the gallery; together, we took in the carceral oranges and blues of the work around us — including a video tryptic by Mary, about how race and gender intersected her carceral experience, called "Ain't I A Woman."
"Mary has a gift of being able to ... make art that's deeply personal and about her individual experience," Fleetwood says, "and to connect it to really broad historical frameworks, political issues [and] national conversations, and to do that seamlessly and fluently."
Fleetwood has created an entire subcategory of art criticism — carceral aesthetics — as a way of understanding the toll of the carceral system through visual art, bringing language and visibility to this invisible structure. She says that art-making — using the tools, time and experience of incarceration — is a radical reclamation of personhood.
"When you're in prison, every millisecond of the day you're being punished," she explains. "What happens when free people resist the brutality, the dehumanization of prisons, and use that space and that time and those material constraints at the service of art-making? To take that punitive rendering of oneself and to turn that into a kind of claiming of artistry in aesthetic practice, to me, is quite revolutionary."
Like the goddess Isis, Mary was able to extend her own healing into the world around her. One of the main goals of her work, she says, is to heal communities. "Wherever people go, we create a sense of family," she says. "We create a sense of community for our survival. No man is an island."
This story consists of material published within an episode of the NPR Music podcast Louder Than A Riot. It includes editing and reporting by Sidney Madden, Rodney Carmichael, Sam Leeds, Matt Ozug, Babette Thomas, Rachel Neel, Jacob Ganz and Marissa Lorusso.
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