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For many, the freshman year of high school marks an awkward era of becoming, gauged, in part, by whether you can earn your own nickname outside family lines. By the time she entered Capitol Hill’s Eastern Senior High School in 1992, Ronita Overton had earned four. Overton’s pandemic creations—her first book, Sometimes the King is a Woman, and her first single, “Champagne Me Please”—demonstrate how names have the power to shape and reinforce identity. But there’s also the whispered question: What comes first—name or identity?
Overton grew up in Southeast D.C.—a place where “either you’re gonna make it or it’s gonna break you”—in the ’80s and ’90s, she tells City Paper. She served in the U.S. Army from 1996 to 2000. Most recently, she worked in property management before authoring her first book last year on surviving the streets of D.C. She had long wanted to do for others what authors of success stories had done for her: help them realize what was possible even for someone from Congress Park, even for someone whose family was rattled by the crack epidemic. But she was haunted by feelings of insufficiency. Then, on President’s Day 2020, a car crash left Overton severely injured and severely reevaluating her past and future.
“I felt like I hadn’t done enough … hadn’t accomplished enough,” Overton says. “Then I had that car accident. [It] put the mirror up to your face to say, ‘Hey, you’ve done a whole lot. And you’ve overcome, there’s a whole lot, and somebody out here like you … Your situation could help them.’”
As close as Overton was to her family, both biological and chosen, there were parts of her they would never know unless she wrote them. So she did. Likewise, it’s her come-up story that influences her music.
Overton’s father figure during the chaos of D.C.’s “crack years,” as she describes the ’80s in her book, gifted her the nickname “Dumb Dora,” a term of endearment he wrapped in irony. It taught 10-year-old Overton not to care what others thought of her. It was also a nickname she won through wits, absorbing nuggets from adults who wielded them and following instincts on who to trust in a revolving home life.
In the summer of 1989, an eviction separated 12-year-old Overton from her mother and moved her onto a couch in a family friend’s Congress Park apartment. “Rocky” Overton survived Southeast D.C. during its “murder capital” years by embodying the fictional boxer. The nickname was given to her by the neighborhood guys known as the Congress Heights Crew after she socked one of them in the mouth for shoving her. She wasn’t going to take it, new girl on the Park or not.
When Overton started at Eliot Junior High School that fall, her own girls’ crew, the self-proclaimed ninth-grade “Honeys”—who she calls the most popular group of girls in middle school—knighted her “Dude.” She didn’t fall in love with the moniker, but it solidified during a school basketball game when fans chanted it over and over during Dude’s victory. In the simple name she began to see another fictional legend, this time one that embodied cool instead of struggle: The Fonz.
Like the Happy Days character, Overton had always revered mother figures, starting with her matriarch grandmother “Big Liz,” who taught her to “take no wooden nickels” (aka bullshit), and a “CEO” mother who schooled her family about sticking together. Not unlike the Fonz, Overton coached little-brother figures in street smarts; she also holds a soft spot for sweet rides, like her old 2000 Porsche 911 Carrera. And she was both a wingperson and the life of the party.
“Dude gave me an identity,” says Overton. “It’s like I know everybody: ‘We’re having a party? Let me invite Dude. Dude gonna know all the chicks.’ … And it’s still like that now.”
Even when “Ra” stuck as a nickname in high school, Overton kept “Dude” close. When Overton left a six-figure corporate job in government property management in March 2020 to freelance, write, and record music, King Dude Tha Artist became her rapper name. Leaving a toxic workplace that acted as a boys’ club with alleged racist practices and employers who resisted her work-health boundaries while she was recovering from a car crash, Overton dug even deeper into her roots: storytelling about life in Southeast—Dude and all. Her song, “Champagne Me Please,” released in July 2021, reinforces not just a rapper’s braggadocio but the bastion of becoming: “What’s my motherfucking name? I’m Dude/ Collar popped like the Fonz … I’m cool!”
Keisha Stanley, a close friend from high school who Overton endearingly called a “nerd,” remembers Overton embodied these nickname associations—even if Stanley refrained from calling her friend “Dude.” Overton, who she simply called Ronita, was voted loudest in their class.
“So imagine, a quiet girl just coming to school, when you see this person in the hall, loud, and she’s greeting everybody,” Stanley says. “She was posted up. So we met each other because every day I would just see her and her energy—she has always been a ball of energy.”
Stanley wouldn’t realize until years later that Overton was often homeless during high school. It was hard to see tough times reflecting off her friend’s Versace or Tom Ford shades while Overton lived life as loud as her voice. Stanley laughs over memories of Overton posing as a 25-year-old “Bahamas Jerry” on their senior trip to the nation of the same name, or simply making an entrance.
“She’s the person that shows up in the middle of winter with sunglasses on and you can’t tell her that she isn’t the coolest person in the building,” Stanley says.
Underlying Overton’s loudness was a steady beat of grounded goals. She would share her dreams of foreign cars, lifelong excursions, and early retirement with Stanley while both girls swapped success stories of Black people who had made it out of the hood. (For Overton, Jay-Z was, and remains, king.)
This storytelling was the crux of their friendship, so, unlike some other friends and acquaintances of Overton’s, Stanley wasn’t surprised when Overton told her she was planning to pen a memoir. Stanley quickly introduced her two cousins, who happen to be published authors, to Overton and also helped her find a public relations representative.
The rapping was a different story. Her childhood friend couldn’t have imagined the ensuing professional studio setup, the production featuring a kaleidoscope of Havana hats and pastel suits, a canary yellow bicycle, layers of gold chains, and Champagne-pouring that made for a hit music video. (“I’m like, ‘We’re too old to be rapping, what are you doing?’” Stanley says, chuckling.)
But Overton says she doesn’t expect to be the next superstar rapper. Her music is about bringing her Fonz meets Southeast style, and if that manages to affect even one person that’ll be a win. And that goal may already have been achieved: When she visits her family, her nieces, who are 6 and 4, serenade her with “Champagne Me Please.”
“I don’t care about anybody else,” Overton says. “Because these two people, who I love more than anything else, have already said that I’m a star in their eyes.”
“Champagne Me Please” is itself a creature of its name, borne out of Overton’s turn of phrase while requesting her drink of choice at a photo shoot for her book. Amid bottle-popping, Overton walked up to her assistant “homegirl” and asked her to “Champagne me, please.” Her camera person followed, then other attendees. The request sounded like music to her hip-hop loving ears. Overton immediately started planning her lyrics. While she had never written a rap song before, she had a lifelong penchant for speaking in rhymes and busting out in catchphrases such as “make your next move your best move.”
Her uncle J.J., with whom she grew up, always had a “slick” way of speaking, she describes in her memoir, hitting folks with phrases like “talk to me quick” or “hittin’ and stickin’ like Popeye’s Chicken.”
The song’s lyrics are code for more than the bougie lifestyle. They are about defying societal expectations of what different people should and shouldn’t have.
“The norm says that, because I’m an African American … I shouldn’t even be thinking about getting [a Porsche],” Overton says. “I want everything they say I can’t have … I go everywhere I want to go, I buy what I want to buy. And there’s nothing [they] can do about it. Financial freedom provides you that.”
Champagne, she says, also speaks to toasting major milestones: the birth of a baby, marriage, starting a new business, buying a house. The celebration is more radical still when you’ve overcome systemic setbacks—such as working in a White male-dominated field as a Black gay woman without a college degree—and continue toasting to “life after the pain,” Overton explains.
“Society doesn’t expect Black people to be happy,” she says. “They expect oppression [for] us.”
Overton has been physically assaulted multiple times for being a masculine-presenting woman, she notes, showing a scar on her left cheek. She has harnessed her survival skills from the streets and her time in the military: staying aware of her surroundings, adapting to the situation, and not leaving home without a pocket knife.
“That might seem strange to you … but that’s my last form of protection,” she says. “People that don’t like gay people, they might want to engage with me. And if I don’t respond the right way to them, it could be a confrontation. So I have my knife and I got PTSD … I had a corporate job, I took [my knife] to work. Because I come from a place that things could change very quickly at any time, and you gotta be prepared.”
In Sometimes the King is a Woman, Overton shares stories of her sexual encounters with men as a young teen, passages that reflect her commitment to honesty. Stanley recalls being shocked about Overton’s relationships with men when she read the book; she didn’t know that part of her friend’s life. For Overton, it’s important for people to understand that the path of coming into one’s sexuality and self-learning may be more labyrinthine than straight.
Overton has been patient with others who are learning who she is and has inadvertently educated her friends’ families, Stanley says. One of Stanley’s daughters, who watched Overton become more masculine-presenting over time, one day began experimenting with Overton’s pronouns. It was a teaching moment for Stanley, who explained to her daughter that physical presentation doesn’t define the person. “[Ronita] doesn’t hide who she is, and that matters,” she says.
Already, Overton has outlined the sequel to her memoir, but wants to take a beat before delving in. She describes her first book as “really heavy,” so a recovery period is needed.
“A lot of things that I had overcome, that I had suppressed, that I had graduated from, I had to revisit it, relive it, and I’m still reliving this kind of haunting,” Overton says. “It’s haunting. It’s therapeutic. And it’s like, wow, you went through all that. But then it’s like, damn, bam, you went through all that. We forget we went through all that, so it’s almost traumatic.”
At the same time, Overton isn’t above being real about the uncertainty of her path. As an army veteran turned corporate manager turned author-rapper-entrepreneur at 43, her trajectory hasn’t exactly been linear. While working on her music, which includes dropping an EP this spring, Overton is set to collaborate with the Office of Neighborhood Engagement and Safety to teach Congress Park youth about arts and entertainment for a year. But she isn’t ruling out a return to corporate life.
As much as she likes wearing a Washington Wizards cap and Adidas hoodie while chilling at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street—or filming one of her regular inspo Facebook videos in the car—Overton also enjoys Versace, Hugo Boss, and Salvatore Ferragamo. There’s a reason her book cover shows her in a black and gold tuxedo jacket sitting atop a throne-like white and gold chair in front of her old Congress Park Plaza home.
“I’m an entrepreneur, but if the price is right, I might go back,” she says. “You got a certain type of lifestyle that is different—that champagne life … you know? It’s different.”
Ronita Overton’s Sometimes the King is a Woman can be purchased online at ronitaoverton.com.