The club is packed, loud and bumping, by the time Priscilla Diaz arrives well after midnight. It’s way past her bedtime, way downtown from her Harlem home. But for P-Star, the 9-year-old hip-hop sensation, this is the moment. She bounds onstage in a cotton-candy-pink faux-fur jacket, with garish gold hoops peeking out of long curly hair. She should be nervous, a little girl in a room full of adults staring at her, waiting for her to prove herself. But P-Star owns the room—and she knows it.
“I’m the Feminist Phenomenon!” she shouts into the mic. “P-Star!”
P-Star needs little introduction here. Already, she has played several gigs at New York City clubs; she’s proved herself in a DVD rap battle, against men at least twice her age; she’s been crowned Little Miss Harlem. She is, as her nickname asserts, a phenomenon. “I’m that little girl from Harlem,” she raps to the crowd. “Did I mention that I go to school?”
The audience erupts into shouts of “P-Star!” They’re still cheering when she runs off the stage and into the arms of her manager—her father, Jesse Jess Diaz, himself a former hip-hop artist. Together, they start the long subway ride uptown, to a tiny room they share with Priscilla’s sister, Solsky, in a homeless shelter in Harlem. P-Star might be a hip-hop sensation, but she isn’t living like one—at least not yet.
Priscilla Star Diaz learned to rap from the radio and TV, the main source of entertainment for two girls living in the midst of chaos. Their mother disappeared into drug addiction when Priscilla was a baby. The girls spent time in foster care while their father was in prison for two years. He then spent two more years proving to the courts that he was a fit father in order to bring the girls home to the Bronx when Priscilla was 5. Diaz had been a rising hip-hop star and record producer back in the late ’80s, performing with a member of 2 Live Crew, and touring with Run-DMC and Ice-T. He abandoned his dream of a music career to raise his daughters. But he struggled. A car accident when Priscilla was 6 left him unable to work. Then doctors found a benign tumor in his stomach. He ballooned to 325 pounds. Sick and depressed, he barely left his room, leaving his daughters in the care of a family member, a drug addict whom Priscilla grew to love like a mother. On desperate days, she took Priscilla to the grocery store and taught her how to shoplift. “Everyone was neglected,” Priscilla says now. “We all suffered.”
But there was always music. A natural mimic, Priscilla absorbed it all—the rhythm, the moves, the delivery. She and Solsky formed their own duo, covering “No More” by the group 3LW. Solsky did the singing parts; Priscilla did the rapping, word for word, move for move. Already, she knew she had something. “I wanted to be a ‘star’ like my middle name,” she says. One night, she asked her father if she could “spit” for him. “I thought she was insulting me,” Diaz recalls.
Instead, 7-year-old Priscilla started “spitting rhymes” that she’d written herself, bouncing around the tiny kitchen, pouting and gesturing like a rapper three times her age. “When I saw her rapping, I started to see the possibility,” Diaz says. “It was amazing, that little girl doing all that herself.”
A couple of months later, after a violent scare in their apartment, Diaz packed up his daughters and left everything else behind. They moved to Harlem, to a 12′ x 12′ room in the Dawn Hotel, a homeless shelter in a neighborhood rife with drugs and gangs and violence. Their fortunes had never appeared darker. Except for one thing: Priscilla’s ambition.
“I’m going to become a star like you never could,” she told Diaz. “I’m going to get us out of here.”
Every day after school, Priscilla went home to the shelter to start work on her other education. Diaz played her hours of classic hip-hop, like DJ Tony Tone, Cold Crush Brothers, and Afrika Bambaataa, then introduced her to the artists, old friends of his from the business. He taught her how to “flow”—to turn her rhymes into performance—and took her swimming at the local Y, so she could build up her stamina for rapping and dancing on stage. He bought her yellow legal pads so she could write down her rhymes, and brought in writer friends to edit them. But the songs were her own, rap ballads about her life and the world around her—like “Daddy’s Lil Girl” and “ABCs”—or about her dreams, like “Superstar.” Like Priscilla, the songs had the musical maturity of an adult, but the sweetness of a child. “Growing up in the Bronx and Harlem, I wanted to curse and be a little thug,” Priscilla says. “But my dad wouldn’t have it. He said, ‘You’re going to be clean. That’s what [old-school] hip-hop is.’”
One night when Priscilla was 9, she and Diaz went to the corner store for a snack after a late night of practicing. Outside, they found a group of men vamping for a camera—a Smack DVD crew filming a “rap battle” for the popular series that featured amateur rappers facing off to out-rhyme each other. Diaz pushed Priscilla into the middle of the group. “Yo, this little girl can rap,” he told the crowd. “Go ahead, P.”
Priscilla hesitated for just a moment, as she looked up at the circle of men around her—huge, skeptical, intimidating. Then she went at it. Arms gesturing in their faces, P-Star freestyled a rap, while behind her, young men threw gang signs at the camera. (“It was totally inappropriate,” Priscilla says now.) By the end, they were cheering for her. “They showed me so much love,” Priscilla recalls. “I was like, ‘Yeah! I can do this!’”
Soon after, Diaz wangled P-Star her first gig, as the “featured guest” at a hip-hop club downtown. She also entered—and won—the first of several beauty contests, the first time anyone had become Little Miss Harlem after performing a rap song for the judges. For the Diazes, still crowded into the shelter, the $500 prize money was like winning the lottery. But Priscilla cared more about the thrill of being on stage and about being with her father. “I think I saved my dad,” she says. “All of it made him happy, kept him sane, kept away the depression. If he didn’t have me, rapping, where would he be? Probably dead.”
By the time she was 10, P-Star was a regular on the club circuit. In 2004, she released her first full-length mix tape with Harlem-based HUNC records, “The Young Feminist Phenomenon.” HUNC threw her a release party in Harlem, and Priscilla performed at the Apollo. Over the next couple of years, P-Star became the youngest rapper to win the Citywide Hip Hop competition; she met—and got props from—Ludacris; she was featured on MTV’s Made and You Heard It Here First. In 2003, Priscilla had met Gabriel Noble, a filmmaker who followed her to a club and back home to Harlem—and decided on the spot to turn her life into a documentary, P-Star Rising. He spent four years recording Priscilla’s life. The movie was released in 2009. “It was so obvious that she was really talented,” says Noble. “And her drive was deeper than being rich and famous. It was about bringing the family together.” After four years in a shelter, the Diazes moved to a four-bedroom apartment a few blocks away in Harlem, where Priscilla had her own room.
In 2006, P-Star signed a deal with UBO Records that gave the Diazes a $10,000 signing bonus and a leased Chrysler 300. It was the first time music had made the family any real money. Under UBO, P-Star toured to huge crowds in Mexico and Puerto Rico, and joined Reggaeton Niños, a Spanish-language children’s group whose album went platinum. “It was huge,” says Priscilla. “I was totally doing it, just like I promised my dad I would.”
But stardom wasn’t so glamorous off stage. Even with her success, the Diazes struggled to make ends meet. Within weeks, the UBO bonus was gone, spent on bills and rent and splurges like outlandish gold jewelry. Diaz had been homeschooling Priscilla while they focused on her career, but learning often took a back seat to work. Most mornings were spent rehearsing or recording; late into the night, Diaz had her writing—sometimes, says Priscilla, keeping her awake until she finished a song. The hard work propelled P-Star’s career. “Sometimes I wish my dad could still make me do things, to have that discipline,” Priscilla notes. But it was a grueling and lonely pace for a young girl. Priscilla wanted to go to the movies, or the park, or to see other kids. Diaz, worried about her safety in Harlem, rarely let her out of the apartment except for work or church. For years, the only friends Priscilla made were adults—usually men—in the music business. “My dad’s a guy, and doesn’t understand girls,” Priscilla says. “The music wasn’t making me fully happy anymore because I wasn’t happy at home.”
As she got older, Priscilla started to wonder more about her mother, whom she remembered only as a pretty face and a drug addict. (Solsky, five years older, took the absence much harder.) Every once in a while, the girls urged their father to try to find her, to make sure she was alive. Together, the three of them would pile into the car, drive to Brooklyn, and try to trace her through corner drug dealers and old friends. Usually, they had to be satisfied with rumors: Their mother was in prison; she was clean; she was just here the other day. One afternoon, with Noble filming their search, they got lucky. They ran into their mother on the street near her apartment. She ran to her “babies” and lavished them with hugs. In a nearby park, she rolled up her sleeves, and showed them her arms. “I got scars here from shooting up heroin,” she said. “You know what heroin is, right?” Their mother left them with a promise to stay in touch. Then she disappeared again.
“Seeing your mother like that should inspire you, more and more, to continue to do what you do, to be successful,” Diaz told Priscilla afterwards. “That could happen to anybody.”
But Priscilla was wearying of the pace, and of the business. “It became a job, a power structure,” says Noble. “She became disenchanted, and pulled in all different directions.”
Priscilla fought with Diaz over how he was managing her and her work; Diaz fought with the producers and promoters over money and P-Star’s image. During recording sessions at UBO, the label brought in writers to pen new songs for P-Star, who by now was a 13-year-old girl with distinct ideas of her own. “I like talking about issues in my songs,” Priscilla says. “They had me singing songs like, ‘Jump.’ What are we jumping about?’” Then, just as the album was about to be released, UBO went bankrupt—and P-Star had to start all over. Again, she found herself bristling at everyone else’s ideas for her music, her career, her life. “I worked really hard to get where I was, and I felt like I deserved more than I was getting,” she says. “I wanted the chance to be me.”
Still, it wasn’t easy telling that to her father. For years, Priscilla had been daddy’s girl, following his direction, keeping him alive with their shared dream of superstardom—of making up for the music career he had lost. Even as their relationship grew increasingly tense, she couldn’t bear the thought of crushing that hope. In a scene near the end of P-Star Rising, Priscilla finally confronts Diaz. “You always look at the past,” she told him. “The past, the past, the past. You got to learn how to let it go. Stop talking about the music and what it meant back then. You got to move forward.”
After that confrontation, something shifted for Priscilla. She released Welcome To My Show in 2008, and the soundtrack for P-Star Rising a year later. With Diaz, she toured Japan and recorded a couple of songs in Japanese. Then she walked away from her hip-hop recording career, at least for a time.
But 13-year-old Priscilla wasn’t going to give up performing. A few months after she left the studio, she secured an audition with one of the most prestigious agents in New York, who handed her two commercial scripts, and asked her to do a reading. Priscilla had barely begun when the agent interrupted. “You can’t read,” she said. “How do you expect to make it in this industry if you can’t read? How do you expect to amount to anything?”
Priscilla was stunned—and humiliated. She could no longer deny what she’d known for years: She could write her own lyrics and read what she’d jotted down. But she was effectively illiterate. “That really changed my perspective,” she says. “It made me realize there has to be more than just music and entertainment in my life right now. I needed to go back to a traditional school.” Still, Priscilla went on one more audition, for the new educational program The Electric Company on PBS, where she impressed executive producer Karen Fowler with her authenticity and her comfort in working with adults. The irony wasn’t lost on her. “There I was, trying to teach kids how to read,” she says. “But there were words in the script I’d never seen before.”
Fowler realized only later the depth of Priscilla’s illiteracy. By then, she’d hired her to play Jessica Ruiz on the PBS show—a job that came with a tutor. “From then on, if I wasn’t on the set, I was in tutoring,” says Priscilla. “Even if I wasn’t shooting that day, I had to be there for tutoring. I was getting overtime because I was so behind.”
Two years later, Fowler helped Priscilla get into a high school on the Lower East Side, where she started 10th grade a year late—and got honors her first semester. Priscilla took to school the same joy she used to take to a nightclub stage. She became a cheerleader and studied abroad in Europe. She also made a best friend, for the first time in her life. “I knew [Priscilla] was smart when I first met her,” Fowler says. “When she went to school, I saw how proud she was, how delighted to be part of that community and validated as a smart person.”
Through her work on The Electric Company, Priscilla was earning a weekly paycheck. But she still was not financially secure. Because she was a minor, by law 15 percent of her salary went into a trust fund. The rest went to her father. “I needed money to go to school, to take care of myself, make sure there was food for me to eat,” she says. “But there were times when I never saw the check. The money was disappearing.” Diaz says he earned the money by acting as Priscilla’s manager, agent, and promoter—and that he spent most of it to support the family. But, unmoored by what he considered the end of another music industry dream, Diaz fell back into depression complicated by an on-and-off dependence on prescription pills. He spent weeks at a time holed up in his room, oblivious to his daughter’s entreaties. Then he snapped out of it again, with no explanation. “When he’s straight-minded and positive, he’s a great, funny man, who’s generous and knows what he’s doing,” Priscilla says. “But it didn’t last.”
Priscilla had spent most of her childhood worried about Diaz—a diabetes diagnosis, his depression, his tumor. Now she began to resent the instability that always surrounded them. Even as she thrived in school and work, Priscilla at 16 began to suffer from her own depression that, like her dad’s, lasted for weeks at a time. She felt angry and tired and lost. “I think there was always something that was too much for me, my whole life,” she says. “Worrying about my dad, about finances, about school. Every year there was some new problem.”
In the midst of all this, Priscilla and Diaz constantly argued—over money, over Priscilla’s behavior, over old resentments. One evening, Priscilla came home to find Diaz depressed again. They started fighting, and Diaz kicked her out. “He wasn’t in a right frame of mind,” Priscilla says. “So he told me to leave—and not come back.”
That was the last time Priscilla lived with her father. Both say that change probably saved them. Priscilla moved in with Fowler in New Jersey, where she stayed until she graduated from high school. There, she had a room, a desk, a fridge full of food, and a house full of women—Fowler, her daughter, and her live-in nanny. “It was a very different environment for her,” Fowler says. “I think she needed that at that time.” For months, Priscilla barely spoke to Diaz, except to tell him she was OK. Slowly, they started to build up their relationship again. Diaz occasionally asked Priscilla to play a gig or to come to the recording studio. Despite their differences, he still held out hope that P-Star would make a comeback, even naming her next record: “The Reintroduction of Miss P-Star.”
Instead, Priscilla did something even more amazing: She decided to go to college. She heard about Denison through the Posse Program, a national organization that partners with colleges to offer full scholarships to promising students in urban areas. Though Denison brings in students from Boston and Chicago, it isn’t affiliated with Posse New York, but the admissions office wanted Priscilla anyway and found other means to offer her a full scholarship. Priscilla, a member of the Class of 2017, arrived in Granville last year and joined the theater program, hoping eventually to restart her music and acting careers, and to run a kids’ theater program in New York City. First however, she wants to focus on learning. “I got to college before Solsky did, before my father did, before anyone in my family,” she says. “I know I can do entertainment. What I didn’t know was that I could finish my education.”
Now 20, P-Star returns home in the summer to the same apartment in Harlem that she, her sister, and her dad moved into when she was 11. Her father decided to move to the Dominican Republic with a woman named Massiel, whom he has loved for 19 years. They got married, and Diaz started a new life. Now, Priscilla says, she appreciates him in a way she couldn’t before. “We’re super close,” she says. “After everything, he’s my father. He took on so much when he wasn’t ready for it. If he hadn’t taken me out of foster care, who knows where I’d be?” She’s also hoping to build a relationship with her mother, who got clean and reached out to her daughters when Priscilla was 16. “I’m at a point in my life where I’m finding out a lot about myself. I know the Dad part of me. I’m glad to get to know the Mom part, too.” Priscilla’s older sister Solsky is studying to become a nursing assistant.
The streets around Priscilla’s apartment are different from the way they were when she grew up there. And so is she. She’s still solitary, but she says she’s not so much lonely as focused, and that as she gets to know her adult self, she grows happier with who she is. Over the years, she has ventured back into the studio to record; this past summer, she did 20 songs, and plans to record several more over winter break. She hopes to release a new P-Star record next summer. This one will be a blending of song and rap, vastly different from her last, not only because the music is different, but also because she wants it to be different. “I know how I want my album to be, how I want to be. This time, I’m in charge.”
Roxanne Patel Shepelavy is a freelance magazine writer living in Philadelphia, Pa. Her work has appeared in Details, Self, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Washingtonian and Philadelphia magazines.