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  • Voletta Wallace Stepping out of her sons shadow

    It was challenging enough, in the chokehold of grief, to start piecing together a life without her only child, Christoper, aka Biggie Smalls, the rap superstar shot dead at 24. So when his associates, bowing to his memory, began showering Voletta Wallace with honorifics, she flinched. How, she wondered at the start of her untimely mourning, could she avoid languishing in the shadow of her famous son, aka Notorious B.I.G. (Business Instead of Game)?
    "When he passed away, I lost my whole identity. Before I was 'Miss Wallace' or 'Voletta,'" said the retired schoolteacher, 59. "Now, people in the industry pass and say 'Hi Mom' or 'Hi Mama Wallace' when they see me. I don't like it that much, I just accept it."

    The uninvited courtesies are among the losses and gains detailed in "Biggie: Voletta Wallace Remembers Her Son," part photo album, part maternal reminiscence and music industry critique, part reflection on how her boy's violent lyrics came to life in his gangland-style murder outside a Los Angeles awards show in 1997.

    Slated for release today by Atria Books, the memoir is Wallace's attempt to separate the public persona from what she knew and believed privately about her son, whose killer is still at large. It is the most recent of four books about the phenom of Biggie Smalls - his second CD, released posthumously, is the hottest-selling of all hip-hop albums - and it also represents Wallace's restaking of claims to herself.

    Her life since her son's murder, according to Wallace's memoir, has been a series of battles and triumphs, bitter and sweet. Among the hardships are two bouts of breast cancer - pre- and post-1997 - the second so crippling that it dragged what was to have been eight months of book co-authoring on for almost two years (her cancer is in remission). "This is my book. This I got paid for. It's my story. I hope this book brings a kind of closure, and that the people who read it get to know me better," she said.

    Wallace was seated on a sofa in an added-on back lounge of the house she swapped for her former digs in Brooklyn five years ago. On those grounds in the near reaches of Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, she maintains three gardens, and one recent day was plucking what remained of the dahlias and marigolds. The pumpkins she had not managed to dole out to neighbors were piled on her garage floor. Green tomatoes were huddled in a kitchen basket.

    The place is her sanctuary, she said, showing off photographs of friends and relatives as they relaxed around her backyard pool. Smiling from one is the granddaughter who lives next door with her mother, a former girlfriend of Biggie's. In another, the grandson who resides in California with his famous neo-soul singer mother, Faith Evans, Biggie's widow, who wrote the book's foreword.

    "My son grew up to become responsible for himself, and we talked all the time. He shared with me things about his world, and I shared things about mine. He and I laughed together a lot," she said. "Then, all of a sudden, he was not there anymore. All I did was step forward to claim him, to identify him, to say goodbye to him - and all hell broke loose."

    Honor student to dealer:

    Before his fame, Biggie Smalls was an honor-roll student who dropped out at 17 and became a small-time crack dealer. The platinum-selling "Ready to Die" marked his 1994 debut, which he followed up with several singles and collaborations with artists including Lil' Kim, Sean Combs and Tupac Shakur. Shakur's drive-by murder at age 25, in Las Vegas, also is unresolved. He and Biggie eventually found themselves at opposite ends of a much touted, to-the-death, East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry.

    "In my heart, I do believe that if he was not in the music business, he'd be alive today," Wallace said.

    She is preparing to refile a wrongful death lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department. In July, a federal judge declared a mistrial in the case, while ruling that a police detective deliberately withheld evidence. Wallace, among others, has alleged that a former Los Angeles detective followed orders from Death Row Records founder Marion "Suge" Knight to orchestrate Biggie's slaying. (Knight was released from federal detention in 2001 after serving half of a nine-year sentence for assault, a violation of his probation for an early conviction.) The Los Angeles City Council in August rejected Wallace's offer to allow that body to settle her suit by paying $18 million.

    The legal wrangling is part of the undone business of loving her son, she said, and of keeping his legacy. That includes the Brooklyn-based Christopher Wallace Memorial Foundation, established in 1998 to serve disadvantaged kids, which has hired two full-time administrators.

    Wallace also has partnered with Antoine Fuqua, director of the 2001 film "Training Day," for a biopic on her Bedford-Stuyvesant-bred son. Filming starts in February. And "Blue Eyes Meets Bed-Stuy" - a CD with Biggie beats tossed up with samplings from Frank Sinatra - came out in July.

    The lyrics driving Biggie Smalls' fame - he borrowed that nickname from a gangster in the 1975 film "Let's Do It Again" - were an amplification of assorted dysfunctions of ghetto life. But they were not the sort of language easily embraced by his mother, who, as a dutiful Jehovah's Witness, evangelizes door-to-door. She says she didn't listen to his work until Biggie was in the grave. As a mother, she said, she cannot help finding traces of genius in it, despite its misogyny and other brutalities.

    "I cried the first time I listened because so much profanity was there. They were grotesque stories about the stink of the world, but they also read so beautifully to me," Wallace said.

    Finding her voice:

    From her mountainside retreat, Wallace poured into her memoir points she believed required some clarity, said co-writer Tremell McKenzie, a journalist. The memoir allows Wallace "to speak. It gives her voice," McKenzie said. "It lets her say what she couldn't tell Biggie before because she thought it would hurt him. ... While she knows he would be alive had he not become a rapper - that's obvious - she's happy he was doing exactly what he wanted to right up to the very end. She wouldn't have it any other way."

    Caribbean-born Wallace moved to New York City from Jamaica when she was 19, seeking an education and economic uplift. She has won much here, she said, and also suffered in spirit and body. Her son's father was a married man, she writes, but she was unaware of that when the baby was conceived.

    Her two bouts of cancer have been, perhaps, more punishment than a single person should have to bear. "But I always live with the hope of something better ... that, in paradise, I'll have my two beautiful breasts again. My bald head - I live with the hope of having my wonderful locks again," she said, pausing, tears welling up behind her eyeglasses. "And I live with the hope that I will see my son again."

    Pre-order "Biggie : Voletta Wallace Remembers Her Son, Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G. (Hardcover)"
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