As I sit down to write this, it is November 9th, 2016. Yesterday, our country held its first presidential election in over 50 years in which voters took to the polls without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. As I sit here, I have no idea to what extent that may or may not have affected what happened in the election. But it feels appropriate to reflect on how it may have here, because it was the gutting of the Voting Rights Act that formed the backdrop to the summer that I met Kelly.
It was June 2013, and Kelly and I were just a few weeks into our time as legal interns at the Global Justice Center when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg walked out to the bench, wearing her now-infamous embellished jabot reserved solely for disagreement, and delivered her scathing dissent in Shelby County v. Holder. “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the VRA,” she admonished. This, and other fiery one liners, about throwing away umbrellas during rainstorms and the past being prologue, caught the attention of lawyers-in-training like Kelly and me. Justice Ginsburg was closing her record-breaking term of reading dissents from the bench, quickly her “Notorious” title, and progressives and advocates were paying attention. Progressive millennials wrangled their anger in the way they do best and before we knew it, 80 year-old, 5′ 1″, Jewish grandmother RBG had exploded into an online pop culture phenomenon. Shana, Kelly’s classmate at NYU, created her Notorious RBG tumblr and “Notorious RBG” t-shirts were being sold everywhere. Kelly and I, angry about what we fundamentally felt was the destruction of vital protections that progressives and advocates before us had worked so hard to achieve, each wanted one.
We agreed to wear our shirts to work on the same day. Upon seeing Kelly and me at the office, Janet Benshoof, President of GJC, immediately suggested we parody a Notorious B.I.G. song to honor our revered Justice. Kelly and I initially laughed at the suggestion but Janet doubled down. “I’m serious. Do it and I’ll send it to her. I have her address.”
Kelly, Mat, and I spent the next work day rewriting the lyrics to “Juicy.” We then recorded the song and, along with the rest of the GJC staff, created a music video. “I feel so goofy!” Kelly exclaimed in between takes. She blushed and giggled at herself as she stretched out on our office couch that was draped in gold lamé for the occasion (still not sure how or why our boss Akila happened to have gold lamé handy). But once the camera was rolling she shed her pride and belted out the chorus of our song.
“I love it!” Justice Ginsburg exclaimed in an email two months later. “Crew really did their homework.” The video was now on Youtube and had accumulated thousands of views, though, in all likelihood, most were from my dad.
Kelly and I spent the next two years bonding over our love for RBG (and our evil feminist agenda in general.) We sent each other articles, attended RBG events, and spent multiple happy hours gushing over our icon and the efforts of those like her, and discussing how much more work remained for equality and justice advocates.
In late October 2015, Kelly and I planned to attend the release party for Shana’s new book, “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” A portion of our lyrics had been included in the book, and Kelly had just found out she passed the New York bar exam. It was a day of good things. But also, Kelly was in the height of her radiation treatment, and she was tired. I had told Kelly if she didn’t feel good she should stay home and get some rest. But that was not an option for Kelly. When Kelly arrived, I watched her cheer as Shana took the stage, rooting for her fellow progressive advocate and RBG fan. She enthusiastically introduced me to her many NYU students classmates who were in attendance, and excitedly told a friend about the new immunotherapy treatment she was about to start that week. Kelly fluttered with optimistic energy. I watched her in awe. Life was trying to kick Kelly’s ass and Kelly was kicking the shit out of it right back. Despite all the time Kelly and I had spent discussing why she looked up to RBG—both as an advocate and as a cancer-survivor—as far as I was concerned, the hero in the room was Kelly.
The day before Kelly died, the dean of NYU law school visited Kelly in the hospital to personally deliver a hand-written letter from RBG herself. “Thinking of my favorite rapper with appreciation and affection,” she wrote. The photo of Kelly reading Justice Ginsburg’s words brought me to tears. I knew how much that moment must have meant to Kelly, and my heart was bursting with pride and joy for her.
It is no secret that Kelly was passionate and firmly believed in the fundamental right to equality, and she was dogged in her determination to pursue this throughout her life. But what truly made Kelly unique was the grace and love with which she approached her efforts. Kelly was a compassionate champion, treating everyone around her with an unbelievable amount of civility and dignity, no matter who you were or what you believed. No exceptions. Kelly would fight you with kindness, and change your heart. That takes a big person, but that’s who Kelly was. When Kelly said she wanted to be a force for good in the world, she meant it. She lived it.
Today, now almost a year since Kelly’s death, the day after an excruciating election that has left so many of us wondering where all of the efforts for equality stand, Justice Ginsburg walked out to the bench wearing her infamous “dissent” jabot. The Supreme Court wasn’t scheduled to deliver any opinions today.
Kelly would know how to channel our disappointment and move forward in a such a way that we can be a force for good. But something tells me that in the meantime, Kelly is right here with us, very strongly dissenting too.