By Jan Mercker
Even as a troubled teen in Leesburg, René Bonet had a powerful voice and a way with words. Now she’s a rising star on Atlanta’s R&B and rap scene—and she’s just getting started.
Bonet was born Rikita René Lincoln and spent her childhood and early adulthood in Leesburg. She grew up in the subsidized housing complex then known as Loudoun House (and since revamped and renamed Mayfair Commons), born into a family with deep roots in Loudoun.
“That’s the heart of where we’re from,” Bonet said of the northeast Leesburg neighborhood. But after losing a brother to violence a dozen years ago, she decided she had to get out.
Bonet graduated from Loudoun County High School in 2004, but says a troubled home life made her school years challenging.
“I was not the best student. I gave County hell. I got in a lot of trouble in school,” she said. Bonet knew she could write and sing. She said longtime LCHS Choral Director Pamela Potts saw her promise and tried to lift her up, but Bonet lacked the confidence to take advantage of opportunities at the time.
“There were times when [Potts] tried to give me a better opportunity, but I was too shy then,” Bonet said. “The person that I am now, nobody knows this person. … It took me a while to really develop the confidence that I have now, and I felt like moving away was what did that for me.”
But in high school and beyond, Bonet found an outlet for her pain and anger in poetry. She started writing poetry in high school and then putting her words to music for family and friends.
Bonet moved on to doing open mics and a few recordings in the DC area, but felt limited by the constraints of life in a small town. When Bonet’s 21-year-old brother Jajuan “Murphy” Johnson was shot and killed near Middleburg in 2008, she knew it was time to get out of Loudoun.
“I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ My friends were dying from overdoses. I just decided that I was not going to be a statistic,” she said. “I decided I was not going to fall into what we call the ‘black hole.’”
Inspired in part by the 2006 coming of age movie “ATL,” loosely based on the experiences of the Atlanta-based R&B group TLC, Bonet decided to give Atlanta—and a musical career—a shot. She worked in retail and built a career with a staffing agency while working to build connections in the city’s booming music industry.
“The first three or four years here were very hard. … It was a culture shock, but I needed it,” she said. “It was spreading my wings and having somewhere to go.”
Bonet made connections at Outkast’s Atlanta-based Stankonia Studios and met the Grammy-winning engineer Alvin Speights, who died earlier this year. Speights, well known for his work with top artists including TLC, Madonna and Michael Jackson, became Bonet’s musical mentor and recorded her first single “Nothing Like You.” He also helped Bonet get engineering experience in the studio, allowing her to do much of her own production.
Bonet changed her name—taking her middle name, which is French for “reborn” and adopting a last name that’s a play on the French word for “good.”
“I was reborn good,” she said with a laugh, a nod to her efforts to leave behind her bad girl history in Loudoun. But while Bonet crafts playful R&B tunes, she’s also created an outlet for her anger in the form of her musical alter-ego Bully Barbé, who serves up edgy, aggressive rock-influenced hip-hop that’s getting acclaim in the rap world.
“She’s so angry. It’s like she’s talking to everyone who said bad things about her and picked on her and kicked her and hit on her,” Bonet said. “I was bullied in high school, but I was also someone else’s bully. And that played a part in a lot of my life and everything that I’m going through.”
Bonet is working with a publisher on a children’s book about bullying in an effort to explore dynamics, root causes and solutions based on her own struggles.
“I felt like instead of suspending me, instead of putting me in detention, instead of putting me out of school and hurting my education, let’s try to figure out some counseling situations so we can help these students who are being affected at home and bringing that environment to school,” she said.
The Bully Barbé persona is also a tribute to her late brother, who was also working to launch a career as a rapper when his life was cut short.
“She is him—allowing him to live, allowing him to say what he has to say and get everything off his chest,” Bonet said. “I feel like he can live through me.”
Now in her early 30s, Bonet, on a certain level, has it all: a husband, kids, a professional career and a strong foothold on the Atlanta music scene.
She recently released a new single “Shawdy” as René Bonet. Bully Barbé’s latest single “Trendsetter” was featured on Sean Combs’ cable music network Revolt TV, where it was described as a “genre-bending, defiant cut.” She was also named an artist to watch for 2021 by rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s hip-hop blog “This Is 50.”
And for Bonet, this is just the beginning. She’s in talks with labels and working on setting up a tour that will bring her back to the DMV.
“I have so much work to do,” she said. “I want something more.”
To check out René Bonet’s latest singles, including videos for “Shawdy” and “Trendsetter,” go to renebonet.com.