It’s a nippy 40 degrees in the meat-cutting room of the Save-A-Lot grocery store on Rhode Island Avenue Northeast, and butcher Tonya Pointer is making quick work of a side of pork, slicing the meat into evenly sized chops.
Pointer is dressed in a long white coat, like the kind a doctor wears. She has a black beret covering her hair and a couple pairs of gloves protecting her hands. Her nose won't stop dribbling from the cold.
“There are days when we have on everything and we see our breath. And it’s cold,” Pointer said. “And we're moving and we're freezing.”
But instead of dreading work because of the cold or the simple fact that she’s cutting meat all day, Pointer actually looks forward to it.
“A job is a job. Nobody wants to work a job,” she said. “But I really, really love cutting meat. And it has a lot to do with who I cut meat with. I love my team. I work with some really incredible people. We have a ball every single day at work.”
Music with a message
Part of the reason work is such a blast is that Pointer always playing music. She was feeling an '80s jam on this particular day and she brought in a music mix she made at home. Hall and Oates’ hit “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” plays on a little boombox in the corner.
Of course Pointer made a mix for work. Her other job, the one she does when she’s not cutting and wrapping meat, is DJing. She spins all over the DMV, from sporting goods stores to car dealerships to downtown clubs. Her DJ name is Nonchalant.
“I respect DJing. DJing is an art. You know, it’s the same thing as performing, the same energy. You work really, really hard to get the crowd to be where you want them to go,” Pointer said.
Pointer didn't start off as a DJ. Long before she hit the turntables, the now 44-year-old was arguably the most important female rapper to come out of D.C.
In 1996, MCA Records released a song called “5 O’Clock,” a hip-hop clarion call of sorts about the dangers of the drug game. This was Nonchalant’s debut record.
“5 O’Clock” was an undeniable hit. It landed on many Billboard charts that year and eventually reached the number one spot on the Hot Rap Singles list. Nonchalant was in good company — LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes and 2Pac also had hits on the chart that year.
But “5 O’Clock” wasn't just a catchy song; it also had a powerful message.
“I had to be at work really, really early in the morning and I would see young guys out on the corner selling drugs. You knew what they were doing. Rain, sleet, shine, snow, they were there,” she said. “And I was just like, 'God, I hope I never see one of my nephews out there.'”
The city’s crack epidemic, with its open-air drug markets and brutal gang violence, inspired Pointer to write the song.
“Drugs have touched everybody’s lives. Either somebody’s selling it or somebody’s on drugs. And it’s crossed all timelines and cultures and everything,” Pointer said.
It even touched Pointer’s life. Her brother-in-law — a recovering crack addict — was shot dead over an old drug beef.
Pointer’s single catapulted her to stardom. Prominent radio jocks like DJ Flexx here in D.C. and DJ Red Alert in New York began playing the record. She got to meet everyone from hip hop royalty Salt n’ Pepa to the Fugees, with whom she toured. She even caught a glimpse of Michael Jackson when they were both recording at New York’s famed Hit Factory studio.
A rise and a fall
But as quickly as Pointer’s star ascended, it fell. New management at the record label wasn't sure what to do with her and after months of fruitless discussions about her second album, she left.
“I asked to be released off the label and they did. And then it was just figuring out what I wanted to do. You know, taking meetings, talking to a lot of people, stuff not panning out. And regular life happening,” she said. “You know, your real life is still happening. Your creative life, you’re trying to figure it out, but I'm not going to be able to sustain myself with it. I have to get a job at some point.”
That’s how Nonchalant, national recording artist, writer of a hip-hop classic, came to be slinging meat at the Save-A-Lot. Her departure from the public eye might make her a one-hit wonder. But that’s one more hit than most people have gotten.
“If you get that one, that’s a blessing. I have that one that touched people’s lives and continues to do that,” Pointer said. “I would have loved to have had a string of hits and sold millions and millions of records. But I’m extremely happy and blessed with what I did accomplish.”
What Nonchalant accomplished was more than a hit record. She forged relationships with artists, producers and DJs. And she’s leveraging those relationships for a new organization called Spin Like a Girl, whose mission is to support women and girls who want to get into MCing, DJing and music production.
Plus, she still the same person who made that hit record nearly 20 years ago.
“I’m still Nonchalant. You know, no one can take that from me,” she said. “I'm just wrapping meat now. I'm rapping in a different way.”
Music: "I'm Still Here" by London Promenade Orchestra from Reader's Digest Music: Going Down? Volume 3 Broadway Takes the Elevator