SHE DIDN'T have an exit strategy; nowhere to hide, nowhere to run, no place to go. But not one day did she sit with her head buried in her hands or in a posture of suffering. "My strength came from my children, my hope, and my reason for living. I couldn't give up. They kept me going. I decided enough was enough. I'm leaving and I'm not going back. I had to take care of me and live for me. But it took a long time before I reached to that place," says Carol Maraj mother of super famous Trinidad-born American rap and hip hop sensation Nicki Minaj formerly known as Onika Maraj. "If I had given up, they would have had no one. They had no one else but me. My children gave me my strength." Her story is no secret; it went viral the day her daughter hit the charts. It has been told and retold. But this is the first that she's really telling like it was and as it is! "I moved from one trauma to another," she says.
"When I was in high school, one day I came home and my 18-year-old brother was breaking up all the louvers in the windows. He was destroying everything. There was a lot of trauma in the house." Repeated episodes and the worsening symptoms of her brother's acute mental illness made the home very chaotic and growing up more difficult than usual. "There was just a lot of trauma in my early teens because of his illness. I was often afraid for my life." Eleven children in a house, on Fort George Road, in St James; that's where she grew up. "I was number 10. I was supposed to be the last but then came my little sister. We were the first family to have a concrete house with running water and a TV. We started off good but things changed drastically." She went to school, a few blocks away, at St Agnes Anglican Primary School and then to Tranquillity Government Secondary School.
Trauma is what she remembers most because pain has a way of hanging around. "The signs were all there but I didn't see them. Looking back, I can now see the signs that he had abusive tendencies." When she got married, at 20, she moved from one violent home to another. Bournes Road was hell. "If I only looked at someone it was an argument. If we went out I couldn't dance with anyone. If someone who knew me saw me out in the street and I spoke to that person it was a big argument and curse out in the street. I didn't realise it then, those early signs of abuse. I was very young when the abuse started." Her son came first and her daughter came after but they both came into a house of extreme pain.
She tried to keep it together. She gave life her best shot. "I worked at the Ministry of Works, Long Circular, in St James and in Big Yard, Diego Martin, as a chequer handling payroll. I worked at the National Insurance Board (NIB) as an accounting clerk and at the National Commercial Bank (NCB) as a foreign exchange teller. I thought I was doing okay," she says. Life was supposed to change when she got her Green Card. She had so much hope and great expectations. "My dad filed for me." She was 24 when she arrived in New York, the Bronx, and entered Munroe College. Her husband followed six months after. She petitioned for him. She wanted to keep her family together and needed his support to help her raise their children in a new country. They were still a young family. Things were supposed to change for the better; or so, he promised. He got a job at American Express. "At first, it was nice, very nice. He was cooking for me and doing a lot of nice things."
She left her two children in St James, with her mother. "The children came a few years after. They were in very good hands. My mom took good care of them." When the time drew near for the arrival of the children her father helped her buy her first house in Queens on 147th Street, off Rockaway Boulevard. "There was a lot happening in that house. I didn't know my husband was a crack addict. But one winter night, in December 1987, he went into a rage, he was demanding money, he was so angry, and I didn't have any money." It is old news that her husband tried to kill her when he burned the house down. E! True Hollywood Story told the world the story when it featured Nicki Minaj.
"His dad passed away when he was 14. He had a lot of responsibilities because he had to care for five siblings. His mother put a lot of pressure on him and he was beaten for everything," she says of her husband Robert Maraj. She's making the connection between his abuse as a child and him becoming an abuser as a man. They are separated. "A few years ago, he said he changed, and he wanted help. I still love him. But as a brother in Christ. We've been over for more than 10 years now." It took a lot of self-talk to get her through her pain. "I kept telling myself there must be a light at the end of the tunnel.
"Devastation, shame, and humiliation to the max," she tells me with a confused look on her face. "When did all of this happen? How did all of this happen? I was a 27-year-old woman, working hard, trying to be happy in my own way and then this devastation just comes upon me. The neighbours are hearing. You have to hide your face and bend your head. God didn't make me for this. I kept telling myself God didn't make you for this. God didn't create you for this. I promised myself I wasn't going to give up until I made me right. When things fell apart I always looked for another door because I knew this wasn't in God's plan for me. I never stopped going to church. Even if my eyes were blood-shot red I was in church. I had to refill on God's grace because my life had run dry."
We're sitting in the dining room of her suite at the Hyatt. The size of the suite says it all. It is Saturday afternoon but she looks like she's in her Sunday best. The hair, the designer high heels, the make-up, the lashes; the look is very together. She's wearing Claudia Pegus. The creation comes to life. Bound in luminous fabric, bronze sequins spiral tulle rosettes. The glimmer of its iridescent shine throws like a high voltage spotlight that follows Maraj wherever in the room she goes. She's radiating with energy. She's in Trinidad. She's home. She's herself. She's happy. Just don't ask her to smile. "Carol, show those dimples," laughs her publicist, business partner and friend, Karen Hunter who is also from St James but has been living in the US for years.
She contacted me before they arrived. She explained that Maraj would be in Trinidad for a wedding and was ready to really tell her story and she wanted me to write it. Maraj admits that she doesn't like much media attention, especially taking photographs. So we all peep into Jermaine Cruickshank's camera to sneak a look. She smiles when she sees how well he's capturing all her angles. The resemblance is so striking. Nicki Minaj has her mother's face. "That face can't hide," says Hunter who is having fun teasing Maraj and lamenting that after all these years she can't believe Maraj is still that shy. Maraj cuts her a sharp eye but comical look that says "Girl, please!" As much as Maraj doesn't like to smile her daughter's success is one thing that brings a megawatt smile to her face.
"Nicki's success changed my life drastically. Her success gave me a new outlook on life," she says. "We were living in Jamaica, Queens, and Nicki was talking to me and telling me Lil' Wayne was interested in her music and paying her a lot of attention. I told her we just have to pray on it. That God wouldn't bring her this far and not see it through. I told her God was going to complete it. I prayed and then I told her it is done! When she called me with the news she was so excited. We were all blown away by her success."
Now the mother of a superstar daughter who has the power to thrill the world, was finally able to take some time off to deal with herself. "It took a lot to help me prepare my mind. But I realised that it was time to start following my dream. When Nicki got her break I didn't have to work so hard anymore. I was able to relax and take care of me. All those years, I was going through so much and still running to work, every day, from nine to five. Because of Nicki I was now able to focus on me."
In a few weeks, she will release her first gospel single. She's a singer and songwriter. She's also a playwright who writes drama presentations for the church. She attends Life in its Poetic Form Ministries on Washington Avenue, in Brooklyn. "I had to heal and build back my strength so I started writing again. I started spending more time writing about my life." She's been working on an inspirational book. "A book that looks at what brought me here, to this new place." She didn't do it all on her own. She credits the older women of her church for propping her up on those days when she was really down. "Those older women came to my house and prayed for us. God sent some strong and inspirational women to help me stand up."
Carol Maraj has come a long way and now she's using her new found strength to help change the lives of battered women. She's been doing a lot of motivational speaking, using her voice, sharing her experiences with women in New York City through the Centre of Domestic Violence in Manhattan. But she wants to give back to the country of her birth. It is her calling to serve women in Trinidad & Tobago who are victims of abuse. That resolve became even stronger during our interview. So much happened. So much came together. "When I left for Trinidad, the head of my church asked me if I thought I was going to Trinidad on a vacation. She looked at me and said Carol you are not going to Trinidad on a vacation. You are going on a mission."