Toni Alika Hickman has gotten good at telling death to take a hike. In 2004, she survived a brain aneurysm at 27, only to face a second one and a stroke just three years later.
“I’d never heard of a brain aneurysm,” says Hickman, who headlined the YoungStroke 2015 in Jacksonville, FL, in June.
A prolific artist, she thought little of the headache she got one day more than a decade ago. But it was quickly followed by nausea and vomiting—a silent signal that the wall of an artery in her brain had weakened.
“My mother said that I looked like I had an attitude, and when she asked me questions, I answered her with one word.” Alarmed, her mother called 911. Hickman had some of the risks associated with brain aneurysms: She was a casual smoker, an African-American and a woman. Other risk factors include a family history, a previous aneurysm, and high blood pressure.
Surviving a host of calamities within a few years motivates Hickman to get done what she can today. She’s released two albums, a book, a documentary, and has sung on albums with such chart-topping artists as Ciara and Jagged Edge.
“All of it has changed my life in a positive way,” she reflects. “I love sharing my story. People need to hear that situations happen, and it’s not the end of your life.”
Always a risk-taker, Hickman left home at 15. Born in Queens, NY, and raised in New Orleans, she and a friend trekked to New York City as wannabe Hip Hop stars in the mid-to-late 90’s. The duo stayed with the friend’s aunt, as they door-knocked, determined to land a music deal. When it took longer than expected, and they’d worn out their welcome at the aunt’s home, their other option was to stay in a shelter. The friend lasted two days, but Hickman, committed to the dream, stayed on for months.
“It was nerve racking: I got my clothes stolen; there were prostitutes in one room…” Her mother begged her to come home, “but then my goal would not have been accomplished,” she says. “My whole attitude was that I didn’t come out here for nothing.”
She crossed paths with a compassionate social worker, who helped the homeless then-17 year old tap into a support network. That included moving into a halfway house. During a brief visit home to New Orleans, Hickman got a call from Suave House Records, for which she auditioned for a label executive by freestyling over the phone.
Finally, she was in! The company flew her to Houston to sign a recording contract, where she laid down tracks for 8Ball’s “Lost,” Mr. Mike’s “Wicked Wayz,” which went gold, and other projects, she recalls.
She had made it. Sort of. The publicity was phenomenal, but the paycheck didn’t match the hype. And then, three days before she was to sign a more significant deal with Interscope records, the first aneurysm lowered the boom, Hickman says.
“The energy shifted. Everyone I was working with in the industry backed up on me. They were afraid of my health. Everybody was so nervous for me, watching everything I did,” she remembers.
The second aneurysm—accompanied by a stroke—as the artery in her brain ruptured and leaked blood, changed the game altogether. She wound up in surgery. “They put me in a nursing home, and said that I wouldn’t speak or walk again.” It was horrible, and yet it could’ve been worse: She could have had brain damage or died.
During the recovery process, Hickman would attempt to get out of her wheelchair and walk. Instead she fell. And fell. And fell again. At some point, she was warned:
“‘Toni, you cannot do this, you’re going to hurt yourself.’ And the next day, they’d leave me in a room, and I’d get up and fall.” But after a while, she got her legs under her. It was around this time that she started to favor her middle name, Alika, because she it seemed a better fit.
“My aunt used to call me by my middle name, but I never used it. I looked it up and found out that it’s Hawaiian.” Though it has several interpretations, Hickman embraces the one that means “beautiful warrior.” After everything she’s gone through, she says, “I like a name that, when people call me by it, or think of me, it defines my spirit.”
Surviving a series of calamites made Hickman health conscious. She gave up cigarettes, alcohol, sugar and began to eat more healthily. She also makes her own deodorant using aloe vera, essential oils and witch hazel (stored in the fridge because it’s preservative free).
“Preservatives that give products a long shelf life also go into our skin; 60 percent of what we put on our skin, goes into our blood stream,” she discovered through research.
In that same vein, she gave up straightening her hair, and now wears it in natural locks.
“My book, Chemical Suicide, was inspired by doctors telling me I could not perm my hair for one to two years… When I looked up why, it was because I had a big gash in my head after brain surgery, and they didn’t want chemicals seeping into the cut.”
Her unusual journey has connected her with others who’ve encountered unexpected twists and turns along the way. At her recent fashion show, in connection with her album release party for Unbroken, Hickman featured a number of people with disabilities, including a young woman and young man, both shot at an early age, and a young model with cerebral palsy. The three also appear in Hickman’s “People Pleaser” video from the same album.
“People do what is expected,” she finds. “The song says: Don’t be a people pleaser, follow your spirit before anything. And for people with disabilities, it doesn’t mean you’re not capable of accomplishing. We’re here, we’re beautiful, and there’s nothing wrong with accepting this.”
Six-feet tall and willowy, Hickman looks runway worthy. But she had to wrestle with her self-perception after the stroke weakened her on one side, and caused her to be partially paralyzed. She now walks with a limp. Her first album, Crippled Pretty, hints at her transformation.