by Nadirah Simmons
KayCee Shakur and I are miles away from each other-795 to be exact. Yet despite being separated by four states and this phone call being our first time ever speaking to each other, the conversation felt as close as ever. From trying to figure out what cheese tastes like on a bag of Hot Cheetos to promising to take her out to the best spots in New York City if we can go to Harold’s when I finally visit Illinois, it feels like we have been best friends for years. But through all of the conversation I was most excited to share with her how much I loved the video for “Yemoja,” a track off of her debut project Divination that pays homage to the streets of her hometown of Chicago and references one of our favorite movies, Crooklyn.
For so many Black girls and women the film is a favorite because of the lead character: nine-year-old Troy. While most movies by Spike Lee and other filmmakers alike center the male gaze, this film positions the life, motivations and perspectives of its Black women characters at the forefront. KayCee does the same in her music, as have many other Hip-Hop Soul artists before her.
The genre’s emergence created a new space for Black women to tell their stories and engage with the world around them. And with the exception of the intro and outro tracks, each song on Divination is named after an Orisha on which KayCee waxes poetic about similar themes of life, love and survival through the lens of Black womanhood.
In honor of this month’s theme we spoke to the artist about growing up in Chicago, the dangerous extolling of Black women’s “strength,” creating music in the digital age and more.
Are you originally from Chicago?
Born and raised in Chicago. East side of Chicago my whole life. Lived in the same house my whole life.
That’s awesome. How did this environment influence you being an artist?
Chicago is such a musical city and it's weird that we don't really have a music scene that's global and worldwide because I've always been able to just go to the train and see people performing. Or literally in the middle of our street we have bucket boys that bang on buckets. My city is filled with music. And my grandmother and my grandfather who raised me are Southern Baptist so all I heard all day was singing. Not to mention I went to schools that had really great music programs that kept music a part of who I was.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations musically?
Jill Scott. I love her. Outkast. Just melodic Hip-Hop sounds. And people don't even really think Hip-Hop when they think Jill Scott, but it's like you've got to think again because sis be spitting! Her flows and staccatos are so dope. Her poetic lyrics. That's the kind of sound I really try to incorporate into my music.
And that sound is Hip-Hop Soul.
What made you decide to share your vision of the world with other people this way?
I was just talking to my friends about being 5 years old and getting my favorite Christmas gift ever: a VHS of The Temptations movie. I also got a purple turquoise and yellow microphone, and that entire year I did nothing but watch the movie over and over and pretend that I was a part of The Temptations. I would always get the solos in and grammar school and high school, that was just what I did. Everybody knew if there was a solo it was going to be mine.
But as far as sharing the art with the world, it honestly did not start until six months ago. An old friend of mine encouraged me, they were like “you’re so depressed because you're not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You're supposed to be creating.” And just getting those words of advice from him really got me off my ass. They said make this happen for yourself. Do this. And that was only six months ago when I decided I'm going to make a project and I'm going to put it out.
What was that process like?
I wrote most of Divination in my mom's living room. I was working a job I hated and I got fired on purpose so that I could collect unemployment for a little while. I wanted to take that time and collect my little $400 every two weeks to create my project. Turns out that being broke as hell like that will cause major depression. I went through a major depression. And my sister was going through things and I had to take my niece for a little while.
But I had it in my mind that I wanted to drop this project on 4/20, and I went into overdrive the last two weeks [before the date]. I was writing down everything that I was feeling. Everything that I was thinking. Revisiting songs that I started when I first got the drive to get back into music. All of that fueled me out of a depression and my unemployment ended literally three weeks before my project dropped. I borrowed $126 from my mom to get my project mixed and mastered and I just put it out. I started my new job a week after the project dropped. Everything came full circle.
To have things come full circle while battling depression is a great feeling, and I love that we’re having more conversations about it within our community, especially since Black women are expected to be strong and have it all together.
We are like trained robots when it comes to pushing through pain. We will be going through the absolute worst and most trying times of our lives-still waking up everyday, getting to work on time, still taking care of our kids and fucking cry ourselves to sleep every night. Can’t get any sleep at night because of all of these things weighing on us. And that's honestly the worst, depression and suppression at the same time…Self care becoming a thing just now in 2018 is crazy! But I’m glad we are having these conversations about taking care of ourselves and focusing on ourselves.
So am I! And a lot of people are turning to art and music to create and consume these discussions, sometimes I feel like everyone is creating something. How do you feel about the increasing number of artists on and offline? How do you remain unique?
I actually don't mind everyone creating now. I think that it just proves that we're creative people in general and that we should focus more on creativity. But in the same sense the market is very oversaturated. And when you are trying to create your own sound it is really hard because you’re wondering whether or not people are going to mess with it amongst everything that's going on. Focus on your sound and your audience will come.
That is so true, but we’re in a space now where it’s a bit harder to reach certain places in music if you aren’t utilizing the Internet or social media in some type of way.
I feel like it's like 80% brand and 20% art these days. And when you focus so much on branding you miss out on a lot of good art. Back in the day you needed about two hundred thousand or a bill[ion] to create a brand for somebody. Today you can create a free Instagram page and create a brand for yourself.
We have all witnessed artist that should not be getting record deals, but they have a presence on the Internet, they go viral and they get record deals…Me as an artist I always have to make sure that I'm focused on the art just as much as I focus on the brand. In 20 years the people who have art are the ones that are going to still be talked about. Everyone is going to have a social media presence by then.
On Divination you’ve focused on the art. You’re using Orishas to talk about themes that so many people relate to-love, heartbreak, strength. The song “Oshun” gets real deep. Does it make you nervous to put certain songs out there, either because they could be about someone or because they’re so personal?
Well “Oshun” isn't about anyone in particular, but honestly that's who I am as a person. I was really telling the story of the Orisha in that song and making that story real for girls in 2018 because that it’s so prevalent right out. There are so many women going through that exact story. So that's the story that has to be told in a way that we could relate to it and understand it.
All of the songs on the project are telling the story of the Orishas. But I rewrote the songs four, five, six, seven times because I had to make sure that I was saying this in a way that we could relate, we could grasp and we could understand. I didn't even want you to feel like I was telling you something about somebody. I want you to hear the song and say “yeah this is this is my life,” because the stories really are intertwined with who we are as women.
I know you have another project coming out on the 30th, what else do you have lined up for the rest of the year?
The project is going to accompany something really special. I can't wait to announce it. But for the rest of the year I’m just focused on performing and getting into meetings to make some real things happen.
What inspires you to keep going?
I really want people to know that it's okay to not be okay, and when you're not okay you have to address it. I feel like sometimes with art, especially in the Black community we treat our misery as an accolade. Yes the hardships absolutely make us who we are but we cannot ignore them. We have to deal with it and get to the bottom of our pain and that's what I'm going to continue to make art about.
And I want to talk about where I’m from. About living in the hood, and that even though we live there we still have color and culture and life. It’s not all scary.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I don't really put too much high regard in awards and stuff because I don't even want to even put that in my mind and have myself trying to alter my art to fit in. And if that brings an award that's amazing and I'm grateful for that. But as far as the five years I see myself still creating and being happy with my art. That's all I can ask for.