KayCee Shakur On Growing Up In Chicago, Creating Hip-Hop Soul And Navigating Depression

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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.
Definitely!

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. 

Breaking Down 10 of Our Favorite Mary J. Blige Tracks

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by Brooklyn White

Discovered in the late 1980s while singing Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture”, it’s fitting that heavy, stunning melismas and passionate belts are a part of Mary J. Blige’s set. Her ability to convey the lowest lows of love and her jazz-like live improvisations are reminiscent of Billie Holiday, but Blige will forever be unique. 

Before Faith Evans, Mariah Carey, and Ariana Grande, Blige mastered the art of mixing gospel-inspired vocals with uptempo cuts, often with the help of notable MC’s. Her 1992 formal introduction (as she had been working as a background vocalist for years), What’s The 411?, was sample-heavy, street certified, and full of sweet hooks - aspects that are now a staple in Hip Hop/R&B. The “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” honed her signature sound over the course of her 25+ year career, giving us some of the most jammable, memorable songs in history. In honor of her legacy, here are our picks for her 10 Hip-Hop Soul tracks, with commentary by Brooklyn White. 

“You’re All I Need” Remix

Technically this is a Method Man song, but there’s no denying that it would not be the same without Mary J. The incorporation of Mary on the heavy-handed sampling of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 60’s song of the same name made women gravitate towards the track, a crucial key to its success and Grammy win. In a talk with Complex, Method said, “I felt that song was putting me in that light. What I didn’t realize was, niggas was respecting that song as well as chicks was.”

 

“Real Love”

Sporting her baseball jersey and combat boots, Mary showed herself as a regular girl from New York. Rocking round-the-way girl gear, a lot of Black women were able to see themselves in Mary. These same women were also into Hip-Hop and got their fill with the beat which took the drums from Audio Two’s “Top Billin’.” 

 

“Love is All We Need” Remix ft Foxy Brown

Brooklyn’s Fox Boogie laid down some sexy smooth adlibs and a verse of course over this Diana Ross interpolation. As Brown says in the intro, the sounds were handled by the Trackmasters. 

 

 “Family Affair” 

Dr. Dre produced this anti-holleration anthem. Those keyboard chords scream early 2000’s Dre. As the top commenter put it, “This is real Hip Hop”. Fosho.

 

“Reminisce” Remix ft C.L. Smooth

This is my absolute favorite Mary J. song. The original was more of a New Jack Swing ballad, but this version was produced by Dave Hall and Puff Daddy (yes, I said Puff Daddy) and had some flavor the prior one didn’t. Instead of a bridge, it featured input from C.L. Smooth, who was still getting a lot of spins for his ode to lost souls, “They Reminisce Over You.”

 

“All That I Got Is You” with Ghostface Killa

Taking a cue from fellow Wu Tang member Method Man, Ghostface enlisted the Queen of Hip Hop Soul for his debut solo single. For the grand occasion, RZA served up one of his world class beats, which takes its somber sound from “Maybe Tomorrow” by The Jackson 5. Mary sings the chorus that details the struggle of growing up with minimal resources and a single mother. This “child born in and of pain” set up is a long time theme in rap, with an early example including “The Message”. 

 

“I Can Love You” ft. Lil’ Kim

Kim and Mary have been soul sisters for decades-Mary was photographed holding the Queen Bee down during Biggie’s funeral and 1997 and they were cheesing side by side in a M.A.C campaign. “I Can Love You” is a physical cementation of their alliance, taking its winding piano from Kim’s “Queen Bitch” and is all about being a better lover than another woman. 

 

“Love Yourself” Remix ft A$AP Rocky

Digesting the truth, getting over obstacles and loving yourself no matter what is the theme of this track. Rocky replaced Kanye West in the video version, but they kept the trappy-horn laden backing. Blige rode the beat with ease. 

 

“What’s the 411?” ft Grand Puba

“Yeah nigga, what makes you different than the next nigga? Seen you last week and you couldn’t even speak.” This introduced us to Blige’s rapping, a side that we would see on other songs like Busta Rhymes’ “Touch It” all-star cast remix. Here she and Grand Puba share their thoughts on gender relations, and she finishes her verse off with a cover of “Very Special” by Debra Lewis

 

“Glow Up” ft Quavo, DJ Khaled, and Missy Elliott

I still think that this song was largely underdiscussed! Mary, Missy and a Migos all on one track? When will we ever hear that again? This cut from Blige’s latest offering ‘Strength of a Woman’ is all about leaving a loser behind. 

 

 

The Legacy of the Diddly Diddly D

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by Kianna Alexander

Born in Jamaica but raised in the Moneyearnin’ Mount Vernon, we first heard Heavy D’s voice in 1987, when he and the Boyz (DJ Eddie F, G-Whiz, and the late Trouble T-Roy) released their debut album Livin’ Large. He came strong right out of the gate with tracks like “The Overweight Lover’s in the House” and “Mr. Big Stuff,” embracing his size and wearing it as a badge of honor. On “Don’t You Know,” with a little help from R&B crooner Al. B. Sure, he professed his love for a woman and waxed sentimental by imagining what their wedding day would be like.

“Got Me Waiting,” “Somebody for Me” and “Now That We Found Love” looked at relationships in a more pensive, thoughtful way. Love is not cut and dry, and Hev knew that. And anyone who’s heard “Black Coffee” knows it is a manifesto of sorts, on which he uplifts and edifies Black women during a time when most rappers were busy calling women distasteful names.

Even at times when Hev used two of the most common practices in hip-hop: sampling or collaborations, he did it a way only he could. The super sexy “Keep It Comin’,” one of his underappreciated tracks from 1997’s Waterbed Hev, is a prime example of sampling done right, as Hev lays down game over the Gap Band’s classic track “Yearning for Your Love.” And if you want to hear a hip-hop supergroup, before that was really a thing, “On Point,” featuring the late Big Pun and Eightball, is a must listen. That track goes hard, y’all.

From being one of the only men in Hip-Hop to embrace their larger size and stray from hypermasculinity in his music, Hev’s impact in Hip-Hop is apparent. Yet beyond giving us some of the best Hip-Hop to bless our ears, he also had a hand in the careers of some of our most beloved Hip-Hop Soul artists.

In the early nineties, he made the call to Uptown head Andre Harrell that secured an internship for Sean “Diddy” Combs. Combs would go on to produce the debut album of the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” Mary J. Blige. It was also Heavy who heard a demo by a group of four young guys from North Carolina and introduced them to Harrell. That group was Jodeci, who would go on to fuse Gospel, New Jack Swing and Hip-Hop Soul in their music.

Additionally, he would work with Soul for Real, Monifah, Guy, LeVert and Changing Faces. Hev is also credited as a guest artist, producer, and composer for industry giants and pioneers like Queen Latifah and the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson.

“We’ve Got Our Own Thang” contains one of my favorite Heavy D lines:

In this life, I strive for improvement/Be your own guide, follow your own movement.

Hev succinctly encapsulated what he was all about. Whether he was working on his own music, or collaborating with another artist, he was all about individuality and being true to himself. With his words, he encouraged us to do the same. Rest in peace, Hev. There will never be another.  

Kianna Alexander is the author of more than 35 published romances as well as a serious music lover. When she's not writing, she can be found with her husband and two kids, being domestic, to the sounds of Miguel, Ro James, or classic hip hop. Find her online at www.AuthorKiannaAlexader.com.

What's the 411?: Hip-Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige and Black Women's Narratives

by Nadirah Simmons

In 1988, Mary J. Blige recorded an offhand cover of Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture" at a recording booth in a lmall. The cassette made its way to Jeff Redd, a recording artist and A&R runner for Uptown Records. Redd sent it to Andre Harrell, and after meeting with the singer signed her to the label in 1989. Fast forward to 1992, when Blige released her debut album What’s the 411? According to Entertainment Weekly's Dave DiMartino, the record's commercial success was attributed to Blige's "powerful, soulful voice and Hip-Hop attitude.” It was unlike anything done before. It was Hip-Hop Soul.

Blige was hailed as the queen of this new genre, creating a space for her alongside legends like Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul.” Without a doubt the honor bestowed upon the young songstress was more than a moniker. While New Jack Swing fused Hip-Hop elements with R&B music, Hip-Hop Soul elevated the synthesis. Now, soul singers were singing directly over the types of sample-heavy cuts heard on Hip-Hop songs. Mary J. Blige carved out her own space as both an innovator of the genre and a designer of a new way to present narratives about Black womanhood.

The title of What's the 411? came from Blige's past occupation as a 411 operator, used to indicate that she was the "real deal.” The music was as well. R&B singers at the time covered themes of pain, suffering, relationship troubles and happiness, while the Hip-Hop artists wrote about violence, crime, poverty, oppression, happiness, etc. That’s not to say that all songs did this-anyone who is a fan of Hip-Hop and R&B and moreover music as a whole knows that no one genre is a monolith. There were various types of subject matter in both genres-particularly in Hip-Hop because of the experimental time was the Golden Age. But it was Blige’s influence by both genres that amplified revelatory themes that were trademarks of blueswomen like ‘Ma Rainey’ and Bessie Smith-abandonment, betrayal, physical and emotional abuse, romance, etc. The singer dubbed the ”tough girl persona and streetwise lyrics" by music critic Tom Moon drew upon her experiences as a Hip-Hop generation woman to deliver a dynamic form of storytelling. Rolling Stone noted that Blige’s songs provided “a gritty undertone and a realism missing from much of the devotional love songs ruling the charts at that time.” Mary didn’t just sing about her pain or happiness, she gave listeners an in-depth narrative on how and why she arrived at those emotions in the first place.

As Treva B. Lindsey notes, “Hip-Hop Soul artists challenge the invisibility of multidimensional African American womanhood within popular culture, and become conduits through which Black women of the Hip-Hop generation express personal aspirations, intimacy, and love.” The woman who started off sporting baseball caps and baggy clothes while singing over hard hitting drums and a piano is more than just an artist. She is a channel through which we explore. She is a channel through which we understand. She is a channel through which we heal. She is the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.

Sources:

Lindsey, Treva B. “If You Look in My Life: Love, Hip-Hop Soul, and Contemporary African American Womanhood.” African American Review, vol. 46, no. 1, 2013, pp. 87–99. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23783603.

Moon, Tom (2004). "Mary J. Blige". In Brackett, Nathan; Hoard, Christian. The Rolling Stone Album Guide. Simon and Schuster. pp. 83–4. ISBN 0743201698.

Herstory: Thank Young M.A.

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by Takia Gordon

Imagine coming out as a lesbian between the year of 2008-2010 and trying to be accepted. Despite Lil Wayne and Gucci consistently dropping mixtapes and being introduced to a woman rapper-Nicki Minaj-who spoke about kissing women in some of her songs, I realized there were not enough openly lesbian rappers who rapped about being with a woman - if there were any at all.

Men referencing girls kissing girls in their music was popular, but it did not shed a light on masculine lesbians. And as a masculine lesbian myself, the references were not for me. Instead they were for the femmes kissing femmes and the girl who will kiss another girl for a little attention.

In 2016 as I scrolled through YouTube at work, I came across an artist I’d never heard before. One of her lyrics stood out: “You call her Stephanie, I call her Head...phanie.” I replayed that verse. Then I replayed the song. It was too hot. I immediately began searching for other tracks by the artist known as Young M.A. From the single “Ooouu” to “Karma Krys” back to her debut album ‘Herstory,’ Young M.A. was an artist who was finally speaking from the perspective that I always wanted. 

Her recent offering “Petty Wap” reinforces that she is not going to let up on who she is because she has made it this far. She's going to continue to speak and tell a story for those of us who are still misunderstood. She will continue to open doors for those of us who once did not feel accepted enough to talk about who we choose to love.

In the year 2018, after 10 long years I have seen an evolution in a community I can proudly say that I am a part of. I’ve learned so much about who I am and what I stand for and will always believe in myself because of it. I’ve seen more and more of the LGBTQ community in Hip-Hop breaking barriers and allowing their stories to be heard. Young M.A.’s music has and will continue to inspire me to chase my dreams no matter what circumstances I may face.

On Being 'Braless' and Creating Space with Her Music: An Interview with Ness Nite

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by Najma Sharif

Ness Nite meets me in the East Village, in front of a cafe on a street with packed cafes, so we opted for sitting in Union Square. Her hair is up and she wears red earrings, a ribbed beige turtleneck and leather pants. As I caught my breath, and talked really fast to make up for the time lost from my lateness, Ness is as cool as her outfit. I met Ness Nite for the first time to do this interview, even though I’ve known about her and her music peripherally through my friends for two years. The night ‘Nite Time’ was released––Ness’s debut project, all of my friends shared it. Ness’s sound can’t be confined to genre, but that is because genre in in of itself is limiting and can barely account for the range of sounds we experience today. 

She has been described as untethered, but Ness Nite is tethered to her purpose. She takes deliberate pauses after what she says, not to weigh how it might be misinterpreted but because of her keen sense of self-awareness - she wants to let you know everything she is thinking and wants to leave you with a careful, complete thought. Ness Nite is a Sagittarius sun, has her moon in Scorpio and is an Aries rising: self-determined, creative and direct. 

Ness Nite’s debut album ‘Dream Girl’ is emotive but jaunty. Her voice floats over “Tightrope”a song about depression and maintaining balance, singing “I spend my whole life walkin' on a tightrope / Won't drop the ball, oh oh oh oh /'Cause I wonder where it might go.”I was curious to know where she finds her home, what it means to be braless ––a term Ness has used to describe the genre of music she creates. 

As society contends with existing in new ways and forming new realities, embracing and listening to Ness Nite’s music is embracing the future. Being placed and named means being bound to arbitrary things that make up our identity ––things that are evidently out of our control. Fluidity is futuristic and Ness Nite is the future.


You were born in Chicago, grew up in Milwaukee, and when I first started following you, you lived in Minnesota - do you consider any one place home?
When people ask me where I’m from here, I always say Minneapolis. Just cause, I feel like I don’t feel as connected to Chicago or Milwaukee, even though I spent more time there ––I just feel like I spent more time there not being myself. So when I moved to Minneapolis that was the first time I was exposed to people being openly queer. There was a community of that, and queer Black people, and people I could relate to. The fucking reason I was so depressed this entire time, I didn’t feel like I saw anyone that reflected what I looked like.

As someone that moved around a lot I have to ask: where do you feel most stable? Most comfortable?
I feel comfortable there [Saint Paul] and I feel comfortable here too, just cause I’m an adult now and I feel secure in who I am.

Beyond that, where can you be yourself?
Anywhere at this point, I like being around young queer people.

You said that "Dream Girl” is not “I’m the girl of your dreams.” It’s the concept of having the ability, space, and opportunity to achieve our dreams.” What does it mean for you to have the space to dream?
I never felt limited, and I know that’s a privilege. I’m not ignorant to what I look like or anything either and that’s important. And I know that I come from people who didn’t have that opportunity. I think it’s important for people who do feel naturally comfortable exploring and expressing who they are to do that in order to encourage people to do the same thing.

Everything about you seems rootless ––your music doesn’t fit a box, your gender and sexuality is also fluid, you’re nomadic. Do you find yourself explaining yourself a lot because of that?
I’m at the point where I don’t bother explaining myself, unless I get a direct question. Especially with being someone that is mixed, I feel like a lot of mixed people overtly talk about that a lot. If you want to ask me something go ahead.

Even the way you describe your music as braless is interesting, are you relinquishing control by refusing to be boxed in or would you consider that inherent to who you are?
I go back and forth with this, but the bra is like expectations in general, and ‘braless’ is like ‘that’s not there’ and it is tied into my femininity. I consider myself gender fluid but I don’t reject my femininity at all. My music and my sound has feminine tones to it, obviously my album is called ‘Dream Girl’. Even so, I identify less and less with the title of the album, I came up with it a year and a half ago. I’ve definitely developed and evolved since within my identity. I do think ‘braless’ has to do with my rootlessness, just not being tethered to anything.

What drew you to music? 
I’ve always loved music. I was in an orchestra for ten years. I’m not even that good. [laughs]

What instrument did you play?
The violin, I couldn’t read music so I played by ear. I really liked music but I didn’t relate to it in the traditional sense. I didn’t have the desire or attention span to learn traditional things like music theory. I kind of feel it, and I also wrote poetry. It kind of came together in high school. My high school randomly had this music production class, we did beat battles every week and eventually I started getting good at it and adding words to the things I was making. Now I’m where I’m at because of a few random events.

What kind of mark, if any, do you hope to make with your art?
I haven’t thought about it specifically with just my music, but just my existence in the music world. I definitely want to create space for Black women, Black queer people, people of color. Just in whatever ways that I can. My manager is Black –– she’s amazing and it’s really cool to see her work in a space that is not typically a space that Black women exist in. Everyone I know has a white dude manager, or a dude manager. It’s awesome to see her kick ass. All of the people we’ve worked with so far ––we’re working with a graphic designer, she’s a Black woman and we’re putting all these shows together with Black women DJs and artist. It’s just about creating space ––not to say I did this but it’s just about making it a point to do that. That’s who I want to surround myself with, that is who I care about, and through that I think it will translate into other things too.

 Catch Ness Nite live in NYC on 10/29

Najma is a writer living in NYC with writing in Nylon, Paper Magazine, Teen Vogue, Vice, Highsnobiety, Lenny Letter and others.

Creating Synergy: From production to lyrics, this album is all women

 Jovan Landry, self portrait

Jovan Landry, self portrait

by Nadirah Simmons

Billboard called music production “the ultimate boys club of the industry,” and it’s true. Since the introduction of the Grammy category for producer of the year, non-classical in 1975, only a handful of women — including Janet Jackson, Paula Cole, Sheryl Crow, Lauryn Hill, Mariah Carey, and Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin from Prince‘s band The Revolution — have been nominated. No woman has ever won it. Beyond shiny trophies, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift are the only two women to land on Billboard‘s year-end Top Producers chart in the last decade. Yes, you read that right.

The disparity is just as evident when you look at Hip-Hop. Despite the presence of chart-topping women on the mic like Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, the majority of the producers are men. In fact, most Hip-Hop fans probably can’t name enough woman Hip-Hop producers to count on one hand.

Enter SYNERGY, a Chicago-based collaborative Hip-Hop album curated by Jovan Landry. The idea came to Landry, a filmmaker, photographer and emcee based in Chicago a few years back when she noticed the lack of opportunities for women to produce Hip-Hop music.

The album will not only feature some of the hottest women emcees in Chicago, but every producer, engineer, videographer, photographer and graphic designer involved with the project is a woman.

The Gumbo talked to Landry about her introduction to Hip-Hop, the importance of creating a collaborative album by women only and how the culture of Chicago influences the music of its people.


The Gumbo: We haven’t really seen a major collaborative album like this yet. What made you decide to do this?
Jovan: It hasn’t been done which is crazy. Hip-Hop has been around for 40+ years, and we have not seen an album created entirely by women yet…And I was like this needs to happen, we’re long overdue. No one in the mainstream world has done it yet. So let’s make it happen.

You’re spearheading this entire project, when did you first get into Hip-Hop?
My mom definitely introduced it me. The Fugees, Mary J. Blige, all the Hip-Hop and R&B of the 90s. I was five or six years old. And I remember in middle school when I would print out lyrics and read along to them, and I never thought how that would impact me as an artist.

You are a well-rounded artist - a filmmaker, photographer and an emcee, when did you decide that you wanted to make music on your own?
Ten years ago. I’ve always been interested in music and I had a fascination with music production. And my cousin introduced me to Fruity Loops where I could make beats and stuff. I didn’t know I could download this software and create [music] at home, I thought you had to be established with a studio. Once I found that out I asked my grandma to buy me a keyboard and a microphone, and when I got those things it I started making beats at 16 or 17.

I was having fun doing what I loved to do, it kind of chose me.

Hip-Hop, as we both know, is not a space where women are often positioned at the forefront. Despite so many of us having this true love for the culture and origin stories like the one you shared.
I blame social media for that. You can get so famous so fast by putting out music. So when someone finds out that something works they do what works to get on and get famous without understanding the craft. 

And now you’ve created something to combat just that. When did you get the idea for SYNERGY?
In 2016, my mentor is a former emcee said she wanted to see a female rap album. And she wasn’t telling me to do it but it stayed in my head. So being in the Chicago scene or the music scene in general, you come across women that are doing it. So I started bartering with people saying hey if you become a part of my project I’ll take your photos or shoot your video.

Then in May of 2017 I checked one of my groups on GroupMe and there was an application for the WeWork Creator awards. They asked for a 90 second video on who you are, why you’re passionate about what you’re doing and what the idea is. So I made a video and told them about the idea and how I wanted to compensate women in these industries. A week or two later I became a finalist.

…[I went to Detroit] for the ceremony and I was waiting behind the curtains with all of the people in my category. And they were like “introducing all of the winners of the grant” and I was like “woah.”

That’s amazing! How did you find all the women for the project?
Well most of them I was already connected with. Finding filmmakers and artists was the easy part. But finding women who produce Hip-Hop music was hard, and I had to branch out of Chicago a little bit. 

What is the makeup of the team like?
Are you dope, can you flow and what’s your message? What can you bring artistically? And then I have queer women on here, it’s predominantly Black, women of different sizes, masculine and feminine - anybody that’s dope who can spit, has the delivery and can bounce ideas off of everyone. It’s all different types of women […]I just want women who agree with having a project like this, who are dedicated, who can commit and who are also willing to share a gift like this.

It’s not Jovan Landry featuring an artist, it’s almost like a DJ-Khaled style [album]. I’m not rapping on every track. I’m giving these women platforms to speak.

There are so many good artists from Chicago, for someone who is not from Chicago or who is an outsider how does the culture of the city influence the creative people that live there?
Our music is definitely based on the justice system and we definitely use it to write out our pain and what’s going on in the world. Our neighborhoods are super segregated-as diverse as they are…That influences it. Also the people that came from the city. Twista, Shawnna, Kanye West, Common, it’s so many influences. And Chicago is home of Blues. Just everything that is around us.

What makes Chicago different from all of the other regions when it comes to Hip-Hop?
That Blues and that Soul is really different…We’re also home of footworking so our beats are very different.

Aside from sound the culture of it-it’s hard. It’s hard to get people to rock with you in Chicago. I’ve gone to New York and people have shown way more respect and love. Being able to strip their ego and say “oh, I really like your music!”

How do you feel about the current state of Hip-Hop as a whole?
Even though there is some negativity mainstream wise, because we have social media and we can be self-sufficient and not have to join a label it’s very diverse. I really like where it’s going…I’m more about the message. Like what are we saying? Because art is so impactful. [The music] has to have some longevity.

I ask everybody this, who is in your Top 5?
Method Man, Left Eye, Kendrick Lamar, Common, Missy Elliott. They represent my style of rap.

That’s a really good list. I love Left Eye and I feel like people leave her out of their rap conversations.
I was a part of this show at Columbia College and I had auditioned as Eve and they said “oh, you’re going to do Left Eye.” I didn’t know that much about her but when I had to research her I learned so much and that’s how she became one of my Top 5. Not only her mind but her lyrics are really good too.

Where do you see SYNERGY five years now?
I would like to do workshops and go to New York and teach a workshop on how to make create something like SYNERGY. Having round table discussions and creating an event centered around women in Hip-Hop globally. I just want to keep the conversation going and keep the music coming out.

Inherent Exclusion: On Loving Hip-Hop As A Black Queer Woman

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by Brittany Frederick

The summer of 2013, shortly after my nineteenth birthday, I drove to buy a copy of J.Cole’s Born Sinner. I popped the CD into my car radio and pulled out of the parking lot. Moments later I was cringing at his slurs in the opening verse of “Villuminati.” As a Black queer girl who grew up on Hip-Hop and R&B homophobia in music came as no surprise. Yet the presence of homophobic language on songs shocked me each time. Year after year, album after album, Hip-Hop artists continued to disappoint and exclude Black people like me. And while there are countless articles online that ceaselessly debate whether or not Hip-Hop is homophobic, I’m uninterested in entering that fray - although it is. But what I do know is that for queer people who love Hip-Hop, fitting in with a culture that inherently excludes you is a challenge. 

As a teenager I listened to Hip-Hop and searched for alternate meanings. I created my own “bisexual anthems” out of songs that could be rapped by queer and straight people alike. Thus, it makes sense that Rae Sreummurd’s “No Type,” on which Swae Lee raps “I ain’t got no type, bad bitches is the only thing that I like,” became an anthem for a queer girl like me. The same could be said of Lil Mama’s “Lip Gloss.” In the music video Lil Mama sports sparkly glitter pink lip-gloss and construction boots while she offers to help other girls with their lip-gloss by rapping: “I upgrade ya, show you how to use nice things with nice flavaz.” Offering to help other women with flavors and lip products? Must be gay. And while I am almost certain these artists weren’t explicitly creating pro-queer liberation music, as a queer Black kid attempting to fit into spaces that were inherently exclusionary, finding music that spoke to my identity was and remains important.  

That’s not to say the Hip-Hop landscape has not changed over the past few years. The presence of Black queer rappers like Janelle Monae, Azealia Banks and Young M.A highlights an increase in representation, but representation doesn’t bring with it a radical queer politic. More often than I wish were true, queer rappers reproduce the same problematic tropes and assumptions that have long existed in mainstream rap, such as portraying Black women as Jezebels or suggesting that giving oral sex regardless of gender, is inherently an emasculating act.  I’m more interested in the message than in representation by itself. For these reasons, newer, independent artists have been fueling my playlists, regardless of sexuality, whose lyrics challenge the status quo. Since I’m Boston born-and-raised, Oompa’s “I Deserve That” is a track for all the Black girls. In it, Oompa raps, “This is for the Black girls, and the brown ones, this is for the never-let-the-guys girls, and the ratchets.” Then, she proceeds to explain the diversity of ways to be a Black woman, (trans, pan, fat, corporate). Rather than chastising women who enjoy sex or calling women prudish for keeping their sexual activity private, Oompa celebrates women doing and being whatever makes them happy. 

The importance of truly liberatory rap that still slaps cannot be understated. Black Americans have always tied music to their journey to freedom. From work songs during the antebellum era, to blues, to rap in the Bronx, our people’s struggle has inspired beautiful art that served as a constant reminder that our spirits could not be broken down. This LGBTQ+ history month I hope we can amplify rap that uplifts our community and quiet rap that doesn’t. Because that is truly inclusive.