The rise and rise of HAAi
Ojay Morgan sends me a Youtube link marked “Quote from Staceyann Chin”, and it’s inspiring. Featuring the Jamaican-born spoken word poet delivering an invective against stereotyping, at 2:54 she spits, “I want to go down in history in a chapter marked ‘miscellaneous’ because the writers could find no way to categorise me in this world, where classification is key.” To be honest, I can’t even remember talking about her. In a conversation with Morgan (better known as his hip hop alter-ego, Zebra Katz) that went well over the usual hour in London’s Soho house – spilling over to a nearby bar and a spot of late night shopping in Tesco – I couldn’t remember the specifics of a lot of the topics we covered, but going on what was recorded, I know that it was heated.
“Why wouldn’t Zebra Katz fit in to that mould?” It’s a loaded question from the hip hop performer, referring to my reaction to the provocative machismo of his character who says “bitch” no less than 32 times in his career-making Ima Read. I mention that I’m reminded about how debasing and aggressive the term is when Zebra Katz says it, and Morgan is calling me out on my assumptions about what a rapper – one that is equally inspired by vogue and public literacy, Diddy and the Mouseketeers – should represent.
“The more I talk about people that are bothering me, the more people use it as ammo to bother me, so I’d rather just let them know that I don’t give a fuck.” – Kitty
An invention of his senior thesis at the New School, and reared on the stages and freestyling events Morgan organised across New York, Zebra Katz is a rebel who takes coke, swears likes a sailor and fucks like an animal – and Morgan is nothing like him. “He’s a supervillain, if anything. Just because he’s rebelling against all the set morals that people are putting on him.” One of a wave of young artists working in hip hop, Zebra Katz was plucked from obscurity and thrust into the generalised hype of rappers coming from beyond the norm. Le1f, Kitty (nee Pryde), Lakutis and Das Racist. Brooke Candy, Action Bronson and Mykki Blanco. House of Ladosha, Nicky Da B and Riff Raff; all artists based across the US, from wildly different backgrounds and linked by little more than that they don’t fit the hip hop archetype. Action Bronson is a half Albanian ex-Chef who raps about tapas, Lakutis is a Russian Jew from Harlem and Kitty is a ginger haired university student from Florida who started out on her Tumblr in her teens.
“Most of them were kind of confused at first,” says Pryde, aka Kathryn Beckwith, now 20 years old, about the audience response to her during a recent tour with Danny Brown, “Nobody was openly mean, except for New York and Indianapolis, those were the two cities where people were straight-up assholes. The rest were all cool.” The smart and sometimes self-deprecating artist sums up her adolescent experience in D.R.E.A.M., from her recent ‘Daisy Rage’ EP: “I grew up on the shy side, the free WiFi side, the OCD side”.
Talking to me over the phone from a stopover between tours in Florida, Beckwith is understandably wary when it comes to answering questions about the antagonisms she provokes for nothing more than what she represents. “In hip hop, it’s not as much about my age as it is… it’s about my age, in general, but I’m more discriminated against for being a girl and being white.” A compelling writer and critic herself, Beckwith already has a direct link to her audience through her blog and her Twitter account, and press is dangerous territory in an industry where journalists have their agendas and the public is quick to pass judgement. “The more I talk about people that are bothering me, the more people use it as ammo to bother me, so I’d rather just let them know that I don’t give a fuck.”
“You have to work with what scares you, so what terrifies me? I could be a rapper.” – Zebra Katz
That’s a sentiment that Morgan echoes. Conscious of how he’s perceived and frustrated by the responsibilities thrust upon him for what he’s come to represent as “queer or black or whatever”, the performer and interdisciplinary artist, who recently dropped his ‘DRKLING’ mixtape, has found his candour to be a burden in the face of the vulnerability that comes with exposure. “I don’t want to publicly put myself out there to be a target of ignorance because I know that is available, just because of how small-minded some people are. If I could avoid that, obviously I would. But I’m also not afraid of what a lot of people think or say just because I’ve been exposed to it. I’ve been called a faggot, I’ve been called nigger, I’ve been called a bitch. Those words, I’m desensitised to it. Not that I want to use it because I don’t want to fuckin’ hear it all the time. I may use it here and there but it’s definitely to prove a point. Only to prove a point.”
It’s astonishing just how provocative it can be to be yourself; the courage it takes to be honest in a rigidly structured society that still alienates people who don’t fit the expectations imposed on them. “Having the body that I have. I could be a football player, a basketball player, a rapper; there are so many bright, shiny ways I could live out our great American dream,” says Morgan facetiously; for the record, he’s pretty tall and has a size 13 shoe. “I did volleyball and chose to do step team.”
Needless to say, there’s certainly an element of defiance and a lot of playfulness to what Morgan is doing as Zebra Katz. Sprung from a performance art piece titled ‘Moor Contradictions’, his inspiration came from studying Shakespeare in London, learning the craft while playing all of the Moor characters. “I didn’t want to play Caliban in The Tempest. I wanted to play these characters that I wouldn’t necessarily get a chance to.”
Hence, Morgan’s messing with expectation, simultaneously submitting to and resisting classification. “I’ve always tried to play with that. I’ve always done things just to see if I can do it, to challenge myself and try things that are unconventional for me.” And as an artist with his roots in theatre and visual art, what could be more challenging and unconventional than rap? “You have to work with what scares you, so what terrifies me? I could be a rapper.” It’s an attitude that Beckwith shares in choosing a medium that, for many people, she’s not welcome to use. “I kind of like invading, I like making people feel weird,” she laughs, as I remember her brilliant indictment of popular culture in Thx Kathryn Obvious – “nobody likes my music, they just kinda wanna fuck me”.
Both Morgan and Beckwith are aware of the allowances and limitations available to them based on what other people perceive them to be, while pushing those limits simply by being themselves. “I don’t know, I just say what I feel,” says Beckwith dismissively about the lyrical content of her songs, which include her asking rapper Antwon to hide his drugs and convictions from her mum in Scout Finch Bitch, rejection in love in Ay Shawty 3.0, featuring Lakutis, and taking ownership of her own actions in Hittin Lixxx (“I’ll take the blame if we can misbehave”). As Morgan says “I’m not here to cause trouble,” but it so happens that the trouble will come, merely for his apparent audacity to express himself within hip hop; essentially subverting the status quo of a medium, once revolutionary, now become dogmatic.
“If anything, it makes more sense that there would be gay, black rappers because they have it twice as hard as black rappers. It’s like, ‘why did it take so long?’” – Heems
Hip hop’s creed of intolerance found expression no more troublingly than in rapper Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian’s diss track Lift Up Your Skirt in February, where he labels Kanye West “half a fag” and “pioneer of this queer shit” for wearing a skirt on stage at last year’s 12-12-12 Cyclone Sandy benefit in New York. In a video interview with VladTV he states his position unambiguously. “That’s not hip hop to me. That really has no place in hip hop. The only reason why an individual would do something like that is purely out of ego, arrogance and lack of knowledge of themselves.” One can only imagine Lord Jamar’s opinion on someone like Zebra Katz or Mykki Blanco – even Lil B’s ‘I’m Gay’ album title – and it’s a resistance that Morgan is more than aware of: “you’re opening yourself up to a world of people who are insecure and naïve. That’s vulnerability.”
Heems – Deepak Choppa
“They call it ‘struggle rap’ now but in the 90s, it was just rap”, Himanshu K Suri, originally of Das Racist, and head of Brooklyn’s Greedhead label says, his mouth full of food at a one-off show in London. The Indian-American rapper from Queens, now exploring issues of diaspora and identity under the moniker Heems, is one of the more explicitly political of the current crop of “alternative” rappers, while also looking after the likes of Lakutis and Le1f with Greedhead. “People shouldn’t be alarmed that there are gay rappers. Rap is supposed to speak out against an authoritative figure and rap is supposed to come from a struggle. If anything, it makes more sense that there would be gay, black rappers because they have it twice as hard as black rappers. My thing isn’t, ‘oh no, there’s a gay rapper?’ It’s like, ‘why did it take so long?’”
“I was a big Britney fan. She could dance and sing and act, do all of these things and I got to see her grow, it was great.” – Zebra Katz
In light of the prejudices that still exist globally, both within and outside of hip hop, it’s not hard to see why. What’s more intriguing is exploring how it has come to pass that there are openly queer rappers at all. Because, in identifying the shifts and movements in its short history, the universality of rap as an approach and its versatility as a medium becomes most apparent. From its birth in the 70s block parties of the blighted borough of the Bronx in New York, to the emergence of Cypress Hill, with its combined Cuban, Mexican, Italian and Norwegian descent, in the late 80s, through women rappers Lil Kim and Foxy Brown in the 90s and UK-born Sri Lankan M.I.A., so many voices have been instrumental in bringing unique perspectives to the pop consciousness, casting the net of rap representation ever wider.
“I think a Grammy nomination is a huge thing for alternative rap,” Le1f (aka Khalif Diouf) says about M.I.A.’s influence in a hotel lobby during a promotional tour of the UK last year. “Getting to that level is pretty impressive. Being able to work with Missy Elliot and Jay Z is pretty impressive and having not been a musician six, seven years ago that’s pretty cool,” he adds while dismissing the charge of hypocrisy the fiercely political artist provoked for her relationship with billionaire Benjamin Bronfman. “People, I guess, got tired of her talking about politics while she was living this privileged life but it was still her experience to talk about.”
Le1f live in London 19/06/13, photographed by Dmitry Serostanov.
That experience and so many others are being shared and expressed by a new generation of artists, raised on TV and educated by the internet. Now, Kathryn Beckwith can grow up listening to Chingy and Petey Pablo, in tandem with her active involvement in the punk scene (“there’s not so much hip hop going on in my part of Florida”), while Ojay Morgan can be inspired by Britney Spears and Diddy at exactly the same time: “I was a big Britney fan. She could dance and sing and act, do all of these things and I got to see her grow, it was great. I got to see Diddy have five shows on MTV and say that he’s a mogul and I’m like, ‘oh, I wanna be a fuckin’ mogul. I want to produce; I want to have all these shows’. He did all that and that was what I was looking up to at the time.”
Rap is probably one of the most adaptable forms in music today. Its roots in spoken word have come to signify more than just the African American experience but an anti-authoritarian outlook expressed through a medium that has infiltrated the global cultural lexicon. There’s B.U.G. Mafia in Romania, WSZ i CNE in Poland, Uffie in France, Zedbazi in Iran. Heems can be seen performing to a London crowd with young men in patkas and women in hijabs as he spits, “I ain’t black, I ain’t white, I can’t rap, I can’t write,” from Deepak Choppa, while Kitty pays homage to her Riot Grrrl leanings, sharing the teen girl experience they promoted while wearing a Yeastie Girlz t-shirt in Okay Cupid. There’s even a cheeky affront to inevitable criticism on her Tumblr with the pink bubble-type “click 4 real hip hop” button linking to her bandcamp page. Because “real hip hop” isn’t about standardised pop formulas that necessitate a rap insert to fill them out, but giving voice to experiences that are typically given very little airtime.
To think, Salt N Pepa, one of the first all-women rap crews, emerged almost 30 years ago – yet even now, gender still surfaces as a significant talking point in hip hop. Thankfully, despite the continued under-representation of anyone other than hetero males in mainstream rap, there’s a growing swell of self-made performers who are inheriting the style and utilising it as the significant social force it can be. Now you have gay rappers, bi rappers, ones that are poets, artists, cheerleaders and gogo dancers. Ones that are black, white, Indian and part Filipino, ones with ginger hair, ones with revolutionary ideals and questionable politics. There are even some that don’t consider themselves rappers at all. They come from all backgrounds, with their own social experience and their own stories of how they cope within it, while giving their audience a perspective they might not otherwise encounter. They lambast their stereotypes at the same time as embracing them, playing with and presenting them through a format that is as much spoken word performance as it is music.
These are those very people that Staceyann Chin marks “miscellaneous”; the ones aspiring to evade classification and push those boundaries, already pushed, even farther. It’s rappers like these that are keeping hip hop relevant, while giving fresh meaning to Chin’s final words as she howls, “I want to erase the straight lines, so I can be free.”