It’s our time to talk, and there’s so much to be said. Rapsody, the Grammy nominated Snow Hill, North Carolina emcee, has more than earned the high esteem in which she is held. With multiple projects under her belt even before her debut album ‘The Idea Of Beautiful’ was released back in 2012, Rapsody had grown a reputation as a fearless and original emcee. Being the only rap feature on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ LP, with her guest verse on ‘Complexion (A Zulu Love)’, only further cemented Rapsody’s talent with an even bigger audience, and exposed an energy created from truth and honesty .
We meet Rapsody the day after the night before her appearance at Little Simz Welcome To Wonderland Experience, and a few days ahead of her headline show at the Jazz Café in London. Rapsody is in good spirits and down for it all – breakfast, she says, was A1, “I’m still on 10.”
You don’t have to dim your light for anybody else.
Despite a technological age where a measure of success seems heavily weighted to the size of celebrity, Rapsody manages to be seen in her own right. So, now with a taste of success, what does fulfilment really look like? “I don’t think it’s money, I don’t think it’s cars – I don’t even think it’s winning a Grammy. I think you just have to be confident in walking in your light. However you’re feeling that day, record it. And let it out into the world. Somebody’s going to connect with it. That came from a conversation with 9th, he was like, ‘just tell your story. I guarantee you, somebody’s going to be able to relate to it.”
Rapsody let her story go out into world on her latest LP, ‘Laila’s Wisdom’ – an ode to womanhood, growth and sharing lessons learned along the way. Just a few nights prior, London’s Roundhouse played host to scores of women musicians, producers and DJ’s; as Little Simz brought the full ‘Welcome To Wonderland’ Experience to life for the second year running. I ask how she felt about the day, “Oh it was dope! I love the idea of it, I love what Little Simz came and curated, it was all female,” she says with plain notes of affection in her tone. “Completely female, you know? That’s powerful. I had a talk with a photographer that came to shoot me before I went on and she talked about ‘I searched and searched for female acts and they don’t come here that much’. And representation is important, you know? We aren’t invisible, we matter, we have a voice, we are here, we don’t have to hide or be in the shadows. We can be demanding, and so we need artists that represent that, and there’s so many talented artists. So for [Little Simz] to curate a show with all females, who are all talented, all different in their right – that’s powerful. And, it shows not only are we worth it, or, not only are we gifted – we should have this. We get along as well – we support each other because a lot of times people don’t want you to, or don’t think you can, or you should.”
It’s up to us to understand our power. We don’t have to support the narrative. We can be the change we wanna see.
I ask Rapsody why? Why is it always the case, time and time again, women – inside the music industry or outside of it – are pitted against each other? She comes back almost immediately, “it’s this crazy idea that there can only be one. And it’s crazy! Like, I’m trying to go back and figure like, where did that change? Because that’s not how it started. I grew up with MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, Salt ‘n’ Pepa, Money Love – they all coexisted together. They all had a sisterhood and it was balanced. That’s what it is, women come in different sizes, emotions, styles – we aren’t one dimensional. And, somewhere after ‘98 it changed. There could only be one, you know? So it’s just like there’s this false narrative. People push this idea on you for a certain gender – whatever that gender is, I don’t know. But it’s up to us to understand our power. We don’t have to support the narrative. We can be the change we wanna see. And events like the Roundhouse, like Little Simz put on, creates the change, you know? [It] changes the narrative. It creates a space for us to exist in ourselves and not have to shrink – we can be ourselves. Demanding and different as we are. What [Little Simz] did was amazing.”
You wanna talk about me? Tell them I’m a beast. I don’t play around.
In 2013, Rapsody released her highly anticipated mixtape ‘She Got Game’, hosted by DJ Drama, it featured Jay Electronica, Common, Ab-Soul and DJ Premier among others. By 2014, Rapsody was on every list. From Time Magazine to USA Today, hers was a name cited over and over. In 2018, she’s became only the fifth female to ever be nominated for best rap album in the 23-year history of the category. With her rising stature, and ahead of her first headline show in the UK, I ask how Rapsody how her stage persona has grown, “that’s the fun part of it, you know?” she tells me, smiling at the thought. “You can go out there – I’m a small girl, I’m 5’3, when I step on that stage and perform, and put my voice into that mic, I can look like I’m 6’5. That’s what it’s about. Performing it in a way where you leave people on their toes. Where they can’t shrink me like, ‘oh who’s this little girl? What she about to do?!’ it’s like no, I’m powerful. Hear me roar, you know? Society might look at women as ‘oh you’re only here to be looked at.’ ‘As an MC? That’s cute what y’all doing, but y’all don’t compete with the men.’ it’s like no. When I step on stage, I’m a beast. I say that in my show – don’t call me a female rapper. You wanna talk about me? Tell them I’m a beast. I don’t play around. So that’s what it’s about, not allowing them to box you in and define you. To grow out of the box when you’re on stage, when you’re in the booth creating – to be bigger than how the world may want to see you.”
‘Laila’s Wisdom’ reads as a window into womanhood, I ask about how easy it was to peel back those messy, complicated layers? When so often women of all colours – and black women more personally – are lauded for their ability to remain steadfast, strong and endure the world’s woes. “I think this is probably the most personal album I’ve ever done. And if I’m showing people me? I wanna show you all of me as a human. I go through a bunch of different emotions. I’m naturally a very happy person, but that doesn’t say some days I might not feel depressed or might not be sad or be mad because somebody made me angry that day. I have a group of girls,” she says momentarily switching lanes, “it’s about four or five of us – my girl gang – and we talk about it all the time, you know? I have one, she’s like me, she’s like ‘you know, people expect me to be happy, and I come through and I’m not smiling. They’re like, oh, why you aren’t smiling?’ She’s like, ‘I don’t have to be your source of happiness today – I don’t feel like smiling today and you’re going to have to be okay with that’. I’m just like, exactly! And so that’s what it’s about, being able to be human. And being okay with not being perfect all the time, you know? That’s honesty.”
That’s what I wanted my music to be, life is a journey – valleys and peaks – and I think I want it to emulate real life. What real women go through, how they feel.
We talk some more about the perception of ‘strong women’. A phrase ever more over used, by every advertiser and promoter with a new ‘inclusive’ concept. I wonder when ‘strength’ becomes stifling? “I remember how the ‘Miseducation’ made me feel.” Rapsody confides, “And how honest Lauryn was, like, before I heard ‘Zion’ you looked at Lauryn in a special way. And to hear a song like ‘Zion’ and to hear her that vulnerable? I appreciated that. I have to show these girls – especially today – that live in an age where you’re expected to be perfect all the time, and look perfect all that time that, that’s not real life man. And so, that’s what I wanted my music to be, life is a journey – valleys and peaks – and I think I want it to emulate real life. What real women go through, how they feel.”
Across 14 tracks, Rapsody sequences those ebbs and flows on ‘Laila’s Wisdom’, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson Paak, Amber Navran, Busta Rhymes, Musiq Soulchild, Terrance Martin, BJ The Chicago Kid, GQ and Black Thought all bring their voices, and tones and in the end? They hang together effortlessly, so I ask about the process, about chemistry and collaboration “it’s easier with 9th and my production team I think. One, because we’ve been working together so long, they know me. You know? We have this chemistry but, a lot of times we’ll be talking and [9th] will send me a beat and I might write to it, and we’ll listen to it and I’ll be like, I like it; but there’s an emotion in it that’s not connecting with me. So a lot of times I’ll go find a sample that connects with that emotion I’m looking for and I’ll give it to him like, ‘can you do something with this? This is a feeling that I’m feeling. I wanna keep it, but make it more updated’. So it’s just like plugging in pieces to the puzzle. Where I’m giving them something and they’re finishing it. Or, they give me something and I compliment it.”
I go off energy. Like, I’m really big off energy. If your energy is good? I wanna create with you. If it’s not? Then like, I’m good. No matter how talented you are.
The chemistry built up between musician and producer is one that demands trust. To create from a place of honesty, you must first begin on the same page. So I ask Rapsody how easy it is to translate a thought or an idea from your mind to that of someone else’s? “Sometimes, we talk in colours – it’s like, this is like a ‘blue’. A lot of musicians – especially producers – they see in shapes and they see in colours. As an artist, as a writer, that’s something that I needed to learn like, okay this is how I have to talk to you. If you see in shape and colour, then how I write I have to see that in a colour and shape as well. And try to express to you, so we on the same page. Like, when talking about albums, 9th is like – you know we’ll pick a sound that we’re going to build around – and he’s like ‘yeah, this would be like a ‘green’ album’ you know? Where Laila’s Wisdom is a lot of colours – you see green, blue, red, orange – you get all those different emotions and colours.” she breaks off a short laugh. “Like Roy G Biv, you know!? You just go through the emotions! – your highs and your lows. Your brights and your sombres. As far as collaborations go? I go off energy. Like, I’m really big off energy. If your energy is good? I wanna create with you. If it’s not? Then like, I’m good. No matter how talented you are. So like, your Kendricks, your Andersons? They have really good energy. I pick them because when I do music and I’m picking people to be on it, it’s because I’m missing an energy. And so it’s not for a name, like, I need Kendrick because it’s Kendrick Lamar. It’s like, nah ‘Power’ is missing something. It’s missing a voice and the only voice that I hear, the tone is Kendrick. With Amber Navran it’s like, I’m listening to the beat and it’s just like Amber’s voice would fit really well.”
Throughout history, we see often, the best art is borne of harsh, relentless times and modern history has been nothing if not trying. I ask Rapsody why it seems hard times breed classic art? “I think that’s because you have so much to write about and touch on and you tap into it all. Everything that’s going on back home, from women’s rights to health to immigration – there are a lot of different emotions running rampant. And so, you have all these different stories to tell. As artists, you have this responsibility to record that. Because, we can’t depend on media to do it. You know? They get to rewrite history, they get to tell the story how they want to. So, it’s up to us to tell the story the way it’s supposed to be told. To tell it in it’s true form. Not only do we get to entertain, but we have to be the voice for the voiceless. We have to record this in audio form, so it lives forever. So people know what’s happening around us. You know? That’s what music is, taking a snapshot of whatever is going on or whatever state of mind you’re in, and making it live forever.”
For hip hop to evolve through me? For my path to success to this point to be so unconventional that I allow 10, 20, more to come through the same way? That’s the exciting part to me. Especially as a woman doing that, I know I won’t be the last one.
With society changing so rapidly from one day to the next, in England, America, and everywhere there is human life, I ask Rapsody how she feels about her place in the history books? “Wow. it’s crazy, I haven’t even really had the time to sit and think about my place in it because I’m just in it. And I don’t even know how I’m affecting, necessarily everything that’s going on around me. If I sit back and think about it? Man, it’s inspiring, it’s fulfilling to at least know you’re making music that affects people. That is going to open the door, usher in the next ones to come behind you. That’s the most exciting part. I love music, and I love what it does, but I also knew that my purpose was to inspire, to ignite some fire into somebody else. To give back to the culture, and make sure the culture is represented in the right way. So, you know, to be a part of that? To continue that story? For Hip Hop to evolve through me? For my path to success to this point to be so unconventional that I allow 10, 20, more to come through the same way? That’s the exciting part to me. Especially as a woman doing that, I know I won’t be the last one. There’s somebody that’s learning from me and they’re going to come, and I’m going to have to pass the torch. That’s the beautiful part to me. And from a woman’s perspective, that’s how I look at it. I’ve been given this gift and this microphone, and this platform. What am I going to do with it? Who’s stories am I going to tell?”