I am Nina and Roberta
The one you love but ain't never heard of
Got my middle finger up
Like Pac after attempted murder
Failed to kill me
It's still me — from "Nina"
One year ago, Rapsody had an epiphany. She felt it so deep in her soul, as an artist and a black woman from the backwoods of North Carolina, that it was almost strange it hadn't revealed itself sooner. Sometimes, even the anointed among us need a word from on high to get the message.
Rapsody's came hand-delivered, when a fellow wordsmith arrived in Snow Hill (population 1,526) to profile her for Oxford American's forthcoming "Southern Music" issue. During the ride-around interview with writer and poet L. Lamar Wilson, "he started playing Nina Simone and Roberta Flack to set the mood, because they're both artists from North Carolina," Rapsody says.
It suddenly dawned on Wilson that Rapsody was an extension of that legacy.
"And I was like, 'Wow, I never looked at it like that.' " The revelation inspired a new song later that same night, which quickly became something bigger. "I had a concept: I want to make an album and name every song after a black woman, because I'm an extension of every black woman."
Rapsody has always represented the beautiful struggle of black womanhood in her music, but on her third studio album, Eve — out on August 23 — she does the double work of crowning queens and humanizing them. Today, she's revealing the full tracklist and it's a virtual hall-of-fame of living and luminous black women, most iconic enough to be recognized by mononym: Oprah, Aaliyah, Whoopi, Serena, Tyra, Maya, Iman, Myrlie, Michelle, Sojourner, Afeni, Hatshepsut. Over the course of the album, Rapsody uses each of them — most metaphorically, some literally — to tell her own story while narrating from the center the pain, power and pride of black womanhood in all its glowed-up essence.
"This album is coming out in a time where we're really talking about what it means to be a black woman in America, and black women are really riding to the forefront in a lot things that we do," Rapsody tells me. "People are looking more to us and appreciating us more. Our voices are being heard, whether it's a part of the political arena or in hip-hop."
Her voice has never sounded more urgent. She's in full possession of her powers on this album, both as a lyricist and performer, but also as a whole-sided human. "As artists it takes us awhile sometimes to figure out who we are, where we fit in, what our voice is," she says. "I've been doing this for 10 years. I've grown in it musically, but I've grown as a person. I've learned more about life, I've learned more about myself, about the music business, about having legacy and longevity. You begin to see who you are and you own it and you become OK with it. I've found my lane and I know my place in the music. I know where I fit and you just walk it proudly. That's kind of where I am."
The second coming of Nina Simone bears fresh fruit, baptized in blood and black power.
"One of my favorite quotes from Nina Simone is, 'An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.' That's where I wanted to start. That's my foundation. Before anything, I wanted to reintroduce myself again — who I am and why I make the music that I make. Everything I do I try to put a purpose in it, because it's my responsibility as an artist. That song ['Strange Fruit'], and particularly Nina Simone, says a lot about who I am, why I make the music that I make and what I want my legacy to be. That's why I started there.
"Also, my greatest influence is Lauryn Hill, without a doubt. And I didn't know who Nina Simone was until I got into Lauryn Hill. In that sense, there would be no Lauryn Hill without Nina Simone, and without Lauryn there would be no me."
Rapsody fires off on a paper-thin music industry in the name of sanity and self-preservation.
"The hardest scene in Set It Off is at the end, when the cops have Cleo surrounded, and she put the car back on hydraulics and just ran through [the police barricade]. She's like, 'I'm going to die for what I believe in.'
"It's just really about busting back, never taking no for an answer, standing up for what you want to. I look at that movie and what it meant, [each character] kind of went through something. And just talking about everything that I went through [and] that I had to be humble through in the industry, it's like I'm talking my shit now. But I'm still doing it in a classy way. So, that's me going Cleo on it. It's no-holds-barred."
Tomboy swag is more than an aesthetic; it's a subgenre. Word to Aaliyah.
"To be seen as successful on a mainstream level, people feel like women in hip-hop have to be super sexy. Everybody has to look the same. I read comments all the time like, 'Yo, Rap is dope, but she's never going to make it because she don't sell herself. She don't sell her body.' And that's not necessarily true. There can be another lane where you have me, you have a Cardi B, you have a Megan Thee Stallion, you have a Leikeli47, you have a Noname, and we all look different. We all can be successful in whatever way success means to us, even on a mainstream level. I look back at a time where Aaliyah was one of the biggest artists, and she dressed like a tomboy. A lot of people look at me like it's not cool to be who I am and dress the way I am. [They say] it's not feminine.
"Femininity comes in different ways, and this is my form of being a female. The way I dress is feminine in my way, so I call it tomboy femininity because that's what I saw in Aaliyah. It was cool to be a tomboy. It's cool to be a woman that raps, that's super lyrical, that can bust. So I wanted to make something that felt like that, embodied that, like the tommy girl that Aaliyah was. She was an R&B artist but she could be hip-hop, too, with it. That's why I made that song. Even the instrumental has this duality. Listening to the beat, to me, it's super sexy. But at the same time I'm busting on the lyrics. That's a duality for me."
North Carolina's finest circulate dollars like Ujamaa over a beat so bouncy even Oprah could dance to it.
"I always try to keep my ear to the street, especially for women. So, I've been following Leikeli for a few years. I always check out her music. I just loved how she came in with her first album Wash and Set. She was so different. She was herself. And her other one, Acrylic, is one of my favorite albums that dropped last year. It's got a song called 'Top Down' that I run into the ground. So I always knew that I wanted to work with her. I met her for the first time when I did the last BET [Hip Hop Awards] cipher. We became friends. So when I did that record, because of the way that beat was, the first person that came to mind was Leikeli. This is all her vibe and energy. I got her on like the 23rd hour of trying to turn in everything for the album. She killed it like I thought she would. It came together the way I envisioned."
A slice of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" is all it takes to make a sister act up.
"Yo, there's so many reasons why I love Whoopi, but Sister Act is one of the reasons. So I was listening to that beat and I was like, 'They gon' make a sister act up.' And it just clicked: Let me call this 'Whoopi'; she got the movie called Sister Act. And it was just that simple, and we know like, Whoopi don't bite her tongue, she ain't got no filter. She going to say what she's saying. She'll stand up for what she believes in. It's that sassy side of Whoopi.
"By naming it 'Whoopi,' that's me being creative and fun and showcasing the word play and metaphors. But that's also me showing that Rap has that side, too. When people meet me, they see I'm cooler and chill. But some people [see] the rowdy-rowdy side, if you rub me the wrong way. It takes a lot for me to get there, but I'll go there. And people need to know that's a part of me. Like, yo, don't push my buttons too many times. You gon' make me act up [laughs]."
Who said Uncle Luke's booty-shake anthem couldn't be retrofit as a hymn of self-determination?
"What I love about the beat is it's got that Luke Nasty thing to it, right. [It features a sample of Uncle Luke's 'Don't Stop (Doo Doo Brown).'] It just made me think about that year Serena won and she actually couldn't walk when she received her trophy. And it also made me think about the Serena that's in the Beyoncé video doing her thing. It also made me think about the Serena that is not ashamed of having a black woman's body. Like, 'I got a big butt.' We love our bodies. We've been objectified, and they try to make us feel bad and say our bodies are not beautiful. But to own that is beautiful, right?
"So Luke is doing it in the way he does it, but I want to flip the script of what that ['Doo Doo Brown' sample conjures] when you hear that: 'Don't stop, get it, get it!' I want to flip that and make you see it in a classic, beautiful way — like I see Serena and how she owns the beauty of her body, but in such a beautiful, classy and respectable way. I also want to talk about the struggle of how she came up. She and Venus were in the tennis arena when that was a space where black people weren't always welcome. Though we had Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, you don't have a lot of black representation. But to come in and own it and now be the greatest to ever play the game, male or female, that's a testament of the journey and the confidence and the strength."
Self-love is a radical act, when beauty is in the eye of the oppressor.
"When I think about Tyra [Banks], she's a model and beautiful and she talks about self-love and self-care and seeing black women and brown skin as beautiful — all shapes, all sizes. Being a black woman as a model and being able to go to the height that she did, that's something to be lauded and applauded.
"I watched Top Model and I remember seeing women try out for the show, and the love she gave for women like Toccara who were plus-size — she made a lane for these women. Tyra Banks is also a businesswoman. I wanted to also showcase the power of us putting money back in the black community. Oprah and Tyra both kind of [represent] that. I know why we're upset about Gucci, but why are we putting so much money in Gucci? Let's take our black dollars and invest in black designers to represent us and tell our stories."
A Badu sample and a rim shot lay the foundation for Rapsody's cage-free meditations on freedom.
"I am me not only because my mother raised me, along with my aunts, but because I'm so in love with Phylicia Rashad, and I look up to Cicely Tyson, and I'm so influenced by Nikki Giovanni's writings and Maya Angelou. They influenced me to write poetry before I became an MC writing songs and recording. That's part of the reason I'm good with wordplay and metaphors and telling stories.
"I wanted to make sure I showcased her and how much she means to our culture: 'Still I Rise.' How powerful of a poem that is for black women. Maya Angelou's one of the greats. She'd be one of the faces on our Mount Rushmore of black women. I specifically played off '[I Know] Why the Caged Bird Sings.' It's just about knowing that all of us have wings and we're not in cages. Or, we might be in cages, but all we have to do is fly through the door, because it's open. Realize that you don't have to feel trapped, even though society makes us feel trapped in the hood. You have wings to go as far as you want."
Rap keeps her sword sharp with one of Wu-Tang's illest and the elusive D'angelo.
"That song is the only song on the album that I didn't go in on with a specific concept. [Producer and longtime mentor] 9th [Wonder] actually titled that song; everything else I did. Nicole Bus, who's on Roc Nation, has a song called 'You' where she flips an old Wu-Tang sample. I loved it so much, so 9th said 'Let's flip another Wu-Tang joint.' He chose [GZA's] 'Liquid Swords,' I wrote a hook to it and 9th was like, "Start your verse off like GZA started his verse off, [with] 'When the MCs came...' " I just went in and spit bars, and whatever concept came I would figure out what woman the song embodies. Then, 9th said, "Yo, since I flipped 'Liquid Swords,' why don't we name it after Ibtihaj Muhammad, because she's a fencer with a sword. It's just that literal. She's a Muslim-American fencer and she's the first one to perform in a hijab. The correlation is we're two very strong, confident, fearless women who, in our own sports, never compromise.
"You can't flip that [sample] and have it sound like that and not call GZA to ask for permission to use it. And you can't not ask him to get on it. So we had to do that off rip. I had a placement hook that I had attempted to sing on, but I was like we gotta get somebody else to sing this. And 9th got a call — they were like, 'I've got D'Angelo with me, I want to play him the record.' And they played it for him and he loved it. He talked about how much that song meant to him, how much of a Wu-Tang Clan head he was and [that] he wanted to be on it. It happened just that organically. He's such a unicorn that I put him up there with Prince and Michael [Jackson], in terms of his artistry. I still don't understand how that all happened, but it happened and I'm going to receive it."
The hook cries over a haunting bass line, while Rapsody eulogizes a past that refuses to die.
"Nobody ever talks about the black widows and how they feel. I wanted to make a song specifically for black widows, from the times of Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott [King] and Myrlie Evers [to] now — which, I did this song before the Nipsey [murder], but Lauren London. It's just crazy. That was something I wanted to dedicate and talk about from a woman's vibe — the fear of being a black woman and having to fear for the life of your man and your partner. What is that like? And I wanted to name it after Myrlie because not as many people know who Myrlie Evers is. I want to shine a light on her, and keep her legacy going. I want people to know more about [assassinated civil rights leader] Medgar Evers and who he was and his story, so I chose her. And she's still alive. It's not that long ago. And we're still dealing with it."
"Her name is Reyna Biddy and she's an amazing author. I found Reyna through her partner, TDE producer Sounwave. I follow him on Instagram and he posted something about her, so I went to check out her page and fell in love with her writing. Then I caught wind of her SoundCloud and I heard her reading her poetry and fell in love with her voice. It's amazing. Between her writing and her voice, I decided I wanted her to narrate [the album]. She complements the stories I tell and the soulfulness of black women in an art form that only she can capture."
i.e. What does it profit a woman to gain the world and lose her soul?
"You can be a girl from Chicago, who likes to dance and be a real black woman who goes to house parties, and still be a first lady. I wanted to showcase the side of Michelle Obama, like, 'I'm a first lady but I ain't lose my blackness. Don't get it twisted.' You hear it in the hook, with Elle Varner singing, 'ladies first.' That's me playing with wordplay again: We can go from being first ladies to a First Lady."
Blacker than Ebony's archives and a chin-check from Rapsody to J.I.D
"I wanted to use Iman because she's from Africa and she's [one of] the first black supermodels. And because she's chocolate and beautiful. As women, we're all beautiful in all our shades. I'm just talking about loving ourselves and loving our skin, especially at a time where women don't always see the beauty in themselves and bleach their skin in places like Africa and sometimes here. Naw, don't do that. Love yourself and see the beauty in being a black woman. Black don't crack. Know what that means and be proud we can say that.
"It was dope to have SiR sing the hook, to have that male voice say I appreciate my dark-skinned sisters, all my sisters, and to have a verse with J.I.D to show that men do love us.
"J.I.D recorded that verse on an ironing board. He was on tour and he Facetimed me. I could see the ironing board hanging upside down [with] the board on the floor and the legs in the air crisscrossed. The mic cord was wrapped around the legs with the mic hanging. And he was like, 'Rap, I just wanted to show you this real hip-hop right here. We making something outta nothing. I told you I'ma get this verse to you by any means necessary.' We cracked up about that. I was like, 'This the most hip-hop shit [I've] ever seen.'
"But that's my dude right there, that's my heart. He killed it and he was like, 'Yo, I ended my verse with a 'bitch' so you can come back and check me on it.' I was like, bet. So he sent it like that and when I found out the order of the songs from 9th — he told me the Queen Latifah joint was next — I was like that's perfect 'cause Latifah had 'U.N.I.T.Y.' Boom, like, 'Who you callin' a b****?' I had to end it like that 'cause I wanted to introduce what was coming up next."
Two dope queens spit the intergenerational gift.
"Me and Murs were talking and I was telling him I wanted a tattoo. He showed me this tattoo he has of Queen Latifah on his ribcage. I was like, 'Yo, that's one of the illest tattoos that I've seen.' We started talking about the tattoo, and he asked me if I've ever tried to work with Queen Latifah. I been wanting to work with Queen Latifah forever. She's one of the reasons that I rhyme, that I am the artist that I am. 'U.N.I.T.Y.' was one of my favorite songs. It taught me to demand self-respect as a woman and never let nobody call you out of your name. I met her once at the White House when I went for one of Obama's parties, but I only got to talk to her briefly 'cause everybody was talking to Queen at the time. It was so brief I don't even know if she really knew who I was. But she was sweet.
"Murs was like, 'I'ma help you with it.' Murs goes and does what Murs can do cause Murs knows everybody. He got in touch with Shakim [Compere, Latifah's business partner]. And Shakim got in touch with 9th and connected him to Queen. I got the call from 9th: 'Yo, I just got off the phone with Queen; she's about to call you.' I'm like, 'Oh my god.' I'm nervous, I'm excited, all these emotions. She called and I said, 'Hello.' She answered in this Jamaican voice: 'I'm looking for Rapsody.' Off the rip, she was cool. Everything I thought Queen would be she was that and more. That was a real experience. I really got to record music with her and get to know her and hear stories about Flava Unit and just hip-hop.
"It's just about being a queen and understanding what a queen means. Originally the name of that song was Aoleon. I named some songs after real women and some after fictional characters. [Queen] Aoleon is Eddie Murphy's mom in Coming to America. But Queen was like, 'Nah, we gotta name it something more powerful. We gonna name it Hatshepsut,' [one of] the first female pharaohs in [Egypt]. I didn't even know that history. I really want people to Google and [learn] who these people are."
Jamla and Dreamville connect to articulate truths, like Sojourner.
"J. Cole came to the studio, originally, to do another song. But we started talking for two or three hours, just about the different generations — 9th's generation, the generation that me and Cole are in and this new[er] generation. How we all consume music differently, how we all are taught different, how we all think differently. I think that's kinda like the concept of [Cole's song] 'Middle Child.' I don't know if it came from us talking that night, but that was the conversation.
"When you're talking about floating and being free, it's either got to be Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth. At first, I named it 'Harriet.' Then I went back and read the speech that Sojourner Truth [delivered] and I changed it and named it 'Sojourner.' "
A plea for love and empathy echoes deep in a house of pain.
"'Keep Ya Head Up' is one of my favorite songs ever, and it embodies what this whole album is about — respecting, protecting and loving black women. Men loving us, and us loving ourselves and each other. I had always told 9th I wanted to sample a piece of that song. I've been wanting to do that for years. Everything happens in the time that it's supposed to happen.
"I just wanted to end the album and bring all of the stories and the concepts to a whole. It's all about what Tupac said, and it's a conversation that has been happening again for years. I see it on Twitter all the time. Women are like, 'Black men don't do this or that.' And black men are like, 'Y'all don't do this for us.' It's like disdain. I don't think it's necessarily one-sided. I just want to be able to speak to the men and say listen to the women. Just listen to our perspective and where we're coming from. Even seeing videos of black women being beat up and black men [standing] around and nobody steps in and protects them. Who does that? Let's not forget that we're your sisters, your daughters, your mothers, your girlfriends, your wives. Protect us. We shouldn't have to fight all on our own. Then there are [stereotypes that claim] black men don't take care of their children, but statistically that's a false narrative.
"It's my version of talking to the men. It's not like I'm trying to come at your head. I want you to feel it, emotionally. I want you to feel the pain that some black women are feeling, without feeling like you're getting beat up in the process. I wanted to find a way where you can feel it in a respectful way, to have a conversation."
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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