Shirley Ju linked up with Grammy-nominated MC Rapsody to talk about being nervous on stage, her Grammy nomination, and Kanye’s tweet-storm for Okayplayer’s Nostalgia month.
Nowadays, it’s rare for a female MC to be recognized for her raw talents behind the mic. For Rapsody, what started as a love for poetry quickly became a love for emceeing. Hailing from North Carolina, Marlanna Evans wasted no time perfecting the art of rhyming, storytelling, executing, and delivering music with a purpose. Now, with the help of 9th Wonder and Young Guru as a part of the former’s Jamla Records squad, the 35-year-old is proudly hailed as one of the greatest female rappers to ever do it.
The irony in that Jay-Z is her favorite rapper and she is now signed to his Roc Nation label, which is a real dream come true. With the release of Laila’s Wisdom, which was named after her grandmother, Rapsody was placed up there among the elites — regardless of gender. Not only was she the only female nominated in the Grammys Best Rap Album category in 2018, but she also became only the fifth female ever to be nominated in the 23 years the category has existed.
Let’s not forget Kendrick Lamar gave Rapsody the only rap feature on his standout project, To Pimp a Butterfly. Her relentlessness and consistency in using her platform to speak out on the injustices of the world was even recognized by former President Barack Obama. And the crazy thing is — she’s just getting started.
Okayplayer caught up with Rapsody after her performance at The Smoker’s Club Fest in Long Beach, California to talk about her pre-rap fame, her history-making Grammy nomination, Kanye West’s tweet-storm controversy, and more.
Okayplayer: From small-town girl from North Carolina to fulfilling your dream performing at festivals all around the world, what are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your journey as a rapper?
Rapsody: I think one is just learning to be patient. Especially being a woman in this industry because it does come as fast for us. And especially if you’re like me and you’re fully clothed and very lyrical. It’s all about the music. All about the art. No gimmicks. No “who you dating?” I don’t show my body and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you just know it’s just marketed and pushed to the forefront. I think the biggest thing has been patience, and taking it one day at a time and going that route. But I’m thankful though. My obstacles aren’t as hard because I have 9th Wonder and Young Guru to protect me and to show me the way.
OKP: What advice do you have for up and coming artists who are afraid to perform on stage?
R: Whether it’s your first small show or your first festival and you’ve got nerves, I think the one thing to always remember is to give yourself a little peace of mind is: you’re there for a reason. Somebody wanted to see you. So always just do you and be comfortable. You don’t have to be nervous. If they book you for a show, you’re there for a reason. You’ve got people that want to see you do your thing.
And two: always just have fun with it — even if you mess up. I think with me, when I mess up, I’ve learned not to trip. Because it’s like, ‘Yo, you’re human. Laugh about it. The crowd will laugh with you. And on to the next one.’ That’s it.
Whether you’re performing for one person or you’re performing for 30,000 people, always perform like it’s a million people out there. Leave everything you have on the stage. If it’s five people out there, that’s five people that you’ve touched within that moment. And they’ll go to tell five, 10, 20 more people. So always perform every show like you’re performing your last one.
I think those are the biggest things you can do. Do that, have fun, and rehearse. Always. If you go in prepared, you don’t have to get ready. So practice your show before you go on. Get with your DJ and rehearse your routines, your transitions between songs. Make it an event. That’s my advice. That’s a lot of advice [laughs].
OKP: No, that’s fire! Do you still get nervous at all?
R: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Not as nervous as I used to be. For me, I get nervous butterflies because I want to make sure I do the best. Even though I’ve been doing this 10 plus years, every time it’s like, ‘Yo, I want to kill it.’ I want to inspire people. That’s the good kind of nervous. And if I don’t get nervous… I always mess up. So when I have butterflies, it lets me know, ‘Oh you in your right zone.’ You care.
OKP: Can you talk about Smokers Club, what this vibe is like?
R: Smokers Club was ill!
OKP: I saw Juicy J earlier, and they were throwing joints off stage from the backpack.
Right [laughs]. I feel like everybody here knows each other, like they’re homies. Smokers Club is dope. The energy was crazy. Everybody shows love and it’s chill. It’s like one huge family reunion or camp day with all your friends. I love it, man. It’s my first time and I hope it’s not my last.
OKP: That’s dope. Are you a smoker?
R: No, I’m not. But I fuck with Smokers Club ‘cause it’s chill. [laughs]
OKP: Can you remember your first taste of stardom? How prepared were you?
R: I think I’m in it now, and I don’t know how prepared I am. I’m learning.
OKP: Okayplayer’s theme for the month is Nostalgia, so if that brings back anything please share.
R: My first little taste of stardom — you know, there are levels to stardom — I think it’s when I went to South Africa for the first time. That was in 2012 after my first album, The Idea of Beautiful. Here in the States, I was doing shows for maybe like 300 people. So I go to South Africa and my first show is almost 3,000 people in the venue. You go out and people look at you and they’re crying. I’m like, ‘Wow.’ It was humbling for me. It was a humbling experience because it let me know the power of words and how much that influences people.
For people to fly 16 hours to a whole other country — I’m sorry, a whole other continent — and get that response from somebody. To have people cry? I don’t even know how to describe that. But that was the first little taste. It let me know that as artists, we are powerful. We have a power and there are two things: you can let that power go to your head and misuse it, or you can recognize the power and influence you have and do the right thing with it.
It put me in a space whereas an artist, it just elevated my sense of awareness and what type of music I’m making. What I’m saying in my music. Because with that, you’re really touching people. That was it for me.
OKP: Bring us back to the days of when you were in a group H2O. How poppin’ were you guys?
R: I’m not going to lie, around campus, we were lit [laughs]. Like, it was a thing. I remember we used to do rap battles and free shows around campus. Our rap battles were always legendary.
OKP: Did you have water endorsements?
R: No we didn’t. We had no endorsements [laughs]. Us, we would go out in the middle of the night and chalk the whole campus up. We had one rap battle in the Student Center and it was so packed. People were standing on the windowsills. The windows were sweaty. It was crazy. It was mayhem. And at that time, I just used to host.
OKP: No way?!
R: Yeah, I wasn’t rhyming at that time. I was writing poetry. If we had an event, I was the host. The designated host.
OKP: Like a real MC.
R: Straight like that. Between intermissions, I would give a spoken word piece. These are the first times I’m performing in front of a crowd. At that point, we were just kids floating through the dark and doing what was fun to us.
OKP: When you first linked with 9th Wonder, he gave you 10 CDs to listen to. Can you talk about the homework and learning process?
R: I remember he heard the first two songs I did and he said, ‘You got to work on your cadence. Your breath control.’ Like really learning… I think as a fan of music, we listen to lyrics and beats, but we don’t go and fine-tune it and listen to the intricate things. That’s what he taught me to hone into. He gave me Jay-Z’s Black Album, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and Low End Theory, and Slum Village’s Fantastic Voyage. What else? There were some more in there.
My homework was not to listen to the beats or the words but to listen to how they’re saying it. It just opened my words — what inflections fall on what snare. Little intricate things you don’t even think about as a listener. It just taught me the art of emceeing in other ways.
OKP: How has it impacted your career today?
Because as an artist, my thing was I used to love lyrics and wordplay. But on the receiving end, if you yourself — if it’s not an easy cadence where you can learn it and say it, you’re not going to remember my work. That’s how it’s changed me. It’s opened up to me to have fans who know my words and can sing along with me and can digest it. So it’s not like this big homework piece where it’s like, ‘Give me this song, let me go read and study these lyrics.’ When you learn your ABC’s, you learn “A, B, C, D…” It’s in a rhythm. A phone number: “919-256-789…” Everything is in a rhythm. So it taught me how to take my words and put them in a rhythm, so the person on the other end can digest it and learn it. That’s how we as artists create our community and have music that travels.
OKP: What was your initial reaction being the only woman nominated in the Grammys Best Rap Album last year?
R: I was floored. Emotional. [Laughs] Honored. A sigh. An exhale like, ‘Wow.’ Finally, to be recognized at the highest level in the music business that you can — it was dope. It almost felt unreal. But at the same time, you have to tell yourself as an artist, ‘Don’t be too humble, because you worked 10 years to get here.’ So it’s okay to receive it and say this is what I deserve. It was all those different emotions all at one time. But it was definitely fulfilling more than anything.
And it let me know I can be myself and do it. To be a woman — and only one of five women to ever be nominated for a Rap album category — it’s bittersweet. It’s bitter because, why am I one of five? Which is dope to be one of those five. And hopefully, inspire the next woman to be herself however that comes. Whatever that looks like. As long as you’re happy, do you and make dope music. And we can be recognized. We can rap just as good as the fellas. Whether you’re a big star and everybody knows your name or you’re on the come up like I am, we can compete with any and everybody.
OKP: Talk about recently sharing the stage with Big Daddy Kane at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
That was like a family reunion because me and [Big Daddy] Kane have known each other for a minute. He was the first rap feature I ever had — ever. On Return of the B-Girl in 2010, he was my first feature. He’s a legend in the game. He influenced again, my favorite MC, Jay-Z. Coming up in my early days and to have his co-sign and his teachings and his wisdom and his words and his goal… for a few years, I didn’t see him for a while. To have him rap with me on the Puma stage, it felt good. It felt full-circle. Like, ‘Dang. I started with you and in the middle of my coming up, here we are again.’ That felt good to just have him again. I’m happy to always have somebody with you on my journey. We can celebrate bridging the gap together, from our legendary elders in the game to the ones coming up and passing the torch. Let’s keep the culture going in the right way.
OKP: You were decked out in MCM at the festival.
R: Decked out [laughs]!
OKP: How has your fashion evolved over the years?
R: Man, I’m still figuring it out. But I’m going through phases. I’ve always been a tomboy. I have a thing for jackets, t-shirts, jeans, and camo. It’s crazy. I haven’t gone on and tried too many things. You do the occasional jeans, sneakers, a fly ass jacket — that’s always going to be me. But you know, I’ve ventured into heels, with dresses at some shows and then I’m back. The dope thing is I’m still figuring out my fashion face and how much I can do. It’s dope that I got to work with for the MCM event. Misa Hylton — a legend in hip-hop. It’s good when you meet these fashion designers and you get to talk to them and get their thoughts and expertise. And apply it to your own life.
OKP: What game did she put you on to?
R: Man, just watching her work. To take an outfit and make her own pieces and roll with it. It’s like, “Think outside the box. Go make some shit.”
OKP: Misa has worked with some female icons such as Lil’ Kim, Mary J. Blige, and Missy Elliott? How do you see yourself among these elite women?
R: Man, a student. Someone that was influenced by all of them. Lil’ Kim, Foxy [Brown, like you say Mary [J. Blige], Queen [Latifah], MC Lyte, Missy Elliott, even Jean Grae — I look up to them. They opened the door. They made it possible for me to do what I’m doing, so I look at them with respect. They’re queens in this game. They’re the elders. The ones that hold the court right now. So that’s what it’s all about to me. Every artist, man, woman, child should respect them for what they did to the culture. And what they mean for hip-hop and what they gave hip-hop. Because hip-hop can’t flourish without women in it, the same way the Civil Rights Movement couldn’t flourish without the women that it had. Not your Betty Shabazz, your Coretta Scott King, your Angela Davis, your Mrs. Medgar Evers. We need women in hip-hop and that’s what they are.
OKP: You’ve got the support of all the hip-hop moguls from Jay-Z to Kendrick. How do you plan on taking your music to the next level?
R: To me, I don’t think of it as next level. It’s always more so, ‘How can I grow as an artist?’ Be inspired by other artists and think outside the box. That’s what projects like To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN. — or even Malibu or 4:44 — I’ve come this far doing what I’m doing, so always let that always be the foundation. Always be yourself but take things and add to it. And grow and keep your lane which you can always expand. That’s what it’s all about. Experimenting and trying new things. Throwing paint at the wall. Keep throwing paint at the wall until you throw enough paint, it looks like something. I think that’s what it’s about: trying new shit and never boxing yourself as an artist and never losing yourself. Walking that line.
OKP: Can you talk about filming the Rapture series on Netflix and what that was like seeing your story unfold on camera?
R: I didn’t know what to expect at first for that part. Also, I’ve always been a private person. Those things I don’t really talk about. It was a different experience letting the cameras in and getting comfortable with it. But it was good, because one thing I know is, as people, no matter what story or life you’ve lived, there’s always somebody on the other end. That’s going to be able to relate to it, grab something from it. So that’s how I looked at it. I think they did an amazing job. Geeta, who helped direct it. She and Ben, they told a true story, how it was supposed to be told. I was happy with how it came out.
OKP: Last question, how do you feel about those Kanye tweets?
R: I’ll say this. I’m all for free thought and everybody having their own opinion. But I think at the same time, in the times we in, in your free thoughts, take the time to sit and think about what the fuck you saying. And how that influences and impacts what people are going through. I said it on stage, ‘With great reward comes great responsibility.’ You can’t always look up to artists as people that should lead you and direct you, because they don’t always say the right things.
I think it’s dangerous, that’s what I think. It takes morals out if it. Think freely but at the same time, live with some morals. At the end of the day, that’s important. Whether you’re doing it because you truly believe it or are you advertising an album? How much of yourself and your soul and people and humanity are you going to sell for records? That’s my free thought about it.
Shirley Ju is a Los Angeles-based writer who grew up in the Bay Area. She lives, breathes, and sleeps hip-hop, and is literally on top of new music the moment it is released. If there’s a show in L.A., you can find her there. Follow the latest on her fomoblog.com and on Twitter @shirju.