Ivy Levan

by William J. Simmons

I know that the queen of “Swamp-Hop,” Ivy Levan, is no ordinary up-and-coming pop star when, upon my admission that her breakout single “Biscuit” has taken over my apartment, she asks me how her music made me feel. I proceed to wax eloquent on the glamor and unabashed gusto that reminded me of the best drag performance, to which she says, “I grew up, of course, idolizing RuPaul.” And just like that, I know we will get along.

For someone with millions of YouTube views under her belt at age 28, as well as collaborations with Sting and Diplo, I expect some well-deserved vanity. However,  Levan tells me, “We’re here to do as much good as possible and have as much fun as possible. I want people to feel like they have someone to look up to.” It is this humility and self-awareness that sets Levan apart in a sea of aspiring entertainers; she aspires to be a role model rather than a mere chanteuse.

Levan maintains the fearlessness necessary to, at age 16, leave her hometown in Arkansas with her mother to start her career in Los Angeles after years of severe bullying. The cruelty of her classmates, ironically, provided the impetus for her success, “I know that feeling of being vulnerable and alienated and insecure with myself. That’s why I started writing, because of the bullying. You have to ignore it, and carry on doing what you love.” It would be no mistake to consider Levan’s example as a positive force for young people pursuing music and the chance to express the truth of their experiences. As Levan puts it, “Every song is something that happened in life, in the moment. Every single song blends into a story…I like stuff that is going to make you feel something, like art, like when you look at a painting—regardless of who is doing it, from a five-year-old to Picasso.”

This staunch defense of individualism in an otherwise plain Top 40 landscape also inspires her unique fashion sense, a one-of-a-kind combination, as Levan describes it, of Morticia Addams and Lucille Ball, “I don’t really like the usual thing, which I think stems from not being accepted because I looked different. So, if no one is going to like me for me, then I’m just going to go all the way to the fucking left.” After a moment’s reflection, she muses, “I like things that make me feel scared to look, something that might bite you or make you feel lonely.” In this way, Levan seeks to mine the true potential of pop music—to generate emotions that are joyful, but at times difficult to face.

One such dark side of the music industry is sexism, a topic that has increasingly been on our collective minds. On being a rising female presence in a largely male-dominated landscape, Levan says, “It’s definitely harder, but I love a fucking challenge. It’s what gets me up every day.” In characteristic fashion, Levan fights for her passion, and doubtlessly inspires others to do the same. What is especially empowering, it seems, is Levan’s desire to celebrate femininity as a source of pride, “Use your womanhood to your advantage. I think women have it harder, but they also are just beautiful creatures.”

Even someone with Levan’s accolades could fall into obscurity. It happens every month. Voices on the radio these days can feel vaguely the same, and switch out every once in a while. Such a fate seems unlikely for Levan.

“People create what they think people want to hear—a mockery of what music is. For me, there is no mockery. It is completely honest; it’s actually a story,” to which I breathlessly respond, “Like Amy Winehouse.” My conversation with Levan ends with my attempt to get a tasty tidbit about her recently released album, No Good: “For the first time I explore my sexuality in a couple of the songs, and I am very vulnerable. I hope that people like it.”

Photographer: Alvin Nguyen for jorgeperezreps.com.

Stylist: Wilford Lenov for celestineagency.com.

Hair: Clyde Haygood for forwardartists.com using Leonor Greyl.

Makeup: Kathy Jeung for forwardartists.com using lime Crime.

Manicure: Michelle Saunders for forwardartists.com.