Rapsody | On the Eve of A New Era

by Steve Barry

The fifth-floor lounge inside h Club, Hollywood’s chic, new, members-only hideaway, is buzzing with film, television and music industry creatives. They’re swapping stories, talking shop and exchanging ideas loudly. Each time the elevator opens, I wonder if this arrival will be her.

I’m here to meet Rapsody, the musical artist behind one of 2019’s most buzzed-about albums. A hip hop star who is having nothing short of a breakout moment. Emerging from the elevator, Rapsody carries herself with poise and immediately exudes warmth. She’s smiling, glowing in fact and given the critical acclaim and unprecedented attention she’s already received since the release of her third album Eve, it’s easy to see why.

We sneak into the empty, adjacent, Asian-themed tea room the club has provided for our interview. The setting couldn’t be more appropriate. The Chinoiserie walls are calm and graceful, much like the energy Rapsody seems to be carrying with her. With the iconic Capitol Records building visible through the window, midday light glints off Rapsody’s chunky gold bangles and huge hoop earrings. Rocking colorful, waist-length, cornrow braids, Marlanna Evans looks every bit the classic, hip hop ‘Around The Way Girl’. She speaks in hushed, measured tones, with a quiet confidence that belies her inner strength.

“Let me take these bangles off,'' she laughs. “I always get in trouble with them making too much noise.” I’m struck by the irony. She’s been making a lot of noise in music as of late and it’s not from her jewelry.

With her last album, 2017’s “Laila’s Wisdom”, Rapsody became only the fifth woman in thehistory of the Grammys to be nominated for Rap Album Of The Year. That achievement was a surprise to this North Carolina native and a welcome affirmation. She had battled so much to get to that point - doubts about her talent from male hip hop MCs, record industry executives advising her against her will, social media snipers taking her down. With all of that background noise, she didn’t believe her profile was high enough to put her on that kind of awards radar.

“It wasn't like I had big singles, whether Top 10 Billboard, not even 100. The nomination let me know that your music inspires and impacts people. And that's your main, initial purpose. You can still be acknowledged just for making dope music and you don't have to chase anything. But you can settle in and really live in your lane.”

It emboldened her to have faith in her inner voice and set her on a life-changing path. Last summer, back home in North Carolina, she got into a long discussion about the state’s musical genealogy with a writer profiling her. She realized that her state’s musical lineage was strong with icons like Nina Simone and Roberta Flack as pivotal branches of that tree and, as a child of North Carolina, she too had a connection. True, she was rapping and not singing, but the lyrics in her music and the soulfulness of her work still made her a direct descendant. She began to look backwards at other historically strong black women who paved the way in all walks of life and black female role models who are pioneers today. Feeling inspired by their respective journeys, their impact and their strength, Rapsody knew she had something to say and add to the tree.

A concept was laid down as a marker and the resulting new album Eve is her masterpiece. It’s a proud celebration of the diversity and majesty of black womanhood. Calling out her heroes with sixteen tracks named specifically after them, the album runs the historical gamut from Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg to Tyra Banks, Serena Williams, and Michelle Obama among others. Rapsody skilfully weaves multiple themes into a lush, playful, sonic tapestry - self-love, heroes, female empowerment, civil rights, criminal justice, black capitalism, relationships, sisterhood. Her well of inspiration launched her into new creative Horizons.

“I think it's the most freeing thing you can do as artists, to be completely free of yourself. And that's freeing. I think you make the best music because you're not overthinking it. You're not trying to please other people. When it's pure and it's honest, that's when you can create from the most honest and creative place and that's what that was for me”

Since its late August release, critics have lauded this singular narrative of black female essence. Rolling Stone called it, “A Masterpiece of Hip Hop Feminism”. HipHopDX extolled, “Her wordplay wizardry, intricately woven details, and unparalleled lyrical prowess emanate from every song.” And Pitchfork raved, “This is the record where her top-tier status becomes undeniable.” Long-time fans can hear the clarity and zeal in her delivery too. There’s a stronger fire behind her flow, more swagger, deeper expression. She’s a flourishing artist, asserting herself with newfound conviction. She leans into me, eyes lighting up with insight to share.

“People asked me, who are you influenced by? I talk about in hip hop, Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah. But I also talk about Cicely Tyson and Nikki Giovanni. It just got my brain internally thinking, if you made Rapsody and you made me from pieces of a bunch of different people, who would they be? I get my motherly love outside of my mom from Phylicia Rashad. My love for words and poetry comes from Maya Angelou and my tomboy style and love of sneakerheads, from Aaliyah.”

The history of females in rap goes back equally as far as the men, just without the same visibility or opportunity - Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante, Monie Love, Bahamadia, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Eve, Missy Elliott. Lauryn Hill. It’s undeniable that across the decades, female MCs have made their mark. But while dozens of male MCs were free to develop their individual sound and an image to match, their female counterparts were managed by record label executives using skepticism, hesitation and blatant sexism. Only one or two female MCs could be given the spotlight at the same time and the push to make women in rap play the sex card, showing their body to get attention, is an ugly tactic that Rapsody says hasn’t gone away. She takes aim at those small-minded record industry gatekeepers on the track “Cleo”, over a wicked sample of Phil Collins 1981 smash “In The Air Tonight.”

Talk about the money, when this business they staffin'

We'll milk the cows but they never put a calf in

White men run us, they don't want this kinda passion

A black woman story? They don't want this kinda rapping

Rapsody still has more to vent. “Most of the time, they’re not of the culture. They’re of the business, but they're not of the culture. It’s important that the culture is first and foremost. They create this false narrative, that they're only can be one woman or you have to be this cookie cutter version of a video vixen.”

She looks away for a moment out the window, pauses and then finishes her thought.

“I wonder how many of the girls that enter this rap space and that show their body, really want to? If you want to, that’s dope. But how many feel like they have to? It should be a choice for you. You should never feel like this is what I have to do to get on”

Rapsody wants her music to speak for itself, something some of her greatest musical heroes, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill and Aaliyah managed to do consistently. During the making of Eve, Latifah served not only as an inspirational role model but through a twist of fate, become a friend, a mentor and even appears on the track “Hatshepsut”, blessing Rapsody with royal approval and a fiery rap verse for the ages. Rapsody’s smile grows wider as we talk about The Queen and what her guidance means.

“She was mad cool. I felt like I had known her forever. We talked for a week, every day. She would call me. I was wary about calling her. I didn’t want to be a bugaboo. And she'd be like, never mind about that and we would just build a relationship.”

Latifah didn’t hesitate to share her music industry experience and creative input. It confirmed to Rapsody, she was heading in the right direction.

“She was really a big sister. Her approach was like I'm not gonna come in here and blow your head up. But at the same time, I'm gonna give you advice in a respectful way. I like that she was honest with me.”

And with Queen Latifah’s wisdom, came access to stories from back in the day. Rapsody zeroed in on Latifah’s tales about late, rap giant, Tupac Shakur, another huge role model. On Eve, she dedicates the powerful closing track “Afeni”, to Tupac’s mother Afeni Shakur, the former Black Panther activist. And in a crystalizing moment of intention, producer 9th Wonder layers “Afeni” upon a sample of Tupac’s words from one of his biggest anthems, ”Keep Ya Head Up”.

“That's one of my favorite Tupac songs, first and foremost. And to think about somebody like Tupac, who he was known to be. So honest and loud but he was intelligent too. I remember being a kid watching that video and listening to him and how much that meant to hear a man say that about women”

“Afeni” is a rousing call to black men about how black women deserve to be revered, honored, respected and loved. It’s an issue Rapsody says she has wanted to address for some time. But it wasn’t until now, that she’s grown as a person and artist did it feel right. She also wanted to craft a message that didn’t feel heavy handed, like she was degrading or beating down men. When I ask about the song’s impact on men and what they’ve told her, she takes a beat and shakes her head slightly. She’s clearly moved.

“It just touches them. And a lot of men are like, Damn. Hearing that record, it makes me think about all the times I didn't treat women the best that I could. It makes me want to go apologize to my mom or my sister. And that's what it's for.”

As we order lunch, I ask Rapsody about the next phase, taking this project out on the road. She’s one step ahead of me, telling me she’s about to be an opening act for rapper Big K.R.I.T., then next year, she’ll headline her own tour. She has a vision for the show and from the breadth of her smile, it’s clear as day in her mind. She shifts in her chair. Her excitement is palpable.

“I want the show to be a story. I want it to be a live representation of the album. I want to have visuals of these women that I named the songs after speaking, because they are so powerful. So you see the strength of women, the pain of women, black women giving birth. I want you to see all these things, but I also want you to hear the music. I just want to hit you with all these different emotions,”

Know this: Rapsody is staying true to her artistic vision. No wavering for her because her eyes are still clearly fixed on the prize. As our food arrives, I’m reminded of the powerful lyrics she delivers on “Nina”, the first track on the album, over a haunting Nina Simone sample of “Strange Fruit.”

I drew a line without showing my body, that's a skill.

Bad to the bone and the grill

You'd be dead wrong if looks kill

I'm still on my spiel, in the spirit of L Hill

Feature Editor Rhiyen Sharp.