KAMAIYAH: AIN’T SETTLING FOR NOTHING
illustration by joe mcgarry
It’s not quite accurate to say Kamaiyah came from out of nowhere over the past year to become hip-hop’s next big thing, but it’s not that far off, either. While the Oakland born-and-raised MC was on the radar when she dropped her exhilarating debut mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto, in March of 2016, she was hardly a household name. Since then, however, Ghetto has stacked up a whole bunch of glowing reviews, and Kamaiyah has held her own alongside Drake and YG on the hit single “Why You Always Hatin?” Plus, she spent the winter crisscrossing the country (and often stealing the show) as part of YG’s “Fuck Donald Trump” tour. It’s easy to hear why people love the lady with the vintage brick-sized cell phone: A Good Night in the Ghetto is a sun-kissed soundtrack for good times, powered by sparkling synths, skittering beats, 90s R&B influence and a party-friendly vibe. By committing to her singular vision and going against the grain, Kamaiyah separated herself from the darkness and drama of so much hip-hop these days. Now, she’s preparing her second act—expected to drop in June—and gearing up for full world domination this summer. She plays Friday, July 21, at FYF Fest in Exposition Park. This interview by Ben Salmon was conducted the morning of Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kamaiyah’s hometown Golden State Warriors.
Where are you at and what are you up to?
Kamaiyah: I’m at home, getting ready to go to the studio to talk shit at YG and watch this game. He’s a Warriors hater and I ain’t fuckin’ with Cleveland. The Warriors play in Oakland so fuck that.
Are you a Warriors fan?
Kamaiyah: I’m a Lakers fan. That’s the irony of this. Because the Warriors have been doing good I’m kinda like teetering. But I wouldn’t say I’m a fan. I just admire the way they play.
Are you originally from Oakland? How’d you become a Lakers fan?
Kamaiyah: Yup. Born and raised in Oakland. When I used to play NBA Jam with my brother when I was a kid, I used to always like Derek Fisher when he’d be on fire, so that’s how it kinda started.
Ah, right. Give me Derek Fisher over Steph Curry any day.
Kamaiyah: No comment. [laughs]
It’s been about 15 months since you put out A Good Night in the Ghetto, and I’m curious how you view it now with the perspective of time and everything that’s happened since then?
Kamaiyah: It’s extremely humbling. Because when I put that project out, at that time I was more nervous than anything because I didn’t know if it was going to transcend or not and be digested appropriately because of where I’m coming from [and] the production. I was like ‘I don’t know if they’re gonna understand this.’ And I was really, really nervous. But once I saw the comments on HotNewHipHop.com and people actually liking it on there—because they’re fucking tough as shit—I was like, ‘Oh, this may actually work. They like my shit on here and they don’t like nothin’.’
That’s interesting to hear you say that. It’s not every day you hear a rapper admit to being nervous about releasing music. It’s usually the opposite.
Kamaiyah: That’s just somebody overly being cocky. As an artist we’re always nervous because you want the people to love your project and your music as much as you do but you don’t know if they’re gonna understand it in its entirety. So when people say that it’s cockiness and ego. That essence is always still there in your gut about, ‘Oh my God, is it gonna be accepted?’
A Good Night in the Ghetto has such a distinctive sound, considering it came out in 2016. It has a real throwback ‘90s feel. Where does that come from?
Kamaiyah: I make the kind of music that I wanna listen to. So I don’t wanna listen to current hip-hop. I prefer to listen to like 90s hip-hop and R&B, and the 70s stuff like the Gap Band, the S.O.S. Band, Earth Wind & Fire and stuff like that. And it comes out through my music.
Did the fact that your stuff sounded different from so much current hip-hop contribute to your nervousness about releasing it?
Kamaiyah: Nah—I feel like it was more the West Coast essence because I’m from Oakland. We typically get the shit end of the stick when it comes to the music industry. And the West Coast in general gets the shit end of the stick, so I’m like, ‘I don’t know if they’re gonna fuck with it or not.’
Oakland seems to turn out lots of rappers who are highly influential but never quite break through into superstardom. Why do you think that is?
Kamaiyah: I don’t know. It’s just like a stigma where people just don’t accept it.
Are you shooting to be a superstar or are you happy with what you’ve achieved? Are you OK with underground status?
Kamaiyah: Nah, I’m a fuckin’ mega-star. I wanna be accepted as a mega-star. I’m not gonna accept anything less than what I deserve because I know my potential and what I’m supposed to be. That got me here and it’s only another level so I just gotta keep going and not stop. I know my worth. Me saying that I just wanna be right here would be me settling, and I ain’t settling for nothing.
Can you tell me about your neighborhood and how you started rapping?
Kamaiyah: I grew up literally in the middle of Oakland, on a street called High Street. Smack dab in the middle between East Oakland and North Oakland and all that. I started rapping because when I was younger I saw Bow Wow on TV and he was a kid and he was rapping. And I was like, ‘I wanna do this. If he can do it I can do it.’ So I sat down one day and wrote a rap and when it made sense I never stopped.
Did you have any Oakland rappers you listened to or that you think influenced the music you make today?
Kamaiyah: I was more of a TLC fan, a Missy [Elliott] fan, listening to like Aaliyah. Back in the day they had a channel called ‘The Bop’ and we’d watch Cash Money videos and that type of stuff. But your parents don’t really want you to listen to like Too $hort and them because of the type of shit they be saying, so I’d listen but I didn’t understand in its entirety what was being said at the time. Now that I’m older I have an appreciation for that stuff, but when I was younger I was more like a Disney kid or a pop type. I wasn’t really into the hardcore gangster shit.
Over and over again, A Good Night in the Ghetto has been described as perfect party music. Where’s that vibe come from?
Kamaiyah: At that time I was just going through a lot and I wanted to party and I was partying so it came out in the music. That’s all it was. I was telling stories of my life at that time.
You were the only female MC rolling with a bunch of guys on the ‘Fuck Donald Trump’ tour. Is that something that registers with you or is it no big deal?
Kamaiyah: Other people care about it more than me because I feel like I’m just here to do my shit and go home. That’s just it. I think it gets more attention because when you see it and you see that I hold my own, it’s something that’s commendable and people respect that. Like, ‘There’s only one girl among all these guys and she’s getting a great reception.’ So it makes you admire it. It’s a focal point.
Do you think about the effect you may have on young girls or women who might see you as a role model?
Kamaiyah: Oh yeah. I advocate that women need to be independent and strong. That’s why I try to carry myself in a certain nature, and not show my ass and stuff like that. I feel like the world is not training women to be women anymore. So somebody has to come out and be the yin to the yang, you know what I’m saying? My whole thing is to be the opposite of everything else. Period. That’s my whole thing. It’s like, ‘You gonna do this? Alright, fuck that I’m gonna do this.’ That’s just my whole mode.
Yes! That’s an awesome attitude.
Kamaiyah: Yeah—that’s just the way my mind is because I see how people respect people when they’re a certain way and I always wanted to be respected. I demand respect. And I feel like young women have to have confidence in themselves because I don’t feel like there’s a standard being set for them. You gotta have somebody telling them, ‘You can love yourself. You can build yourself up and know your worth. That ain’t gonna make you less of a woman.’
What are the roots of that mindset for you? Can you trace that back to someone in your life or something that happened when you were young?
Kamaiyah: The irony of all of this is that I kinda raised myself because my parents were both doing whatever they were doing. And I used to always hang with boys and I used to hear how they talked about girls when they were a certain way and I told myself, “I never want anyone to talk about me like that.” And that’s what made me who I am. I don’t wanna be talked about like that. I don’t wanna be the girl that people are sitting around in a room disrespecting. I want you to respect me. So I made sure I always carried myself in a way that I would be respected.
KAMAIYAH WITH MISSY ELLIOT, FRANK OCEAN, NINE INCH NAILS, AND MORE ON JULY 21-23 AT EXPOSITION PARK, 700 EXPOSITION PARK DR, LOS ANGELES. MORE INFO AT FYFFEST.COM. VISIT KAMAIYAH AT SOUNDCLOUD.COM/KAMAIYAH.