MIMI TEMPESTT INTERVIEW + “ROUGH DIAMOND/THE MONDRIAN (DOUBLE FEATURE)” VIDEO PREMIERE
Jackhammering, jackhammering, jackhammering: Chinatown, which borders cranes-in-the-sky booming downtown L.A., is lousy with construction. It’s rapidly revamping, re-presenting and renewing—it’s retro-future-fitting an already brilliant cultural standard-bearer for the upcoming 2020 space odyssey. The tempestuous Mimi Tempestt grew up in this neighborhood. She watched it change into an underground artist-haven rife with unlicensed venues and very-weird art galleries. She’s changed along with it, an already-fine wine growing into herself artistically and emotionally and accepting the pain that comes with every forward movement. Her album Rough Diamond demarcates a two-year period of growth, thrills, sadness and love. She’s up in the Bay in grad school for a couple years, but still considers L.A. her home. No Master’s Degree can teach you to trust the process, but it doesn’t hurt to study for the test. Mimi and I are friends and have played together a few times. This is like if Blood Orange interviewed Solange before they were stars. Rough Diamond dropped earlier this year, and she’s releasing the first video from that project at The Lash on Tues., June 18, at I Do What I Want, a queer art extravaganza. This interview by Tolliver.
So you’re a teacher. Your performances a lot of times will feel like lessons, with you prompting the audience to listen to certain lyrics …
Mimi Tempestt: Do they feel like lessons?
Yeah. Definitely. Do you approach a performance the same way you approach a lesson plan?
Mimi Tempestt: I feel like I’m more strategic when it comes to performing, because in that space I have so much to say. But they’re connected in the sense that I create a box for myself. I create a mission or a goal for myself, and I do my best to attack that. It’s interesting that you made that connection. My second graders are amazing. I have to accommodate them, I have to baby them and make sure that they’re worthy of even being in the space. That’s what it’s like to teach. It’s all about letting them know that whatever ideas they have, or whatever their characteristics are, those are valid. And making sure they can be themselves in an educational setting. Whereas performing is like … me trying to get out whatever ideas have been looming inside me.
We’re both queer people. I never even got close to myself when I was a kid. I didn’t even approach being the person I really was. That’s interesting that you find yourself as a queer person guiding kids to a truer version of themselves, while also being like, ‘Do the homework, motherfucker!’
Mimi Tempestt: I actually don’t believe in homework. I don’t give homework. Fuck homework. There are studies that show homework doesn’t make you any smarter—it’s the instructional time you get in the classroom. I’ll give you a prime example of how teaching is important to me. My kids have these plushies, these little stuffed animals. One pink one in particular is named Sprinkles. They told me this entire story of how Sprinkles is from Candyland, and they’re neither woman or man, they’re a Buddha. Sprinkles just wants to eat candy all day and love their friends and be happy. As a teacher, that is the queerest fucking thing. In that moment, I could’ve made the decision that this isn’t academically sound, like keep Sprinkles at home. But no—we did a whole world building activity around Sprinkles. It was never even crazy for my kids to understand that Sprinkles wasn’t a man or woman, they were just a Buddha. And they want inner peace and to eat candy and be happy. And that’s life! Who doesn’t want to be Sprinkles?
I wanna be friends with Sprinkles. There’s a hole in the Eastside queer scene where you used to be. We don’t see you out performing and whatnot. Do you worry everyone will move on without you?
Mimi Tempestt: When I first got here that was a worry. But every time I go back I’m like, ‘I obviously didn’t miss shit.’ Y’all still fucking with the same people with the same problems. I never feel like I miss a beat once I go back home.
Where are you right now?
Mimi Tempestt: I’m in a room in Oakland. Minding my business.
Is it your room? What does it look like?
Mimi Tempestt: Yeah, it’s my room. It’s tiny. There’s the sun outside. It’s small and it has books everywhere that I should be reading but I don’t feel like reading.
Do you miss Los Angeles?
Mimi Tempestt: All the time. All the time.
I didn’t think you were gonna say that. I thought you were gonna be like, ‘Fuck L.A.!’
Mimi Tempestt: No—I love L.A. You know what’s funny? Oakland is such a great city. But with L.A. anything could happen at anytime, and that’s what’s exciting about it. In Oakland they have a very good scene, but the streets are quiet after like 10 PM. I think I just miss being able to walk outside my house and know that I can show up anywhere at anytime and run into everyone that I love. But this town has shown me a lot of love. The community that I have out here is amazing.
Where do you find yourself most in Oakland when you’re just trying to relax?
Mimi Tempestt: Honestly it’s just me in my room minding my business. Which is hard because Monday through Saturday I never have a day off. I’m either in class or I’m teaching or I’m at some kind of event with my roommates or my classmates. Parties—I’ve gone to a lot of parties out here. So Sunday is like my chill day. Or I’m doing my grad lab. I got too much shit going on, man.
With all that going on you still put out Rough Diamond. How did you manage that?
Mimi Tempestt: Rough Diamond was a two-year process. 2016 I went off to Florida to study Zora Neale Hurston, and I got a lot of inspiration from that trip. I basically told myself that I was gonna take chances on myself. And that looked like developing Rough Diamond, which was the first thing. The second thing was just putting myself in creative positions where I felt like I would be fulfilled, so like doing the play Comb Your Hair or You’ll Look Like a Slave. Writing a lot more, performing a lot more, and then choosing to go to grad school. So it was a two-year process, it didn’t happen overnight.
Has the bay changed the way you make music? Obviously you’ve worked with Jupiter and Waxseether.
Mimi Tempestt: Um. Not the bay specifically. It’s changed my process around making music. Ever since I released Rough Diamond, I’m not as serious lyrically. I feel like with Ego Trip and Rough Diamond I was like, I have to write about my heart! And now I just wanna talk about doing fun shit or just talking shit on a track. So that’s kind of changed since I got here.
That’s interesting. Your songs are really confident and aggressive. What do you think your approach will be for your next project?
Mimi Tempestt: I feel like my next project isn’t music. I feel like my next project is my poetry. I feel like I’m a lot more tender and a lot more raw and revealing in my poetry than I am in my music. So that would probably be my next approach.
Did anybody give you guff for how lyrically direct Rough Diamond is? I’m sure some of those songs are about specific people.
Mimi Tempestt: Ummm … yes. I won’t say specific names, but there were a few people who were like, ‘Damn. That’s how you really feel?’ Or ‘Not all boys are like this!’ Especially with ‘Hoe Summer ’16.’ I got a lot of responses to my friend Pam drunkenly talking shit. There are a lot of people who were like, ‘Oh, I know what this means now.’ Just a lot of people being thrown off by it and not understanding that it’s not a conversation that was specifically about men. It’s about choices women have to make when having to move in the world. I got some shit about that.
That interlude seemed broad enough to me. It didn’t seem aimed at anyone.
Mimi Tempestt: I think if you feel you are a man or male-presenting and you feel that you’ve gotten away with shit …If you felt attacked in that, it was for you. If you felt attacked, then obviously I pushed a button that you didn’t like. There were like three to four men in the last couple months who told me something about that, or their reaction to it.
There’s some phrase for that. If you throw a rock into a crowd, whoever says ‘ouch’ … you know, some shit like that.
Mimi Tempestt: [laughs] That’s exactly what that was.
Another track I’ve been thinking about is ‘Clarity,’ because it’s the last one on the album so it’s kind of like a hidden gem. It’s called ‘Clarity,’ but you kind of start by talking about how you lack clarity, and then you go into talking about having clarity. I think that conflict is interesting. Was it intentional to have that dichotomy?
Mimi Tempestt: The whole album is a journey of feeling able to express yourself. And ‘Clarity’ is like, I really don’t give a fuck. I feel like I’ve reached this point where I’ve said what I’ve said. I’ve already reached this point and there’s nothing I can do or say. I just have to keep moving.
I interviewed the Uhuruverse yesterday and they said ‘People think because my music is so intense that I don’t want love. The reason I’m mad is because it all could be so simple.’ It kind of reminded me of your music. Do you feel the same way?
Mimi Tempestt: First off, shout out to The Uhuruverse. I love them. The fact that I even got them to be on my album…that was just so precious to me. ‘Hangry’ is a precious moment for me. But yes, I feel the same. I think ‘Dichotomy’ says it. You know that I have all this love to offer. You know that my way of being in the world is not provisional. It’s not up for question, and I’m not going to subject myself to being considered lower or being seen as lower. So step up to the plate, or fuck you. And that’s essentially what I think The Uhuruverse is saying and essentially what I think I’m saying and other women and femmes who make music. We can be strong by ourselves, but if you want to come along for the journey, then it becomes so much more. But you have to make the choice. It’s not for us to shift and change and bend to your will.
Would you say that’s like the thesis statement of the album?
Mimi Tempestt: I feel like the thesis is the first track, ‘Tongue Out’: ’Time’s the one that made me tougher / it also made me misbehave.’ I’ve done all kinds of shit, I’ve made all kinds of moves, I’ve been all types of people, but at the end of the day I’m just gonna stand firm in who I think is true to me. That’s what Rough is. I’m both very unpolished, but I’m also very beautiful. Who I am in this form is perfection.
That’s tough to feel when you’re an artist. To feel like you’re not fully-formed but also beautiful.
Mimi Tempestt: I think we all go through that, but I think the key to that is I don’t have a choice. You either shit or you get off the pot. And Rough Diamond is me shitting. That’s what I have for you and you have to take it. And if you leave it, that’s cool, too, but you’re missing out on something beautiful.
Let’s talk about ‘Old Town Road.’ Just kidding.
Mimi Tempestt: Let’s do it! It’s a bop—I can’t get over it. I wore an entire cowboy hat last Sunday because I can’t get over that track.
Did you really?
Mimi Tempestt: I did. I’m embarrassed about it but it’s true.
MIMI TEMPESTT’S “ROUGH DIAMOND/THE MONDRIAN (DOUBLE FEATURE)” SCREENS ON TUE., JUNE 18, AT I DO WHAT I WANT AT THE LASH, 117 WINSTON ST., DOWNTOWN. 9:30 PM / FREE / 21+. MORE INFO HERE! MIMI TEMPESTT’S ROUGH DIAMOND IS OUT NOW. VISIT MIMI TEMPESTT AT INSTAGRAM.COM/THEGODDESSMIMI.