The hip-hop industry's portrayal of womanhood is woefully one-dimensional. Even on its indie frontier, straight, male perspectives tend to dominate the genre despite its diverse fan base. Female MCs are entitled to create music and personas as they please, but there are markedly few alternatives to the sexpot caricatures in the mainstream. Emerging Oakland rapper Queens D.Light offers a refreshing departure from the status quo with her thoughtful storytelling. Sexuality appears in her music with nuance rather than for the sake of commercial convention, while catchiness is balanced by conscientious lyricism.
Since releasing her debut LP, California Wildflower, in May, Queens (aka Charmaine Davis) has been steadily gaining clout at Oakland bars and warehouse parties. She was featured among mostly male hip-hop performers at Hiero Day and Oakland Music Festival and praised by trendsetting local blogs and party-throwers such as Wine & Bowties and Browntourage. With her polished sound and charismatic stage persona, she exudes the confidence of a seasoned performer, evoking pioneering artists such as Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu.
On California Wildflower, Queens' poetic rhymes are backed by playful beats that mix eclectic influences. Spacious, ambient tracks effortlessly transition into 1990s-tinged boom-bap. Almost all of Queens' songs were composed by a different person, including lo-fi producer Asonic Garcia and Afrocentric beatmaker Ras_G. Electronic tones and occasional flourishes of jazz and funk underpin the rapper's effervescent wordplay. Some passages are danceable, but there are no deliberate club bangers. The production is keen to foreground Queens' metaphors, anecdotes, and esoteric allusions. Live, she's given to stopping the music and rapping a cappella.
Queens embodies a priestess-like persona, invoking ancient goddess imagery in her consideration of love, personal growth, and self-discovery. An avid practitioner of meditation, she has a poised presence, as if carefully deliberating before she acts or speaks. She tends to intellectualize her feelings, and then presents them to listeners with self-awareness. Her subject matter is rooted in personal experiences, especially love and relationships, but during performances she appears cool and collected rather than overtly emotive or flamboyant.
"I'm not hella meek when I'm talking about my sexuality, but I'm not hella raunchy. I'm just me," she said in an interview. "People don't know what box to put that in sometimes, so that makes it harder for me to push [my music]."
While Queens admires artists as varied as Lil Kim and Octavia Butler, she said that much of her creative inspiration comes from the deity Oshun — the spirit of love, intimacy, beauty, and wealth in the Yoruba faith, a polytheistic religion that originated in Nigeria. While Queens was in high school in Sacramento, her godmother, a Yoruba priestess, took the teenager under her wing. "She was a great example of a spiritual woman that doesn't take shit but also is very vulnerable," Queens said. In a divination ceremony, a babalawo (a Yoruba priest said to communicate directly with God) determined Oshun to be the governing spirit of Queens' path.
When asked about the connection between spirituality and her music, Queens explained that she identifies with the ways Oshun derives power from her sexuality. The hook to her cocky single "Love Pistol" goes It's been a long time coming/You spent a long time running/But I be gunnin'/Love pistol held tight for the huntin'/Bang bang. In the music video, a tall, handsome love interest runs away from Queens as she aims her bow and arrow. Ultimately, running is futile. The man ends up captive in Queens' trance. "I'm a gangster for love," she explained, laughing.
Getting California Wildflower off the ground was rocky. A music-engineer novice when the project began, Queens spent two years recording and re-recording to get the desired results. The "Love Pistol" video was shot three times until she felt it had the proper look and feel. It would be fair to call her a perfectionist. But the difficulty of the experience inspired Queens to seek camaraderie with other artists. It led to the birth of Malidoma Collective, a group Queens founded with photographer Sasha Kelley in order to help other female creative-types to collaborate, trade skills, and promote each other's work.
Queens believes firmly in collaboration with other women, not only for her and her peers' success, but for a greater social good.
"It's always one or two women shining and rising. Society lets that happen every so often. But if we could do it like, ten of us in the rap game alone constantly collaborating, it would help young women," she explained. "And it would help young men respect women in a different way and see them in a different light, which I think is essential for us to co-exist."
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