For North Carolina rapper Rapsody, hip-hop culture is everything


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For North Carolina rapper Rapsody, hip-hop culture is everything

Over the past decade, North Carolina native Rapsody (aka Marlanna Evans) has become known as one of the best emcees of her generation. Now known for her use of intricate rhyme patterns, metaphors, and wordplay, she kicked off her career by releasing her debut mixtape, ‘Return of the B-Girl’, in 2010. Since then, Rapsody’s worked with everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Queen Latifah, and been nominated for two GRAMMYs for ‘Laila’s Wisdom’, her sophomore album named after her grandmother. Now, she’s dropping ‘Please Don’t Cry’, her first album since 2019, and is making a special appearance on COLORS to celebrate the release.

In line with her A COLORS SHOW, we sat down with Rapsody to find out more about the healing journey that’s inspired her new project, the importance of sisterhood, and her newfound creative freedom.

What is your first musical memory?

I remember sitting in front of the TV, watching Michael Jackson videos, and going to the kitchen to try and do the moon walk. I fell over and over again! I was just so enamored by Michael’s singing and dancing ability, but more so by what he cared to write about.

What did you parents play around the house?

In Black culture, Saturday mornings are when you get up and clean the house. When I was young, my mum would always be playing Tina Turner or Patti LaBelle as we did it. She might put a little Heavy D in there too.

My dad was a really big Luther Vandross fan. While he worked in the yard and changed the oil in the cars, he nailed a speaker to a tree and played nothing but soul music. Everything we did in the house had a musical soundtrack to it. I think that’s where my passion came from.

When did you start to want to make your own music?

It was a really gradual journey. When I was six or seven, I discovered MC Lyte. She was the first woman I saw working in hip-hop. She showed me that there was a space for women in the genre, and in a way gave me permission to pursue a career in it. From that moment, I knew that music was what I wanted to do.

I wasn’t really exposed to a lot of artists and musicians in my town, so the goal of being able to live from art seemed very hard to attain. I started out writing by poetry in middle school. Then, when I got to college, I got into Def Poetry Jam, so I went from writing poems on paper to performing them. It wasn’t until I was 22 and one of my best friends told me to stop hiding that I had to courage to pursue music.

What was it that drew you rap and hip-hop in particular?

I used to ride around with my cousins and they’d play Nas and Tribe Called Quest. I also watched Method Man and Mary J. Blige on YO! MTV Raps and BET. I was just so caught up in the storytelling, the wordplay, the fashion, and how they expressed themselves. It wasn’t just about the music, it was about the culture of what hip-hop was. I felt like it made space for all of these different creatives.

How did you choose the name Rapsody?

I’m a huge Jay Z fan. In his ‘Reasonable Doubt’ documentary, he says that to become a great rapper, he expanded his vocabulary by reading the dictionary. I thought it was such an amazing idea to just open the dictionary and read words. So I was like, “yo, I’m gonna do that.” One day, I was in the Rs, and I got to the definition of Rhapsody. It means “poetry spoken with great emotion.” I just stopped and was like, “man, that’s what rap is to me.” So I took the H out and just ran with it.

How would you describe your musical style when you first started out? You’re well known for your intricate rhyme patterns, metaphors, and wordplay. How did these become important elements for you?

I was doing the most early on! In my mind, it was about like having the craziest flow pattern and saying the dopest things. Overtime I realized that you don’t want to make music that’s so intricate that people can’t follow along. I had to learn how to be simple and complex at the same time.

Your music is also driven by your philosophy “culture is everything.” What does this mean to you?

It means that, when it comes to creating, I’m not chasing numbers, plaques, or Billboard number ones. It’s really about the culture. I want to speak to things that are authentic and honest to me, to be a storyteller, to be a voice of the people, and to use my experiences to inspire others. That’s the foundation of my work. Anything else that comes from that is a bonus.

You also embrace hip-hop culture by collaborating with some of its biggest players. Some of the artists you’ve worked with over the course of your career include Mac Miller, Big Daddy Kane, Estelle, Kendrick Lamar, and Queen Latifah. How do you identify the people you want to create with?  

When I’m working on a track, I usually ask myself, “is there a voice missing on this record?” Voices are like instruments. Mine has its own sound and frequency, and sometimes I need something that’s a little deeper, more aggressive, or melodic to complete the story that I’m trying to tell. I work with singers a lot because I can’t sing. I love bringing hip-hop and singing together on a record. I never feature someone on a record just to have their name on it. It’s always for a purpose.

“I was so caught up in the storytelling, the wordplay, the fashion, and how they expressed themselves…

… it wasn’t just about the music, it was about the culture of what hip-hop was.”

Do you have any dream collaborators? 

I’d love to work with Solange, Pharrell, John Mayer, Elton John, and Andre 3000.  I’d love to collaborate with Stevie Wonder too. We already worked together on a song that he put out in 2020, but I would love get in the studio with him and create from scratch. Lauryn Hill would have to top of the list though, because she’s had the biggest impact on my life along with Erykah Badu and Jay-Z. To be able to create with her would be a real dream come true.

You said earlier that you’re not aiming to get accolades or awards, but your 2017 album, ‘Laila’s Wisdom’, did receive two GRAMMY nominations for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song. How did you react to this news? 

I think my first emotion was disbelief. There’s so much talent in our industry, but a lot of the time these awards shows are just popularity contests. I know I’m not the most popular or famous artist, so it meant a lot to be recognized for the work that I’ve done. I thank God for the opportunity to be mentioned alongside such legendary artists such as Kendrick, Jay-Z, and Tyler, the Creator. It’s hard to articulate what that felt like.

Was it especially meaningful to be nominated for ‘Laila’s Wisdom’, as it was named after and inspired by your grandmother? 

To have my audience know and say my grandmother’s name meant a lot to my family. I’m happy that I can continue to share her legacy, the advice that she gives me, and see how it’s impacted other people. That project was all about giving people their flowers while they’re still here, so I was happy to see it come full circle and for me to get my flowers too.

Rapsody with Erykah Baduh

Tell us about the song you performed on COLORS. 

I love people, I’m very personable, but at the same time my social battery runs out and I need to have time by myself. That’s what the track I performed was about. As someone that gives so much, I’m learning how to be okay with saying no and putting myself first. People shouldn’t take it personally, because it’s not about them, it’s just about me.

The track is from your new album, ‘Please Don’t Cry’, which comes out on May 17, 2024. It’s introspective and reflects the healing journey you’ve been on over the past few years. In an interview with Complex, you said that you’ve been surrounded by a sisterhood of women who have helped you through this period of recovery. What does sisterhood mean to you and how has it influenced the album?

I grew up surrounded by boys, so I didn’t understand how much sisterhood was important until I got older. Now I have a village of women who understand me and see me in a way that I don’t see myself. When I started working on this album, two of my closest friends told me that I needed to allow people to see I’m not perfect. I never thought that that was the energy I gave off, but after I while I realized that I protect my personal life because I’m afraid of what people may think if they know how human I am. Another friend challenged me to write about what makes me mad, what brings me joy, my love life, whether or not I like to have sex, and so on. This really opened my perspective. It started me on the journey of allowing myself to be vulnerable in public.

“I want to speak to things that are authentic and honest to me…

… to be a storyteller, to be a voice of the people, and to use my experiences to inspire others.”

This is the first project you’ve released since 2019. How have you developed as an artist since then? How have you channeled these developments into the album?

I don’t have anything to prove anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. That makes everything so much more fun. I really get to just do and say what I feel. The creative process has changed too—I allow myself to explore more, to search more, and don’t feel like I have to do a certain sound.  I just get to be free.

Yellow is a focus color for the project. Why? 

My creative director, Patso Dimitrov, has been with me every step of the way since I started this project. In the beginning, I sent him a few songs, told him the title, and he sent me back a mock cover. The background was yellow and I absolutely loved it. I didn’t know why at first, because most of my covers have been black. After a while, I realized that for me, yellow represents healing, joy, and happiness. It reminds me of the sun. You go through the shadow to find your way back to the light, right?

What do you enjoy doing outside of music? 

I love to be at home, curl up on the couch, and watch films. I’m really big on movies, they inspire me creatively. I also love spending time with my family, seeing my nephew and beating him in basketball, and playing cards with my friends. I love being of service, sitting with my aunt and listening to her stories, or helping my mom out around the house. Sometimes when I’m home I’ll just put music on and dance in front of the mirror. I love anything that’s fun and joyful. I don’t have to do a lot to be entertained.

What are your ambitions for the future? 

I want to learn to do photography—namely how to use a red room and develop film. I also want to do pottery classes, get into writing scripts, and producing documentaries and films. Eventually, I’d also like to pass my knowledge on by starting my own label.

What is the one piece of advice you’d like to share with the COLORS audience?

Live your life in a way that, when you wake up in the morning, you’re happy with the reflection you see. When you look in the mirror, you should make sure your soul and your spirit are at peace. Are you doing the things in life that bring you joy? Or are you just settling?

Rapsody is a North Carolina native whose A COLORS SHOW was released on Tuesday 21st May 2024. You can watch the full performance on our YouTube channel.

Text: Emily May
Photography: Patso Dimitri (image 1 & 4), Jhalin Knowles (image 6), and Gretsky (image 7)


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