"I put out a song and my life changed for real," Oakland rapper Kamaiyah spits on "I'm On," the first track from her mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto, and she's not lying. Fueled by the unexpected success of that infectious first single, Kamaiyah dropped her debut tape this past March to widespread acclaim. Tack on her chorus to the YG and Drake joint "Why You Always Hatin,'" one of the summer's hottest songs, and you're looking at a female rapper who, by her own design, is on track to emulate the success of the women she grew up idolizing, from TLC to Lil Kim to Missy Elliott.
Those three 90s icons — and countless others — laid the foundation for Kamaiyah's sound and style: a lighthearted but tirelessly studied homage to 90s hip-hop and R&B culture, whether in the form of the Tommy Hilfiger sweater and Cazal shades she rocked a few weeks ago at Irving Plaza, or the carnal, funky synths and syncopated flow that weaves through her music. Her work pulls from the Bay Area sound of legends like Mac Dre, old school funk records and a who's who of popular and pioneering 90s R&B artists. It's an adherence to the personal warmth of her memories from that decade, not an attempt to be kitschy, that draws Kamaiyah to the 90s, yet pastel color palettes and vintage designers aside, Kamaiyah is simply Kamaiyah — a young, confident, swaggering, fun-loving emcee who refuses to be limited by the narrow cultural standards imposed upon female rappers today. In the words of Kamaiyah, as she titled that now-prophetic first song on her mixtape: "I'm on."
Taking a moment in between stops on YG's "Fuck Donald Trump Tour," Yaya (her nickname) broke down her feelings on being a female rapper, government conspiracies and getting her feet rubbed by oiled-up buff dudes.
One of the reasons I love your music is that your sexuality is simply one facet of your identity, not the entire being, yet you still flaunt it with confidence. What does being a female rapper mean to you, especially in a male-dominated industry?
[Some female rappers] are just doing what they know to get to where they want to be; you can't fault them for that, that's just what's been made out for them. I feel like I just want to have fun, and whatever I feel personally in my heart, I'm going to talk about. And it doesn't really effect me being in a male-dominated field 'cause at the end of the day the way I move and the way I do me, [men] respect me, and it comes across in a boss way, and not a sleazy, cheesy type of way.
How has the tour been, especially being your first major, national tour? What're your thoughts on the politics of the tour — it's called the Fuck Donald Trump Tour after all — and are politics as important to you as they are to YG?
Not necessarily…. When they announced the tour I was like "what the hell are you trying to get me into?" [Laughs]. I wasn't here for the name of the damn tour…. I just assumed it was "Still Brazy." And then a week before, they were like, "no, we're changing it to the Fuck Donald Trump Tour 'cause politically it makes more sense and it grabs people more than 'Still Brazy.'" I was like, "What? Whatever." Me personally, I'm not too big on politics or whatever it may be, 'cause I feel like everything is premeditated, so we can argue and go back-and-forth about our political stances but whether we know it or not the government has all these schemes, you know? So I don't [give credence] to that type of shit.
The tour itself has definitely had its ups and downs; the connotation of the name — sometimes, there'll be protesters outside 'cause of Donald Trump or another record YG has that people are not taking lightly to that's been getting us into hot water. So yeah. It's been kinda crazy.
I want to talk about the "Why You Always Hatin'" video, because I think most people would say your chorus was the highlight, getting your feet rubbed and drinking champagne. Were you behind that fantasy?
Well of course, any woman wants to be rubbed down by big, buff dudes. But that was not my idea, that was Keenon's (YG). Keenon was like, (impersonating YG), "I want Kamaiyah in the video with two buff black dudes rubbing her feet. And she drinkin' her champagne because that's what she do. She's bossed up." So I was just like, "Okay, I guess so, I'll get rubbed down with this oil…. in front of my brother." That's how this came about. It was some Lady Marmalade type shit.
Did your family have anything to say about it?
I'm so grown now that I don't answer to no one. So what're they going to say about me getting my feet rubbed, it's not like I had my ass out. It looks more bossy than trashy.
What's going on for the future? What're you trying to get at with this next project, and how is it different from the mixtape?
My next project is just me giving the people what they want, which is some more music and me gaining more fans and traction. That's the whole goal of the project: fans, traction, and not -- to go lower. My whole vision is to rise higher than where I am right now because I'm not satisfied where I'm at and I'm not about to center myself at where I'm at. So I want to keep rising.
Text Jackson Howard
Photography Grace Pickering