premiere: seattle rapper donormaal will bewitch you with her new album
The Seattle upstart raps about depression, capitalism, and My Little Pony.
The first thing you notice when you listen to DoNormaal, real name Christianne Karefa-Johnson, is the uniqueness of her voice: it slurs, falls, and bubbles out of her mouth like a water fountain. It's simultaneously creepy and vulnerable, intimate and jarring, and her sing-songy hooks owe as much to Three 6 Mafia as they do to Nirvana.
Already somewhat of a local celebrity in Seattle, DoNormaal worked with a handful of producers for around a year and a half to create her second album, Third Daughter, which premieres today on i-D. It plays unlike anything we've heard in 2017: the soundscape is a singular blend of hip-hop, grunge, nursery rhymes, layered melody, horror-core, electronica, and southern trap (she counts Fiona Apple and Dem Franchize Boyz as influences). In a single song, she'll worry about her sisters, bemoan the oppression of capitalism, examine her place in society as a queer woman of color, and fight her depression, all with a secret smile.
Take Third Daughter's bouncy second track, "ego slave," in which DoNormaal, after gushing about her emotional state, admits, deadpan, "I think I'm projecting a little right now." Other songs, like "my teacher," have her singing off-key over a jack-in-the-box, while "my little pony" flips the theme song of a saccharine relic of millennial girlhood into a satanic trap anthem.
Beneath the trap drums and SoundCloud synths and A$AP Rocky-hazed hooks, the free flow of confessions, memories, regrets, odes, and anxieties slowly becomes something monumental: the portrait of a young person in flux. A woman ready to "take a fucking bullet for myself some day, if only so my mother doesn't cry no tears." An independent, 25-year-old artist making music for no one but herself.
We caught up with DoNormaal about queerness and fitting in, the new album, and family.
The album is called Third Daughter, and you rap a lot about your family, especially your mom and your four siblings. What's their impact been on you and your art?
Because we grew up with a very nomadic lifestyle, my family kind of represents my hometown, my roots. I spent the most time at home because as introverted as I was, it was hard for me to make really close, comfortable friendships with kids when I was moving every year or every few years. So I like to use my family to contextualize myself. And that's why I call myself the third daughter.
How important is it for you to stay independent as a musician?
I like being an independent artist because it cuts the middleman. And the middleman in this case is the capitalism that is cheapening our creative culture. I feel like the music industry has really capitalized off of making a handful of artists into huge celebrities and making people care more about wanting to be them than what they are doing creatively. What I think needs to happen is for there to be no celebrity culture when it comes to art. Artists should just be civil servants like they used to be, paid what they deserve to give us genuine authentic healing. We don't need a big money-making industry made up of people who are not actually making the art getting in the way of that.
You aren't shy about rapping about your different selves, and one of those selves is your queer identity. How do you understand yourself in relation to that queerness?
I feel queer and it's because I don't feel like I fit into things. Ever. At least not genuinely. I could never be loyal to any one way of identifying because I've never come across one that's fully incorporated all that is me. That's why I write—to explain. To create a narrative that fully represents me. I have a very, very complex and atypical ancestry and upbringing, and also an unorthodox and complex mind and taste and way of being. I could never explain myself to people, not my history or my present; people have always approached getting to know me too simply, and that's why an album like this is everything to someone like the third daughter.
Because now, maybe people will get more of what they need to know. I'm always in between things, because I'm a twin, and I'm a Libra, and I'm black in a white world, and I'm a woman who loves being a woman but sometimes feels the ways and does the things society says only a man feels and does. I feel the yin and yang within me strongly, and everything that comes from their union, and that's very hard in a world that at every corner is asking you to select an option. This album is my option.
Last thing. Your music pulls from a lot of different genres. Do you feel boxed-in when people label you a rapper?
I'm a rapper. But that's just like any songwriter to me. I think all vocalists are doing the same thing, just in different shapes and with different stylistic values. Whatever lines were drawn between genres in the past are thinning, anyways. I think it's fun to compare and contrast music, but what you name it is almost irrelevant. I do feel like there's something special about hip-hop, though, that I'm always trying to get at in my music. And it's not about a sound. To me it's about how honestly and vulnerably I'm willing to tell my story in the music itself and what telling that story could do for people with similar stories, for people who have never heard of such a story, for the whole world.
Text Jackson Howard
Photography Ivan Mršić courtesy DoNormaal