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Photography Erin Grant

bali baby makes cathartic emo rap about queer heartbreak

Nick Fulton

Nick Fulton

Ahead of her Red Bull Music Festival performance in NYC tonight, the 20-year-old Atlanta rapper talks switching gears on debut album 'Baylor Swift.'

Photography Erin Grant

In the underground rap world there are many female rappers doing their thing, but in the spotlight, there are still just a handful making serious moves. 20-year-old Atlanta MC Bali Baby is not only a female rapper, she’s also one of very few openly gay female rappers with any skin in the game. Up until two weeks ago, her raps were sharp and wavy – it was clear that she wasn’t just trying to fit into the masculine hype machine. Then on May 8 she released Baylor Swift, a game-changing debut album that’s as much a rock and roll record as it is a hip-hop one. It showcases Bali as a chameleon of her craft, singing and occasionally rapping over grinding riffs and glitchy electronic beats by New York producer Chicken. On Baylor Swift, Bali takes what she describes as the “image” and “message” of Taylor Swift and spits it out like a chewed-up piece of sad bubblegum rap.

“It is a lot of sad music – my version of sad music,” explains Bali, as we sit and talk on a wooden bench inside New York’s PUBLIC Hotel. “I was going through a break-up with my ex-girlfriend, so a lot of the music stemmed from my emotions. I’m not really good at concealing my emotions, so I was going to the studio a lot to get my mind off of it.”

Bali Baby first burst onto the scene in 2016 with a freestyle rap titled “Designer,” which she made simply to prove a point that anyone could freestyle if they put their mind to it. “I think it went viral in about four days, and I was like, ‘what the fuck?’,” she says with a laugh. Bali is in Manhattan for a show tonight (May 18) at the Red Bull Music Festival in Midtown, and has come to our interview decked out in a green tracksuit that matches her electric green hair. She continues, “People were going, ‘record this, we wanna listen to this,’ so I was like ‘OK, let me go to the studio and try it out.’ I recorded it and I was excited, I was like, ‘wow, I can do this.’ After that I started booking sessions and going on YouTube and Twitter and finding beats. It became my life. It literally took over my life.”

Her output since then can only be described as prolific. She’s released nine mixtapes and an endless stream of music videos that have seen her profile go from unknown just over a year ago to performing for an estimated crowd of 40,000 at last weekend’s Rolling Loud Festival in Miami. Her Instagram has already amassed close to 200,000 followers and her most popular music video, for “Banana Clip”, has close to 3 million views. Bali Baby is clearly someone you wanna fuck with.

And her fan base might be about to get even bigger. Few artists have attempted the type of pivot that Bali has just pulled off with Baylor Swift, and even fewer have managed to do it without isolating their fan base. But Bali is no ordinary artist. She likes to stay close to her fans and she says, “They’re telling me it’s my best project.”

One artist that has also seamlessly transitioned between genres is New York rapper Princess Nokia, who recently released an emo-inspired mixtape titled A Girl Cried Red. Bali is a fan, and she met Princess Nokia at Rolling Loud. “I’ve known about her since last year sometime,” she says, before proclaiming, “I was obsessed with her image and her movement and how natural and free she is. She’s a beautiful mind. I love the way she thinks.” When the topic of touring with other artists comes up, Princess Nokia and SZA are two names that immediately roll off her tongue.

But in order to be booked more often alongside other rappers of her ilk, Bali acknowledges that rap culture needs to move beyond the tired trope that female rappers can’t get along. “You know how much money we could make if we all went on tour together?”, she asks, as if already knowing the answer. “We could all go up like that together. We don’t have to collide.” Bali suggests that fans and critics are primarily responsible for pushing the narrative. “I feel like that’s just something that comes with females in the rap game,” she says. “Like how they try to put Cardi B and Nicki Minaj against each other. And it worked, everyone fell for it, [but] then when they talked about it they said it was all a misunderstanding.”

While fans pushing the narrative might ring true in many cases, Bali Baby hasn’t exactly stayed away from controversy. At SXSW in 2017 she was involved in a street fight with the rapper Asian Doll, and she’s been forced to answer questions about it ever since. Tonight in New York they are both performing on the same bill, and when asked if that means the beef’s been squashed, Bali says, “I never really had any animosity. That’s not who I am, I don’t like to fight. I feel a lot of it is driven by fans… they like to put us against each other. In my eyes, I don’t think it’s that deep. I don’t know how deep it is for her, but I want to go and perform, I don’t want to fight.”

Bali would prefer to be a known as role model. She’s one of very few openly gay rappers and she has noticed gay fans embracing her style. When it comes to rap music, she says, “I feel like gays and females get bullied,” before adding that she wants to show that “you don’t have to fuck with what everyone is saying. Just be you. Do what you wanna do.” But while girls have a tough time, she says it’s even worse if you’re a gay male in the rap world. “When boys come out as gay it’s the end of their career,” she muses. “People freak out. I guess that is an advantage to being a girl, because girls can come out as gay and no one’s going to care.”

On Baylor Swift, Bali Baby’s status as an icon is just beginning to blossom. “I want records on the pop charts and the hip-hop charts,” she says without flinching. If anthems like “Backseat” and “Electrical” are a taste of what she’s capable of, then the only thing Bali will have to overcome is the idea that there can only be one successful female rapper at a time.

Bali Baby is performing tonight at the Red Bull Music Festival in New York City.