Kelow Taps Mainstream Hip-Hop’s Misogyny But Doesn’t Share Its Taste for Beef
A year and a half ago, few hip-hop fans in the District had heard about Kelow, a blond-dreadlocked, wisp-thin, weed-smoking lesbian rapper from Forestville, Md. But she was about to be big in Sweden.
In September 2011, Kelow’s video for "Haterz" popped up on the Swedish hip-hop blog Pussy Made of Gold. By summer 2012, she was booked to play two shows in Gothenburg and Stockholm. "Here you see the trees, the urban life," she says. But there, "you look out their windows and you see castles."
In Gothenburg, Kelow played a room of more than 500 people. "People knew the words," says Ayinde Simon (shown above, left), founder of Baby Dinosaurs x Co, Kelow’s record label. “Another promoter caught wind of the trip and put us up in Stockholm. We performed on a rooftop, in the rain—autographs. People wanted to give us rides to the airport.”
What explains Sweden’s love for the 20-year-old Maryland MC? Kelow’s team says it has something to do with the country’s open-armed, women-friendly DJ scene. Pop star Robyn might be partially responsible, too: Kelow’s track "Press Buttons," from her 2011 debut album Colored Pencils, samples liberally from the Swedish vocalist’s song "Cobrastyle." Robyn dug the song enough to follow Kelow on Twitter and compliment her "cobra stylee." "From there on out, our mantra has been, ‘Go where the love is,'" says Simon.
Right now, Kelow gets more love in Gothenburg than in the DMV. Despite her recent collaboration with local big fish Tabi Bonney—he guested on her crushing 2012 track "Hit My Pager"—his Sky Republic label turned down an earlier opportunity to work with her, according to Lemont Calhoun, a former Bonney intern who spotted Kelow on MySpace when she was 14. "She had pink hair ... and it was really cute and adorable—but she could rap," says Calhoun. When Bonney’s label passed, Calhoun forwarded her name to Simon. Sky Republic offered a weak consolation prize: It liked Kelow just enough to use her as eye candy in one of Bonney’s videos.
It can be tough sledding for an out lesbian rapper, and harder still for one who presents herself as Kelow does. She’s got the combative style of many hetero male MCs: She’ll smoke that weed, she’ll steal your girl. But for Kelow, an embrace of tired male tropes has translated into a brand of inverted feminism that’s made her irresistible both to young women and set-in-their-ways hip-hop purists—and, apparently, Swedish club kids.
On her tracks, Kelow favors synthy stoner vibes over, say, the sample-heavy, classicist hip-hop of local vets like Uptown X.O. or the southern-style bangers of rising DMV instigator Shy Glizzy. But Kelow’s rocked crowds with Glizzy. She floats between scenes and skirts around rap beefs like a kind of hip-hop Switzerland: She’s cool with D.C. heavyweight Fat Trel, who beefed with Glizzy; and she fist-pumps with Lightshow, who beefed with Trel.
Kelow’s associations have put her close to violence, but gunplay is definitely not her thing. She’s too cool with spoken-word poets for that shit.
On a Sunday in January, Ayinde's broth-er, Jabari "Miko" Simon, is tweaking a sample of Dev’s "Bass Down Low." Working from Baby Dinosaurs x Co’s headquarters—a house in Fort Washington, Md.—Ayinde, 29, does film and deals with the business and branding; Miko, 26, produces tracks and handles photography. Kelow, who is Baby Dinosaurs’ only signing, sits on a stool and shows me iPhone pictures of a giraffe that she drew.
Long dreadlocks fall in front of Kelow’s face. Her posture is terrible. "I did a 12-piece concentration of me metamorphosing into animals in high school," she says. "The giraffe was my favorite because they can see far and beyond."
On Christmas Eve 2012, Kelow released her Stixxx-N-Stones EP, and it’s been accessed more than 18,000 times on rap website LiveMixtapes.com. She made her debut with 2011’s Colored Pencils, and her second full-length album, Thugosaurus, is finished and due out this spring. When it drops, she’ll play shows in New York City and Atlanta, in addition to a West Coast tour. This week, she’s in Austin, Texas, performing at South by Southwest on a bill with Talib Kweli, Bun B, and Dead Prez.
Kelow grew up in Forestville and moved to Fort Washington when she was 12. At Friendly High School, she started cutting class and riding the Metro into D.C. "I wasn’t with cliques, I was just there to go to school," she says. "By high school, I was like 'Fuck that, I done seen the whole city.' Mom would call and ask where I was, and I’d be like, 'New York.'" Still, at school she focused on visual art and graduated in 2011.
Kelow’s sexuality didn’t wreck her relationship with her parents, but it didn’t go over easily, either. They’re both deeply religious; her father is a deacon at an A.M.E. church in Prince George’s County. (Kelow doesn’t want her parents to be connected to her weed-smoking, so she asked Washington City Paper not to print her legal name.) "I always knew [I was gay]," she says. "I liked Pocahontas and shit." But she didn’t come out until 10th grade. When she finally did, "My mom didn’t speak to me for like a week," she says. "It was easier to tell my dad. He didn’t lecture me. He said, 'God sees people when they’re genuine.'" Kelow has been in what she calls a “close friendship” for the past three years, and her friend has had at least one drama-free encounter with her parents.
Yet Kelow plays the role of a pimp in her music, borrowing a page from mainstream hip-hop’s dogeared book of misogyny. In her minimalist music video for "Turbosteeze" she’s bathed in a red filter, standing between two vixens, rapping about probation, cunnilingus, and marijuana. "Got your bitch rolling on her knees in this motherfucker," goes the hook. The video transitions to another track, "Pink Cookies," where she’s filmed in black and white, wearing overalls on a park bench and rapping in golden-era tongues. A dude in a wolf mask nods along. It’s Calhoun, the guy who found her on MySpace when she was a kid.
Kelow boasts a lot about pulling women. (“These bitches be like seasons, way I treat ‘em, way I leave ‘em,” she raps on "No Mind.") Maybe that’s why straight, male rap fans like me—who’ve been conditioned to admire male artists who rap about power—have latched onto her stuff. Take away Kelow’s cloud-rap aesthetics, quirky Internet presence, and post–Noah "40" Shebib production, and you’re left with aggressive, straightforward rap. But her music is nowhere near violent. “Look, we don’t talk about anything street—or drugs, unless we’re smoking weed,” Miko says.
Young women might be Kelow’s most steadfast fans, and they seem drawn to her personality as much as her music. "Will you ever come to London? It’s getting depressing," tweets one. "Yeah, @SuperKelow is going to get me through this day," types another. "My life is complicated, I’m married to @SuperKelow and Alicia Keys," writes a third.
Kelow says she doesn’t intentionally court young female fans, but she’s happy they’re there. "Females are gonna buy your shit as opposed to niggas. They’ll be the ones that’ll be there for you, screaming and chanting," she says. "I have a lot of females that connect with what I’m saying, even if they’re not gay." She doesn’t think she peddles sex—though her lyrics say otherwise—and she thinks that’s why women gravitate toward her. "It’s giving a female perspective that straight women also have."
Miko says Kelow’s perspective improves on what the mainstream is cranking out. In her musical world, everyone can be a so-called "bad bitch"—but it doesn’t involve dudes pouring Champagne down your shirt.
"I paid a few twenties for my girls to get in," Kelow says onstage at Love Nightclub. She’s opening up for Shy Glizzy on a Saturday in February. Glizzy is a confrontational 20-year-old whose teenage supporters are wearing T-shirts that say "Glizzy Gang." It’s an early show but security is tight. Police cars line the alleys. At the entrance, security asks me to take off my shoes.
Kelow goes on second to last. She’s wearing a kimono over a neon T-shirt adorned with eyeballs. She’s on the bill because Glizzy met her backstage at another show, got into her music, and invited her via Twitter to perform.
During Kelow’s set, a crew of girls hangs onstage and sings along nonchalantly, kind of like the stone-faced models in Robert Palmer’s videos. I later find out Kelow has a nasty cold, but it doesn’t matter—her presence inspires the first phone-camera sightings of the night. After the first song, she dives into the audience like she’s the singer of Deftones.
"I wish I could do another song," she says after her two-song set concludes.
Building connections in D.C.’s hip-hop scene has been tricky for Kelow and her crew. Hang around the wrong team, and next thing you know, Fat Trel’s crew is looking at you funny from its VIP booth.
Miko later tells me that Fat Trel’s former manager, Dakari Dudley, once contacted Baby Dinosaurs about working with Kelow. "He seemed like a good guy ... But he just seemed a little more edgier than we are," he says. Miko says he joined Dudley on a trip to Ibiza nightclub, "and [he] basically told us 'Drink whatever you want.'" ... [I] felt like i was in Belly," he says. (Dudley did not return requests for comment.)
Even sitting near Trel’s crew in a nightclub can spell trouble. “Around here that means we’re affiliated with him and it warrants people attacking us,” Miko says. At Love, Miko looks uncomfortable, and leaves midway through Glizzy’s set.
Kelow met Fat Trel in New York and seems to like the guy. But she says when she went to a party Trel attended in New York last summer, some unidentified Trel haters fired gunshots in her direction. “People are just dumb and ignorant and get to shooting for nothing,” she says. “[Rap beef] never concerned me at all. I’m standing on my own two feet.”
She sticks around until the end of the show.
Kelow doesn’t do hard drugs and only smokes weed from horticulturists she trusts. "Weed is every day. To me it’s like drinking water. It’s just like eating food," she says.
"She’s a connoisseur with that shit," says Ayinde, who doesn’t smoke. "She knows the history, the type of weed, how it’s grown."
On this week’s menu is some stuff called White O.G. "Just grown last month, [it’s] hella sticky and dense," she says. The openness with which she talks about marijuana is unnerving; only brand-name rappers can afford the legal fees.
On July 7, she was pulled over in Fort Washington and caught three charges: possession of marijuana, possession with intent to distribute, and possession of paraphernalia. The trouble swung over her head like a pendulum while she was recording Thugosaurus.
In early February, I meet Kelow on Euclid Street NW at the Emergence Community Arts Collective, where she’s checking out the open-mic night Spit Dat. She apologizes for not responding to a text I sent that morning. She spent her afternoon napping after a hearing at Harford County District Court. "I was blessed, it went pretty sweet," she says. "I gotta do 50 hours of community service."
For her last run of community service, she worked with the elderly. This time Kelow wants to work with kids. But right now, she’s gearing up for her performance at Spit Dat. What can the people expect tonight?, I ask, half joking.
"Just some things that’s on my mind," she says.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
The original version of this post contained several reporting errors. The piece misspelled Ayinde Simon’s name and imprecisely characterized his role at the recording label Baby Dinosaurs x Co.; he is its founder and chief operating officer. It misidentified Sky Republic, another record label. The article incorrectly presented two paraphrases—one about Kelow’s MySpace page and the other about a trip to a nightclub by Miko Simon, also of Baby Dinosaurs—as quotations. And it inaccurately reported that Kelow attended a party where gunshots were fired in her direction; shots were fired, but not toward her.