Meet Roy Kinsey, the Chicago-Based Rapper Whose New Album Is an Ode to Black Femmes
"As black folks, we already have that feeling when we are watching the news. When we see a black man being killed it’s like “aw, that could have been me,” and so you start running down the list of things you have in common."
It’s been five years since Chicago native Roy Kinsey released an album. But after releases by two other black musicians, releases that changed the paradigm for not only Kinsey but were a part of a shift in music at large, the rapper knew what he wanted his next project to look like.
“After listening to Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, I really wanted to make an album that told a story that was tight and concise,” Kinsey told Billboard. “But it was The Warmth of Other Suns, the book by Isabel Wilkerson that chronicled the three waves of the great migration [that inspired the actual story].”
That story, though personal, chronicles the three waves of the great migration and questions the current status of the descendants of that migration. “How are we dealing with this and what are we up against?” Kinsey says of the questions raised on the his 11-track album titled Blackie: A Story by Roy Kinsey. “We aren’t up against sharecropping any more and we aren’t up against lynching on trees anymore, but what are we up against?” The result is poignant in message, expansive in sound and ultimately moving.
“This was the first time that I was able to stick to a story and make an album as opposed to it just being a collection of songs,” he said. Freshly off a set of shows with the Chicago Public LIbrary, the artist is already booking venues for his “the blackie experience” pop up based on the album. And having already set up events with the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Institute of Chicago for Blackie, he’s already back in the studio working on the next album.
Here, we spoke to Kinsey about how the origins of hip-hop found its way onto Blackie, how this project is an ode to black femmes like Jenifer Lewis and his new music video, “BSAYF” (an acronym for "bitch, she ain't your friend") premiering on Billboard below.
In “Mrmr” you say “I made an album off of my own internal screams,” and I was wondering if Blackie was the album you were referring to.
Blackie was definitely the album that I wanted to make because I was at a particular point where I feel as though my life looks great on paper but inside I just wasn’t satisfied. All the work that I had put in my career, my education, my relationships and my home, I realized it was time to do inner work because I realized I was not necessarily happy. I was also abusing alcohol and I had to get down to the bottom of this escapism which is prevalent in our community as well. It’s like, why are you feeling the need to escape so often? It wasn’t necessarily that I was doing it in moderation, it was where I was getting to the point where I was having tremendous anxiety.
“Mrmr” is really my healing song because that’s what I wanted Blackie to be. I really had to get that out of my way. I had to get the addiction and all of that out of the way because I had a whole album in me that couldn’t come out. So yeah I made an album of internal screams because I did want to extract the beauty and the creativity and the art and the love from my life and really look and ask myself the necessary questions. One of those was “is life so bad?” or “are things going as bad as you think?” So that line was about putting things into perspective.
A lot of this is also me creating art during that time. A lot of people between 27 and 32 years old are adjusting to their second stage of life. And that was my case. Knowing that you’re entering into the second stage of your life, it was important to me to define who I wanted to be and what had to stay behind. What I had to gracefully surrender as I became an adult.
Are there any other tracks that really were specific points you wanted to get across?
“Jungle Book” was one of the first songs I wrote on the album but I didn’t realize the effect of the song and the effect that it would have on me until I really began performing it on the library tour I did here in Chicago for the book by Mavis Staples, I’ll Take You There. During her time with the Staples singers, they made message-oriented music and practically opened for Martin Luther King Jr. when he would go and speak. They were making race music, and that’s what I’m making now. So I wanted to make the music I was making and talk about these issues on a common sense level because it seems as though when we’re talking about black life, there’s a debate on why this person was able to be killed and I don’t operate in that world. That wasn’t my world so with “Jungle Book,” I wanted to pay homage to hip-hop as a culture and as an institution by using the Grandmaster Flash “The Message” sample. Because when hip-hop was made, people like Chuck D said hip-hop is the black man’s CNN. So if it’s going to be that, I wanted to talk about watching actual CNN; watching these news station who, to me, aren’t telling the story correctly.
If you look at my album cover (below), that is my reaction to seeing a black person killed and then justified and then put on trial after that. That is my face. So I wanted to do a few things with that song: I wanted to give emotion to something that seemed emotionless when talking about us. But when I was performing that song I was crying, the crowd was crying. And I didn’t know that would happen when I was writing this song.
There’s a line in the track when you said “today I heard the cops shot a dude with my last name,” and I wanted to ask was that just a general feeling or an actual experience.
So that’s the thing! As black folks, we already have that feeling when we are watching the news. When we see a black man being killed it’s like “aw, that could have been me,” and so you start running down the list of things you have in common. But it got that close for me. This man’s name was Charles Kinsey, last name spelled the same as mine, and he was a therapist for an autistic kid. This is an actual story and the cop tried to shoot an autistic kid and ended up shooting the therapist. That just took me down. All of this was way too close for comfort any way but for this man to have my last name just put me in a crazy space.
So going back a little bit about the sampling because there’s more than just Grandmaster Flash. I noticed there was some James Baldwin in here and others so I wanted to ask you about that inclusion.
I wanted to give voice to me being black and feminine, and a lot of people probably wouldn’t but that’s who I am, that’s how I felt and that’s how I grew up. That’s who "Blackie" is. Just from the times growing up being online seeing “no blacks, no fats, no femmes,” and I’m like damn I’m all of those. And just noticing that black femmes have saved us. They have given us a soul and given birth to so many of us. So my grandmother’s voice is on there, Jenifer Lewis’s voice is on there, James Baldwin, who to me is black and feminine, is on there.
The thing about the black femme is that they and we are able to do multiple things. We are able to cut through to the heart of an issue and still do it with love and still do it with soul and still do it with a healing. Like you know how your mother can discipline you and love you at the same time. And it’s black femmes that are on the front lines of Black Lives Matter. And Jenifer Lewis, at the end of the album, how she delivers this message exactly what I did for Blackie — of look inside yourself, get yourself together, and then at the end, she said y’all gotta pay me. So she gives you some humor with it. So the fact that we are able, and that we have always been able throughout history, to give soul to civilization is something that I really kind of wanted to highlight.
What about the sonic inspirations?
I made this album right when my grandmother passed away in 2016 and I wanted it to kind of be a timeline from the time that she was born in 1943 in Mississippi to me being the first person born outside of Mississippi. I wanted it to be a journey of our family sound as well. So what was she hearing, what was she influenced by. What am I hearing? What am I influenced by? I’m from Chicago, it’s a blues city and there’s a sound that accompanies the emotions. And I really wanted to highlight that part, the emotion with the sound, I really wanted to bring that to the forefront. So there’s the negro spiritual and gospel aesthetic there. There’s blues and jazz, there’s rap and by the time you get to the end of the end of the album there’s afro beats.
So can you tell me a little bit about “BSAYF"?
The best thing about the video was that I was able to make it with friends. Aymar Jean Christian from open TV, who started his platform OTV. He gives voice to a lot of queer people of color and I hoped and prayed that he would be willing to work with me. Saya Naomi, the star of the video, Mister Wallace, Futurehood co-founder, and Jeff brought their best to the set and story. My label FUTUREHOOD was instrumental in producing the video, and aCeb00mbap, founder of FUTUREHOOD directed the video. He designed the sets and really brought my vision and story to life, the story from trauma to healing, going through the dark to get to the light. It took an entire team of creative individuals to bring this video to life, and it wouldn't be what it is without them.
I wrote the song from my own experiences and things that I’ve seen. My grandmother actually gave me this advice so this is something that has always been prevalent but especially now when we have this thing about frenemies. It just wasn’t cute to me anymore; I honor friendship and that connection. So when I saw in moments of my life where it wasn’t being reciprocated, that while making this album that was one of the other things I had to heal from. I had to heal from not valuing myself enough to have great friends.
How did that translate into the visual?
I wanted to visually show a story from dark to light. So from this point of conflict to redemption. So we did that with colors, I chose colors to focus on in every scene, but I always wanted it to be that I was this soothsayer or this prophet that could see it all. So that’s where this ancestral realm kind of comes from. I [also] wanted to bring some light and humor to this betrayal that can be very dark and devastating experience. Plus I wanted to tap into myself and sort of this inner knowing of like “you know and you decided to ignore these red flags that were popping up because you were so desperate to have ‘a friend.’”
It's like Maya Angelou says: when somebody tells you who they are, believe them. But also in the video when she goes through the healing process, because she does heal, that’s her tapping into the divine feminine energy that we all have inside of ourselves. And that was something I personally experienced and wanted to show that in the video. So it was less about cutting people off and more about growing your inner self and maybe being your own friend.