RuPaul's Drag Race has become such a cultural phenomenon, you don't even need to snatch the crown on the competition to walk away a winner, baby. Case in point: Brooklyn-born drag queen Aja, a standout from season 9 whose Untucked viral rant ("you're perfect, you're beautiful, you look like Linda Evangelista, you're a model") made her an immediate fan favorite. Returning for All Stars 3, Aja flaunted a more assured style, greater confidence and a fierce (and educational!) Snatch Game impersonation of NYC drag legend Crystal Labeija.
Friday, Aja's debut EP In My Feelings drops, and unlike a number of musical releases from RPDR alumni, this isn't a vanity project. The Bed-Stuy-born entertainer can actually spit, and her sharp, referential lyrics display a cross-generational, cross-cultural breadth of knowledge that's rare coming from any artist, drag queen or otherwise.
The morning after her EP release party, Aja swung through the Billboard offices to chat about everything from the rappers who inspire her to racist Drag Race fans to terrible songs from other queens. Here's what one of NYC's true beauties had to say.
Last night you performed all six songs of your EP live. What's it like to do that versus lip syncing material?
It was so surreal to do my own stuff live. It feels great to have that transition from drag show to concert -- it was a full on musical event. The crowd really vibed with it and I'm excited for people to hear the studio versions of my EP.
This sounds bad, but I was pleasantly surprised with your EP – not that I expected it to be bad, but a lot of music from people on the show --
But you have a good flow -- you can rap, and the music's good too.
I feel like I can even do better, even though I am proud of it. I can't wait for people to see what I can do when I have time. The EP was me on the road and getting home for one day, having bronchitis, then going to studio and downing quad shot. Just being like [hoarse voice] "I need water." But I had so much fun writing all this overnight -- on planes, basically -- and invested a lot of thought and emotion into it.
As for your particular flow, are there any rappers you consider your inspirations, or that you look up to?
Absolutely! I look up to a lot of different rappers. Me and my boyfriend are talking about this all the time -- we love Nicki Minaj because she does that hood swag but is, at the same time, very smart. She went to LaGuardia! Her raps are so intelligent; they're always referencing something. I love referential rap – when you have to go on Genius.com and look at the lyrics. I like Tyler, the Creator -- I love that he's so angry in his music, and he doesn't give a fuck. One of my favorite lines he's ever said, he was talking about how Kanye likes his music, but he doesn't even like him. That's so bold! I love people who are not afraid to speak their mind. Even the very controversial Ms. Azealia Banks. She's opinionated.
She definitely is.
I think some of the things she says are valid and true, but it's just her delivery [that bothers people]. And I love the way she mixes genres, she knows how to rap over club music, house music, and that's not easy. And she's basically a human instrument. Those are my three biggest inspirations with writing music.
Speaking of references, I was impressed with how much you stuff into these songs. One song references Marina and the Diamonds, "Beauty School Dropout" from Grease and Sappho – that's a pretty diverse palette of references.
In "Ayo Sis" I'm talking about my female inspirations, and I broke apart who I am and the different traits that make me, me. I looked deep within to find "where did I get these ideas?" And it was like, let me write this homage to femininity. I had a lot of fun writing it. DJ Mitch Ferrino was like "here's this beat," and usually I have notes, but I just went along with it. My favorite line on the whole thing is when I start talking like Rihanna (laughs).
Speaking of Mitch – he did Bob the Drag Queen's "Purse First" and has done a number of other drag queen songs. What's he like to work with?
He is amazing -- even though he's responsible for "The Ankh Song" (from Yuhua Hamasaki). I hate that song. But Mitch is amazing, so nice -- too nice sometimes. I love him, he's very talented, he knows how to deliver what's asked of him. With Mitch, I sent him the inspiration for "Art God" and was like "I want something that's very dramatic, I want Vivaldi 'Winter,' and I want it to be like trap but still house, but more emotional and somber." He looked at me like "what are you talking about?" But he did it – he gets me. When you work with a producer, you have to be one with them.
What's your writing process like?
Overnight. I wrote every single one of these tracks overnight. You ever see Slumdog Millionaire? And he goes to the contest and he remembers everything and it leads him to that million-dollar prize? I feel like when I start writing music. Once I think of a topic, everything I've learned about that topic comes to mind.
When it comes to this EP, is being in drag integral to performing these songs, or is it separate from that for you?
My EP could be performed in or out of drag. I didn't write it from a drag point of view. I look at the name Aja not even as a drag name anymore, but as a stage persona. Aja isn't even a name, it's a phrase, it means "come here," so for me, writing music, I write it form a blurred binary. So it's funny, I can be performing in drag but talking about jerking off while I write material. It's also there to fuck with people. I don't believe in the gender binary much, especially when it comes to stage performance.
You're a New York drag queen, and in the last 10, even 5 years the scene has really expanded. But you've been here your whole life, so you must have a much different perspective than the queens who are transplants to the city.
Yes, I call them the implants. Growing up in New York in the '90s... not easy. It was intense, there was a lot of homophobia, I didn't honestly know white people existed until middle school. The only white people I knew where my teachers. I grew up in Bed-Stuy -- everyone in my classes was like Black, Latin, Middle Eastern, and I didn't know much outside of that. It's such the opposite of what everyone who lives in New York is used to. When I started coming into the drag scene, it was so weird for me. I was so urban, and everyone around me was like "I came to New York to go to theater school and chase my Broadway dream, and now I'm rejected and I'm a drag queen." It was very that. And I'm over here like "I'm just trying to get crazy." It was hard. I got picked on a lot.
In the drag scene?
Yeah, there was a lot of classism. People would call me and my friends "the ratchet train." They'd accuse us of stealing stuff, stuff we never did. And it sucks, because we were all severely underage. Next year is going to mark 10 years since I've been active in the New York City nightlife, I've been doing drag almost 9 years at this point and I'm 24. It was scary when people would treat you that way, because I didn't want to lose my opportunities. But then again, when you have that urban personality, we weren't getting much opportunity to begin with. We had to work so hard to get anything.
Are some venues more open than others?
It wasn't the venues as much other queens. I remember there was this one queen who I will not name, because I do not give people the press or the time of day. But I bumped into her recently, and she was still a bitch. I did a competition for her, she was like "you're so talented." And her friend, this other white queen comes up, and she's honestly terrible. She sees how hard some of the other queens of color are working, but all of the sudden she's booking this other girl and she's getting paid hundreds of dollars. And all these other queens work so hard and bring in crowds, but you have this person here who hasn't worked for anything, and just because they're your friend (you're giving them work). I've always been really outspoken, and people wouldn't always like it, but I've learned to dial it back. I do what I call The Success Complex. I go "look at you, and look at me." And that's how I learned to deal with online bullying.
Right – in your EP, you point out you've been on Drag Race twice and even have your own house now.
It's like – leave me alone. And also, one of my favorite iconic Azealia Banks tirades – or whatever you call it – is her line in her Hot 97 interview. Amidst all the crazy crying, she said, "you work at the radio station, you take care of the radio station. I'm the artist – let me be creative." And I resonate with that. I feel that about a lot of people who always have an opinion or something to say. I'm like "you do your job, I'll do my job." You don't need to comment on my job unless you're in my field.
Speaking of your field, any favorites from the current season of Drag Race?
Everyone this season is so great. I'm such a Drag Race fan. I find myself personally drifting away from drag because I want to do other things, but I'm always a fan of drag and the show. Some girls on the show are like "I don't watch the show," but girl, I love Drag Race. And this season has been crazy. I'm really rooting for the drama. [Laughs] It's terrible but it's so real. There's different personalities this season that are clashing, but that's the reality of the world and any entertainment industry, including drag. And I hate it when the fans of the show – they're more younger – they're like, "oh, she's such a bitch when she says this," and it's like, "no, that's just what happens, and that's okay."
I think it's hard for some 14, 15 year olds to understand that people have vastly different perspectives, and that doesn't mean they hate each other.
If you 14 years old behind a computer calling me the n-word because you think I don't like your favorite, that says a lot about you. The ones who are really not understanding the drama are probably the shit-stirrers of their own lives. I would like to see a reality show based on the fans. It would be a shit show.