Meet Phem, the Queer Indie Upstart Touring With Lil Xan
Much like her genre-spanning sound, California indie artist Phem defies all labels -- especially when it comes to her sexuality.
The performer, who blends hip-hop, rap, jazz and pop into something cerebral on her debut EP, Can’t Kill Me, refuses to identify or label her queerness. “I don’t identify with anything in particular,” Phem tells Billboard. “It doesn’t have to have a name on it. Just embrace it and make it your own because it’s the truth.” When it comes to her own sexual fluidity, Phem admits she’s in a perpetual state of self-examination, a theme that permeates from the nucleus of her latest single, “Dont Giv Up on Me Yet.”
“It’s kind of me talking to myself,” she shares of the rhythmic track, a smooth trap-pop hybrid that finds the artist grappling with self-doubt and the need for acceptance. “It was written during a dark period where I was just like, ‘What the fuck am I doing with my life?’ It was also written towards a partner that I was with at the time. The person you’re with should support your art and be like, ‘I believe in you, we can do it.’ Back then, I was just like, ‘Please don’t leave, don’t stop believing in me!’”
While the song itself is an emotional, ephemeral rollercoaster, Phem manages to capture the joyful spirit of teamwork in the video for “Dont Giv Up on Me Yet,” premiering Thursday (Sept. 13). The clip, which was self-directed by Phem and her creative director, Michael Tyrone Delaney, sees the musician wandering the grounds of a high school while a real-life competitive jump rope squad performs, subliminally speaking to themes of seclusion, self-assurance and solidarity. Phem credits the concept to her “weird brain,” as well as a serendipitous session spent watching a jump rope performance while listening to music on her laptop.
Isolation has been a major player in Phem’s personal journey, from the year she spent sleeping in her studio and car to the tribulations she has faced as a young queer woman discovering herself slowly, by feeling around in the darkness of uncertainty. Eventually, the unabandoned embracement of inner truth became the light in that darkness -- and it set her free.
“I wanted to make sure the music I was making was as truthful as possible,” she explains. “When you do that you realize your family and friends are gonna hear this, and people might judge you in a certain way. I was just like, fuck it, I’m only gonna live once and I don’t want to live artificially. Being in that dark space and being in solitude and being alone, it helped me figure out the next step. My sexuality played a big part of that too, because even though I was dating women before, I wasn’t talking about it that much. It was almost something I felt kind of shy or ashamed of. I was tired of feeling that way.”
Though her 500,000 (and counting) Spotify streams and upcoming cross-country tour with Lil Xan may indicate that Phem has truly arrived, the enigmatic musician’s odyssey of inward self-discovery is far from over. At the moment, however, she’s turned outward, arms outstretched lovingly to anyone who will listen and to anyone struggling to be heard. “The question always pops up: ‘Well, I don’t get it... Do you like guys or do you like girls?’ There wasn’t a song I could really relate to, and now it’s interesting because so many people have reached out to me being like, ‘This is so awesome, this song means everything to me.’ It helps verify that you’re not alone, and that’s legit.
“I just want to be there for people who need me,” she continues. “I get a lot of DMs, and I get a lot of feedback from people who are going through shit and coming out. I literally just want to be there for them.”
Watch the video for “Dont Giv Up on Me Yet" below.