Ivy Sole Talks Growing Up Queer in the Southern Baptist Church & Mac Miller's Impact: 'He Bridged Generations'

Ivy Sole
Araba Ankuma

Ivy Sole

On the cover of her debut LP Overgrown, Ivy Sole is caught in a state of duality. The illustration, by artist Gabrielle Patterson, captures the queer rapper-singer oscillating between blossom and decay; a bouquet of flowers seemingly grows out of her hair, her face framed by a lush garden, while her right cheek is an X-ray of exposed bone.

It’s a seemingly contradictory statement, but to Sole, the two elements work in communion. “There’s something about being close to death every day that makes you want to really value and cherish the life that you have,” she says. “The other meaning of [the cover] is there are parts of me that have been put to rest and I am outgrowing those former selves.”

Overgrown, which came out on Monday, is a robust, introspective hip-hop record from a precocious 25-year-old. Sonically, Sole navigates between the gospel-tinged uplift of her upbringing in Charlotte, N.C., and the grittier, spoken-word inflections of her current home in Philadelphia, where she’s lived since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. She sings and raps, with equal panache and measure, about mental health, black radicalism and self-love. But she’s also prone to rapping about drunkenly hitting on a hot girl at a party, as she does on “Still Wasted,” which she calls the queerest song on the album. “I like women and I like men,” she says. “I like women a lot though. Women have me on my ass, which is rare -- I feel like I’m a very calm and collected person.”

Billboard spoke to Sole about growing up queer in the Southern Baptist church, her connection to Mac Miller, and how she approaches the two tropes available for female MCs.

What were some of the things going on in your life when you made this record?

I broke up with someone about three, four months prior. I was trying to figure out what the next steps were. As far as music was concerned, I was watching a lot of my peers, some of my closest friends, really level up in their careers and in their professional life which brought out a lot of insecurities that I thought I had put to bed but hadn’t actually put to bed. I had just made one of several breakthroughs in therapy as far as mental health was concerned. My relationship with my family was -- I wouldn’t say rocky -- just in a transition phase. There was just a lot going on. And I think that Overgrown is like after the dust settled I knew what I had at the end of it.

Now that you’re doing press for the album, are you wary about being pigeonholed as a queer rapper?

I think that the identity in and of itself is important and I want to make sure I’m giving space and time for it because a lot of people have died for me to be able to say [I’m queer] without fear of reprimand or repercussion. But I don’t want that to be the selling point. I want the music to be the selling point. [Queerness] can be a major detail -- but I’d rather it be a detail than the thesis. If you’re listening to the music it’s not what I’m leading with. I’m just leading with myself. I’m leading with my story.

You grew up in a pretty religious community in Charlotte. How often were you going to church?

Three days a week: Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday.

Wow. Did you know you were queer?

I knew pretty early on in elementary school, aged seven or eight. I have a cousin who’s queer and she dyed her hair in school and did all those types of things. That made sense for her and that was the way she went through it. And the way that I went through it was to try to do as much church-related stuff as possible in order to balance out what I knew was the truth.

Almost like praying the gay away?

To an extent, yeah. Trying to figure out where I fit within the church community, it was clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to. So trying to combat that as a youngster was pretty difficult. Along with that, I was like, I just don’t feel like doing this. Like, I don’t want to be dishonest with myself.  

How old were you when you came to that realization?

When I was in high school, I had a traumatic experience with one of the students that I was teaching in bible study, actually. Her older sister was out and masculine-presenting and she invited her to come to church. And the day that her sister came was the day the bishop of the church decided to do an anti-gay sermon. It was very terrible to see a child, like an eleven-year- old, come to terms with the fact that this place was no longer safe for someone she cared about.

Would you say the influence of the church is still in your music?

That’s where all of my vocal training came from. I kind of have a theory about the intersection of secular and sacred music. I think because the Christian church was a little more ubiquitous in the past 200 years, you couldn’t really have soul music without gospel music, you couldn’t really have R&B music without gospel music, and in contemporary terms, you can’t really have hip-hop without gospel music either.

How did growing up in two worlds -- living in a predominantly black neighborhood and attending a predominantly white magnet school -- affect your approach to music?

I was exposed to a lot of music I otherwise would not have been into. During my middle school years, the emo pop-punk moment.

Who were you listening to?

Paramore was life. Panic! At The Disco. Fall Out Boy was another big favorite of mine.

I saw on Twitter that Mac Miller had a big influence on you.

The week after my 18th birthday, I went to Mac Miller’s show in Charlotte and the person who was opening for him was Rapsody. They all stuck around after the show. At that point Nicki Minaj was still on her come-up, not at peak Nicki form. So I was like, damn, a black female rapper. I already felt like damn, if Mac Miller can do this I can probably make this work somehow. Seeing Rapsody, I was like, this is 100 percent a feasible career path. I started working for her street team.

What I’m gleaning from the multitude of stories about Mac was that Mac was truly a connector. He bridged generations, he bridged niches in hip-hop, he bridged subgenres. He bridged very real, loving connections with people. And, for me, he is literally damn near the difference between me becoming just about anything else than pursuing music.

How did you find out he died?

I found out he had passed via Twitter. It is also fucking annoying and really hurtful to find out that type of thing unexpectedly via the internet. I think because he felt more intimate and closer to me than any celebrity, I wish I would’ve found out from someone that I loved.

The song “Bloom” on the record: my friend called me while I was in Cali coming back from a show [and told me] that one of our friends had passed away. It sucked, it was terrible, it was very difficult and it still is. But because someone told me out of love, I know it felt better than if I just saw “RIP Chris” on the internet. That’s how it felt when Mac died. Like, damn, I did not want to find out like that.

Was speaking candidly about your own issues with mental health a topic you’ve always felt comfortable sharing?

It’s not something I’ve ever been ashamed of, per se. Mostly because it makes so much sense. Like, before I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, none of it made sense to me. None of how I was feeling made sense. The fact that I can put a name and put symptoms and put treatment to a problem in my life is really liberating.

You’ve said that female rappers typically get to pick between two tropes: either the over-sexualized vixen or the socially conscious lyricist.  

I think that people are lazy. I think it takes time to market someone outside of those tropes. When you’re doing something like what Tierra Whack is doing, it takes time to cultivate that niche and garden it. So it makes me happy that some people are getting away from those norms. I think it’s going to make for a lot more interesting and engaging music.

Do you feel a responsibility to disrupt that binary?

I feel like “responsibility” is a difficult question for me, because, in some ways, I feel all the responsibility to dispel something like that, and in another way, I feel I have a responsibility to just be myself -- and therefore disrupt those things. So it looks like yes, my answer is yes. And the longer answer is I’m going to be doing that anyway. I feel an obligation to be authentic and to live a life with integrity.

Check out Overgrown below: