Genesis Be has had activism pumping through her veins for as long as she can remember. Growing up in Biloxi, Mississippi in a religiously diverse and mixed racial family of human rights activists, she started writing poems as a child and was inspired to convert them into raps after hearing Tupac Shakur‘s 1991 debut album 2Pacalypse Now. “He was speaking about things in a way that was so raw,” she told Billboard. “It was like ‘Whoa, I wish I can be that clear and articulate about the things that troubled me in my community.'”
Be began to write raps to the instrumental cassette of OutKast‘s 2013 offering “Player’s Ball” and started rapping in talent shows at 14. After her father witnessed one of her performances, he took her to a professional recording studio and she went on to release her first album at 17.
Now a Brooklyn resident and alumni of New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded music, Be continues to use rap as a platform to voice political opinions and promote social consciousness. She recently gained attention for her April 26 concert at New York’s S.O.B.’s, where she draped herself in a Confederate flag and hung a noose around her neck to protest Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s proclamation of April as Confederate Heritage Month.
For her new EP Gulf Coast Queen, Be decided to go a lighter direction with love songs and motivational themes, even dropping off her track “My GCK” on Billboard. “GCK” refers to an endearing term of Gulf Coast Kings, which Be uses as a dedication to all the young men she grew up with in the Gulf Coast region. The EP embraces her roots, serving as an ode to her fellow Coast residents, which include survivors of hurricane Katrina, poverty and emotional devastation.
Be dropped by the Billboard offices where she spoke about the EP’s inspirations, growing up in Mississippi and her intentions behind the Confederate flag protest. Check out “My GCK” and the interview below.
Billboard: Has your music always been embedded in social activism?
Genesis Be: Absolutely. My grandfather was murdered at 42 because he was mobilizing and protecting black citizens who wanted to vote, so that they weren’t killed by the KKK. My grandmother’s house still bears the bullet holes of the Ku Klux Klan shooting my father’s childhood home in Mississippi. I come from a long legacy of people fighting for human rights, not just black rights, but human rights. That’s how I grew up so it reflects in my music. It’s not all I’m about. I’m a goofy ass person if you hang out with me. I don’t go around preaching about human rights all the time. As long as I have a platform to speak and create music, and have an audience, I’m going to slip some consciousness in there wherever I can.
Growing up in Mississippi, did your views clash with others around you?
I just assumed everyone was from a free background. I came from such an atmosphere of tolerance that any time I saw any group of people being degraded it struck a chord in me. Mississippi is a very complicated place demographically and racially there’s a lot of tension — always has been. But there are a lot of Mississippians who are free thinkers and progressive, despite what the world thinks. Past and present polices would lead the world to think that all Mississippians are backwards or racists or homophobic but not all of them are. I would like to give the world an alternative view.
Is there a memory from your childhood involving the Confederate flag that has stuck with you?
I think I was in the sixth grade when they took our class to Beauvoir [the home of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis]. They took us to this museum on a field trip and in front, there was this huge Confederate flag blowing. I remember being like they really don’t either understand or care that they’re disrespecting a huge part of the population by flying this. If you want to honor your heritage and home in private, I have nothing to say against that but when you fly something that triggers something inside of your population because of the brutal past, you’re saying that you don’t care how we feel. There were relics there that were directly tied and influenced from slavery. We’re looking at these relics and looking at quotes from the founding Confederate fathers and it’s just like why would you bring us here? Not even just the black students, some of the white students, too.
What moved you to perform with a Confederate flag at your recent show in New York?
It was just a passionate reaction to governor Phil Bryant announcing April as Confederate Heritage Month. There was also a motion to remove the symbol from the state flag that was declined. The symbol still stayed, so this is an ongoing struggle and I felt very disrespected. The argument of Confederate supporters wanting to be angry at what I did, saying it disrespected the pride and dignity of their ancestors, I understand. I got that before I did it. You’re not going to budge on that, and I can not budge on the dignity and pride of my ancestors, either. Not all white Mississippians are descendants of people who owned slaves but that does not mean you didn’t benefit from the systematic oppression. I would love to see a time when both sides can come together for dialog and acknowledge the pain, the guilt, and see how to make this a more united Mississippi. Right now, it’s dividing us. I’m not flying a symbol over my state that you feel wrongly about, like you are in that privilege of power, not me. You can’t negate my views. How I feel is valid. I am an artist and I am passionate. I am going to express myself how I see fit.
How did the crowd react?
From what I saw, people loved the performance. They loved the music. I think the overall vibe was they supported it but I don’t think New Yorkers were aware that these issues or the political climate in Mississippi. It did bring some attention to that and they were like ‘Wow I didn’t even know they still have that flag in their state capital.’ I got those types of messages.
You also received threats and hate messages. How did you deal with the negativity?
The hostility was there right away. In some of the racist, sexist, homophobic comments, they’re supporting the Confederacy and saying that’s not what it’s about. So then what point are you trying to prove? I know that not all Confederate supporters are racist. A lot of them just don’t want to come to terms with what that symbol means or are uneducated about what the Confederacy was about. The supporters that hit me up were racist. Trolls are everywhere, whether you’re political or making a statement. I’d rather have trolls for doing something I believe in than just being an artist who doesn’t say or do anything progressive. I have to keep my spirit positive so that I can continue to do what I do. As a Mississippian, I had to speak on it, but moving forward now.
Your new EP seems very prideful of your home state. What was your inspiration behind it?
I love my state. I learned much of what I know from growing up there, especially the women that were around me. My mother and mentors have molded me to be strong and resilient. It’s a beautiful state. We just have to move forward and we have to stop giving the world the negative stigma. My new EP is an ode to women on the Gulf Coast and I wanted to make happier music. Music that people can make love to, dance to, make money to and something that’s just easier to listen to. It’s fun and kind of shows all women, all humans are multifaceted, including myself. Then I have the ode to my Gulf Coast kings, that I’m probably most excited about because we have to get in the habit more of celebrating our men. We come from hurricane culture and one of the poorest states in the country that effects everyone that’s part of the state. We have a lot of things we’ve had to survive and so I wanted to do a celebratory album.
Was there a particular song that was challenging?
I would say “White Lies” is the most complex song on there. It has a lot of metaphors, imagery and double entendres in that song. I’m speaking about the Religious Freedom Act in some of those lines and you would never know unless you really took the time to sit back and listen. It’s about small lies that people tell to our youth and our society that turn into bigger issues. I’m also talking about the child in me when I was growing up. If I could go back to that and redefine that time and space, I would have the strength I have now as a woman. I would be speaking on it instead of being affected by small lies, small acts of oppression and small transgressions. They snowball and have a bigger effect on people than you know, especially in adulthood.