PAPER MAGAZINE: Meet New Rising Rapper and Awful Records Signee, Tommy Genesis
Rapper Tommy Genesis playfully refers to her music on Twitter as "fetish rap." With rhymes that are heavily focused on sex and sprinkled with references to religion and a raspy, halting flow, she'll spit "fish and bread / I be looking to the heavens for my money / Fish and bread / I be walking on the water with my honeys" only to follow it up with "baby girl giving head in the water with my money." And as an openly bisexual artist, she'll drop a longing verse about a man and follow it up with another about a woman, fluidly flipping between them.
Based in Vancouver, where she was raised by her South Indian father and Scandinavian mother, it didn't take long for Tommy's music to be noticed online by Atlanta-based rapper Father. He signed her to his label, Awful, and helped produce her debut album, July's World Vision, with KeithCharles Spacebar and others (Tommy also produced some of the tracks herself). She wasted little time going back to the studio -- World Vision 2 is dropping in March, and she's already at work on World Vision 3. Add to those releases a collaborative project with Father and Awful labelmate Abra called Daughters EP, coming this year, an Asia tour in May and her official debut at SXSW this spring, Tommy Genesis is on the precipice of breaking out.
You got your start in visual art. How did you transition to hip-hop?
I went to art school for film and sculpture, and I ran a few galleries here in Vancouver, where I live. I would do performance art -- like poetry readings that were more like rap than poetry because I was never really into poetry -- or I would do really minimalist productions when I would have an art show.
When I'm here in Vancouver, I hang out with my girls, and I'll go out sometimes, but I'll usually stay home and I'll try to make music, I'll try to read, or I'm on the internet. Maybe that's how it started; I'll get bored with the city so I'll just go on the internet and get really heavy into the music or into writing, and I guess that's how the music thing started.
What was your early work like?
My first band was called Moan -- it was me and another girl -- and we would have shows in parking lots or art galleries where it was super DIY. We would make the beat the day before and it was half freestyle, and that's how it started. It took off when I started recording it and put it online around two years ago. After I did that, Fat [Father] hit me up.
How did Father find you?
I have no fucking idea. I think it was actually Dexter [the label's producer and DJ] who found me first -- I think he found my SoundCloud or my Instagram or something. I wasn't even lit on Instagram yet, they just kind of found me, and I guess they still do it that way. Basically Keith [KeithCharlesSPACEBAR], Father, and Dexter started just like creeping my shit and hitting me up. I have to say [it was] super gentlemanly -- no creepy shit, just like 'Yo, I fuck with your music, send me a beat.'
Did you take it seriously?
At the time, I was just over here in Vancouver running art galleries and kinda doing music on the side. I was also hella young; I was way too pretentious for my own good. I didn't even look into their shit, I kept doing my own stuff and ignoring my emails. Father was so persistent, though, that eventually I started sending my shit.
What's it like being part of the Awful family, now that you're in?
It literally feels like my family. I love those guys and girls. There are a lot of us, but I really do fuck with everyone individually. They all have different personalities. If I'm hanging out with Slug [Christ], we're doing music or cuddling and watching TV. If I'm hanging out with Fat, we're drinking, we're laughing. Sometimes, he'll be working on a track and if you're there you'll just get on that track; it's just very organic. Keith is like my brother. If he's ever around I go everywhere with him. He just has the sweetest, kindest heart. There's Abra, Lord Narf, Stalin, Po, Ethereal. They all have their own thing going on, they just found each other because they're all the same spirit -- they're just all so dope. In Vancouver, I never had a community within my music like that, [so] the fact that across the world somebody just reached out and gave me a community that inspires me and helps me make doper shit is just a fucking blessing, you know?
How is the Vancouver scene different from the Atlanta scene, and how is your day-to-day life different when you're in each city?
Ohmygod. Culturally, in Canada everyone is so polite. They come across like they don't care, but it's more that we're shy. If I have a show, there will be a lot of people there, but the energy is very introverted -- [Vancouver is] a very introverted city. Someone might start dancing, but a lot of people just stand there and stare at you; it's really crazy. In Atlanta you're not alone, ever. You try to go home and write music and there's somebody hitting you up to say they're coming over. Or you go to Slug's house or Fat's house to make music and there's always someone there, so every time you meet up it's like Christmas, and that is a completely different way to make music -- and I like them both. It's really cool that I get to go Atlanta, make music, do a bunch of shit, and then come home, and be the hermit that I am and just get into tech shit and into producing. When I'm in Vancouver, I look at it as I'm regrouping, I'm refueling. When I'm in Atlanta, I don't have time to make beats or anything. I'm often just recording what I have and I'm on other people's songs.
Do you think that you can be just a one-city girl, or do you need that dichotomy?
I think that I come from a city but I don't belong to my city. I [was raised] up north with my family, and we moved to Vancouver when I was 13 or so. My dad was a substitute teacher so we moved around a lot, so I never connected with a city. So when I go to LA or Atlanta I feel at home still. Wherever I am, I feel at home.
Do you think your South Indian-Scandinavian background has a role in the fact that you don't feel connected to any one place, and you maybe feel like a citizen of the world, so to speak?
Totally. In Canada, there are a lot of mixed kids. My dad is South Indian, he's Tamil, and his side of the family is Christian. They're very religious and traditional. My mom's side of the family is Scandinavian, and she's very liberal-minded, and I think because of that, the way I was raised was like choose your own way, do whatever you want.
In Canada -- and this is also everywhere -- there are so many mixed kids. If someone else is mixed, I relate more to them. It's a new race, it's a new culture. Maybe it has nothing to do with race the way you see it, it's the way you were raised. I wasn't raised black or white, metaphorically speaking. I was raised in grey, there was no one thing.
Do you think it's getting easier to be a woman in rap?
I think it's easy to play the victim and be like "It's harder for girls to rap." When you're playing a show as a girl, it is a bit different than when a guy comes on, but I kind of like the energy. I feel empowered as a female rapping. I don't feel like I'm being repressed or constrained, [and] doing it, it gets me off. I like that feeling of "Yeah I'm a girl, yeah I made this beat, yeah I'm rapping on it. I just put out the music video that I directed and I edited." And I'm not bragging, I'm just saying it's very empowering to do something and then get a reaction.
I studied gender politics, and I've always been into gender identity. I've gone through a certain journey so it doesn't affect me if people hate on me being a girl [or] if people like that I'm a girl. I'm just being me and this is what I'm doing so I just hope that people don't put me in a box because I'm a girl. And if there is a box I'm really not aware of it.
There's a lot of reference to sex in your lyrics, but it comes across different from how a lot of other female rappers do it. While other female artists own their sexuality by mimicking men and male sexuality, it seems you address sex in a more abstract way.
Writing about sex is an easy downfall. It's easy to write a metaphor about sex and make it really explicit. And sometimes I do it, because it's catchy and that's the only word that fits, other times I do it because I'm just writing about something that happened to me, I'm writing about a dream I had or I want to trigger certain things. Sometimes I'll write something, knowing it's for a certain person to hear, like "Fuck you, now you know." I'm not just sitting down and free styling, I'm very strategic.
I think the difference is maybe that I don't really simplify the sexual notions or connotations in my rap. Sometimes they're really weird and abstract. [I'm] not saying I'll never make a track like Nicki Minaj, but where I'm at now, I have a lot of feelings. She's rapping "My anaconda don't want none" -- it's the stereotype of not having feelings, it's very colloquial and packaged for mainstream media and the feeling in it is telling girls or guys that they shouldn't have feelings, that it should just be sex, it's fun. It's a monument to just sex without feelings. It's not always like that. I'm not trying to diss mainstream media, because I listen to a lot of mainstream music. But for me everything is connected to a feeling that I'm writing about.
Your first album came out this summer, and you have another album coming out in March. Do you feel that being so prolific puts pressure on you as an artist?
A lot of people hold off on releasing things strategically. I have homies who are sitting on gold; I have a friend who has an album that he's been sitting on for six months, and I'm like "Why aren't you releasing this, the world needs to hear this." I respect that, but it doesn't work that way [for me]. Once I've made something, I want to release it so I can move on. If I'm sitting on something, I can't move on.
Do you have any fears about your career?
I think they probably have to do with the night before you release a track or an album or the few minutes before you go on stage. It's kind of scary because you always have someone that doesn't like what you're doing. Starting out, when someone says something negative about you, the first one or two hurt. I still get pretty nervous before I perform, but in a way that I kind of like it because it makes me feel like I'm doing something I've never done before, even though I've done it a hundred times. The nerves, the adrenaline, it's like you're falling. It's scary but it's what I do it all for.