Foo Fest 2013: Medusah Black

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| An interview with Anjel Newman, a.k.a Medusah Black |

How did you come up with Medusah Black?

It’s my stage name. I went by Anjelly Nice for a long time. But around March this year, I changed it to Medusah Black, so it’s still new. Most of my stuff online is still under Anjelly Nice. Everyone still calls me that too.

 What made you want to change your name?

I started getting really fed up with the music scene out here, especially with being a female rapper. It’s really difficult because I’m one of the only ones. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’m twenty-five, so it’s been ten years of rapping, doing shows, and feeling like I’m not getting respected. And I feel like part of that is because I’m a girl in a man’s genre. I do a lot of shows and always end up getting the shitty ends of the hip hop shows. They’ll have thirty different people—and they’ll end up putting me first. Even asking me to do a show and then putting me on with thirty other people–who the hell wants to be a part of something like that? And even trying to a rock some of the bigger stages that I know I can do, I’m always getting the run around, being told that “Oh, well, in order to open up for this person, you have to talk to this person or try out for this or that”.  And I just don’t see other people having to do that.

So the Medusah thing just came from an aggressive kind of emotion. Being like, I’m gonna start letting people know that I’m here. I felt that name embodied a lot of anger and aggression. In Greek mythology, she was really fucked over pretty bad by Poseidon and males in general. And she was really misunderstood, because she was a monster. So I feel similarly, as in being a monster on the microphone and in my genre. And being female. Turning guys to stone. It all feels like it goes together. And even some of her physical attributes, like her crazy snake hair—my hair is wild. Some people don’t like that, but I do. All that big hair and misunderstood part of her resonated with me.

What other aggressive tactics have you taken in gaining that respect?

My aggression is less about the way I approach people, but more in my music. I’m not the type to be like, “I need to be on the stage now!” There are some girls who are, especially rappers. But I don’t feel like that’s the best way to get myself on stage. My aggression, I take it out on my music and I go hard on promotion, making sure that people know my name by performing at different venues. This year I made that choice to be aggressive, mixing my own music and getting it out there.

So you were Anjelly Nice for those ten years before?

Pretty much. It evolved from Anjel, to Jelly, to Anjelly Nice. I was going through an old-school kind of phase, which I still have a lot of. It was weird how it evolved. It was kind of likem “Ain’t Jelly nice?” “Nice”, like she’s nice on the mike. So that still sticks with me. And honestly, I’m not trying to get rid of it, it’s still very relevant to who I am. Medusah is more of a branding thing at this point, to make a statement, let people know who I am, and build a brand around me.

 What inspired you to begin rapping and singing?

Well, I’m not a Whitney Houston by any means. But we call it getting ‘wavy’. Max B started this style that is almost like rap singing. And it’s really pretty—not the prettiest thing, but it sounds good. I really don’t like his music, actually, it’s really violent. It’s more the sound that I like, which some of my sound comes from. I started rapping when I was thirteen, fourteen. I had always been trying to be a singer, but then I started coming to AS220 and got into spoken word. I started performing.

I never thought I’d rap on a beat. And doing spoken word, I realized I was really writing raps. I started listening to a lot of Lauryn Hill at the time; Talib, Mos Def. My mentor at the time was David Gonzalez. Slowly but surely, we started putting out spoken word on beats. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we’re going to be rappers now”. It just started happening that singing and spoken word together equaled rap in a kind of way. It was really organic. I never thought I was going to be a full-blown rapper; I was always in that middle ground. But eventually it just turned into that, more or less.

Are you from Providence originally?

No, I was born in L.A. But I moved within a year. My mom is from Cranston, so I grew up there. My house is in Cranston, five minutes down the street from Providence. My afterschool, my friends, my family were in Providence. Cranston was more where I was at for school and my house, but as soon as I was done I would be at Broad Street Studio when it was located over there. All my close relationships have been with people from the city. I guess I’m from both in a way.

So you first got involved with AS220 through the Broad Street Studio?

Yes.

And now you’re the Performance Coordinator at the Youth Program.

Yes, for the last four years. So yeah, I’m the director of ZuKrewe, and everything else in the music program. We’re switching some new stuff over the next few months. But for the past four years I’ve been managing the classes and everything.

How’s that been?

It’s awesome. It’s everything I love to do. I’m just the type of person where I’m all over the place with music. I love to sing, rap, dance, make beats, engineer. So within here I’m able to flex all of that, and teach all the stuff I know to different people and learn a ton of stuff from the young people here and other instructors. It’s awesome.

 Do you have a lot of time to challenge yourself artistically?

I don’t know if I’d say a lot of time. I’ve had had a good amount of time in AS220, because I really did grow up in here. I had a lot of time to learn—everything I’ve learned musically has been from here. I’ve never been to school for anything. My personal life is hard, I’ve got two kids and managing all my own bills, so trying to do my own bills outside of work is a struggle. But music happens, though more at nighttime now.

 What would you improve about AS220?

Definitely the diversity. It’s the biggest weight on my shoulders right now. And probably more space. More space for everything that we want to be able to do—like a recording studio especially for the Youth Studio. The ASCAP/BMI ban. While I understand it, I don’t like it. I want to be able to play the music we want to play. I want to be able to host events here that are marketable to other promoters. Right now I don’t think it is but I think it could be. I feel like it would bring more revenue and crowds of people.

 What inspires what you sing and rap about?

It’s more just life experience. I try to give the audience a 360 view of who I am. I’m not always politically correct. I’m not always happy, not always power to the people. Some people think all my music is like that—and a lot of it is, because that’s my personality. But I do have songs like, “Fuck guys, I hate them! They drive me crazy!” And I do have songs that are more commercial that are about love, about black culture, and trying to bring people together. Motherhood is a huge topic, because that’s consumed my life since I was 15. It’s mostly about love, motherhood. Oh, and wack MCs. I get so disgusted by where hip hop is at nowadays.

We’ve found a way to compromise without compromising our beliefs. And I feel like other people could do the same thing.

What are your main issues with the hip hop industry?

Oh my God, where do I start? A lot of my frustration used to be with the actual rappers. But getting older, you see that the problem is bigger than them. It’s not just hip hop that is the issue right now. It’s the messages that they’re sending our kids. That having a lot of money, having a gun, is the thing to do. That you have to smoke weed to be in a good state of mind. That every woman is a bitch, except for their moms. An eye for an eye, you take one of mine, I’ll take one of yours, kind of thing. I understand a lot of these rappers are coming from a place that is very much survival-of-the-fittest, but the message that is getting to our kids who are between ten and fifteen years old is that this is what a man is. A lot of them don’t have males in their daily lives, and it’s just sad that that’s the message they’re getting when they listen to music to get information on what a real man is. But it’s more than just hip hop. American culture in general is saturated in violence, sex, and drugs, whether it’s the movies, video games, or music. It’s in the fabric of who we are.

The problem with hip hop is that it resonates with kids of color faster and in deeper ways. They can watch a movie with Bruce Willis and he’s shooting up people, and in their minds, they understand that that’s not real. But when you have someone talking about it on a beat, who looks just like them, who’s from the same place as them, and they’re saying that it’s real, that that’s what they’re really about, whether they are or they aren’t—the kid thinks that that’s what they’re about. And that they should be about that. They [hip hop artists] don’t realize what they’re doing to our generation. A lot of them don’t even own the rights to their own music, so I feel like there’s a bigger force, even beyond the record label, that “This is what’s hot, this is what sells, this is what we need you to talk about.” It’s just bad. I don’t like it. I like the beats. The messages suck.

Do you feel like there’s a lot of pressure to compromise as a hip hop artist?

I think so. Even in the ZuKrewe, for instance, we know that if it were up to me, we’d be making music that has really strong, potent messages. But at the same time, if we do that the same old way where people are making positive music, no one’s going to want to hear it. Not even the kids within ZuKrewe want to hear it, or be a part of it! So there’s a compromise that I have to make as a director, and that they have to make. And it’s about finding that balance between something meaningful, but dressing it up so people might not even know that they’re hearing something positive. People seem so turned off by hearing anything that’s good for them. So we do a lot of work to find the right beats that are really hard and aggressive and that we know people are gonna turn up to. And we make sure the hooks are hot and they’re catchy. And in the skits, or the samples, we try to slip in subliminal positive messages, so people don’t even realize that they’re learning, realizing it.

 For example, I just mixed this track called “Scary Sight” that Jason and Shannon did. It’s super aggressive, borderline scary, and almost sounds violent. But their message in it is really talking about what’s going on in the street right now, and how it’s a scary sight to see someone walk by themselves because at any moment, somebody could spray the block. Or there could be a shootout. And we put this skit by it of a preacher from the nation of Islam. He’s talking about black on black crime, and how back in the day it would be a white man exploiting us, killing us, raping our women; but nowadays we’re doing it to each other, so we’re in no better position. So we threaded that speech in between their verses and the hooks. It’s really deep, but if we perform that track at the show, people are still gonna bang out to it because it’s knockin’. It’s got that vibe that people want. Like a raw, violent vibe. Still we’re saying something that’s so true and meaningful. I feel like we’ve found a way to compromise without compromising our beliefs. And I feel like other people could do the same thing.

In your experience, how does the hip hop scene in Providence compare to the industry as a whole?

I feel like it’s actually pretty good in Providence. There are a lot of great people in Providence. I just hate the way the industry works. A lot of my music was really focused on that a couple years ago. But I just got to a point where I realized I couldn’t change it and all I could do was focus on myself and the people here. So I’m done complaining about music, about other people, and I’m more into writing about what I’m going through personally, what I see around me. Making good music, that’s the biggest thing. I think a lot of times I used to get stuck in trying to say something. But sometimes for people like that, including myself, you lose sight of making good music.

What is good music to you?

Good music to me is anything that can make people feel good. Like summertime cookout music. Family reunion, soul kind of stuff. I guess it depends on which culture you’re in. But in my family, we’re big on R&B and soul, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, Floetry. People like that. But I like music that you can cry to, too. Going through a lot of heartache, I like that rainy day, Monica, just-one-of-those-days music. Where you can put it on if you’ve had a breakup, really just cry or meditate on it.

A lot of people say that they can just zone out to my music. I like that trippy kind of zone-out, lighter music. You can put it on in your car or on a rainy day. It’s weird; my music is all over the place. Also anything with a lot of bass that can make you feel some sort of really raw emotion. Not too much anger though, it’s not really about that.

I know what you mean; it’s like when you listen to a song that just takes you into a different plane.

Yes! It’s really like that. It’s just going to a different dimension with it. I just want my music to help people get away, almost like a state of meditation.

I feel like who I’m naturally starting to write for is young girls. Especially girls who have had a rough coming-up. Girls who are going through some rough stuff where the world’s telling them, ‘You’re not right.’ I feel like I can relate to them a lot.

Would you say you write for any audience in particular?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I feel like who I’m naturally starting to write for is young girls. Especially girls who have had a rough coming-up. And girls who are maybe a little tomboy-ish, or just misunderstood. I’ve met so many girls who want to rap but have been told by people that that’s just not ladylike. Or I’ve met girls who have nothing to do with music, but maybe because their hair is really coarse and nappy or big, their moms make them straighten their hair, relax it, put harsh chemicals in it. I feel like I’m making music for them. Girls who have low self-esteem, or who are going through some rough stuff where the world’s telling them, ‘You’re not right.’ I feel like I can relate to them a lot, so I try to talk to them in my music.

So in your promotional strategies, do you target these young girls specifically?

I don’t really have any strategies! A lot of people who listen to my music are kids who come through here. I’ve found that a lot of young girls from the program listen to my music, just because they’re friends and they’re around here all the time.

It’s really difficult because I haven’t found a way to promote my music other than collaborating with people. That’s a great way of letting people know who you are, by asking them to do a song with you. Also shows: most of the shows that I do are really underground hip hop kind of things. But I’ve been doing more with the soul poetry kind of vibe.

Can you explain what soul poetry is and how it influences you?

I did this show at The Apartment, and the show was called La Soul Renaissance. My friend Erik Andrade runs that. The whole night was a mix of spoken word artists and hip hoppers and soul singers who had a real power-to-the-people kind of message in their songs. The focus was less on the beats and more on the lyrics. It was really chill; a lot of people were there to hear something good and uplifting. A lot of people talking about uplifting the culture, leaving everyone feeling good and unified. So I guess a lot of my music nowadays seems to just vibe with that atmosphere more.

 Do you have a favorite spoken word poet?

I don’t listen to enough spoken word poetry to have a favorite, but this one woman got me inspired to keep going with spoken word poetry: Dana Gilmore. Def Jam poetry. She did this track called “Wife, Woman, and Friend”. She just ripped it. She was basically rapping! She killed it, without a beat. I like her a lot. There’s also Shihan the poet. But honestly, I listen to people out here. I listen to Erik Andrade, who I told you about. He’s an amazing poet, he’s one of my good friends I love listening to him. This girl, J9, from a group called Isis Storm, did this track called “That Man”. Jared Paul’s another one. He used to run poetry slam down here for a long time, when I was younger.

Would you say Providence has a vibrant poetry scene?

I would think so. The stuff I’ve heard here is great. And I know a lot of spoken word artists along the way. I’m more in the hip hop scene but it seems like the spoken word scene is really poppin’.

As Medusah Black, have you released a new album?

I haven’t under that name. I released a mixtape last year called My Bipolar Beauty. Twenty-one tracks that I recorded and mixed myself. I took it offline because I didn’t like how the mixes sounded after learning more. I just like doing everything myself. I don’t like relying on people – it’s kind of just a pride thing.

Again, just being a girl in hip hop, I feel like I constantly have to prove myself and be able to do anything and everything the guys can do but better. I know I can learn it myself. My mom’s the type who fixes cars, does roofs, does tile. And I’m like, if my mom can do that, I can mix down a song.

 I’m going to release an album called Solar System, by October. That’s pretty much done. I’m putting final touches on that, doing a couple videos for it. It’s coming along.

When did you first start doing your own mixing?

It came out of me working here. We had one studio engineer and a ton of kids who wanted to record. He didn’t have enough time to record and mix all of them. So I filled in, I just said, “I’ll learn this shit”, because we didn’t have enough to pay anyone else. So I learned it and just became infatuated with it. And then I realized I didn’t have to wait to go to the studio, and the light clicked: “I don’t have to pay, or wait. I’m going to learn this, right now.” I sucked at first. Then I started getting better and better and better, and I said, well I’m going to put out my own mixtape!

I like working by myself in the studio because I’m able to build my ideas in here. I’m a perfectionist; I want it to sound the way I want it to sound. Even if it doesn’t sound perfect to anyone else, but it sounds good to me, I’m all set. Last two years I’ve been into mixing heavy.

So what should we look forward to from you as a solo artist?

As a solo artist? I just finished with Waasawki Music Group. It stands for “We Are All Skilled And we Know It.” And the plan is just to make really great music, make some music videos, start doing more shows out of state, and really just go with this Medusah Black brand. I’m not too focused on getting into the music industry or anything. I’m going to go to school and get my degree in education and do music on the side. I don’t know where it’s going to take me. It’s just important, I have to do it, I love it. But I really don’t know where I want to go with it, I’m just going to do it.

The biggest thing that I’m going through personally right now…my whole life I was focused on how to get into the music industry, how to get into the game. And I’m at a point in my life right now where I’m realizing it’s not everything that I thought it was. I’m coming to terms with what music for me could look like outside of that glamorous lifestyle. So my next step is trying to figure out how to make a decent living off of making music. Realistic living. Not the fake glamour the TV tries to press on you. But I’m more interested in teaching kids right now. It’s almost better than performing. I love it. I used to have more fun being on stage and making my own music, but now I have more fun helping kids make their own music and getting them onstage. It’s probably because I’m twenty-five now, getting a little older, but I love helping them. I’d rather work with ZuKrewe than work on my own music.

And what are we looking at for Foo Fest?

Well I’m going to have some features come up there with me, like Big Flizz; Mayhem of EMS, who manages me; Waasawki Music Group, and Chris da Great is going to come up there. I’m really excited. But I’m nervous. I’ve never done a big outdoor festival on my own. I’ve gone up with ZuKrewe, but never by myself, so it’s going to be different. This crowd’s different. I don’t know if they’ll like me…but I’ll make them like me!

When you perform, do you feel like you need to get into a different mental space? How do you get pumped up?

No not really. I like seeing everyone go before me because it gets you really inspired. And talking to people in the crowd beforehand. But once I hear that bass, those speakers, I’m ready to go.