Jayy Lee is an underground female emcee out of Merced, California. Her rhyme style is a combination of spoken word poetry and underground battle rap. Lee is heavily influenced by the likes of Jean Grae, Nas, and Talib Kweli and it bleeds through in her music.
The 22-year old openly gay rapper is not afraid to rhyme about her sexuality, but her music is not defined by it. The west coast rapper with an east coast style released a collection of songs earlier this year called Scratching the Surface. She’s currently in the lab working on her follow-up project.
I spoke to Jayy Lee about her Scratching the Surface mixtape, what it’s like being a lesbian rapper in a homophobic genre, and her future goals in the music industry.
TRHH: How’d you get into Hip-Hop?
Jayy Lee: Actually I didn’t really start listening to Hip-Hop until I got into high school, so I was like 14. I used to listen to other stuff like rock, country, and jazz. I got Sirius radio and I was flipping through it and came across Nas’ One Mic and it was cool. At the time I was getting into slam poetry. I used to post my poetry online and thought I could incorporate my poetry into that type of music. I used to listen to the other type of Hip-Hop being played on the radio and it was about money and partying. I had never been exposed to intellectual or conscious Hip-Hop so I got into Nas and all of that.
TRHH: Would you say Nas is who inspired you to want to rap?
Jayy Lee: Initially because he was the first one that I heard and liked, before I didn’t like Hip-Hop. Altogether I’d say Jean Grae though. If you can’t tell I have a crush on her [laughs].
TRHH: Really? I didn’t know that.
Jayy Lee: She is so awesome! She is so smart and so witty. She raps about a lot of different things. She uses big words. I’ve learned so many words from her. Her flow is always different. She brings the heat!
TRHH: So you don’t have a physical crush on her?
Jayy Lee: It’s all the above [laughs]. It’s more mental but she can get it.
TRHH: [Laughs] OK. Hip-Hop is really homophobic. Did you have any apprehension about being an openly gay rapper?
Jayy Lee: There are a couple different things about this. One, I don’t feel like I have to be open or closeted because to me I’m obviously gay. If you look at me it’s something that people can obviously assume. I’ve got the short hair and people always call me sir at the store. When it comes to rapping and sticking up for the homosexual community at first I wouldn’t come out and say we deserve equal rights or we have people who are discriminated against. I started getting more involved in my community and at my school I’m the President of the Students Advocating for Equality club. I started getting more involved in protesting and lobbying to get certain laws passed here in California. Because of that I stopped being afraid to speak up for myself. I got more open in addressing the issue. When it came to rapping about girls or heartbreak I never felt like that was being open or closed because I don’t look at myself as a lesbian. I look at myself like, I like this person so I’m going to write about that or I’m upset with this person so I’m going to write about that. When it came to gay rights it wasn’t until earlier this year that I started addressing the issue.
TRHH: Do you worry that you’ll be viewed negatively by the industry?
Jayy Lee: Unfortunately and also to my advantage I feel like girls aren’t discriminated against as much as men are in homophobic places such as Hip-Hop. If a guy was to come and be gay he would get the backlash a lot more. I don’t feel like I’ve been discriminated against at all. Guys see me as a female spitter before they see me as a lesbian. That’s pretty cool. I think the only issue that I have is there are many rappers that are quick to say homophobic things in their music like the word ‘faggot’. I’ve been trying not to work with people who speak like that. If you’re dropping that in your music and promoting negative content, whether it’s because I’m a white female rapper or a lesbian, I try not to work with people like that.
TRHH: I was listening to your music and I thought I heard you use the ‘N-word’. Is that correct?
Jayy Lee: Yeah, I used that on one of my songs.
TRHH: Explain to me how you view that. What made you write that lyric? Why do you think that’s OK or is that different to you than somebody using the word ‘faggot’?
Jayy Lee: That’s one of my older songs and I’m embarrassed that I even used that. I associate myself with everyone and with a lot of people that I grew up with it wasn’t something you consciously thought about. I used to be the first one to crack gay jokes like, “that’s hella gay,” but even with words like that it’s nothing that I would put that into if I was talking to one of my friends. As I started going to school and getting more involved in these organizations I started to become more aware of the negative connotations of not just saying ‘faggot’ but saying ‘nigga’ or ‘that’s gay’. I could have used a different word choice if I was thinking about it consciously but it was just something that I used because I grew up with certain people in my life. I’m pretty sure that’s only song you’ll find of mine with that word in it.
TRHH: Tell me about Scratching the Surface.
Jayy Lee: It’s an unofficial mixtape that I released earlier this year. It’s just a taste of the music that I’m going to be dropping later on this year. It’s just something to give everyone a taste of what I’m going to get involved in not just music wise but on a personal level. If you listen to it there are a couple of tracks that are personal and a couple that are more storytelling. It’s like a teaser to get to know me a little bit before the actual album drops and let you know that I’m here and to stay tuned.
TRHH: You just released the video for Take Control; what’s the message behind that song?
Jayy Lee: I feel like today in Hip-Hop there are so many people coming out with the same thing. It’s all about money, partying, alcohol, sex, women, insert whatever here. There’s not a lot of content in Hip-Hop and I feel as an underground artist whose initial upbringing was through poetry there are certain artists that need to take control, not necessarily me or the guy that I did the video with. I feel like the underground as a whole needs to take control of the industry that we helped make. Back in the day you would turn on the radio and there was so much positivity and people talking about anything and now it’s watered down to the same thing over and over and over. It was just me calling out the industry I guess.
TRHH: Why do you think the industry changed?
Jayy Lee: It’s so easy to sellout. Someone will give you a record deal if you won’t dress a certain way or will dress a certain way, or if you talk about something that will sell. People will do it and it’s a great benefit but at the same time at what price?
TRHH: You don’t think some people just have a different story to tell? I think it was Persia that I interviewed recently and she was saying how she likes Waka Flocka because he’s just talking about what he knows. I’m guilty myself; I don’t always view it that way. I just see it as wack but maybe that is all that he knows is partying?
Jayy Lee: I’m not going to call anyone out or anything. I feel like there are certain things that we know so I can agree with Persia on that aspect, but speaking toward Waka Flocka Flame and all them I don’t listen to them so I can’t personally tell you all their music sounds like this or that. The rappers that I have heard that do talk about partying, women, and drugs, yeah a lot of people have experienced that but we’re still people at the end of the day. There is still more that you experience and you can write about so much more. More happens than that. You can’t tell me that you just wake up and party, fall to sleep, wake up and party again, and only do that your entire life. You can even talk about the effects of partying. I just feel like people limit themselves, especially being role models.
TRHH: Do you feel like you’re a role model?
Jayy Lee: No, I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m a role model. I don’t think anyone could ever be a 100% good role model because we’re all human but at the same time there are people that listen to you. Every day you see people walking around with Lil’ Wayne t-shirts. I just listened to Tyler, the Creator’s mixtape the other day and he’s talking about raping women and every other word was something derogatory. Last year people were talking like he was a king. It’s all negativity and there is so much more that you can rap about. There are people that take notes of how you portray yourself.
TRHH: Is there anything that you won’t rap about?
Jayy Lee: I feel like its all fair game. I rap about my life. I’ve done party songs because I do party. I rapped about the negative and the positive. I think anything that I experience is fair game.
TRHH: I’m going to do something with you that I haven’t done in a long time. If it’s OK with you I’d like to do word association. I’ll say a name and you say the first thing that comes to your mind, OK?
Jayy Lee: [Laughs] Oh geez! Alright. It might take me a second to think. You’re going to get me in trouble [laughs].
Jayy Lee: Crazy. In a good way though. He’s crazy.
TRHH: Jean Grae.
Jayy Lee: Perfection [laughs].
TRHH: Blu & Exile.
Jayy Lee: Dope.
TRHH: Wu-Tang Clan.
Jayy Lee: I just think killer bees [laughs].
TRHH: Lauryn Hill.
Jayy Lee: She’s the truth, she’s the truth.
Jayy Lee: Kind of reminds me of Blu.
Jay Lee: Poetic.
TRHH: Odd Future.
Jayy Lee: I don’t even listen to them so I couldn’t even give you a good word.
TRHH: Nicki Minaj.
Jayy Lee: Sellout. She was dope, I just think she does a lot of things she normally wouldn’t do if money wasn’t an issue.
TRHH: What are your goals in music? What do you hope to accomplish?
Jayy Lee: Honestly, it’s not like I’m trying to be Jay-Z or anything and take over the industry. I started posting my music and poetry publicly when I came across a guy’s blog years ago. A few things that he posted helped me get through some issues that I was going through at the time. Since then I’ve posted anything and everything. I’ve been an open book or an open CD. People have hit me up to say that they really relate to something or can they give my poem to who ever? When I started writing that was the worst time of my life and it turned into something positive. I feel like if I can help someone get through something when they feel like they have nothing else then I feel like that’s a job well done.
TRHH: What’s next up for you?
Jayy Lee: Right now I’m currently working on a video. It’s to an unreleased song and it should be done in a few weeks. I’m working on another mixtape with an underground producer from Germany named Ordinary Roots. It’s a collaborative effort so he’s producing the entire mixtape. I’m working on finishing the other mixtape which is a continuation of Scratching the Surface. That will hopefully be out by the end of the year.