With public spaces restricted by COVID-19, the momentum of the Boston hip-hop and underground performance scene seemingly ground to a halt in March. This pro-Black movement of emerging musicians, interdisciplinary artists, and culture workers — lauded in the Boston media in 2019 as “a palpable surge of new artistic energy” — was suddenly threatened by quarantine. What in March crystallized as a collective lament has since broken through, however, into a rallying cry for this momentum to rise and amplify itself bolder than ever. “Times like this, it can beat you down. It’s hard,” Boston rapper Brandie Blaze says. “But there are also so many beautiful things that could come from that.”
We checked in with six of Boston’s unsigned hip-hop artists to dive into what they’ve been up to so far in 2020. Amid adverse political times, a pandemic, and the movement for Black Lives, the city’s hip-hop scene continues to embody its most beloved characteristics: inclusivity, paradigm shifts, and the insolence to be who one authentically is.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire; where there’s fire in the booth, there is Brandie Blaze. Outside her work life as a youth mentor with MissionSAFE, Blaze has made a name for herself as one of Boston’s sharpest and most diligent MCs. One of the featured artists on local anthem “She Is Boston,” Blaze released her second full-length album, “Late Bloomer,” in late 2019. Recently, Blaze was awarded a prestigious Live Arts Boston grant by the Boston Foundation to turn “Late Bloomer” into a visual album, which she will be working on in tandem with virtual performances throughout this summer.
Q. How do you describe your artistic practice?
A. My message is twofold. One is just to be yourself, and be free. But for someone like me, being a Black, plus-sized queer woman, that’s not easy. Mainstream feminism tends to center cis[gender], able-bodied, white, middle-upper class, usually straight, women. So for me, “trap feminism” is a celebration for all the girls, and all the non-binary people too. Like, you can be fat, you can be hood, you can be queer, you can be trans, you can be poor . . . you can be all those things, but your voice and your life matters.
Q. How has the quarantine affected your art?
A. The first six weeks or so . . . it was tough. I really seriously considered retiring. I had built up so much momentum, especially in 2019. That was probably among the top two experiences of my life, releasing “Late Bloomer” and performing at the Boston Music Awards. But then I got booked by The Boston Calendar for a virtual show, and then I got the LAB grant to create a visual album. Before COVID, I was booked out until December, that was all canceled, and now I’m booked out till October. So I think that’s a pretty good rebound.
Q. What does the future look like for Boston artists?
A. My mind is completely open, and this is the time for innovation. Times like this, it can beat you down. It’s hard. But there are also so many beautiful things that could come from that. I kind of think that’s the legacy of being a Black person in America. That’s just in my blood, in my ancestry. It’s being so horrifically oppressed, but creating beautiful art from that.
And now we’re at that same point again where we’re dealing with, once again, widespread protests — that hasn’t stopped, it’s nothing new. So we’re dealing with that, we’re dealing with this virus that is taking [Black and brown people] out disproportionately. We’re also finding ways to be creative and innovative and to find joy and happiness in dark places. And I feel like that’s just my legacy as a Black person. And it’s my duty to continue that, and to continue to build on that.
Dubbed “the prince” of Boston’s hip-hop scene, 19-year-old SeeFour is already aiming for the top. Moving between the Boston scene and the local community of his adopted Brockton, SeeFour has already shared the stage with big-name acts including Tyga and Jay Rock. With a 2019 Boston Music Awards nomination for “Keep Your Head Up” to his credit, SeeFour is currently working on a follow-up project to his 2018 album “Mature.” Throughout, SeeFour hasn’t abandoned his peers among Boston’s youth, continuing his extensive involvement in local change agent Center for Teen Empowerment Inc.
Q. What do you think is the future of music in Boston?
A. I think it’s going to look different, based on people already being antisocial with themselves. I’ve been inside for a while, kind of quarantining, but even during that time, I was writing, doing production, reaching out to people. So there can be a connection from inside our homes.
I’m working on a project right now called “Recovery Island.” This project is exploring the recovery of me as a human, me as a person that makes mistakes — like everybody else. Understanding that, you know, in a different artistic way that I’ve never done before. Teaming up with different producers and collabing . . . that doesn’t stop just because of the pandemic.
Q. Have you been involved with the movement for Black Lives in Boston?
A. Yes, I have. Hands down, I have been supporting this movement for a long time. My job, Teen Empowerment, we led the Boston march [on June 5] from Nubian Square to City Hall. Me and my friends have curated two in Brockton that went on as well.
I’ve really been sharing my talents too, in a way. You know, people are not performing now, so with what I do, and what I do it for — my craft, and what the cause is — they go hand in hand. At a protest, you can “perform” and either lighten up the mood or infuse the mood. So it’s been good so far. It’s definitely not the same as shows and venues, and you would want to be somewhere like Coachella right now. But different experiences translate in different ways, or unexpected ways.
No one does it quite like Oompa; the laundry list of her contributions to the hip-hop scene would fill up every coin-op laundromat the whole city over. Originally from Roxbury, Oompa went from Boston to Bucknell University, did a stint in the Boston Public Schools, and has since made her living as an independent artist. She dropped her second full-length project, “Cleo,” in 2019; the concept album told Oompa’s story in an alternate universe based on the 1993 film “Set It Off.” An auteur in her own right, Oompa also organized and hosted the inaugural Somerville Black, Brown & Queer Fest in 2019, in between a slew of gigs across New England. Now with a Live Arts Boston grant, Oompa’s got a message for her community.
Q. With the Boston performance scene at somewhat of a halt, do you feel like the momentum from 2019 has paused?
A. I think I’ve paused — I don’t think the momentum necessarily has. At the current moment, I’m very much devastated. I’m a live performance artist, that’s what I set my life’s work as. But I do believe in the city and the creatives and the talent and the minds here. As for my workflow, I’m learning more how to record and produce my own music, and also working on the score for an original film.
Q. Have you interacted with the ongoing movement for Black Lives?
A. You know, I haven’t this time around. In getting older, I’m realizing that I’ve been out in the streets protesting my whole life. My priority always, whether explicit or not, is ensuring that Black people are safe, and putting Black peoples’ liberation at the center of everything. I believe if we learn how to love Black people, it’ll teach us how to learn everyone else, I think. Now when it’s time for me to be in the streets, I will be in the streets. But on this round, I haven’t been out there.
What I will say is that I live in a constant state of rage about being Black. You know? I’m happy that other people have been ignited. I see them as my peers and my comrades. But I think that my rage isn’t new. I’ve learned to live with this rage — or this understanding, or this sadness — of what it means to be Black in America. And I’m so happy that people are joining this movement.
Q. Is your artistic practice a reflection on this state of being, or a vehicle for catharsis from it?
A. I think both. Right now, my message to folks is: If it’s tough for you right now, you’re not alone. Whether that’s the deep frustration with not knowing what’s about to happen, or not knowing how responsible or irresponsible it is to be creating and worrying about business in the face of Black people dying — I just want people to know, especially Black artists, that they’re not alone.
Dev Blair is a theater virtuoso, with their senior thesis “A Game of LIFE” in development for a feature production funded by a Live Arts Boston grant. In the past year, Boston’s self-described “trap beat tranny” also released the album “Femmetasy,” which gained love across the indigent queer youth of the city. Blair is now developing a follow-up project, “Cyberbully.”
Q. How do you put your artistic practice into words?
A. I pretty often refer to myself with the three P’s: poet, playwright, and performer. But I think that we’re kind of reaching this point where I kind of refer to myself as a “wordsmith.” If I’m not directly making something about an experience that has happened to me, or is currently happening to me, I often find myself responding to the energy that I’m experiencing and whatever comes out of that. I reach a point in my world that doesn’t make sense to me, and then I end up making art about it to try to unpack it.
Q. What are you creating now or hoping to create?
A. In the theater frame, like, she’s unemployed [laughs]. Theater’s basically dead. Right before the uprising really started popping off, I was spending my pandemic working on what I previously conceived of as an EP entitled “Cyberbully.” But it has progressed, as certain circumstances in my life involving online harassment have become very apparent again. And that’s very much as one would guess from the title “Cyberbully,” that’s very much at the heart of what’s being discussed.
For the LAB grant, the piece “A Game of LIFE” was my BFA thesis at Boston University. And it’s pretty much my answer to what would happen if theater couldn’t happen in the theater anymore, so it’s more than fortuitous timing that I finally have funding to work on that show.
Q. You co-organized the Boston Black Trans Pride March back in June. How did that feel?
A. We really focused on wanting to take back Pride, you know, for what it actually is, and we succeeded. We had about 80 people come through, from two separate marches. We shared poetry with each other, speeches were read, manifestos were presented — we had a DJ too — ultimately, all things to open our energetic doors up to healing.
Every stage, from arena to open mic, needs a host to make it special. Amanda Shea is that, and about 10 other things to boot. This Cape Cod-born, Boston-bred artist of many forms could be found, in ordinary circumstances, at nearly every open mic in the Hub. A poet and performance artist, Shea’s work has seen its own afterlife, from viral Facebook videos to multimedia explorations of identity.
Q. What is your artistic practice?
A. I feel like anything that I do hones in first on myself, and my own personal experiences, but also what I experience vicariously through others. I want to talk about identity, and culture. Also what it means to be multiracial, because I don’t think people know that part or that side of me. I think they see me initially just as being Black — I’m also Portuguese, I have this whole Portuguese culture that I’m engulfed in. But racism also exists within my own family. So I think it’s super important for me to put identity out there first.
Q. How have you interacted with the movement for Black Lives, especially given the pandemic?
A. I think between the pandemic and what’s happening now with these protests, I have turned back toward self. I have done a lot of shadow work during this time. In 2019 I was so on the go, I never really had time to reflect on how I felt about certain things.
I have gone to protests, but I’m also a single mother. And I remember when I was talking to my youngest about going to the protests, he looked at me and said, “Mom, I don’t want you to go. You see what they’re doing to us out there, I don’t want you to get hurt.” So if something was to happen to me, I don’t want my son to be out here in the world alone. And I also don’t want him in the house having this anxiety worrying about his mother out here in the streets. It’s just not fair.
Q. What are you gunning for in the future?
A. I want to break down barriers, especially for poets. I feel like with spoken-word artists, we are the godfathers and godmothers of hip-hop. A lot of influential rappers — the Tupacs and the Wales — are poets first. I want to highlight poets and spoken-word artists on the same stage as musicians.
Though Cambridge doesn’t always feel like “boogie down Boston,” local native Tashawn Taylor might change that narrative. Starting from his involvement in local effort The Hip-Hop Transformation, Taylor has since emerged as one to watch in the Boston scene. His 2019 single “Don’t Take It From Me” addressed the elephant in the room: gentrification. Fittingly, Taylor has a lot on his mind about hip-hop’s role in social transformation and culture change, and where Boston fits into this matrix.
Q. Are you a hip-hop artist who has a message, or a storyteller who uses hip-hop as a medium?
A. Sometimes I have a message in my lyrics. Sometimes I’m telling a story, and telling my story. I’ve been telling my story a lot recently, especially with “Don’t Take It From Me.” I feel like the way that I can answer this question is I tell my story through conversation, and hip-hop has always been a conversation starter for me in a lot of different ways.
Some people use music as an escape. But I want to use music as a means of confronting myself, and continuously confronting who I am.
Q. What is the connection between authenticity and artistic presence in hip-hop?
A. At the end of the day, you can rap, you can produce, you can do everything, but people want to know who you are. People want to hear you, people want to feel you, and people want to understand you. Even if they never will.
Q. If you could write a love letter to the Boston community, what would that look and sound like?
A. I would praise us for being stubborn as [expletive]. I love the community that I’m a part of. I’ve always loved Boston. The problem is, [we] gotta branch out. ‘Cause everybody loves Boston, right? — Bobby Brown, Cousin Stizz, Ed O.G., Gang Starr, you know what I’m saying? [We] love Boston because we’re sick as [expletive], we’re awesome. We’re creative, we’re fun as hell, we’re funny as hell, we take pride in the things that we do. Here in Boston, we analyze our art — we analyze ourselves, even. I feel like if I was to write a love letter to Boston, I would be like, “Listen, embody all these characteristics. That’s what people love about us!”
I just feel like if there’s one thing that I want Boston to uphold, it’s to continue to find new ways to be stubborn — continue to find new reasons to be amazing, continue to find new reasons to persevere, and to continue winning.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.