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Seven Weeks of Summer

At BAMS Fest, kei is poised for her hometown showcase

Hip-hop singer keiJimmy Mejia

On Aug. 11, 1973, DJ Kool Herc spun records at a Bronx party, an event widely viewed as the birth of hip-hop. In 2023, BAMS Fest, the free celebration of arts and culture that runs June 23-24 in Franklin Park, is celebrating 50 years of hip-hop with headliner Grandmaster Flash, the DJ who pioneered many of the music’s most important innovations.

Over its newly expanded two days of programming, BAMS Fest is also showcasing the future of hip-hop in Boston with sets by Nate Nics, Cake$wagg, and an artist who has had a very big two years since starting her career: kei. The Dorchester native was named New Artist of the Year at the 2022 Boston Music Awards, where she delivered an electrifying performance. She’s also put out a steady stream of tracks and videos that show her confident voice in a wide variety of contexts.


“I don’t fit myself in a box at all,” says kei. “I’m not an alternative rager artist, I’m not solely hip-hop, not solely pop, and as I develop who I am people will see that from my music and visuals.”

“There’s been this emergence of so many dope women MCs here in Boston over the past seven or eight years, but even in that category, kei sounds different than anything that Boston has heard, and that’s a really exciting thing,” says Paul Willis. A performer at the 2022 BAMS Fest, he’s now the event’s managing director. “Seeing her in these early stages reminds me of a young Missy Elliott — just somebody who’s not afraid to take creative chances in her artistry, from the beats she chooses and how she dresses, to the concepts and themes of her music videos.”

Such acclaim was far from kei’s mind when she started making music. She had grown up expressing her creative side by drawing, writing poetry, being part of her high school’s dance team, and skating at the Chez-Vous Roller Skating Rink in Dorchester Center. She mentored kids while working at local community centers. Used to always being on the go, kei felt isolated as the COVID pandemic dragged on. “I just needed something to express myself, so I would take walks around my apartment complex and try to soak up the sun, and I’d pull up YouTube beats and record voice memos of myself rapping while I was walking,” she says.


A friend encouraged her to go to The Mix Loft in Quincy, where her work with engineer Will Frenchman was “life-changing artistically because he was so engaged and involved,” she says. When those debut tracks on “baby steps” were released in July 2021, kei was surprised how people she’d never met were responding to the tracks. That same month saw her first live performance when she appeared at the Forward Future Festival in Malcolm X Park. “I always go full-throttle at anything that I’m passionate about, so I left everything on that stage,” says kei, whose affinity for all-lower case spelling was inspired in part by the Black feminist author bell hooks.

A year later kei celebrated her 22nd birthday and second release with “terrible twos.” Her first LP came on Halloween with the horror-themed “CHILD’S PLAY.” “I’ve always loved horror movies, and I wanted something that was really sonically in your face, with some aggressive trap and underground sounds. It was a project I really pushed my limits with,” she says.


Her next LP will be yet another sharp turn, where instead of a character study she’ll reveal a more personal side. “It will be called ‘growing pains.’ I think when people get to know me as me that story will resonate.”

So far this year she’s released the fun-loving “like ooo” and a collaboration with Boston veteran BoriRock called “No Handouts.” “He’s so charismatic and expressive,” says kei. “That track is important because I want to highlight the people in the city who have been doing this way longer than me that may not have gotten the recognition they deserve. And that’s what we mean by no handouts. We did this all on our own. We worked and grinded for this.”

That lack of recognition for Boston hip-hop may soon be a thing of the past. “I feel like within the music and arts space we haven’t had the resources or connections that some other cities have, but right now I see so much unity in this creative community, and as we continue to work together I see a real drastic change happening,” she says.

A key part of that heightened recognition is BAMS Fest. Besides hip-hop there will be a heavy dose of R&B, plus reggaeton, NEA Jazz Master Terri Lyne Carrington, and the Hamilton-Garrett Drumline and Youth Choir.

Willis explains that a Thursday conference and a Friday evening of performances were added to BAMS Fest this year in part “because there were almost 1,000 applications for artists to perform, and that’s just for the stages. There are vendors and small business owners that also want to participate. So an important part of our mission is to multiply the opportunities we provide, and not just in our marquee event, but also throughout the year.”



June 23-24. At Franklin Park & Playstead Field. Register for free tickets at (VIP tickets available for $175). BAMS CONX conference, June 22 at the Berklee Performance Center.

Noah Schaffer can be reached at