Culture

SPICY Q&A with Aja: Debut Album, Hip-Hop, Identity, & Rico Nasty

"I don't have dreams; I have goals. I think anything's achievable if I work hard enough."

If Aja looks at all familiar to you, it’s likely because you saw them compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race and RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars. In the short year since, Aja has established themself as the hottest rhymer on the block who often channels the flows of fellow Bed-Stuy braggadocios like Biggie and Jay-Z. As a genderqueer Black and Arab rapper, this in itself is an act of revolution. Today, just a few months after their first EP, Aja is celebrating the release of their debut album BOX Office, available now on all streaming platforms. And before the album was released to the world, I got a chance to speak with Aja right here in their home neighborhood.

As a fellow genderqueer person of color who loves rap, I just wanted to thank you for the representation that I (and so many others like me) feel watching you. 

Thank you! That really means a lot to me. For me, it’s always about my platform. People love to pin a selfish narrative on to me, but my platform is all about me giving a voice to people who come from all the different walks of life that I come from, and even more. I don’t just do my art for me; I make my art for everyone. Every move that I make is made with the intention for someone to know they have a voice. Here’s the thing: people think they don’t have a voice, and nobody needs to “awaken their voice,” nobody’s voice is louder than the other’s—it’s just whether you use it or not. 

So how did you find yourself getting into music? Did you grow up in a musical home?

I feel like music has always been in my blood; it could be because I’m a child of Santería and Palo Mayombe. Drums have always been a big part of my life and I’ve always found myself drawn to things that have to do with music. DJing, listening to music, dancing, I was in choir, I played instruments. I’ve always found myself dabbling in music and I think at the last point, the only thing left to do where I feel like I could combine all those things in a way was to produce my own content. And I’ve always been a big fan of poetry; I was very into it, especially in middle school, and I wanted to be a slam poet. Rap became a thing to me especially when Nicki Minaj came out. There was just a force of femininity that we hadn’t seen since Lil’ Kim; I was also a fan of people like Missy and Trina. I was just like, “you know what? I could do this.” That’s what really drew me to wanting to make music: the fact that it’s just always been in me. I felt like every point in my life kind of turned—no matter what—back to me making my own music.

Why was it important for you to establish yourself outside of reality television?

For me, I don’t want people to know just what they see on TV; I want people to know me as a person. I want them to get to see the depths. I want them to know more than just what has been presented and edited for the nation. I want them to see me raw. I want them to see me in my lows, my highs, my freakouts, my euphoric moments. I want people to see me as a whole. And that’s not realistically achievable through reality TV. But, through music, I get to control my narrative and I get to talk about my life and my moments. On BOX Office, when I wrote “Anarchy” especially, it was very much about my life and things that I’ve been through. I talk about my adoption, my father leaving, being racially profiled, even down to me being proud of what runs in my blood and me being proud of the household I grew up in.

Photo by Tanner Abel
Photo by Tanner Abel

One thing that has been in a constant thing in my life since I was born is the constant policing of everything: tone, race, gender—everything has just been policed so hard that sometimes it’s easy to lose who you are, and it’s easy to get confused… [On “Anarchy”] I compare America and a lot of the world and a lot of people who criticize me to being a part of this cult where everybody wants to see monotony. They want everyone to be the same, they want you to fit this mold. It’s a mold that I was never born to fit, it’s a mold that I could never possibly fit, and it’s a mold that I don’t want to fit. When I was growing up I didn’t have that sort of role model that was speaking up for the things that people are speaking up for these days. And I’m not the biggest role model by any means, for anyone or everything that I stand up for, but I definitely feel like I’m doing my job by just saying “Hey, I’m here.”

We’ve seen you bring elements of vogue to your time on TV. Were/are you involved in the ballroom scene?

I was very involved in the Kiki scene in New York when I was growing up. Being on Christopher Street and hanging out at the piers, because that’s what the gays did on the weekends. All the people I met were like “do you vogue?” and I was like, “what’s that?” At the time, it was when Leoimy [Maldonado] first came out, and I was infatuated and obsessed with her. [After All Stars 3] she told me “I saw you, I see it, and I live. We thank you for bringing that to [TV].” I think Leoimy is legendary. And she was just on Pose! Legend. Legend, legend, legend, legend. I live for her.

I gained support from other people too. Javier Ninja—he’s very known for his amazing hand performance. I spoke to him, and he was like, “You’re a Ninja. You’re an honorary Ninja.” I’ve always seen his hand performance work and it’s sick, insane, and crazy. He was in the FKA twigs “Glass & Patron” music video, and he does this move where he’s twirling a coat, and then moves it around and puts on the coat while voguing, and it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I sat in my house for like 5 hours trying to do it, and I still can’t. FKA twigs also vogues; in her concerts she is giving it. I would love to see bigger elements of vogue in the mainstream. I feel like I’m a little less connected to the Kiki scene now, but I do love to go to a ball! The balls are still underground now, and I think it preserves the culture.

When you made BOX Office, what did you want to do differently from your EP In My Feelings?

I wanted it to just speak for me as a person. I feel like I had a lot of epiphanies this year, and one of those epiphanies was me not thinking of Aja as a drag persona, but more as an extension of who I am. People still haven’t really grasped or want to grasp that concept that for me; it’s either I don’t do drag or I’m doing drag 24/7. I feel like I’m really just one person. I don’t have a persona, I’m not “in” or “out,” I don’t turn on, I don’t turn off. It’s really just, “this is me.” And I’m just expressing myself in masculine and feminine fashions. So I think that played a lot into my album because I felt more comfortable just writing, and just saying “You know what? I don’t have to exert a specific type of energy, either feminine or masculine. I can just be me.” It made the writing process a lot easier. I also tried to make sure every song had a purpose—a story that I try to tell it through weird imagery. I wanted to use crazy metaphors and euphemisms. I wanted to engage in fun wordplay. And sometimes I just wanted to shit on bitches! Sometimes I wanted to be direct, sometimes I wanted to be secretive. It’s really up to the listener to decide.

Where do you draw inspiration from as a rapper, and how has that affected the creation of your music?

I’m a very big fan of old hip hop. I’m a very big fan of Biggie. I’m a very big fan of older rappers who are still rapping like Jay-Z, and even people like Eminem. People who have always incorporated this sort of twisty funness into their lyrics where you know what they’re saying, but everything has double, triple, and quadruple meanings. I think that people who listen to BOX Office multiple times will start to catch on that there’s multiple meanings to a lot of these songs, and that these euphemisms go way beyond a first listen.

How important was it for you to represent your culture in your music?

I think through my narrative on reality television alone, a lot of people didn’t really get to know about where I was from. You see me and you think I look very racially ambiguous, so a lot of people love to assign things to me or say “you’re this” or “you’re that.” So being able to write about my culture, my beliefs, my roots, it’s very empowering for me. In “Tutankhamun,” the chorus is whispered in Arabic; it says “I am the king and the queen, I am royalty, I am the kingdom.” Queer Arab people are very underrepresented more than a lot of queer people, primarily because in places like Egypt it’s actually illegal to be queer. People die for that. It almost pains me because I will never know that experience and I will never have to live that. And I hope that song itself brings a little more awareness to queer empowerment in the Middle East and to Arab queer people, because they need that. They need that voice; they need that power. I want them to be safe, but I want them to feel like one day they will be able to fully express themselves.

With songs like “Chango” and “Brujería,” I feel like witchcraft is sort of fetishized these days, where everybody thinks they’re a witch, or they want to be a witch. But I do put my practices above almost everything in my life. I do take such pride in those parts of my roots, especially being someone who has a lot of roots that come from Africa specifically. I feel like Santería and Palo Mayombe are both very misrepresented in the media. A lot of people like to focus on what they believe are the uglier sides of these practices, but nobody wants to talk about the beautiful celebrations, the clothing, the food. Nobody wants to talk about the drums, the music, the influence that we’ve had on other cultures. Nobody wants to talk about that. Where do you think house music comes from? House music comes from those little conga drums.

I’m very proud of who I am, and I feel like the minute I started to really speak up about my identity and who I am in every aspect, a lot of people were like “Oh, really? You’re not that, you’re not black, you’re not Arab, you’re not this.” People don’t really realize that what they say doesn’t really fuck with my money, it doesn’t fuck with my family, it doesn’t fuck with me, or my friends. I talk shit all the time. That’s because I grew up in the hood. People who grew up in the hood talk shit forever. But I’m still home, chillin’, playing games, unbothered. I’m still on the road, I’m still making my investments, I’m still working, and I’m still happy—which is the most important part. And nobody’s gonna take that away from me. I worked hard to be here.

How did you want to empower queer people of color with BOX Office?

I feel like when you listen to my album, if you don’t know who I am, it’s sort of this question mark about presentation and gender, like “who is this person?” And I did that on purpose. I want people to realize that my art is my art, and my art is just art. My art is not defined by my gender, my art is not defined by my race, my ethnicity, my cultures. It’s really just defined by itself being art. It has influences from my entire life and my entire being, but if you listen to it, you realize it’s just music. There’s been this big gender enforcement on all types of music across all genres. It sort of doesn’t make sense. It’s sort of like “well the women in music should do this, and the men in music should do this.” But in reality, it’s just music.

What was it like working with other great rappers like CupcakKe and Rico Nasty on the album?

I’m very happy that they were all a part of BOX Office. It felt great to have such a heavy queer femme vibe to it, and to have such a black female presence on my album because that’s what we need and that’s my favorite part of hip hop. I can’t stop listening to Rico Nasty; she’s just mesmerizing to me. Also what I loved was when I put her on my album, I feel like I made her step out of her comfort zone a little bit. She does this metal rap thing, and I put her on what is probably the slowest track on my album [“Clowns”], but she killed it. Mark my words: Rico Nasty is going to be huge. And I believe it. She has the look, she has the good attitude, and she just has the talent, and she has a backstory.

Shea Couleé shook me when she sent me that verse [for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”] because at first I was like “Okay, where’s this whispering going?” then I was like “oh… oh!” And I felt like she singlehandedly made it the gayest song on the album, but I loved it. That song is all about black excellence. If you think about Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn, there’s not a single black person in that movie.

What’s it been like getting ready for the BOX Office tour?

We’re doing a huge release tour where we’re going to be doing some dates in America and Europe, and the official BOX Office tour starts in Australia. I want the tour to be full production, the biggest thing ever. It’s been weird booking even just a release party because people are so used to this—again—mold of “Oh, she was on Drag Race, and all the Drag Race girls do a one-woman show.” I’m also not keen on the idea of being expected to show up in a specific presentation. I feel like as an artist, whether I got my start here or there, you should be allowed to present in which way or form you want. I also don’t attest to being a drag queen because I don’t want to take away from people whose life literally is the art of drag, because I’m not invested in the art of drag. To me, the art of drag is something very beautiful and amazing. It’s just nothing that I’m not invested in anymore. And it was at some point, but now my art is really invested into music. People love to say I’m trying to be bigger than Drag Race because I think I’m better than people, and I’m like “No, I’m trying to be bigger than who I am right now.” It has nothing to do with Drag Race, it has nothing to do with other people, it has nothing to do with reality TV—this has to do with me. Me trying to outdo myself; my only competition is myself. Nobody has done what I do, and I highly doubt anybody can, because there’s only one me.

What kinds of plans do you have for after the tour?

Well I’m already thinking about my second album. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. I have songs that didn’t make it on BOX Office. Maybe they’ll see the light of day, maybe they won’t.

BOX Office is available now on all music platforms. 

Chris is a writer, plant parent, and lover of mangos from Miami, Florida. As a queer Latinx writer, Chris takes pride in highlighting subcultures that often go unseen or unheard, and giving a voice to those who often struggle to find one. Interests include yerba mate, gender fluidity, and The Legend of Zelda.