On a playground, near a 10-foot-tall spider in New Orleans’s City Park sculpture garden, a little boy has lost his family. The sun is setting on the park’s 20,000 oak trees, and a large film crew is getting ready to shoot scenes for the upcoming movie Mr. Right, starring Anna Kendrick. At a nearby cafe, people eat powdered-sugar beignets. It’s only a Thursday, but the weekday Saints game holds most of the cafe’s attention. The little boy continues to cry.
Boyfriend, a New Orleans-based rapper who prefers not to reveal her real name, gets up from her decaf cafe au lait. As a former arts teacher, she feels compelled to help the now-hysterical young boy. She crouches down, introduces herself, and a few minutes later he’s reunited with his sister. Although she loved her job teaching five-year-olds, she recently quit. Tired of continually passing up other opportunities, Boyfriend, who counts Perez Hilton and indie sites such as Dazed Digital and Bullet as fans, chose to focus on her music career.
“I knew Boyfriend would never really have its chance unless it became my bread-and-butter,” she says. “That’s the thing that lights a fire under your ass.”
It’s taken the rapper, who openly identifies as pansexual, her whole life to feel confident in her skin. As a former Church of Christ member, she grew up feeling shameful of her body and sexuality. Over the past couple years, she’s channeled this frustration into her music, which she calls “rap-cabaret” because of her focus on performance. Her hustle has started to pay off and she started a 14-date national tour in early November.
Boyfriend, 26, says she often had nightmares that her students would find her website boyfriend69.com, which links to videos of her not-even-close-to-G-rated music. On “Like My Hand Did,” a track essentially about female orgasms, she raps, “I need a Facebook slut/ a Kappa, Kappa c*nt.” For such songs, she pairs raunchy lyrics with vivid imagery. In the video for “Jealousy,” she chews on a cigar while watching a bikini-clad woman work a stripper pole.
“Boyfriend is the next bitch,” she says. “Boyfriend is like if Lady Gaga was my babysitter, and now I’m making it on my own.”
As a child, she attended the Church of Christ, a very conservative sect of Christianity. During church camp in the summer, the boys and girls had separate swim times, and they weren’t allowed to see each other in bathing suits. One time at a church service, an elder’s wife considered her shirt too skimpy and told her to cover up. As well as weekly church services, Boyfriend—who shares a birthday with Madonna—went to a private, Christian school.
“My family and I didn’t really talk about religion,” she says. “I was able to be artistic at home, but at church and school it was very much not allowed. Known for its strict doctrine, the Church of Christ doesn’t allow the use of musical instruments during church services and looks down on “modern dancing.”
During her junior year in high school, she transferred from her private school, where students got kicked out for such offenses as being “sexual deviants,” to a public school in downtown Nashville. But she still felt the effects of the church.
“I was super into God,” she says. “I felt shameful whenever someone pointed out my body.”
Before moving to New Orleans, she lived in Los Angeles where she worked on her production skills. Throughout 2013, she released one song and video each month, plus a Christmas collaboration with Sex Party, a duo of rappers/producers.
Three years ago, she moved to New Orleans, where, she says, she encountered a great culture of indulgence. In the city, she soon found her rap persona. Boyfriend emerged from the quicksand of her previous life to rap the “Jealousy” lines: “Cause you got them parts I understand/let me find out what I can with my hand/Girl, let me get to know you.”
As a sex-positive, white, female rapper, she feels she might not easily gain respect in the music industry, because people may initially think she’s a poser or fake. In speaking of Iggy Azalea, a superstar who often gets criticized for cultural appropriation, Boyfriend says the question of authenticity is always there whether the rapper is white or rich.
“I read articles that say ‘here’s another white girl joining in on the dance party on the grave of hip hop,” she says. “One thing I do to respect the people who want to keep hip hop ‘sacred’ is refer to myself as rap-cabaret.”
“Rap people are wolves in the night, because everybody’s got absurdly outside egos,” #FFFFFF of Sex Party says. “Boyfriend’s not exactly like that—she’s great. Her whole act is fantastic.”
Her music, such as “Swanky” and “Hunch n Munch,” often features sexually explicit content. But on a second and third listen, they offer a deeper message than just sex and alcohol are fun. She says she uses rap as a way to start a conversations about art, identity, and social commentary.
“If you’re not listening to the words, you’re missing Boyfriend,” she says. “It’s not dance music or put it on in your car and smoke a blunt music.”
A self-proclaimed “musical theater nerd,” she defines “rap-cabaret” as asking her audience for the same suspension of belief as they’d take to the theater. Her art, she says, is her digesting the media she’s consuming and processing the internet.
One of her reasons for entering hip hop, she says, is because people approach the genre with many opinions. She views music and pop culture as a resource for people to figure out where we are as a society. In her newest EP Love Your Boyfriend, she takes the messaging of love songs and places it in an abrasive, sonic package. One song interweaves adult themes into nursery rhyme cadence. The mixing of mature and innocent can make people uncomfortable, which is often what Boyfriend wants.
Sex Party’s #FFFFF says Boyfriend’s new music is moving in a more cohesive, thematic direction.
“Boyfriend really stuck to this lovelorn, lovesick girl thing for this [album],” he says. “It’s a brilliant turn away from what you’re generally hearing in hip hop, which is bombast and over-statement.”
Music and live shows, she says, allow people to talk about the product as art instead of an accurate representation of reality. On stage, she’s been known to grab audience members, throw candy, and deal with the loudness of drunk crowds.
“People look at her aesthetic and automatically assume what she’s going to be talking about, but you can’t pigeonhole her,” said Malibu Barbarian, a performer who has opened for Boyfriend. “When she’s on stage, she makes you pay attention, and if you don’t, you’re going to miss out.”
Boyfriend’s hoping Love Your Boyfriend will help her art reach a much wider audience.
“In the past, my goal was to have you scratch your head and then maybe nod it,” she says. “Now, the first goal is to get your head nodding.”