Photo by Jolie Sanchez, courtesy of Lyric Michelle
Lyric Michelle has a past. It’s a winding one, something that spools out during our conversation outside of a cafe in the shadow of downtown Houston. She recalls when she got kicked out of school for a brief period of time, when she lived in her car because of a long stretch of disagreements between her family, when she dealt with an abusive boyfriend, and more. Most of this is revealed in small chunks on her upcoming debut album MissDirection, out next week. But during out conversation, she smiles, she leaves words in the air and lets their gravity drop them like a cartoon accordion.
She’s a poet at heart, and her “Directions” video, premiering today on Noisey, is about two Nigerian kids—Lyric and fellow Houston rapper Fat Tony—who were told the same things growing up about pursuing the American Dream only to stumble in figuring out what that might actually mean for this generation. Most of MissDirection, leaning on Lyric’s Chicago-meets-Houston accent and fiery delivery, is about the pursuit of personal freedom. It’s a harrowing ride that invites plenty of Houston’s emerging names, such as Kam Franklin of The Suffers, to help tell the tale. She’s nervous about it but isn’t scared at all.
When we meet, Lyric sports a towering afro and bohemian style, and she breaks the ice by talking about all of the Rocky movies—ranking which one’s the best, discussing where the series deviated from being all about the underdog to a piece of Americana, and more. “I didn’t even see that one,” she says of Rocky Balboa. “I didn’t watch Balboa or 5, but you forget he’s a good actor!” Her attitude toward the movies is telling: She’s not signing up for cyphers and fitting in to the boys club that has long been the Houston rap scene; she’s into telling stories. Not just for women but Nigerian women and Nigerian immigrants who decided that the arts was far more fulfilling than academics.
“I feel like I lost my power,” the 27-year-old says about working for someone else’s dream and subletting energy towards it. “But, I learned you can do anything you want. I know it sounds cliche or a tag line like some ABC Family shit, but you can.”
Noisey: You left Chicago at a young age, right?
Lyric Michelle: I left when I was in third grade. My mom saw a shooting in our backyard, and our house burned down. Wait, we didn’t have a house, we had a one bedroom apartment, get outta here! So, there was a fire and then there was a shooting, and it was so close. So we packed up and left. Packed everything into a Taurus and started a whole new life.
With your parents, I’m sure the transition wasn’t easy.
No, you know the Nigerian saying, “Heaven is here and America is here?” Yeah. That’s another hurdle you have to go through. Immigrant parents, they geared our whole lives, me and my brothers to getting the American Dream. Reluctantly, I looked past the American Dream and saw it was a fallacy forced by, the Illumianti or some shit. [Laughs] But I see these people who chased that dream who are in debt for the rest of their lives, and it’s all they have to own. There’s no rubric for life; nobody’s really grading you. You start hating yourself. I started hating myself.
All of these personal stories: Do you think they’re going to inspire someone else to fight their own demons?
Yes, 100 percent. At least I would hope. Because i said if I had to chance to talk to the musicians who’ve influenced me and kept me from giving up… like giving all the way up…
Wait, how many times have you literally thought that?
Too many times.
And I’m sure that tied in a lot with being called “pretty for a black girl” and whatnot…
I have a song on the project talking about that. It’s called “Berries” with Kam Franklin. But it was sixth grade, and you’re shocked that still sticks to you. Somebody said, “you’re dark” and everybody just started laughing. And how can that be an insult? That’s a fact! And I remember in third grade, my first year in Houston. It was raining. And it was pouring down and we passed these trailers and there was a gate to open so we could go in class. There was a kid, he couldn’t have been in anything but first grade or something. He turned and pointed at me and I’ll never forget this. He looked at me and said, “She’s ugly!” And everyone turned and looked and laughed. It was a low moment.
Photo by Jay Tovar, courtesy of Lyric Michelle
But now, being a black woman as you are, it’s kind of intimidating.
Right. And the funny thing is, I’ve had a guy try to hit on me while I was hosting the SCOPE Show here. He said, “Aye, what’s up baby girl?” And I said, “No.” Then later he came back with, “Oh I’m sorry ‘queen’”. [Laughs]
He went from Boosie to Common in five seconds! Does it offend you when people use “king” and “queen” like that?
It does, but not when it’s in a pandering way. Not like how he used it.
As a rapper, you hate the term female MC, right?
I hate it.
I think it was BeatKing who said that females can make it faster in Houston than males. Do you agree with it?
Hell no! And BeatKing is the homie, but I’m curious to know why he would think that. Because when’s the time a last woman from Houston who rapped “made it”? Candi Redd’s “Independent” in ’09? I think its fucked up. Because you can see BeatKing, DJ Chose, Propain, and you see these guys clique up, like a boys club. But when you see a female artist, you think it’s every woman for herself. You always hear, “who’s the female MC representing Houston?” You never hear, “who’s the male…” because no one cares! And normally here in Houston, I get billed in earlier slots. But when I’m not here, I get great slots. I had a great slot in Los Angeles performing at a Joe Budden show. Same with Montreal. Here, it’s different.
Are your parents ever going to hear MissDirection?
No. They’ve actually never been to a show. I think originally it was about their demons passed on to me but now it was me fighting my demons. They don’t know I’ve performed in Canada or LA. We don’t talk about it. As I get older, I want to mend that, especially with my mom. Cause with my family, it’s like Master of None. That second episode? Hit way too close to home. But, with everything happening with this project? It’s like my vision coming to life. It’s nerve-wrecking and exciting. Like falling.
Brandon Caldwell is a writer living in Houston. Follow him on Twitter.