On the evening of September 7, Kamaiyah, the 24-year-old rising Bay Area rapper, opened New York University's Mystery Concert. She walked onstage wearing a red, green, and beige camouflage Adidas jacket, matching sweatpants, and gold grills. The Cali-flavored, 90s R&B inspired beat of her newest track, "How You Want It," dropped, and she spit: "2016 I'm the, I'm the / I tell 'em 2016, I'm the, I'm the / I tell 'em 2016, I'm the West Coast queen / Till I'm 26 clean." She swaggered under the stage's purple florescent lights and turned autobiographical: "East Oakland Gs till I die, I will bang it / Ice-street queen, bitch, my name's on the pavement."
Until January, Kamaiyah was a relatively unknown aspiring rapper, holding down three security jobs. She poured all her paychecks into studio time and videos for herself and the rap group the Big Money Gang. "He kidnapped me, so I couldn't go back to work," she told me, swinging her micro-braids toward her manager, Francois Wiley, as the three of us ate lunch on the day of the NYU show. "I grew up in Oakland, too," said Wiley, who first came across Kamaiyah's music on Twitter. "When I heard her, I knew we had to move on her fast." He paused and said, "When I actually met her, she was wearing her uniform! I told her she had to quit."
Last November, Wiley went to Oakland for Thanksgiving to see his family and meet the rapper for the first time in person. Eight days later, he invited Kamaiyah to come back to Los Angeles with him for a recording session. She agreed, only if he would fly her down during the week, so she could be back in Oakland to work her weekend security shifts.
"I got in the studio, and I recorded all night," she said. Looking down at the Moroccan tagine she ordered, in her characteristically low voice, she explained that even after a record deal was imminent she refused to quit her day job. "I was scared. I was like, I don't know what's going to happen, and we were going back-and-forth with labels trying to figure out what I wanted to do," she said. Kamaiyah, who played SXSW in March and was fresh from FYF Fest in Los Angeles when we met, was rightfully concerned about deciding which label to call home. "I didn't want anyone to come in and package me. Even with getting my deal now, they don't too much tell me what to do," she said of the contract she signed with Interscope Records, shortly after meeting Wiley. "I tell them what to do. I am like, I came to you guys how I was. The package is already there. You just need to sell the package."
One of the eight tracks she recorded during the initial meeting with Wiley is the currently charting YG Still Brazy single "Why You Always Hatin?," a collaboration that also features Drake. Kamaiyah told me she had initially recorded the track solo because, "I was tired of people hating on me." A month after her first session in Los Angeles, she quit her jobs and moved there to focus on making music.
"I want to become something and actually live my life. When I die, I want to be like, I done did everything that I wanted to do. I don't want to die early because I am in the wrong place at the wrong time." —Kamaiyah
The MC was born Kamaiyah Jamesha Johnson on March 13, 1992, in East Oakland, a predominantly black working-class area. She refers to her experiences in the neighborhood as "a typical ghetto story." When Kamaiyah was five, she was put in foster care because her mother was abusive. By seven years old, Kamaiyah and her two older brothers were living permanently with her grandmother. She told me her father was always in jail, and when she was ten years old, she discovered he was addicted to crack. "He had a reaction and started tripping out and shit," she recalled, looking as if she still can't believe it. "I was like, What the hell is wrong with him?" she said. The experience has stuck with the Oakland newcomer; unlike some rappers who glorify selling and using cocaine, molly, and other pills, Kamaiyah's feel-good lyrics on tracks like "I'm on" and "Mo Money Mo Problems," for instance, veer away from the escapism of drugs.
Sitting in the restaurant in SoHo, I noticed the half sleeve on the artist's right arm includes a tattoo of Susie Carmichael, the precocious toddler from the 90s Nickelodeon series Rugrats. "I always liked Susie because she was the intelligent one," Kamaiyah said. "You only saw Susie if she was in the library or giving them game on how to get away from Angelica." A couple of seconds later, she added, "The Rugrats is one of my favorite shows because as a kid it taught me how to be strong, resilient, and not afraid. There was a message on that cartoon."
Another message Kamaiyah took to heart came when she was 14 years old. A kid she had grown up with and admired, Ronald Hall, a basketball star and straight-A student on his way to college on a sports scholarship, was shot in the head when someone opened fire on April, 17, 2006, outside a Bay Area club. "Man, it was sad, and it hit me kind of hard," she told me. "He was the first person I knew who died," she said, quietly. "For me, it was like, I gotta get the fuck out of here. It's like at any given time it can be you. It doesn't matter who you are—you could be the mailman, and someone decides to do a drive-by, and you are delivering mail and you are dead just because of the area you are in." Her words picking up speed, she declared, "I don't want to die like that. I want to become something and actually live my life. When I die, I want to be like, I done did everything that I wanted to do." Repeating herself, she said, "I don't want to die early because I am in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Kamaiyah first became interested in music when she was eight years old and saw the video for Bow Wow's "Bow Wow (That My Name)," featuring West Coast rap legend, Snoop Dogg. "It inspired me like, If he a kid, I'm a kid, so if he could do it, I could too. That's the first time I sat down and actually tried to write. Once I realized it rhymed and made sense, I never stopped." For many of her teen years, she said she experimented with her look and sound. She started the local crew Big Money Gang with rappers Joe Banguh, HottBoy Zay (now known as Zay' M), and the Baybee. A 2013 release called "All I Think About," which has garnered tens of thousands of views on YouTube, features a younger Kamaiyah. She dances around in the clip, eventually delivering a lyrical flow that sounds a lot like a feminized version of Juvenile, the Cash Money Records artist.
The sound on her debut mixtape, A Good Night in the Ghetto, reflects years of perfecting her craft. The 16-track tape borrows heavily from 90s R&B and rap; it samples SWV's slow-moving "Always on My Mind" and includes a track named after Biggie's "Mo Money Mo Problems," as well as K.P. & Envyi's melodic 1998 single, "Swing My Way." "My structure is really similar to the 90s. I am essentially doing the same thing as they were doing but in 2016," said the musician. "I'm taking these old records and flipping them and putting my own style on them. That's kind of what Puffy and them were doing." The video for "How You Want It" presents her style as a cross between Missy Elliott's and TLC's. The feel-good nature of Biggie's "Juicy" inspired A Good Night's clear highlight and hit "How Does It Feel."
The project's other tracks blend funky electronic sounds with dance influences that amplify Kamaiyah's no-nonsense lyrics. "One Love" features her childhood friends, the Big Money Gang and Netta Brielle, and "Fuck It Up" sees another collaboration with YG. The most emotional track is her last, "For My Dawg," an ode to her best friend, James De'Andre Burks, who died from osteosarcoma earlier this year. The whole tape, which took Kamaiyah two weeks to record, gives off a breezy, celebratory West Coast vibe that pushes away from the harsh realities of growing up on High Street to document the good times and the riches to come. She flaunts having made it by outwitting the streets, and, on the song, "Niggas," the men life has put in her way.
"I feel like there's never been a 'me,'" she said as we wrapped up lunch. "I'm from the West Coast, and I'm a female rapper. I can't limit myself to anyone else's labels." She went on, "For me, A Good Night in the Ghetto was just about having a good time and nobody fighting or nothing. That's why the cover looks like that. Everybody is happy. I got the drink and the chips—it was a party." One that she wants to invite all of her peers to, and that doesn't appear to be anywhere close to ending. "I created this record for 18- to 25-year-olds to feel good. I feel like there is so much pressure during that time to find yourself that people don't understand it's OK to have fun and not have your shit together. I always look at my generation like, everyone want everything to come fast. But everything doesn't come fast. You have to work for it."