6 Indie Rappers Dispel Myths About Being Independent And Explain Why They Wouldn't Have Their Careers Any Other Way
These six rappers are challenging stereotypes, busting myths and uplifting an independent movement.
June 28, 2021 at 7:38 pm
As the COVID-19 pandemic shook the entertainment industry, canceling shows and closing venues, artists of all acclaim were left to figure out how to make ends meet during a time of unparalleled uncertainty. When pandemic-related restrictions hit the independent music scene, challenging the creativity of an already stigmatized and misunderstood market, several artists not only proved their longevity but also showed the exceptional value of remaining independent in the ever-changing music business.
In celebration of Black Music Month and the perseverance of Black people everywhere, here are six indie rappers revolutionizing the independent music scene and other avenues along the way.
New Orleans native Alfred Banks began his rap career locally more than a decade ago. The high-energy performer, sneaker enthusiast and mental health advocate has performed on the bill of big-ticket shows across the country, including multiple nights opening for Tank and the Bangas and Big Freedia.
Never having signed a label deal, Banks has racked up numerous accolades, including being named a brand ambassador for Mountain Dew, Reebok, Whataburger and Durex. He was also named the face of the European campaign for Volkswagen Polo/Beats by Dre -- it's something he still considers a highlight of his career.
"It changed my life financially and it took me all over the world!" Banks told Blavity. "People still talk about it to this day."
After such success, Banks realized the relevance of remaining independent.
"I don’t have to answer to anyone when I want to make a move happen. I can just do it," he said. "That is a very underrated ability and empowers indie artists to be in control of their own decision-making."
Being independent has allowed Banks to be in total control of the music he makes, which in recent years has sought to destigmatize mental health in the Black community. He recently announced his appointment as ambassador for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
"My role as an ambassador for NAMI Is to raise awareness for mental health issues within the Black community but from a hip-hop standpoint," Banks said. "I’ve dealt with mental health on a personal level from my brother’s schizophrenia to my own bouts with depression/bipolar disorder. I want to use my platform to destigmatize mental illness and tell people that 'it’s OK to not be OK'."
Advocacy aside, Banks' music also does very well. His most recent release, One Guy Standing By Himself debuted at #4 on the iTunes rap charts.
Washington, D.C. native Sa-Roc has 13 years of independent music under her belt. Signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment, an independent hip-hop label, she recently released a star-studded album, The Sharecropper's Daughter, and a subsequent deluxe version featuring six additional tracks. Among the album's featured artists are Black Thought, Chronixx, Ledisi, Styles P, MF DOOM and Saul Williams.
As an artist who values her creative expression, remaining indie has been an obvious avenue for Sa-Roc.
"From music to art direction, I have the final say on what and how I create," Sa-Roc told Blavity. "I’m not beholden to anyone else’s vision but my own."
She further went on to say that mainstream success is quite possible for indie artists since outlets such as social media and YouTube allow independent musicians to build international fanbases.
"[Through these outlets], everyone is afforded the same level of access and have the same tools to promote their work," Sa-Roc said. "We’re seeing that artists are no longer completely reliant upon these industry machines to be successful. You can certainly have a thriving career without major label backing."
As a woman rapper, busting independent myths isn't Sa-Roc's only battle. She's also had to break down common conversations that erroneously state that women rappers aren't as good as their male counterparts.
"[I've heard] that we don’t have a place within the larger hip-hop conversation, and instead we deserve to be relegated to the 'female emcee' category," Sa-Roc said. "I fought tooth and nail for years just to finally be brought up in the same conversation as some male rappers that I was lyrically superior to -- to have the same access. We’re constantly being overlooked because of this falsehood that we don’t measure up. It’s a dated and frustrating myth that so many women rappers are dispelling on the daily."
Dispelling myths might just as well be her middle name as she expertly crafts music that transcends the independent music scene. The music video for her song “Forever” has more than 5 million views on YouTube and is her most successful song and video to date.
Brooklyn native Skyzoo said he's turned down every major music deal that's come his way. Heavily influenced by the energy of his hometown, Skyzoo began rapping at age 9 and has been professionally working as a rapper since 2006, or as he puts it,"15 years making money off of music."
"There used to be this theory that being indie means you failed at getting a major deal or you weren’t dope enough, and that’s nonsense," he told Blavity. "I’ve turned down multiple major label offers because they didn’t make sense to me at the time. I know a lot of major label artists who wish they were indie."
"Also, the idea of being indie meaning you’re broke is another myth. The splits on indie deals are 1,000 times more favorable to the artist," he shared. "Being signed to a major is a great achievement, and I’d entertain it if presented to me where it made sense, but if I stayed indie forever, I’m perfectly fine with that as well."
Like many other independent artists, creative freedom is important to Skyzoo.
"Me having creative control over what my music sounds like, the artwork, the singles chosen, the rollout, everything being of my decision solely, it’s definitely special," he said.
Although he does warn up-and-coming indie artists to be prepared to play every role in their careers.
"I’ve been in sessions recording and had to stop mid-take because the phone rings and it’s the distributor, or someone wanting an interview, or my lawyer with details on a new deal, etc. As an independent artist, you truly wear every hat," he said.
His latest project, All The Brilliant Things truly flexes his creative direction as it's a conceptual project about gentrification and cultural appropriation.
"It's about understanding what’s been done to us as a people in regards to our homes and what we’ve built and created, and figuring out ways to combat that and take it all back, piece by piece."
Maimouna "MuMu Fresh" Youssef
Grammy-nominated multi-talented musician Maimouna "MuMu Fresh" Youssef started singing at age four. By the time she was in fourth grade, her brother had gotten her into hip-hop. Now, several major moves later, she's not only an independent force to be reckoned with, but she is also a highly-celebrated, six continent touring fierce artist who's accompanied major musical acts like Erykah Badu and The Roots and performed on some huge stages, including BET's Black Girls Rock and NPR’s Tiny Desk. While the pandemic slowed her ability to perform, it did nothing to stop her from creating.
"Performing on NPR’s Tiny Desk was a game-changer for my career," Youssef told Blavity.
She's since earned her living through the use of social media outlets like YouTube and Instagram, which has allowed her widespread access to promote her music and brand. Through her role as a governor of the D.C. chapter of the Recording Academy, she recently advocated in Congress for Mechanical Licensing Collective - The MLC. The Afro-Indigenous artist has also done some recognizable voice-over work, including Ford Motor Company’s “Roll On” commercial, which celebrates women of color.
In the midst of 2020, she created “Muniversity Studies," an online music education platform to help other independent artists.
"I love educating other artists, and people in general, about the things I’ve learned along my journey," Youssef said. "The classes weren't just informative but also transformative. Many of my students were people who always wanted to do music but didn't have the support they needed."
"Some also became parents young and felt like they had to abandon their art to be ‘responsible’ parents, but due to the downtime that the pandemic offered, they decided to take a chance on themselves and study with me," she continued. "The writing sessions were therapeutic and healing for many. I felt proud to see the lives that were being positively impacted by my online university."
She said she intends to keep the program running post-pandemic, with future plans to have a brick-and-mortar space. She also has several albums ready for release that she intends to push out every six months over the next few years. Her most recent release, Queen of Culture was accompanied by a short film called Back to the Money.
St. Louis native Tef Poe, whose real name is Kareem Jackson, said he's been a revolutionary all of his life, but his social advocacy drew mainstream attention following the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The rapper immediately joined the frontlines of protests, becoming a household name in civil rights and social justice.
"In 2014, I was crowned an undefeated BET Freestyle Friday Champion," Jackson told Blavity. "That’s the same year an unarmed teenager in my neighborhood was killed by the police. His name was Michael Brown Jr. It was hard for me to be focused on recording at that same time. I left my regional tour and joined the movement."
However, his musical accolades never stopped coming.
"That makes me the only emcee in the world with this combination of academic accolades," he said.
He's also found a way to combine his advocacy with his music internationally, serving as a United States Cultural Ambassador to the country of Jordan.
"I’ve traveled to the Middle East and worked with the best Arab emcees in the region. I’ll be going to Egypt this summer."
Since joining the current civil rights movement, the Midwest artist has continued to release music, but he's also taken his civic duty a step up by being a co-creator of Hands Up United and later through his involvement with Black Men Build.
"Hands Up United is an organization me and my homies from St. Louis started together. We created a lot of community programming but Books and Breakfast was the most popular one," he said. "We had friends who died, and we know people in prison behind the Ferguson Uprising. The real story wasn’t made for TV. Today, I’m a part of something called Black Men Build. We give away free diapers to struggling parents, we put free coats on kids' backs in the winter and we clean up the community. We were also outside on the front lines of COVID giving away free masks and protective gear."
Now in conjunction with his music, the highly-lauded emcee is a part-owner and executive director of The Boycott Times, "a nonprofit publication of independent journalism and revolutionary art as well as a platform for global dissent."
"We wanted to create something fearless, so we prioritized writers with revolutionary voices. We’re a news organization with its own political agenda," he said. "We want to do to the literary journalism world what Master P was able to the music world. In a few years, we could be what VICE could be if it was run by communists, Democratic socialists, and anti-zionist- Pan Africanists."
A true balancing act of revolution, Tef Poe recently released an album, Nine, which he calls a concept album. He is also set to release another album in August.
"Over 25 mixtapes, albums, collaboration projects under my belt. I’ve recorded records with Trinidad James, Project Pat and Young Noble from Tupac’s crew the Outlawz," he said. "I’ve toured with Run The Jewels, Talib Kweli, Chino XL and Immortal Technique. I’ve opened up for Lupe Fiasco, Big Krit, Kendrick Lamar, Dead Prez, Stevie Wonder and so many more. I used to wash dishes for a living. My greatest accomplishment is using my skills to get myself out of the dish pit."
New Orleans-based 3D Na'Tee credits a promise to God for her rising independent career.
"There was a time when I was risking my freedom to survive and after a few run-ins with the law, I had one of those 'Hey God, it’s me' moments -- you know the ones where you promise God that if he gets you out of a particular situation you’ll change your whole life?" she told Blavity. "Well, leave the streets alone to focus solely on music was my promise, and that [first $100,000] marked my goal. So when I hit it, especially as an independent artist with no major label machine, management team or silent investor, it felt like confirmation that I was on the right path."
After her first $100,000, she not only continued her work making and selling her music, but she elevated her market through her website and accompanying app.
"By far, creating my website and my mobile app has changed my life money-wise," she said. "I noticed that many artists don’t have websites and mobile apps. They rely on social media as their only way to communicate with supporters but I’ve always looked at social media like rented real estate. When those platforms fizzle out, creators are forced to make a mad dash to the next 'hot' platform to maintain relevancy and hoping that their current fans follow suit. With my site and my app, my supporters always know where to find me."
In addition to her personal sites, she took it a step further last year by creating an OnlyFans page that landed on the platform's top ten percent account lists, a major feat as it is among the few in the category that boasts no nudity.
"When I created my OnlyFans page, it was because I wanted to be disruptive," she said. "At the time, OnlyFans was being used by sex workers and other content creatives to share soft porn but I knew for a fact the founders of the platform did not intend for it to be used that way. I researched the company and learned that their initial goal was to build a space where creatives could connect directly with their fans. It didn’t have to involve nudity, so I ran with that."
She's had incredible success with her music and boasts such accolades as opening up for Lauryn Hill, collaborating with and being mentored by Missy Elliott and Timbaland and an appearance on Sway in the Morning where she was paired me up with Kendrick Lamar for a one-on-one cypher. She's working on her next album, CRXWN, which will be executive produced by PJ Morton. She will also be doing a YouTube series called Monday Morning Exercises, where she'll take suggestions from fans on what mainstream beats she should remix. The interactive show will award prizes like studio equipment, personalized merchandise and more.
Outside of music, 3D Na'Tee buys and sells real estate, operates a thrift store and owns a commercial studio space called 3D Studios in New Orleans, which includes two recording studios, a podcast suite and green screen sound stage.
"I wanted to showcase what it takes to make all those things run cohesively as well as teach everything I know about the things I’ve learned, including being an independent artist."