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Queer hip hop performer: ‘They wanted me to change because of how I looked’

Queer hip hop performer: ‘They wanted me to change because of how I looked’

Hip hop singer and rapper Aina Brei'Yon

Although lots of gay men have been making headway in the charts of late (Troye Sivan, Adam Lambert, Olly Alexander), there remains a genre where queerness remains largely taboo: hip hop. One artist looking to redress the balance is Chicago-born Aina Brei’Yon [pronounced I-ee-na bree-yon].

Brei’Yon was raised in the Roseland area of South Chicago. She relocated to Los Angeles in 2015. She’s actually been toiling away in the business for the past couple of decades.

This has included stints with bands before deciding to go solo and take full control of her career. She’s now largely in charge of releasing her own material and coming up with the visuals. She also founded production company, 3K9 Productions.

Trying to make any headway in the music industry is a challenge. It’s even harder when you’re a black lesbian trying to build a following with your own, hard-to-categorize brand of music.

Aina Brei’Yon – Early life

Brei’Yon is no stranger to having to do things on her own. As the second youngest of ten children, she says that ‘self-expression and showing any type of emotion was simply non-existent’ within her family when younger.

Was it a case of just doing as she was told and keeping quiet?

‘It was more a case of any attention being paid to us,’ she tells me via Skype.

‘Having all of those kids and my father working so much: I think he worked three jobs at one point. We barely saw him leave in the morning and we barely saw him come in at night.

‘And then my mother, she’s a whole other story. She was still living her best life, so it wasn’t just do as you’re told and be quiet, it was more nothing really being told: us just having to figure it out.’

Aina Brei'Yon grew up in Chicago but now lives in Los Angeles
Aina Brei’Yon grew up in Chicago but now lives in Los Angeles (Photo: Supplied)

Record label woes

Fighting for attention is nothing new to Brei’Yon. Those trying to help have sometimes proved… well, unhelpful.

‘When I was with the last independent label, we had the major labels coming our way and offering deals. Conversations that I wasn’t allowed in on took place and then they were brought back to me through the label and it was pretty much they wanted me to change, because of how I looked.

‘They wanted to sell me more on the feminine side to the male audience. Rather than take me as I am.

‘That’s the reason why I separated from the last independent label because they accepted me the entire time until the deals came and then money talked more than my talent, apparently, so…’ she says with a shrug.

Now she’s forging her own path: producing and releasing her own material and resisting accommodating anyone else’s agenda. This includes defining her music, which veers between hip hop and r’n’b.

‘I write as I feel. So that’s the reason I don’t like to confine myself to a particular genre. Because one day I might like to harmonize, or the next I might want to go hard and do it in the form of hip hop or rap.’

Brei’Yon: Award nominee

It was the slow jam of 2018’s Think About Me that brought Brei’Yon attention outside the queer hip hop community. It also helped earn her a best R&B/Soul song nomination in this year’s Independent Music Awards (which took place last week in New York City).

She followed it up last December with her I Miss The Summer album. A video for the track Nostalgia was released last weekend. Last Saturday, she also put out her latest work, an EP called Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. It’s an eight-track collaboration with other female creatives, including Tracii Haze and Juno.

Brei’Yon has played at selected Pride festivals and is now gearing up for a US tour. The Black Lion Experience tour kicks off in Atlanta on 8 August and takes in nine cities.

She’s also busy keeping up with her social media. Although she appreciates it as a way to connect with her audience, she admits it’s one part of the business that doesn’t come naturally to her.

‘A lot of people would think I like attention. But I’m in a weird space when it comes to attention, so it’s hard for me to keep up with social media in the same way as everybody else.

‘They find life in social media. I find stress in social media,’ she laughs. ‘But I am working on staying on top of it, because it can be a way to stay independent and actually be extremely successful as an independent artist if you know how to finance the entire social media game.’

Social media highs and lows

Being openly gay in the music industry, in her videos and on social media is also sure to provoke the occasional negative comment. Brei’Yon wastes little energy on the haters and bigots.

‘When it comes to people leaving negative comments that aren’t constructive, that means they’re not walking in their purpose. You can only talk from the cheap seats, because you don’t know what it would be to be courageous enough to put yourself out there in front of strangers. So those people don’t count. Those people want to invite you in to their misery.’

Negative comments and the challenges of the entertainment industry do little to distract her.

‘I actually love what I do, and that makes a big difference. When you’re happy just writing music, and you hear music, it does something for your soul. That separates me from a lot of people who are just doing it to make money or doing it for fame, so they have to find something that motivates them to keep them going.

‘Me, I just love doing music, so I don’t need to find anything to keep me focused and motivated.’

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun is out now on iTunes and streaming on Spotify and other services.
More info at Follow Aina on Instagram @Ainabreiyon and Facebook.

See also

21 non-binary artists who are helping redefine the idea of gender

Singer Kat Cunning on embracing the word ‘queer’