The final season of Atlanta, Donald Glover’s masterwork series, revives one of the internet’s first and most viral moments. Rapper Soulja Boy’s 2007 hit “Crank That” plays a driving role in the storyline of episode six, in which a local community is terrorized by a fictional killer who targets the creators of “Crank That” dance videos, scattered across cyberspace. The reference, ironically enough, brings back an earlier, more optimistic era of the internet. It was a time when Soulja Boy hustled his way to fame by growth-hacking his songs on LimeWire, when platforms like MySpace and YouTube connected creators and their audiences in revolutionary new ways, and when wider accessibility to the means of production and distribution shattered existing paradigms for commercial success in creative industries.
If Web2 was defined by its interactive qualities and their side effects (think: the advent of social media, the rise of misinformation, the growth of virtual influence culture and its power dynamics), then our entry into Web3 feels driven, at least in part, by a nostalgia for a time when our online lives felt “truer” and more “authentic.” One way of understanding the excitement around NFTs, for example, is as a yearning for the simplicity of the unique digital artifact, or a kind of online analog of Walter Benjamin’s auratic object. “It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function,” he writes in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) “In other words,” he explains, “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.”
I first spoke with Kilo Kish in 2018, shortly after the release of her EP, mothe, a conceptually rich, genre-defying reflection on transformation and self-actualization inspired by our complicated relationship with technological advancement. Kish told me that she’d always been fascinated by the way we use technology to communicate with one another. Looking back at her career as an independent musician, visual artist, performance artist, creative director, film director, and beyond, it’s no wonder she’s become an early adopter of Web3, releasing 75 NFTs alongside her 2022 studio album, American Gurl. It’s a space that contends with the terms and conditions of traditional art and music industry structures, and Kish is an artist concerned with finding agency and autonomy in her work, along with novel ways of building community and bringing people together.
“A part of my personality doesn’t like to do the obvious,” she says in this interview with Zora’s Head of Community Programming, the LA-based Latashá. “That’s the trickster, the little devil in me that wants to turn something on its head.” An indie rapper and visual artist who’s found success in the metaverse minting and selling NFTs, along with building Web3 educational series Zoratopia, Latashá is emblematic of how empowering Web3 can be for independent creators willing to poke and prod and turn a system on its head. Below, the two discuss the collectivizing potential of Web3, what it means to be a Black woman in institutional art spaces, and how to approach being an independent artist, from managing your own business to forging long-lasting collaborations.—Khalia Douze
Latashá Alcindor: American Gurl is another level. I’m super inspired by you and what you're bringing forward—the way you elevate art. So let’s start with the basics: Who are you and where are you from?
Kilo Kish: I’m a girl from Orlando, Florida. I make art in a bunch of different mediums. To me, they’re not really distinguishable, but I think people would say there’s music, writing, fine art, and then video installation. I’ve been doing that since I left college—exactly ten years now.
LA: Which college did you attend?
KK: FIT for textile design.
LA: You were in New York a lot. How did that scene shape your artistry and sound?
KK: I spent a lot of time going out and being around that downtown New York scene of musicians, bands, and artists, which definitely shaped my musical style. As I was trying to explore with this record, my musical style was also shaped by television and MTV culture. For people born around my time period, you have a decent understanding of all genres because they were all popular at that time, and then that meshes and infuses into who you are as a person.
LA: I feel that MTV age, where I was watching TRL [Total Request Live] and listening to all these different sounds all at once. As a Black woman, that was such a crucial time for me because it allowed me to explore sound as a child. How do you feel that sound has transcended since that time? Or do you think it even transcended at all?
KK: The way that we curate music is so different now. It lends itself to different influences and kinds of artists. Whereas before, you had to have a label to be able to be on television or be able to have these things happen.
The early 2000s have come back around so heavily. During that time period, you had the pop-punk, the rap, that traditional bubble-gummy pop down the middle, the singer-songwriter girls, and the angsty solo guitar-playing girls—it was a real mix. One of the greatest disadvantages we have as artists is the playlisting system. Like, “Oh, I want to be in the Lauryn [Hill] playlist, so I’m going to make Lauryn-like music so I can be in these playlists.” I think it really dilutes the creativity of expression.
When I first started, people were like, “Are you a cloud rapper?” I was just like, “What the fuck are these boxes?” It can be frustrating to be limited by them because it puts people in categories that they don’t need to be in.ssion and possibilities when we’re limited to these categories.
Having done art and having made a life around it for the past ten years, I realize, “Is it the pursuit actually, or is it something beyond that?” I’m realizing that it’s not the work itself that is the pursuit, but it is the understanding about self and about the world that is.
LA: Do you have a name for your sound?
KK: Pop-hop alternatronica. I made it up.
LA: I view your music as existential. I’ve never put you in a genre because it's beyond at this point. That's the future—and you've always been the future in sound and visual art. Is art your pursuit? If so, when did you realize it?
KK: When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a fashion designer. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a chef. In a way, I am both. I never really set out to be a music artist. I never sang growing up. I did a lot of writing—I really love reading and things like that. I like the exploration of it. My mom would always just be like, “If we just leave her alone with a table full of crayons and pencils, she’ll be chill and relaxed for the whole day.”
I’m learning that I’m a spongy person. A lot of times people can see things in me that I don’t necessarily see. I just tried things throughout my 20s, and I told myself that it was a pursuit. I was like, “Well I’m good at rap.” Is the pursuit becoming a musician? To what level do I care to become that or not? Having done art and having made a life around it for the past ten years, I realize, “Is it the pursuit actually, or is it something beyond that?” I’m realizing that it’s not the work itself that is the pursuit, but it is the understanding about self and about the world that is.
LA: You've always been about the being since the beginning, which is important in the music realm for women. Women artists often talk about being, but it's from the perspective of the male gaze or something of that nature. In rap and hip hop, do you feel that you've overcome that conversation because of your need to speak for yourself—the being instead of the obvious?
KK: After a while I just stopped thinking of myself like that. I knew what I was willing to do and what I wasn’t willing to do—sometimes it’s to my detriment because there are things I’m not willing to do. It would be untrue to my nature to make a song that’s about how I look.
There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s your way—that’s just not how I see the world. I look at things through introspection and huge existential leaps towards life as a whole: how I feel about my role in life and other people’s roles in my life; or even things that are completely outside of me.
A part of my personality doesn’t like to do the obvious. That’s the trickster, the little devil in me that wants to turn something on its head. I don’t ever wish that I did my career the way that somebody else did their career, but sometimes I do wish that I didn’t have so many proclivities.
LA: It should be about something beyond what the industry standards are for a female rapper. You went to FIT and you have a lot of work within museums through your multidisciplinary work—you just did that beautiful piece in Times Square. How do you navigate Blackness in art institutions?
KK: It’s fairly new for me. I don’t really know the best way to navigate it. For the longest time, I never thought about it. The Blackness component of the whole thing was more so brought to my attention through me hitting a ton of stumbling blocks along the way and being like, “How come this is so hard? I’m doing everything that I’m supposed to be doing. Why aren’t people accepting this?”
I had to personally process that things are different for Black women. It’s different when you’re going through these new spaces—whether it’s in fashion or it’s with your agents or with gatekeepers. It really took the personalized process of it for me to have more understanding and empathy for what we all have to struggle with in general. It took me actually sitting back and looking at my life. Everyone did that a little bit more throughout the pandemic. The tides are changing to, “Let’s revisit this system as a whole and dissect it.”
I remember back in the day, when me and all of my girlfriends would go out for castings, we knew that if one of us got it, then the others definitely wouldn’t get it because there was no possible way that they were going to have two Black girls. Being conditioned in that old way made me a little bit late to the new freedoms that are possible with the future—I was looking at it from an older perspective. I feel like things are better. I try to work with people that I think actually see me. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m not. Then I pivot.
What is an American girl and who gets to be one? Who gets to have that declaration of independence and freedom? Who gets to have this upward movement, this mobility, this dream? I started working within that realm.
LA: Being in Blackness is often experimenting with this space that we're in—American Gurl has a lot of that conversation implicitly. With that MTV aspect, I'm thinking how Blackness was viewed in a very specific way then: you flipped that on its head in American Gurl. It’s like a video game. Is there any correlation with American Girl dolls?
KK: No. I started writing it around 2019. I used to do a lot of work with brands and I was seeing this shift. Everything started to be about hair and race. I was like, “Is that literally all you want to talk to me about? Because there’s a lot more here that we could discuss besides how I want to do my hair.” I felt like they were completely missing the point of representation.
I was having a conversation with someone. I said “Can I literally just be an American girl?” That conversation led to the album. What is an American girl and who gets to be one? Who gets to have that declaration of independence and freedom? Who gets to have this upward movement, this mobility, this dream? I started working within that realm. American Girl dolls are a very interesting topic in general because I remember I had one growing up. There was only one Black doll when I was growing up, Addy. She was a runaway slave. I was like, “This is a lot. How is that the only doll you have?”
The title American Gurl was a big problem throughout the whole project. My management team was really thrown off, like “A Black girl making an album called American Gurl? Not Black Gurl, not Afro-American Gurl—just American Gurl?” I was really exploring that. In 2020, George Floyd and all these things happened, and I was like, “I can’t call this album this. I don’t want people to think that I’m being patriotic. This is not a patriotic record.” Then I had to do it because I thought, “This needs to be discussed. My relationship to my nation, my relationship to what I think I can have, my relationship to ideals, whether I believe that they’re possible for me—this is something that I have to do.
LA: The title’s also a reminder that we’re not a monolith. What does it mean to be American really? It’s a game to be an American. With all that happened here in that period with George Floyd, I can't imagine what it must have felt like to create this album then. Did making the album support your mental health in some ways, or has it opened up more issues?
KK: I’ll know better in a few years what the actual impacts of the record are, but so far it really feels like the end of a chapter, like a bookend. Shedding the things I wanted to shed, the things that I didn’t want to necessarily live from or through anymore, the idea of achievement, and reaching these levels—always winning, and always doing my best. I didn’t want to have that internal pressure. It’s a project that signifies a hard look at myself.
LA: You said you felt like a sponge as an artist—like we could lose ourselves. But every time I hear your work, it's like, she knows who she is. To be an artist, to know who you are, what you want, yet still ask questions and push yourself— you get something really magnificent out of it. Now Web3. It’s a really complicated place to be in right now. How do you feel about your first drop?
KK: When I first heard about Web3, people were like, “This is the perfect space for you. It’s where you need to be. It’s a mixture of all the things that you are and do.” I did one drop on Foundation when everyone was initially buzzing about it.
What I like is the community aspect. I feel a little bit lost sometimes in the Web3 conversation because I still don’t fully understand everything, but I like the earnestness of actually trying to make changes and do things in a different way. I like that boldness and I like that there are people coming together to create an alternative future overall— that’s really commendable and cool. It was tough launching into Web3. Like, [people say,] “This is a new place for you to make money,” and that’s really not the point—it’s having a new experience. It’s having autonomy.
I love doing stuff with FWB. I like that it’s smart people doing something new, discovering new spaces. The welcoming atmosphere from the little Twitter spaces and how I could communicate with artists from different places. The supportiveness is so different from the traditional music world.
LA: You've always been Web3 even before Web3 was a thing. Are you independent right now?
KK: I am. I put out music through a distribution company. I’ve done records a bunch of different ways—small labels, indie labels, et cetera. There are so many ways to put out projects.
LA: Is independence real?
KK: You can do it. Ray [Brady] and I make our albums by ourselves. I actually don’t have a team at all right now. I don’t have agents. I don’t have a manager. But I have a lawyer.
It’s not ideal. I wouldn’t say it’s the best way to do it. This is just an interim thing for me because I’m taking a little bit of a break. I think you can do it independently, but it’s a lot of work. Especially as a new artist, you’re going to have to know certain things. Publishing is technical and annoying. You don’t want to do your own publishing. And legal things—you can’t do that by yourself. The creative side, that you can do yourself. But the creative part is only going to be 30% of what your career is if you’re an independent artist. The rest of it is calls, managing a team, and being an entrepreneur. You’re a small business owner. You have to deal with finance. You have to research.
LA: If you could reimagine how your career was from the start to now, would you have done it any differently? How would you have created your team?
KK: I’ve had so many different teams throughout the years. What I learned in my 30s is that the advice that you’re getting is often not correct. People don’t know their own limitations. I don’t know my own, either. The traditional music team configuration is a lot of people: a business manager, agent, lawyer, and publicist that does music PR. You could want to be in business and you could want to make something happen as best as possible, but if you don’t actually have the network, or the know-how, or the understanding of a multi-hyphenate artist, it’s difficult. We’re trying to reinvent the wheel here.
I’m experimenting. I’m grateful to everybody that I’ve ever worked with. I don’t have any bad relationships with anybody that I’ve worked with ever. But I think I’m still somewhat stumped. What is the best way to configure a team so that I’m always able to do the things that I need to do? Is it on a case-by-case basis? Should I build teams around specific projects? Or is it having a central hub? Is it having an assistant?
LA: I have my core squad that I've always worked with visually, because that keeps everything intact—but I change my team all the time. You have to be up to the new standards in this multidisciplinary area, and people don't always have that information. It's important to understand the business of everything that we're doing and trust that the person that you're working with understands you. Is collaboration still important to you?
KK: I love collaborating. Collaborating one-on-one—not like a group of 12 people working on something. In music, I’ve collaborated with the same person for almost eight years now. I like working with these people. These people know me. They know what I’m looking for. I think that that’s always nice when you have those partnerships where you can explore things together.
LA: Do you think we ever get out of our existential crises?
KK: In a way, but they come back around. You’re learning new things. You’re hitting new levels. They each have a different problem to them that you have to solve. But every time, you come back around. My friend the other day was like, “Why don’t you go listen to yourself? Why don’t you go look at your reflections in real time? You already figured this out. Listen to your own self.”
I don’t know if you get fully healed in your lifetime. There are always new things that break your heart. There are new things that make you feel alive. You can patch one but then another opens up. That is just the nature of living. Life is to have this ebb and flow experience, exploring whatever way makes sense for you.