From slam poetry to rap, Da Qween found themselves through writing
In the first installment of Aux Cord Privileges we got to know Shaina Shepherd, a powerhouse vocalist who fronted the rock group Bearaxe and is now focusing on her solo career. When we asked her who she thought more people ought to know about she raved about Da Qween.
"They are an amazing rapper, an incredible songwriter, a fabulous producer," Shepherd said. "I think that their work represents the culture nationally. And you don't see that a lot in town, where there's a connection between perspectives of Blackness in the Pacific Northwest and perspective of Blackness in other parts of the world."
Donte Johnson who goes by Da Qween is a Black, queer, and nonbinary rapper from Seattle. Their first love was slam poetry.
"My whole like, love for...art in general, came from my love of writing," Da Qween said.
They moved to Seattle from North Carolina at the end of middle school. In high school they joined Youth Speaks, a collective for youth spoken word poetry, and competed in slam poetry competitions. After high school they made it to the semi-finals of the National Poetry Slam performing “Boy of Tragedy.”
"I just love to write. It started off with me writing poems at a really young age,” they said.
Da Qween said writing has always been how they process their identity as a Black, queer and nonbinary person. They tried putting those words to music in high school, but it just didn’t click. After graduating, they took a break from slam poetry. They were tired and burnt out of the formality and structure of the competitions. Depressed and still living at home, Da Qween started freestyling – experimenting with laying their words over music.
"I remember I was just like, listening to music instrumentals...on YouTube, just like on a loop," Da Qween said. "I was like sitting alone and I'm just like freestyling to myself and I was like, okay... that was actually kind of good."
Da Qween told only a few close friends about their new hobby. And they didn’t perform in front of a crowd until Beacon Hill Block Party in 2014 at a friend’s urging. Being on stage at that Seattle music festival was a sort of “coming out” for Da Qween – as a rapper.
"In that moment, I was just like, OK, maybe I can do this. I felt like so happy and like so free," they said.
That performance helped Da Qween overcome the mental block they had that they couldn’t rap. But one thing still weighed heavily on them. And that was the thought of being an out — queer — rapper.
"My anxiety was like, really just like, OK, but like, if we really do continue down this path are you going to be comfortable with being visible in that way?"
(The video below contains explicit language.)
Their song “Fight or Flight” was a standout track on their debut album BabeSpace from 2016. In it they bring listeners into the world they experience as a Black, queer and nonbinary person. Constantly code-switching and hiding who they are out of fear of being killed.
They were afraid that by coming out they could become a target of violent attacks and hateful speech. Something that’s understandable considering the prevalence of violence against trans and nonbinary people.
"I had to really, like, sit with it for like a minute before I kept going with the writing," Da Qween said.
Because Da Qween sees writing and performing as necessary tools that allow themselves to fully process things, not writing was not an option for them. To let what others thought of them stop them from writing, felt silly.
"Yeah, you could be worried about what these people are saying or you could be worried about if people in hip-hop are going to vibe with it, but it's just like if you don't truly trust yourself and believe in yourself, then it's just like, ain't nobody else going to do it for you."
Da Qween’s second album Renaissance Bitch, released in 2019, was no longer an introduction. It was an invitation.
Sitting on a chair draped in red, Da Qween sits on their throne, legs crossed. In one hand they hold a blunt as they stare directly at you with a crown atop their head. This image is bordered by a thick gold frame. Da Qween explains that anyone can join them…they’ve just got to believe.
"Anybody could be a little royal and anybody could be a little magic. But it's just like, how much do you believe in yourself to get into the land of everything, really?"
The next artist featured in Aux Cord Privileges?
An up and coming rapper from Seattle who is only 20 years old, but blew Da Qween away with their stage presence and confidence.
"It's been a minute since I've seen a new artist in person truly blow me away and command a crowd...for like a first performance!" Da Qween said.
Stay tuned for the next Aux Cord Privileges when we interview Taye$ty.
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