She calls herself Boyfriend, which is as succinct a summation as any of her mission statement: not so much bending genders as tweaking perceptions. All of them. A Tennessee expat who drifted here a few years ago, she’s a white girl who raps, a sex symbol who makes it uncomfortable, a relentlessly feminine feminist, and an image shapeshifter who exhibits a Gaga-esque ability to cloak herself in all sorts of stylistic outrageousness. She’s also got a backstory as intentionally obscure as Don Draper’s; on the eve of her first tour, OffBeat tracked her down to try and understand how New Orleans’ best new rapper is actually great EDM cabaret, albeit one led by a former grade-school teacher in Spanx.
Raised conservative Church of Christ in Nashville, Boyfriend—who seems determined to keep her real name a secret, even in the age of the internet—is the scion of an entire songwriting family, one which covered all the bases from country to pop. As a result, songs were one of the things she left behind with the church, and she started writing rhymes at home (and freestyling at parties while studying abroad, though she seems a little embarrassed by it now). Being accused of showing too much skin at summer camp had made her acutely aware for the first time of a whole new set of rules that came with puberty: “There was an inherent message: your body has power, dangerous power,” Boyfriend says now. “And those who were ‘tempting’ were to blame … It was a woman’s job to cover up and make it easy for men to resist.” Hip-hop seemed the only arena in which to explore that dynamic. “There was a wealth of words there,” she continues, “and it seemed like a more open genre, whereas singing certain words in a more traditional genre will always pigeonhole you as parody.” She hadn’t quite realized it yet, but “Boyfriend” was being born.
Post-Katrina New Orleans, as for so many visitors, was the catalyst. She took two seemingly divergent routes at the same time; by day, she served as director of “an arts education non-profit,” and by night, she went about casting off the chains of her repression. “New Orleans had a monumental effect on my sexuality,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t know a soul, so I felt beholden to no one. I took so many liberties, as if this weren’t the small town that it is. The city had to teach me to be deliberate and respectful. You can be promiscuous and respectful simultaneously, you know?”
Putting her production experience in Los Angeles’ TV industry to work for herself for once, she began developing the Boyfriend character and uploading her homemade videos to YouTube, where she attracted the attention of none other than Rusty Lazer, the highly influential local DJ who helped make Big Freedia the first natural “sissy” bounce star. In turn, he hooked her up with local glitch-hop production duo Sexparty. In true DIY style, Boyfriend agreed to swap video production duties for audio ones, and soon there were two EPs unleashed on the scene: Love Your Boyfriend 1 and 2.
(You can hear and purchase them both at boyfriend69.com.)
Whatever you call those eight songs—there’s elements of electroclash, glitch, good old Southern crunk, and straight-up club beats—it’s all a vehicle to get her character, and her message, across. For her part, and especially given her burlesque-inspired live show, Boyfriend herself refers to the experience as “rap cabaret,” dropping Bette Midler’s name as a cultural parallel: it’s not camp, but it’s definitely outrageous for a reason. Giant hair-rollers, librarian glasses, granny panties and all, it’s fourth-wave feminism you can twerk to.
“It’s not arousal—it’s engagement,” she makes clear, and it’s a direct result of her old day job. “Because I was working with kids, my listening process became a lot more active. Coming from my background, I’d hardened my consumption process to where it was almost technical. But then with the kids, I became so aware of every word I spoke … never wanting to accidentally indoctrinate them. So I started hearing music with a social sensitivity that my industry perspective hadn’t left room for.”
Hence a song like “Say You Will,” where what sounds like a simple invitation reveals itself as sexual indoctrination, all set to a “Mother, may I” cadence disturbingly reminiscent of a children’s sing-a-long. “It might as well be a young girl’s Christmas list,” is how she describes the chant, which is about getting a man and then keeping him in the world’s oldest way. “Girls are given toys of submission,” as she puts it, “and boys are given toys of power.” Then there’s “Triangle,” which flips the script by showing two women who bond through finding and seducing a man. “Lord help me if I wrote a song where a man wants to see two girls kiss,” she laughs. “Instead, it’s two girls going after the guy. They’re the ones who want the adventure.”
While Boyfriend explores some familiar R&B territory in “Man Cheatin’” and “Company Ink,” both of which seem to (almost literally) carry the scars of her experimentation, there are moments like “Lean” and “Love Means” where her libertine creation opens up and reveals a real morality, just not one tied down to an outside doctrine. Not for nothing does she cite Flannery O’Connor and Kurt Vonnegut as influences—she’s 21st century Southern Gothic, to be sure, but she’s no fool. “Prevailing depictions of love on the radio are unhealthy, and I wanted to write songs in response to that,” she claims. “My lyrics all point to the idea that sexual loyalty is our only notion of trust.”
Yet it all comes off, if you’re not paying attention, as fairly benign in the club: Iggy Azalea without the cultural thievery, Lady Gaga without the pandering, Nicki Minaj without the cartoon. This is intentional, says whoever Boyfriend is at home: “The template is a reaction to what’s out there in the everyday world—everything from music videos to commercials to things I see in line at Rouse’s. There’s definitely repression being cast off—I certainly hope that there’s someone out there who hears my music and feels less ashamed, less scared, and less dirty as a result. But it’s not about shock value so much as embracing the darkness … employing darkness as a tool for light.”
So does she finally feel that she’s in the right place now? “I guess that’s up to interpretation … OffBeat has accepted me and that’s pretty nice! And if 2015 is even a shadow of 2014, it should be a big year for me.” In her exact cultural moment, where DIY is everything, labels are increasingly inadequate, and celebrity is performance art, Boyfriend may get her wish. The formula is all there. “My goal used to be to have folks scratch their head, then hopefully be nodding it by the end of the song,” she muses. “Now I make good songs, so that folks can groove and bob their head. Then, hopefully, by the end they’ll end up scratching it, too.”