Bed-Stuy rapper Siya has no interest in dancing around any topics, so when I begin falling backward into a question about how the Trump administration’s attacks on the LGBTQ community have impacted her as an openly gay artist, she cuts through my word salad with clinical precision.
“I’m not a fan of Trump, never will be. I think we’re stuck in the middle of his reality show and we as the audience are getting fucked with no condom and no lube,” she says. “It’s very sad that this generation is going to have to endure whatever treachery he brings to our country; fucking with him he could get us blown to smithereens.”
Siya, 30, has been rapping for two decades—yes, she was a budding rapper at ten—and developed her skill in an era when the definition of a female MC was far narrower than it is nowadays. Despite that, she’s always been Siya: never compromising her core identity while toeing the line of street-informed, hardcore tracks that blend the lyrical savvy of New York luminaries with the appealing gruffness of rappers like Dave East. Her track “My Sons,” from her album SIYAvsSIYA begins with a skit that brings the unacquainted up to speed on why “son” is the city’s go-to phrase for both one’s crew and the most effective way to talk down to someone.
While her New York roots are strong and present, Siya now refers to herself as “bicoastal.” She moved to L.A. seven years ago and also spent some time in Atlanta, but comes back to Bed-Stuy as regularly as she can, and maintains tight ties to the people she grew up around.
“It’s always love where I come from because I made it out and became something,” she explains. “There’s so much talent in my hood. Where I’m from is such a wasteland, a lot of young men don’t make it out. A lot of my friends are dead or in jail. Just to see any progression from a young black man where I’m from is a beautiful thing, so I try to help them as much as I can.”
Siya has sustained her success through not only lyrical talent, but a versatile, two-pronged sound that oscillates between grim tales of where she was raised with a more melodic palette that has grown more in vogue over the past few years. Rappers have all but killed the guest hook economy by crooning their own choruses and verses, and Siya is as capable as any artist of switching between singing and spitting. What she lacks in pure technical singing ability she more than compensates for with her staccato cadence and excellent ear for melodies. She cites Bone Thugs-n-Harmony as a major influence that helped her develop a musical cadence without compromising her rawer, Brooklyn-inspired bars.
“Nothing sounds like New York, nothing sounds like Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn where I’m from. No matter where I go, no matter where I lay my head at night, that’s not going to change me as an artist, nor is it going to change my sound,” she says.
Her gritty honest sound caught the ear of veteran singer Tank, who signed Siya to a deal on his label R&B Money after the two happened to be in the same L.A. studio. Initially Siya didn’t think much of the interaction, but she realized how genuine his interest was once she was back in New York.
“I got back to New York and he slid in my DMs on Twitter, and was like, ‘Yo, what’s going on? How you feel about moving to L.A. and working with me?’” she recounted. “I was like, ‘Fuck it.’ I literally got on the plane and moved to L.A. the next day.”
Tank also helped her land a spot on Sisterhood of Hip-Hop, the T.I.-produced Oxygen reality show that focuses on the day-to-day lives of several female rappers making their way in the music industry. According to Siya, the show is currently in “limbo,” and she isn’t sure whether there will be a fourth season. Despite the surface-level dissonance of a street savvy New York rapper appearing on a reality show, Siya says there was never any concern over how the show would portray her, or the reality TV role undermining her authenticity.
“You know how some reality shows can be, very misleading, untruthful, lots of drama. But our show wasn’t like that, I understand it wasn’t going to be like that,” she says. “And at the end of the day, we had full creative control over what we wanted to be perceived as and seen as. So really the only thing we could’ve fucked up on national television is you deciding to act [like] an ass, and that falls on you.”
For decades, even the most gifted female MCs were often forced to contort themselves into a single descriptor; either they were conscious or sexually explicit, sensitive or street, but Siya has avoided easy categorization. Her album SIYAvsSiya is a sampler of these distinct sides, while her Commitment EP (released on Valentine’s Day) is gritty yet atmospheric R&B. She has another record coming down the pipeline, too, a street project that will complete her goal of releasing three new records before June 2017.
Even in an era where rappers like Future and Gucci Mane seem to drop projects every other day, Siya’s output is impressive, in part because she engineers, mixes, and masters all of her own music, a habit she picked up from years around the engineer’s console.
But that isn’t the only thing that sets Siya apart from her peers. As one of only a handful of prominent gay female MCs, Siya has had to endure a particularly weighty load of biases and presumptions from when she first picked up the mic as a kid.
“That was the only problem when I was growing up, they wanted me to dress like a girl and rap girly, but I was always on some ‘Fuck y’all, if you can’t fuck with me the way I am,’ even as a kid,” Siya explains. “If I could come out to my grandmother as being gay when I’m 13, ain’t no way in hell I’m going to care about what anyone else says.”
With the rise of not only Siya but also female rappers like Kamaiyah, Kodie Shane, and recent Brooklyn phenomenon Young M.A., who defy typecasting and are expanding into typically male dominated spaces in rap, there may never have been a better time to be a woman in hip-hop, even though they often find themselves pitted against one another. There’s a well-publicized strife between Remy Ma and Nicki Minaj right now, and over the past year many have tried to pit Young M.A. and Siya against each other due to their similar backgrounds and the former’s meteoric rise compared to Siya’s years of grassroots work. But Siya envisions a rap world where the lanes are wide enough for artists to have room to create without constant jockeying for position.
“I love it, I love the idea of having multiple female MCs in the industry at once. I think it’s a very beautiful thing. I think there’s plenty of room, and money, and space for all of us,” she says. “I feel like nobody has to be out here being catty or anything like that, I think it’s time for women in the industry to rise up.”
All photos by Maggie Shannon