The influential nature of LGBTQ+ people in music is undeniable. Non-binary artist Aja is driving the queer agenda into the rap industry at full speed. Rising to fame on season 9 of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Aja has proved that they are more than just a reality TV star, but a credible music artist, gaining recognition from platforms such as Rolling Stone, Billboard and Paper to name a few. Describing their style, they say, “My music is just me. I do not aim for a specific vibe. I do music the way I want to, and it has nothing to do with drag or Drag Race. I am never trying to cater to a specific demographic at all. It is just me being myself.”
Aja’s lyrics are raw; they have a point of view that uses their own experiences to disrupt the status quo. On Anarchy, Aja says; “The standard has told all these beautiful individuals that they’re not suitable, they cannot be natural and mutable, but really that shit is disputable.” Such candid lyrics that speak to the queer community is unseen in the rap industry, or even in music as a whole. We caught up with Aja to discuss their debut album Box Office and how they discovered their own gender identity through their music.
How did the opportunity to pursue a career fall into place after your time on TV?
I’ve always wanted to make music before I even knew what drag was all about. It is ironic that it circled back to music now that I have a platform. Honestly, if I didn’t go on television, I still would have released Box Office, it just would have been a very low budget version. Music runs through my blood; it is something that I would always aim to do no matter what.
For those who have not heard your new album Box Office yet, what can you tell us about it and how is it different from your EP In My Feelings?
I can say that the album is honestly pure me, it is unfiltered, it is straight to the point, very Aja. People are going to find out a lot about who I am, where I come from, where I grew up. I dug into myself, I got everything that influenced my upbringing and turned them into this musical autobiography. Last year, when I did In My Feelings, I was catering to an aesthetic that has been popularised with me through television which is what I was going for at the time. For Box Office, I wanted to honour myself and not cater to an idealised aesthetic. In My Feelings, the visual was in the name, it was in the tracks, and the sound matched the theme. For this album, there are so many themes, and there are so many aesthetics going into the record, yet at the same time they all relate to one common variable, and the variable is me.
For Box Office, you have worked with talented rap artists such as CupcakKe, Rico Nasty and Shilow, what has it been like working with these artists?
It was lovely to work with other musicians. Seeing their creative process allows me to reflect on my own. Also, you get to find out where you feel comfortable and if you have chemistry with people. On all of my collaborative tracks, the artists have matched the song and vibe perfectly. I wanted to bring different aspects of their character out as well which is fun.
You have received a fantastic amount of praise from platforms such as Billboard and Paper. How does it feel to be recognised as a credible music artist?
It does feel great to know that people are looking at my music and they are not judging it based on the fact that I am a queer person or that I have been known to be a drag artist. That is the crucial part; I want people to recognise me as an artist. We are all artists no matter what your art form is, and I think people get too caught up on labels and appearances. Like when Lady Gaga first came out, she was more criticised for how she looked rather than the music, and her response was; wow, I am the only artist with three singles on the top ten, and you are over here talking about what I am wearing. She accused them of being misogynistic, and that is how the music industry works. People are just so fixated on things that have nothing to do with the music because they are trying to discredit your work. For me, knowing that a lot of people are giving me respect as an artist means a lot to me, and I would love to see where it goes from there.
As a non-binary queer artist, what is it like being a rapper in a masculine dominated world such as rap?
I think it should feel more intimidating being a rapper who is a queer person for me than it does. I don’t give a fuck honestly. I am not scared to go places where people are scared to go. I am not afraid of being judged, I have been judged my entire life for every little thing, from the way I walk to the way I breathe. If the worst thing someone can say about me is that I am a feminine rapper, that is a compliment. I would love to be embraced by the rap community, but if I’m not, I will make my own lane. That is the thing, once you make your own lane no one can tell you that you are right or wrong.
Everyone is concerned with fitting a mould in society, and the thing is, fitting into society is a farce, it doesn’t exist. No matter what, someone is going to hate you, someone is going to marginalise you, and someone is going to think you are weird or less than – so why not just be yourself?
How has your music helped you with coming to terms with your own gender identity over the years?
Writing music, especially at first, put me through a loop and I was asking myself questions such as; ‘who am I?’, ‘what am I doing?’, ‘what is life?’, ‘why am I here?’. I think making music, especially writing and producing music, is meant to stimulate that questioning of your identity and yourself, so I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing. I often find myself through the music, because you write something and then you’re like wait, I didn’t even realise I felt that way.
Last year, you came out and said that you no longer considered yourself as a drag queen; instead, you describe yourself as a queer artist, and the hair and makeup is an extension of Aja. When did you realise that this is how you identified?
So many people got upset by that statement. People were like ‘no you are this, stop trying to make it seem like you are better than drag’. The thing is, I have never amounted to being better than drag. I love the art of drag. For me, I have found another part of my identity. Drag is an extension of my identity and a medium for my art. I am sure a lot of other people feel this way but don’t realise it yet. I am just saying that drag for me is just me being in my trans-feminine state. When I put hair and makeup on, I do not feel like I am transforming, I don’t feel like I am becoming a different person, I don’t feel like I am getting in drag which is why I compare it to a regular artist who puts on hair and makeup. The way I look at it I am doing drag 24/7, whether I am wearing makeup or not, or I am not doing drag at all. If we are all born naked and the rest is drag, then, by all means, it is either all drag or nothing is drag.
Describing Aja as an extension of your gender expression and identity, can you remember when you first discovered Aja, how did you feel when you first put on that hair and makeup?
I felt like I needed to do drag. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I never intended for any of this to happen, it just happened. I never meant to feel like I need to be in drag or whatever. The process which is why it has always felt so natural to me. It has never been like ‘oh I want to do drag for a specific reason’, it has always been stuff just happening, and I just let it all happen. I am not the type of person who is born to ask questions. I am the type of person who follows my gut instincts.
Today gender is more fluid than ever with more people experimenting with their identity. Why do you feel it is important to remain visible as a queer artist in these times?
I feel it is important to be yourself and I don’t think it has anything to do with being a queer artist. I think everyone should be themselves. Queer or not, you should be proud of who you are, wear your skin, wear your true colours and always be yourself. I feel like a lot of people do not do that which is why I feel like there is a lot of discrimination towards people. Everyone is concerned with fitting a mould in society, and the thing is, fitting into society is a farce, it doesn’t exist. No matter what, someone is going to hate you, someone is going to marginalise you, and someone is going to think you are weird or less than – so why not just be yourself? When you do that, nobody can tell you shit.
In the past, you have been vocal about your views on beauty standards in the media. As a Black and Arab person, what is your vision of beauty and why do you feel it is essential for this message to be told in the media?
I don’t feel like the beauty standard we have today is a realistic beauty standard. I think, especially in the queer community, there are unnecessary beauty standards that someone decided to create to blend into heteronormative society; cis-gender roles, the idea of passing, being masculine, feminine. All of it is just bullshit; all you can be is you. Everyone is beautiful, not even in your own way — everyone is just beautiful, period. If you feel beautiful, you are beautiful. I mean beauty is so subjective, there is always going to be someone who finds you beautiful and someone who doesn’t.
One thing I wanted to ask you about is your belief system and your practice of santería, what are the core beliefs and how do you apply them to your life?
Santería is an African magic practice that is rooted in old Africa. The core beliefs behind santería are just good health, long life, love and it is just about how can you make your life easier and better. I do not believe, to be honest, in all the new age witchcraft. I think it is just a crock of shit, but I do feel like everyone has the freedom to believe in what they believe in. Everyone’s feelings are very valid, so I never like to judge someone else’s beliefs. Personally, I grew up practising my practices, so it is not like I just picked up a book someday or saw it in a shop and was like ‘oh my god I am going to be interested in this, let me buy a pack of cards’. I know that witchcraft especially has become so popularised and has become such a big thing in pop culture. Now some people think they can do this and that and, in my mind, I am like ‘sure’. I don’t judge people though; my mom raised me right.
Just like your music, your style has evolved a lot since you first appeared on Drag Race, how would you describe your style now?
I just stopped doing drag. I don’t think big anymore, I think about things that I want to wear, and I wear them. For me it is never about making a statement; it is about putting on what I like and what makes me feel good. I am not trying to look a certain way; I am just trying to be me. I feel like the whole theme is being yourself. That is how I feel.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I see myself probably releasing my seventh tired ass album. I am going to be making music regardless as that is what I have found is my biggest passion and I have never had much of a passion. It has always been music, even for the last ten years, so it is just going to stay there. Whether I make it big or not, I will be doing the same thing. I am not living life to be successful or to have any impact. I am trying to do what makes me happy.