Reintroducing Ms. Boogie

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Jan Anthonio Diaz

“Starmaking” is a column that highlights blossoming artists whose work resonates just under the mainstream bubble of their respective fields. In the debut installment, we’re chatting with Ms. Boogie, the Dominican-Colombian artist mesmerized audiences with subversive tomes on sexual pleasure.

Depending on who you talk to, Ms. Boogie is already a member of the rap Establishment. Her work stretches back to the early aughts when Black queer/trans rappers will-powered their way from the street cyphers to the club dance floor — and in Boogie’s case, the academy as well. After stamping her own skill in the most strikingly honest ways, she raised the stakes in 2018 by announcing in an open letter for Paper magazine that she’d retired the Jay Boogie moniker, would call herself Ms. Boogie, and had begun to physically transition her body to align with her spirit. Then in 2018, she dropped “Morphin Time,” and, after touring four continents and inspiring a generation of trans people across the world for more than a half decade, Boogie vanished from the public eye completely.

She popped back up with “Fem Queen” in 2020 and “Dickscipline” in 2021 to give the girls something to chew on while she lived her life and navigated the struggles of what it meant to go from magnetic cultural figure in a social order that demonized her people to a regular-degular Black trans Brooklyn girl just trying to hustle and survive. During that time, Boogie felt like she had done what she needed to do in music. She just wanted to live. But her people reminded her of the influence she held and still holds for people who share her experience. More importantly, they revived in her a sense of purpose, to remember that her art, her image, her experience is hers and ours.

When we spoke about her deeply personal, remarkably raw re-debut album, The Breakdown, last week, she told me that this album is for her, but that she’s already experienced the accolades and critical appeal that comes with public artistry. This time around, it’s more important for her to highlight her collaborators — a select group of trans musicians and sound designers. They deserve to be stars if that’s what they choose. Because Boogie is already a made woman.

What was the mental process of piecing these songs together?
It was a puzzle. It was about building blocks, and I knew for a fact that on this project I wanted to release control. I didn’t want to be in charge, but I didn’t want to be so closed in and introverted in my process. Before, my process was very much on my own. In this process, I was able to put a team together based on parallel experiences and similar walks of life. It was more so about just having the luxury to work with people who understood my language, where I was coming from, what it’s like to walk in my streets and my skin.

Who made up the team?

Jobanny Cabrera, Blu Bone, Cassius Cruz, Ahya Simone, El Joven are all a part of the production. Our features included Dua Saleh, Rosmerayah and Ms. Carrie Stacks.

The core producer on the album is Boo Boo, a a Black trans woman from Minneapolis, and she produces hip-hop, R&B, designs sound, and plays instruments. It was really my first time seeing my reflection in production. I’ve never in my life worked with a woman of my experience. I don’t always want to make it about gender in that way, but because that diversity doesn’t exist in hip hop, it became a really core part of this process. I was willing to touch everything she produced because I felt like she knew where I was coming from; I had the luxury to play. On this project, I didn’t have to compromise at all.

After I met her in Minneapolis, we started to build a team. We recorded a few demos. We made “Breakdown,” the first song on the album, “Clipped,” we made “Come Again” and “Black Butterflies.” Those four songs out of the nine became the foundation of the album. Another part of this album was allowing my story to be told in collaboration with somebody else’s pen. I wanted to see what they saw in me through their writing.

How did that play out?
That’s when Cassius Cruz came into the picture. He is an all-around musician and visionary based in New York City, and he’s — again, not too much identity politics — free in his queer expression. We line up and we have very parallel experiences in the universe as to how we show up. We was in conversation every day, every hour, and we threw bars out, put new bars in, and it just became a melting pot of lyricism. It would be the same wave, same frequency, same lingo, same dialect. The team is about five people, but outside of them there is El Joven. He produced a few records. Jobanny Cabrera is another producer. Blu Bone, who’s a producer as well. He basically A&R’d the whole project. He introduced me to Boo Boo, so I wanna make sure I give a big shout-out to him.

What were the sessions like?
Basically we were between Minneapolis and New York and we had to share space together. It was just about giving ourselves the opportunity to operate on the industry standard and level and quality, because the majority of bigger artists, whether it’s access to label money or resources, they get the writing camps. They just get a lot of things to be able to create the things that they create. Since there aren’t many artists in hip-hop specifically like me, I don’t know what that looks like. So I took it upon myself to fund a camp. We went to the Hamptons in New York, locked ourselves in the house for about eight days and we just made mad records back to back. Songs would up on the fly. It was just a lot of freedom. And then we left it with a whole bunch of demos.

Y’all really Avengers Assembled, that’s crazy. People think freedom under capitalism is self-evident and that’s just not how it goes for people like us. Freedom has to be made. 
And that’s my response to a lot of the rebuttal I’ve always gotten in the industry where it’s just like, “Oh the industry is changing, you have this person and that person.”

You’ve been so public with your transitioning, I’ve always wondered if those decisions in the past ostracized you within the industry?
In order for me to be able to come to this album today, I had no choice but to really make it clear that there’s a process going on, and I’m going to take a break to live. I got to live a little in order to write. So no, it really attracted all the right people. Quite frankly, it attracted the right audience that became my core audience. People have expressed to me that they also made that decision when I made it public. When they get to this album now, it’s like they’re writing to me and they’re like, “I literally started my transition after I read your open letter.” And I get to, when I visually see ’em, I’m like, “Okay, the job is done. Mission accomplished.”

Does being an indie artist making the music that you make insulate you from dealing with a lot of the industry shit? 
I don’t have that kind of infrastructure that allows me to just ride the wave. I think when you’re signed, no matter how uncertain the outcome is, you still riding the wave; the wave of hope, fate, resources, all that. For me it’s only because I want to provide for my collaborators, that’s where it gets tricky because I know what they deserve. I often feel like I got what I deserve out of my musical experience and my art. I saw the world, I performed in spaces that I never thought I would. Being independent gave me a very big advantage. I know artists whose songs are poppin’ and boppin’ right now in America that have never done a tour outside of the country. And that’s simply because labels, gatekeeping, just capitalism in general, they don’t allow you to imagine a market outside of the one they own you in.
I don’t know if I’m really built for the magnitude of being owned. But I do want to see my creative counterparts, the ones on this album and generations to come, to be able to live a carefree artistic life.

Why did you remove yourself from the spotlight after transitioning?
I had to reclaim my narrative. When I decided to step away from the limelight, if you may, that meant stepping away from family, stepping away from music, stepping away from media as a whole. I was coming from the era when queer people rapping was being presented as a sub genre in hip hop. And at that point, it was almost like I removed myself from what the general consensus was: that we was all the Black male-presenting queer bodies. I ripped the rug out from the whole life structure. People, media and journalism and promoters, they kept on boxing us, putting us on the same build, putting us under the same headlines. If they wrote about one they had to mention all of the others. I exposed myself to being forgotten in that conversation.

That can be really scary, what brought you back?
I really wonder when I would’ve picked up the pen again if it wasn’t for COVID.

Let’s talk about a couple records. First, “Dazed & Confused,” which you co-wrote with Cassius Cruz You use this imagery of the hotel elevator, the ups and downs. It’s one of the only real metaphorical lyrics on the album. Why did you choose to chronicle the events of that song in that way?
The inspiration behind “Dazed & Confused” was being picked up to your very highest level, and then that feeling you would experience when the elevator drops. Your heart is racing, it’s dropping, it’s sinking. And emotionally to me, that reflected the instability I was experiencing when it was time to make decisions for myself about my livelihood, about my safety, about housing. I really had to pay attention to the voices inside of me as well as the people that were able to give me access to the things that I needed.

And there’s a little bit of the tone of substance abuse in there as well. It’s a real hard one to explain because it was a very specific place and time that I wrote it from. The confusion of not knowing where to go, people telling you, “Come up here, see what we see up here,” or, “Come down here,” and that angel and devil on the side of your shoulders kinda playing with you. And then in verse two, I just break free and I’m facing my fears. It’s that imagery of jumping off of a very tall building and all the time that it takes you to get grounded and to get to the floor.

When you write, are you conscious of having to preserve certain images of Black queer and trans people or does it never really enter your mind?
It’s tricky. A lot of my counterparts, we have multiple lived experiences. We morph. I think a lot of non-queer, adjacent people kinda just reach their plateau in freedom of expression. So to me, queer also means to explore, it’s bigger than sexuality, but I have — in this chapter, on this album — been very passionate about speaking about the things that aren’t so glamorous in our lives. Because I do understand that there’s multiple angles and multiple experiences within queerness, I still know that a lot of us are really down on our luck. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is for some people it’s directly related to our queerness. While we experience rejection, homelessness, unsafety, and are forced into different avenues of work to make bread, a lot of those things are unfortunately very specifically related to their queerness and other layers like their Blackness, whatever else may be.

What responsibility do you have as an artist then?
I have taken a social responsibility on this album and in this chapter of my artistry to shine a light on that in particular, only because I’m in relation to it, I’ve lived through a lot of those experiences and realized that firsthand as a Black trans woman. It rubs me the wrong way when people haven’t thought of queerness as a spectrum. So it’s just either you are extremely expressive, flamboyant, colorful, boundless; or you are the demise of your surroundings, or you are on your way to your demise, or you are closer to doom than anybody else. I’ve been working from the perspective of the not so bright and fabulous and colorful experiences, just the real day-to-day, true-life situations that people go through. Yes, especially mine. But I’ve also taken notes from a lot of my neighbors stories and my girlfriends, because I’m on a mission to kind of humanize us.

Influences or contributors to your artistry must be pretty few and far between? 
I feel like a lot of rap and hip-hop that exists right now is piggybacking off generations before them. At the time the only people like me making rap music were Mykki Blanco, Le1f, Cakes da Killa, Zebra Katz amongst a few others. There was a lot of power in us individually, we really had the world on tilt. We were in many different continents and many different spaces, penetrating a lot. And then because of what journalism did to us, they put us in a cluster. When the story no longer was valuable, we all kind of disappeared. Time goes on, and the next best thing that we get is Lil Nas X and Saucy Santana.

Yeah it’s looking real sparse right now. 
There’s a huge gap in history. A lot of people who aren’t queer lean to queerness or the fun, the rainbows, the feathers, the glitter, the disco balls, the Renaissance, if you may. I’m really in the streets that I grew up around and bitches that showed me how to walk in this life in the streets. It’s not no disco balls in they houses. This is why I only can speak to journalists who I feel some sort of connection with, because it’s like I can’t have this casual conversation in a white-centric space. It’s impossible.

Reintroducing Ms. Boogie