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The Making of Young M.A

By Ivie Ani on

Last month, if you happened to take the train in New York City, you may have heard the voice of Young M.A resounding from the subway system speakers. Granted, this was part of a new MTA campaign including more notable New York voices—but in many ways, Young M.A represents the voice of NY. While no singular voice can speak for and to the cultural amalgam that is the city, the essence of New York is also the essence of M.A.

A natural-born star, M.A invites fame but controls it. The stronghold of fame has brought many celebrities to unplanned destinations; to a crossroads, to a fall from grace, even to death. When speaking, it’s clear she’s reckoned with this. She knows how she wants to show up in the world and moves how she wants to when she wants to.

That temperament is a testament to how Young M.A has maintained her independence as an artist and individual. Born Katorah Hortense Marrero, the Brooklyn native moves like an OG at 28. But it’s warranted, as the time frames that separate generations of rap get shorter and shorter. Young M.A appeared at the crux of a new-New York rap scene and the burgeoning Brooklyn drill movement. When she arrived on the scene in the middle of this past decade, her bars boasted the typical Brooklyn bravado of her counterparts, past and present, but she still presented as a master of her own sound.

M.A’s rise is well-documented, pre and post her 2016 debut hit single, “Ooouuu,” which peaked at No. 19 on the US Billboard Hot 100. It was a harbinger of her arrival as a preeminent rap talent. Still, M.A is less concerned with her past strides and more focused on her future. “I don’t even think about that [song] no more,” she says with the wave of a hand. “I’ve been off that.”

The title track from her forthcoming mixtape, Off The Yak, sees M.A flirt with Brooklyn drill. In it, she raps, “The queen of my city; I am a big deal.” Some still call her underrated, but it’s unclear why. Young M.A moves on her own accord. She makes the music she wants to make, when she wants, and how she wants.

M.A started writing rhymes at the age of 10 but began seriously focusing on music as an adult after self-funding a recording studio with local record producers while working at Shake Shack and T.J. Maxx. It is the quintessential humble hero origin story. Young M.A never fit the standard music industry mold, and that—aside from talent—is her star quality.

Mentioning Young M.A—or any other women who rap—exclusive to the pantheon of “female rappers” is a misbegotten way to parse through her contributions to hip-hop. She is many things: gay, Jamaican, Puerto Rican, Blood, street, masculine, a woman. But her career is guided by other forces: talent, drive, charisma. Her identity is just the foundation of her work, not its entirety. As identity becomes a benchmark for discourse, representation, and understanding, the adverse effect sees its positioning as a marketing tool that often benefits corporations first and marginalized groups last. Sometimes an artist’s success can now depend on how they market their identity.

Young M.A doesn’t subscribe to that method. She falls under “lucrative” identity markers companies jump to exploit but chooses not to virtue signal to any group or sell parts of herself for consumption. What the acronym in her name stands for is exactly what she lives by: “Me always.”

Is Off The Yak consistent with the sound that we know you for, or are you experimenting?

I’ve always been versatile, so nothing is ever going to always sound the same. But what I could say with this project, I definitely get a little back home on some thorough shit. A lot of people have been looking for that. But we, of course, still got to have those good, fun bangers, those radio-friendly bangers. But I definitely tapped into the old M.A on this project.

How is navigating the industry for you as an independent artist to have this much success? Is it a difficult thing to do, or are you more comfortable having full control?

Definitely more comfortable. With me, when it comes to being independent, I’m in control of everything. I drop what I want, I do what I want, when I want to. It’s just two different worlds. I have nothing against being signed [or] the labels. They do their own thing; this is what they’ve been doing for decades now. I’m just an independent artist.

I learned a different way to go about things. I’m not in competition, and I’m just going as I go. I got a fan base. I feed them. It’s more so about that. Of course, I do the music for myself, from my experiences and what I’m going through. But at the same time, I don’t look at it like any label thing, even though I’m signed to myself. I look at it more so for my fans. It’s just what they want, and that’s all that matters.

Would you have any advice for an up-and-coming artist who is on the brink of deciding whether they want to be signed or whether they want to remain independent?

You got to be built for being independent. It’s not easy. It comes with a lot of responsibility. You don’t get the perks of certain things a label can do because of their position of power. So if you’re one of those types of people that just want that, then I would say sign. But at the end of the day, you’d understand when you sign to a label; they’re doing everything. So you have to know that eventually, you have to pay these people back because they’re in the position to take care of you.

I would say a marketing and distribution deal would be good. That’s something I did a few years ago. That’s just something that helps you as an independent artist. To not fully sign up to a record label, but at least get that type of help as far as exposure for your music. But you got to be strongly built for that. You got to be humble. You got to be able to not try to go after the money because the money is going to come regardless—definitely if you are a great artist.

But you also have to build a fan base. You can’t be an independent artist without a fan base. If you don’t have a fan base, you’re most likely going to sign to a label. But when you build a loyal fan base, being independent can get you far.

How would you describe your relationship with your fans, and how did you build that strong connection?

It was an accident; that’s the crazy thing. Just my natural personality, you know what I mean? I have this way about me where I feel anybody that supports me. I’m humbled [by] it because I’ve been wanting to do this since I was a kid. What I come with, just my sexuality and being different, being in my own lane, you have to appreciate the people that support you because being in my shoes is not easy. You have to appreciate every moment, every stream, every like, every view, everything.

It seems there’s some type of balance people have when it comes to authenticity and identity. A lot of people market their identity to a point where it becomes performative. How do you avoid doing that, remaining authentic to who you are and still catering to your fans but not performing who you are?

I think just not allowing myself to get deeply involved in this industry. Fame has a lot of people lost. I’m still a normal human being. Fame is fame; that’s just the outer layer, that’s the surface of things. But I still do humble shit. Mentally that sticks with me, and that’s why when it comes to my music, I can still be relatable, and people can feel like they’re still close to me in a way because I don’t act like a celebrity. I know I’m a celebrity, so there’s times where I do have to be a celebrity. But I like to be a regular human being and live life. I don’t look at myself to be bigger than somebody that doesn’t have this going on or that works at a retail spot. I came from working in retail and fast food and stuff like that, and hustling, and being in the streets.

It just keeps me from not losing my mind a little bit in this industry because people can—I ain’t trying to judge nobody. I just feel sometimes you can get caught up with the perks of things and just getting so much attention. A lot of people are not used to money or attention. With me, it’s not even not being used to; it’s just I don’t even care for it. I think that’s what helps me.

What is something you do that keeps you grounded? Is there anything you do that helps you remain sane in the industry?

Sometimes I just stay away. It’s just energy... certain people—don’t get me wrong, I got a lot of respect for a lot of artists and music people, but I’m not a music industry-friendly person. You won’t see me with a bunch of celebrities all day running around in the spots. I’m quite sure everybody knows that. There’s love and that’s just that. But sometimes I feel more people do it because they need to do it.

They don’t be genuine all the time, and I believe in being genuine. I can’t be around that energy sometimes. I’m just one of those people. You have the celebrities you might see here and there; then they go ghost. I’m one of them artists. That’s just how I keep my energy and how I move. I like to be around real life, real people, people I know, I love, I’ve been with since day one. Then when it’s time for me to handle that type of business, I handle that, and I keep it pushing.

I know you’re obviously a lot bigger than the New York rap scene, but I want to get your opinion on where New York rap is. Do you think the drill sound is going to last?

New York is the Mecca of hip-hop. This is where it all originated, where it started. So even if it’s not drill no more, it could be something else. This is New York. It could be a certain sound that may not last, but then something else can come and shift.

One thing about New York is it’s got its waves; it’s not as strong as when New York was first [on]. Now, Atlanta is running things. Even if this era—I guess they’re calling it Brooklyn drill—fades out, something else is gonna come no matter what. New York can never fall off. Never, ever. We always going to have something new, something fresh.

You popped up at an interesting time for New York rap. If you could pinpoint or articulate what you think your influence was on the New York rap scene at that time and now, how would you describe it?

I came in with the gold grills, Hennessy, stupid tatted, and two-by-two braids. Nobody in New York was wearing gold grills. They didn’t even know the timing I was on. I just came in on some different swag, different look, music fire, bars different. New York Yankee fitted, yeah, but I’m coming in grills. I think that’s what made people gravitate to me a little bit because like, “Alright, we know she from New York because her aura, her swag, the way she rap, how she talk is New York to the fullest, but she got a little down South with her.”

I used to live in Virginia [and] Georgia. I tapped into that a little bit. I could say the same thing with 50 Cent. When he came out and rapped, he would say little country slang in his raps. That’s what made him a little different. We know he from New York, we know he from Queens, but he had a different niche to him, and that was one of my biggest influences. I definitely bring that to the table. We all know what New York is, but I just did a little switch up.

Who would you say are some of your biggest influencers that people would not expect to be your influencers?

I listen to all the old-school reggae like Glen Washington, Beres Hammond, Sanchez, Beenie Man. The classics. That’s the music that really touches me. I listen to all the dutty whining type of shit, but it’s more of the culture reggae for me. My mom played that music all the time. I’m talking about real cultural reggae you can listen to and get some type of influence and motivation from.

Hip-hop-wise: female artists. I’m a big Lauryn Hill fan, Eve. I love R&B. Something that’s just a little out of my element. I think that’s what helps me too when I make music; I don’t have to constantly hear the same thing. It keeps me in my own lane, in my own zone.

How do you want to be remembered as an artist and as a person?

I just always want to be remembered as one of them artists that never gave a fuck. I love what I do. I’m really nice at what I do. I never was controversial. I always took care of my brand. I’m always dedicated to my fans. I’ve just always been the same. Ain’t nothing changed since day one. I’ve got dreads now... that’s about it. I’m just me. Young M.A: “Me Always.” Period.

Photos by Justus Dutra.

InterviewHip HopYoung M.A

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