If you ask me who I idolized most as a kid, I will always respond with the following answer: Lisa Turtle. Lisa was stylish, funny, popular, and most important, like me, she was black. I looked up to her and considered her on-screen life to be a sort of map for how I might find my place amid the glaringly non-diverse student body of my junior high school. Growing up in the relatively affluent suburbs of Philadelphia, my race didn't just make me different it also made me an outsider. At times I felt isolated from my classmates, but I also felt isolated from my peers of color, who complained that I acted "too white" and "too bougie" to hang out with them. Sure, Lisa was fictional, but due to my lack of black friends, I identified with her like she was my bestie or a super-cool older sister who could teach me how to accessorize like a pro and give me tips on how to cope with being black in white spaces. Thanks to her, I survived junior high and learned that being different and being black are things to celebrate, even if I don't fit the stereotypical mold of what both of those things mean.
LA's iRAWniQ channeled her inner Lisa Turtle with the release of her 2012 mixtape . iRAWniQ, who per her Instagram bio identifies as a "queer mom changing the world through music," also strongly connected with Saved by the Bell's black heroine as a kid, and used Lisa's character to celebrate her own identity as a queer black woman while challenging our culture's misconception of what black womanhood looks like. Whether she's rejecting labels on tracks like "No Genre Needed Freestyle" or celebrating alternative black girldom on her latest EP, Black Girls On Skateboards, iRAWniQ has an incomparable sound, composed of sick backbeats and seriously life-affirming lyrics. Listen to "Pusha (I Got It)" or "FCK SHT," and it's instantly clear that she is pure truth. iRAWniQ's music is changing the world, one track at a time.
I got the chance to talk with iRAWniQ over the phone about how her childhood shaped her love for music, why she'd rather write songs that can heal and help others instead of hits that could make her rich, and, of course, Lisa Turtle.
Dianca Potts: In terms of career, what did you want to be when you were a kid? What was your dream job?
iRAWniQ: Honestly, when I was in kindergarten, I told my mom that I was going to be a lawyer or a doctor. Then I started growing up and started leaning toward sports, so I [decided I] was going to be the shortest WNBA player. I got introduced to piano around seven or eight, so it was always [going to be] either [a] band or sports, you know? I was good at both, but I didn't know which I wanted to do. By the time I was 17 or 18, I started writing poetry and started applying the stuff that I learned in school to my everyday life. I didn't think that I was going to be an artist per se; I thought that I would always be academically thriving and going to Yale or Harvard or some shit, because I was a really good student, but the arts just kind of pulled me, and I just went with it.
DP: You describe yourself as a songwriter, producer, actress, curator, mother, and activist. What is it like to balance so many roles in your life?
I: First and foremost, I'm a mom, and to be a good mom, you have to be selfless. You have to care. I'm a Pisces, so I care a lot. If somebody comes into the room and they're not OK, then I'm not OK, because that energy is there. I want everyone to be cool. I care about animals, I'm very health-conscious, I grow my own fruits and vegetables, I try to advocate and show people the importance of activism for animals and how important animals are to the community. I'm queer, openly queer, so women's rights [are important]. I feel like an underdog, you know? To be a gay minority woman with a kid, a single mom, I'm on the lower end of the totem pole. I try to practice what I preach. I look in the mirror and I love myself, and I look at my son, and he's a reflection of me, literally and figuratively, and I feel like, Stop complaining. If you want to see a change, just be it.
DP: I grew up in awe of Lisa Turtle from Saved by the Bell, and I was super-excited when I came across your 2012 mixtape. How did she inspire your mixtape?
I: Saved by the Bell was one of my favorite shows growing up. I went to an all-white high school, and it was hard. I was adopted, too, so I had a lot of identity issues when I was growing up. It's almost like your parents do you this favor by putting you in the suburbs and trying to give you a better education, [but] you can almost lose your sense of self or not have a sense of self at all because you want to belong. You're too black for the white kids and too white for the black kids, and you kind of don't know where to go. With Lisa Turtle, I always fucked with her. She was always wearing her type of clothing and had her puffy little bangs, and she was unapologetic. I looked at her and she was kind of like me.
DP: In "No Genre Needed," you address the limitations that genre can have on an artist in such a refreshingly straightforward way. Have you ever had to deal with pressure from producers or your audience when it comes to fitting into a specific camp genre-wise?
I: I was in a band for about five years before I made [iRAWniQ As Lisa Turtle], and that mixtape was right at the end of my band dismantling and realizing that I [wasn't] going to be in a band [anymore]. My band was hip-hop, and we did a lot of dubstep before it got popular, and there was a really high demand for female rappers to rap over electro stuff, so I've never felt confined to anything. I always knew that we were different and it was OK, but then when I went solo and I started meeting people and having opportunities to talk to record labels and I had a couple of offers, they wanted me to completely change. They wanted me to be more sexualized and poppy and dumb down what I'm talking about, and I just wasn't for it. I was like, I'll go back to college and quit music before I change. That's not fun for me. Money's never been the motive. I mean, yeah, it's great, but money can be made in any way. I've got a million and a half hustles. I'd rather be middle class and happy than be rich and hate myself.
DP: Hip-hop is a genre whose tradition is associated with swagger and confidence. As an artist and as a music lover, how has hip-hop empowered you?
I: When you're a songwriter, you talk about things that everyone can relate [to]. I did a cover of this Drake song, and I kid you not, to this day it has the most Soundcloud views [out of all of my songs]. I never told people to go listen to it, I just posted it and left it. It's about a [time] where I was sexually assaulted when I was growing up. The reaction really took me aback, because I was like, Wow, even on a small scale you can talk about something that people are struggling with. It's not just about being turnt up. Songs can heal. That's when I started to write songs that actually had purpose and value. Just knowing that I could help someone else gave me confidence that I can be vulnerable and put that on wax.
DP: You subvert the misogynistic tropes that go hand in hand with hip-hop so succinctly on songs like "Good Girl" and "FCK SHT." Do you feel like the hip-hop community is capable of doing the same?
I: Absolutely. It is happening, it's just that people need to take more chances and not be afraid and conform. Just not too long ago, women couldn't vote and black people couldn't vote, you know? But revolution evolves. It's strength in numbers. The more that people stand together and say, Hey, I'm not going to deal with this bullshit, I'm not going to be ashamed of being a black gay woman in America, the more that we take a stand and have conversations about it, the more it will be at the forefront. Look at how much has changed in the last 60 years. It's hard for women in hip-hop and for women in music, let alone alternative women. We have so much to do, but there is so much room for [diversity].
DP: I feel like your latest EP, Black Girls On Skateboards, celebrates that diversity. What inspired you to chose that as the title?
I: I have a partner who I work with, and we just go back and forth with music. We were working on a project called MILA, it stands for Michigan and LA, and it was very ambient and "Weekend-ish," but a little darker. It never got released, because you know how artists are, we hate everything that we do! [Afterward] we decided to do this project. We came up with the name together to embody a narrative of shit that's really not being talked about. We're here, the alternative black female exists. How many black girls on skateboards do you actually see? Cause they're out there, but how many do you see? They're just not talked about enough. I wanted to do something that fused sounds that they wouldn't expect, [which] can be challenging. It's even more challenging when you're working with labels because there's an overhead, and because there's a formula to writing a hit record. I get that, but when it comes to my shit, I don't care. I don't give a fuck about a formula. I hear a beat, and when I get it to where I want it, I start writing. If it feels right, it's just right.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.