No matter how many times she performs, Qbala still gets butterflies. Throwing up in trash cans before shows is common for her, as are endless bathroom detours and trips to and from her car. It’s a habit that started during her basketball-playing days, when she would get herself psyched for a big game. A natural athlete and entertainer, the Fort Collins rapper consistently performs well, but those moments before a show can be daunting. Her performance at the Sofar Sounds secret show held on January 23 at Denver’s Open Media Foundation was no different. “My stomach was in my throat,” she says. “It scared the hell out of me.”
Her nerves don’t reflect a lack of experience or preparation, however. Qbala, whose given name is Kalhie Quinones, thrives in big moments when her back is against the wall; she’s paid the rent by winning freestyle battles and took her university basketball team to the 2008 Final Four. In 2012, she won Westword’s Best Female MC award, and in 2013, she won $10,000 in cash (she made them count it out in hundred-dollar bills) at Colorado Music Buzz’s Bandwagon contest.
Rather, Qbala’s nerves come from anticipating what a new audience might think of her rhymes, which deal explicitly with the transgender experience, strap-ons and sexual confusion. The crowd usually digs it, as was the case at the Sofar Sounds show. “I’m noticing that when people come to my shows, they start to exuberate this different energy and another way of being,” she says. “They don’t care, because they see me up there not caring.”
It took Qbala twenty years before she could rap freely about her sexuality and her experience. Her latest album, Battle Cries, is a forceful affirmation of her identity, with fiercely delivered, biting lyrics and haunting yet catchy production.
Her redemption story starts in Loveland, where she grew up. “At a very young age, I realized there was something different about me compared to the others, but I didn’t really place it,” she says. “I remember — my mom told me this is not true, but I swear I told her when I was like six years old that I should be a boy.”
Qbala was raised in her older brother DeMel’s footsteps, playing basketball, hanging out in his clubhouse with 1970s porn plastered on the wall, and listening to hip-hop. It was apparent early on that she’d be a basketball star. “Basketball was my beard to hide who I really was, and I was really good at it,” she says.
When she found herself attracted to her teammates as high school approached, she felt confused and turned to drugs for escape. “I don’t know if I was hanging out with the wrong crowd or if it was the right crowd, but there was a lot of experimenting with drugs and still playing sports,” she says. “I was never much of a drinker; it was always those drugs that kind of took me away from here.”
Besides her confusion about gender and sexuality, she had burning questions about her biological father. Qbala’s mother was nineteen when she had her, and at that point, her father was out of the picture. She says she knows he was abusive, but not much else. She met him once as an adult, and their similar physical traits made her feel uneasy. “It was awkward. I wasn’t emotional until he started crying,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine living with the shit that he did.”
Writing provided the solace that Qbala was looking for in her family. She’d write when she was smoking meth in a basement and she’d write when she couldn’t sleep at night. “It wasn’t even written to a beat. I just woke up one night, couldn’t sleep, and just started jotting on my notepad,” she says.
By the end of high school, Division I schools were scouting her to play ball, but she ultimately decided on Otero Junior College in La Junta, where her brother had played before her.
After three years at Otero, she received a basketball scholarship from Utah State. However, once there, her drug addiction reared its head and she started using crystal meth again. For a while she was writing thirty-page papers and playing Division I basketball while dealing with a serious drug problem. She quit the team early in her second season and moved home to Loveland.
Soon after she returned home, her twelve-year-old cousin died of an overdose. When she heard that her deceased cousin’s sister was jumped by a group of girls, Qbala took action.
“I caught wind of it and went and hunted one of the chicks down and beat the shit out of her, got arrested, got thrown in jail,” she explains.
She had to attend an anger-management class, which only seemed to make her angrier. “All these dudes around me are like, ‘I beat my wife because….’ I’m just sitting there, like, ‘You want me to try to solve my anger issues? I want to punch these people in the face.’”
Some anger may have lingered after that class, but another class helped Qbala quit meth cold turkey. “It took one AA meeting for me to go sit in that room and watch all these people feel sorry for themselves,” she says.
One day Qbala got a call from a former Otero teammate who was now an assistant coach for the University of Alaska-Anchorage women’s basketball team, the Seawolves. She asked if Qbala wanted to play, and Qbala accepted, filled with hope and a determination to get it right this time.
She arrived in Anchorage in the best shape of her life and made an immediate impact on the Seawolves. They reached the Division II Final Four in 2008, barely losing to Northern Kentucky by three points. The team was so famous locally that people would recognize Qbala on the street.
Inside, though, Qbala was still hurting. “Toward the end of the season, I get back to drinking and smoking weed. Through all of this, I’m trying to figure out my sexuality and gender issues. The whole senior year, I dress super-girly. Girls are asking me how to do their makeup on the team. I was like, I’m going to give this one more shot. At the end of the year, I was like, it’s not me. I lopped off all my hair and went back to sweatpants and jeans and Nikes.”
After Alaska, she set her sights on playing ball overseas, but an encounter with a group of musicians at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport ultimately changed her tune. She played her music for them, and they asked why she wasn’t pursuing a career as a musician.
“It sparked something else in me,” she recalls. “My entire senior year was spent living in a horse trough up to my neck in ice water, like a whirlpool, because every day after practice you have to sit in an ice bath. I’m so tired of feeling like this. My body hurts. I need a break.”
When she suffered a hairline fracture during a pick-up game, she knew she was finished with basketball. “At that point, I was done. I don’t want to play sports anymore. I want to be done with it,” she says.
In 2011, Qbala met her fiancée, Arianne, at a party in Fort Collins. When they met, Arianne asked her point-blank: “Are you transgender?” The bold question rocked Qbala, and she started seeing a therapist. “I was trying to figure out — do I need to have surgery? Do I need to start taking testosterone?”
Ultimately, Qbala’s answer was no, and she ditched the shrink and turned to writing. “I just kept going back to writing to figure this out and just be more honest with myself about who I was.”
She found her problem wasn’t with herself, but with a culture obsessed with labeling. She’d been the target of homophobic slurs before, and she was tired of being stereotyped. “Why are we so badly wanting to fit into these labels?” she asks. “Female, male, transgender.... It’s tough, because those things are so important to people. These are just labels.”
Qbala even balked slightly at her Best Female MC award from Westword because she was labeled a female MC. “Why can’t it just be MC? I’ll battle any dude in the state, I don’t care. If you got better bars than me, show me,” she says.
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Now she welcomes anyone to call out her sexuality. “Any time I step into a battle with someone, all they have to do is attack my gender, my sexuality. You’re going to call me out on that? Because I was just in the bathroom, and so was your girlfriend and your mom, and they’re looking at me, telling me I’m cute.”
Life threw Qbala another curveball in 2013 when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after a car accident. Symptoms vary, but for Qbala, numbness in her arm is a recurring one. She says the diagnosis only motivates her to succeed more. She’s currently focused on releasing a new album and changing the local hip-hop industry by demanding more pay and respect for local artists. “There are all these overlooked artists that are amazing that aren’t getting the recognition,” she says.
As for her internal struggle, it’s gone. She’s in a happy relationship, runs her own business and is completely dedicated to taking her music to new heights. Just don’t try to label her. “I can’t define myself as a transgender MC,” she says. “That’s not me. I’m stardust, I’m energy. I’m not anything that anyone wants to label me as.”
First Colorado All Lady Emcee Cypher
Friday, March 4, 9 p.m., Gypsy House Cafe, 1279 Marion Street, 303-830-1112.