Whether she's rapping about fucking while hip-hop plays on a stereo, her longing for Atlanta (a city she likens to a guy with nappy hair and gold teeth), the anti-Chi-raq movement, mentoring a new generation of artists, her family or her aspiration to win a Grammy, her words are a rare combination of smart, spiritual, erotic, politically mighty and earnest.
K'Valentine has been on tour with Kweli; they'll share the stage at the Gothic Theatre on Sunday, January 29, along with local acts Cavem Moetavation and Slam Nuba. From her tour bus, which was somewhere in the middle of Oregon, she spoke with Westword on the day that President Donald Trump threatened to send federal forces into Chicago to quash the gun violence. But it isn’t military force K’Valentine says her city needs: it’s prayers.
Westword: What's on your mind these days? What are you thinking about on tour?
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What's on my mind right now? I'm just excited and trying to soak this experience in. It's a blessing to be able to tour, especially to tour with two of the people that I consider hip-hop legends, you know what I'm saying? Right now, I'm just excited. I'm excited about my album, as well.
Talk about producing and writing the album. Were you writing each piece individually?
The writing process happened organically; it wasn't a certain formula I used. I would get these beats sent to me, and as I heard ones that I liked, that would inspire me to write. The beat and production begins the song, and I finish it with my lyrics. If I heard something, it usually motivates me to write about something. It just comes.
Are you writing poetry at the same time you're working on your songs, to keep your mind moving in that way?
Lyrics come into my head often. It doesn't matter what I'm doing. I could be eating dinner; I could be in the shower. What I do is I always keep my phone on me, and I write the lyrics down in my notes in my phone so I don't forget them. I haven't really sat down and written any poetry in a while. But rap is poetry, so actually, if you count my songs as poetry, I have. I haven't written anything for a spoken-word audience lately. But lyrics just come. I just write them as they come.
What's the story — if you're willing to talk about it — behind the song "Atlanta?" Who is that person [with nappy hair and gold teeth]?
I was actually getting ready to fly to Atlanta when I was going through beats. I heard that beat, and it's just about my love for that city. But I wanted to speak about it in a more creative way. So I compared the city to an actual guy. I described the guy like that because that's what most of them look like. They have the gold teeth. Down there, having a grill is really big. It was just something fun to play with.
In your song "Family," you talk about doing everything in your career and your life for your family. What's yours like? What does family mean to you?
I have a great family. We're a very strong family. We're a family that prays. My mom prays. There are six of us children. My mother raised us pretty much by herself. My father was murdered when I was young, and so she has been the head of the household for as long as I can remember. She just always instilled in us to have a strong faith. She also informed us of how powerful prayer is, so we have a strong faith-based family. I have two brothers and three sisters that I grew up with. We're siblings, so we have our times where we may not be on the same level. We might not be seeing eye to eye, but we have always been able to work past it. I'd say my siblings are some of my best friends.
The other dominant theme in this album is thinking a lot about what it means to be coming into your voice as an artist. Are you as confident as the songs?
Yeah, I would like to think so.
How do you get that way?
I can't even take the credit for it and say it's truly confidence. What I can say is that it's more faith-based than anything, and believing in something even though you can't really see the end result or you can't see the finish line. That's half the battle. Believing in yourself takes way more energy and way more strength than people think. You have to constantly encourage yourself — especially in an industry such as this one.
What I would tell people is there is nothing in this world that hasn't already been accomplished. Another human has already accomplished it. So if another human is able to, then why wouldn't I be able to — as long as I put in the work and do what I'm supposed to on my end. I'm sorry to say it, it's not just fully confidence. It's me having faith and believing in myself and believing in my art and believing that there are still people out there who will appreciate real, honest hip-hop.
Do you feel like that's becoming more of a rarity these days?
Somewhat. But then, not as much. At first I want to say I feel like that because there is a trend of a certain type of hip-hop that's really popular now. The lyrics don't really hold any substance, but it's kind of trendy music right now. But what I can say, in hip-hop's defense, the hip-hop albums that sell the most in the first week or two and still go platinum is your J. Cole. It's your Kendricks, your Drakes. Hip-hop is still very alive and well, and people still appreciate it and respect it outside of what the trendiest and most popular music is right now.
The album is also so erotic, so political, so faith-based. Talk about what your experience is of all that.
I would say that is the perfect definition of a woman. Aren't we so many things? We're emotional, we can feel this way one day, then feel this way the next. That's truly who I am, and I never want to be put in a box and only be able to speak about a certain topic or certain things. I talk about love because I believe in love. I hope to have it someday. I hope to experience it some day. I see my family. I get to witness love. Of course I'm going to speak about love. As far as politics or what I see, a true artist should reflect the times. What's going on around me, what I experience and what I see is what I speak about. You have police brutality. You have everything — now, the president, you know what I mean? There are so many things to speak of. That's where I have to speak on my political views and what's happening in the world socially. I know you mentioned...did you say erotic?
I did say erotic.
[Laughs.] You know, that's me. Women, it's okay to speak about sexuality. People like to hear that. The thing that I love about being a hip-hop artist is that I can pretty much say what I want. I can say how I truly feel. I do have some erotic music, but I also have music that is going to empower and uplift those same women. If that's what you get from listening to that project, that's a good thing. I would like people to think they are listening to a well-rounded body of work.
Can you talk about the role of faith in your life and what it means to you right now?
Faith is the reason I'm still alive, to be honest. Faith is the reason that I'm here today, because faith, to me, is hope. It's believing, and it's hope. Sadly, in this day and age, you see things that can lead you to believe there is no hope left. But if you have that little bit of faith, that little bit of hope, that is the thing that can push you to continue in any circumstance. My mother, as I said earlier, she instilled in us the power of prayer and how powerful it is to believe — not just in yourself, but in the fact that anything you're going through, any hardship, any turmoil, will ultimately pass. If you stay strong and are able to weather the storm and get through it, you will always get through and then get over. So, faith, I don't know if I can accurately describe it in words what it means in my life.
Were you close to your father?
I was close to my father. If he was still alive, we would have had that bond. My mother said when I was little, I was a daddy's girl. It was my grandfather on my mother's side who actually filled the void. He became my father. His name was Sebastian. He did everything I know my father would have done had he still been with us. Sadly, last October, we lost my grandfather. So, rest in peace to him. He was a great man.
How did you deal with that kind of loss when you were young?
It's funny, because I think the fact that I was young helped. I didn't understand everything. My mother didn't allow us to attend his funeral. He had been shot over thirty times. His body was swollen. He didn't even look like himself. She didn't want us to have that be our last visual memory of him. After his passing, we kind of stayed away from everything. My mom shielded us from a lot of stuff. I remember being sad. I remember mourning. I remember seeing others around me mourning, but I don't remember all the details. I get those from my sister and my mother and from his side of the family. I got those details as I grew older. I think it was easier than how it would have been if it had happened later on in life.
How old were you?
I was about six or seven. I was pretty young.
Talk about your mother's role in nurturing — or not nurturing — your creativity and your writing.
My mother is an excellent writer and an excellent public speaker. I think I inherited some of that from her. Whenever I was going through something — I could be mad or angry or sad — I would always write. Different kids have their different outlets. Some throw tantrums. Some binge-watch movies. Mine was write. I would always be in my room by myself, and I would write.
One particular day, I was angry at my mother because she put me on punishment, but I didn't think I should have been punished. I went into the bathroom and I wrote a poem about it. I remember she came in there. She was wondering why I was in the bathroom so long. I was just sitting on the toilet writing. She was like, "What are you writing?" I told her, "A poem." She asked me what it was about, and I said it was about her. So then she made me read it to her, and I read it to her. You know what, there is one thing I can say: It was very respectful, but it was honest. After I read the poem to her, she took me off of punishment, because it was so well written. So kids, if you get on punishment, write a poem about your mom and she'll take you off.
Has she heard the new album? What does she think?
Oh, she loves the album. Yeah, she's heard it. She absolutely loves it. She's very supportive of my music. It was so funny, because I have that song called "That's Real," featuring BJ the Chicago Kid, and when I decided to use that beat, I was with my mom. I was listening to beats, and she asked if she could hear them. I was listening in my headphones, so I plugged into the big speakers. I said, "I really like this beat," and my mother was like, "I don't really like it." I said, "Mom, you need to listen to it again. I'm going to have to start it over and play it again." I said, "This is perfect to write a love song to." So I turned it back on and turned it up a little louder because, you know, whenever you increase the volume, it sounds better. So I played it for her, and she said, "Okay, okay, I see where you're going with this." She's into it. I don't take all of her advice, because had I, "That's Real" wouldn't exist. She gives her input from time to time, and she's a very big supporter.
What's it like being from Chicago right now? Is that a blessing or a curse?
I wouldn't say it's a curse. What I am happy about, as far as the fact of being from Chicago, is that being raised in a city such as Chicago has made me the woman I am today. I think I am who I am because I was born and raised there. But it's nothing that I'm proud of. I wrote a song called "Anti-Chiraq" because they gave us the nickname to compare us to Iraq due to the amount of murder. It's nothing that I'm happy about. You'll never hear me use the term "Chiraq," like, "Hey, what up, I'm from Chiraq." I always say Chicago, or I say Chi-town.
It's terrible, because it also resonates with the fact that black people have a lot of work to do. We do deal with racism in America. Racism is everywhere. We are racially profiled at times. They kill unarmed black men, women and children. But aside from that, black people have our own issues. A lot of the homicide rate is black-on-black crime. We could talk about that for hours because there are a lot of things that also contribute to that. It's poverty, it's systemic oppression and just not having access to things.
I'm just praying for my city. I'm trying to convey a message via hip-hop. I do what I can. I'm a part of the anti-Chiraq movement in Chicago. When I'm there, I make it a point to attend the anti-Chiraq events. We have events for kids. They're usually held at either a restaurant or a high school in the gym, or we invite children out just to have a good time. There's always food available and great music and activities. We want to give them something else to do with their time besides being out on the street doing nothing.
But back to your question. It's a blessing to be from Chicago, but I have to be honest and say that Chicago needs some work. We need to be lifted up in prayer as well.
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Talk about the mentoring you do.
Right now I reach the highest amount of people through my music. As far as mentoring, it's usually through the anti-Chiraq events that I spoke about previously. That's where I meet a lot of the kids, but it's not always in person. I get messages daily from young people asking me — sometimes letting me know, "I heard this song of yours, and it really inspired me," or sometimes they're asking me, "How can I come up? What should I do? I want to be in the hip-hop music industry." I get all types of questions. That's one of the things I like about how many folks I reach: I'm able to connect with people who support my music. I'm able to connect with people who find my music inspiring. I'm able to connect with people I may have previously met somewhere. Maybe they've heard my music, and they can instantly send me a message, asking me whatever they want.
My hope is to be able to mentor on a grander scale in the near future. I'm able to do it now, but I want to do it even more. There's a performing-arts high school in Chicago. I spoke to the principal. She said that once I'm off tour and once I'm back in the city, we can schedule a date so I could be a guest teacher. I'm really looking forward to that.
K'Valentine performs with Talb Kweli at the Gothic Theatre at 9 p.m. on Sunday, January 29. For more information, go to the Gothic's website.