Meet Hip-Hop’s California Wildflower
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Oakland-based MC Queens D.Light is hip-hop’s cosmic, kaleidoscopic alternative to Nicki Minaj.
Rapper Queens D.Light likens her soul to lavender: “The wildflowers people take for granted, … but they’re beautiful and able to survive even growing from concrete.”
Raised in gritty West Los Angeles at the height of the 1980s crack epidemic before making Oakland, California, her home, Queens D.Light — Queens for short — says she should be “struggling.” Instead, she’s promoting her debut album, California Wildflower, released in May, and revving up to drop a new single in January. Like dandelions fighting their way through sidewalk crevices, her music sounds fearless, feminine — think smooth, progressive lyrics laden with mythological and sci-fi imagery that still manages to sound street.
Queens raps about her cosmic birth from the West African deity Oshun and owning her sexuality: “Let’s not forget I can freak, though.”
Queens, nee Charmaine Davis, grew up listening to family members bump music ranging from gangsta rappers NWA and Tupac to soul sirens Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu. She traces her hard-hitting, poetic lyrics to her mother and grandmother, “strong matriarchs” who framed Maya Angelou’s poems and introduced her to Nikki Giovanni. “I was in awe over how they could just capture true pain, true happiness … in a few words,” Queens told OZY.
As she watched her older sister write poetry and compete in freestyle rap battles, or cyphers, Queens was spurred to compose her own rhymes. But hip-hop was more cathartic than anything — a medium to help her process and escape the violence surrounding her. She recorded her songs on cassette tapes from the safety of her bathroom.
Queens majored in film at Howard University to expand her storytelling abilities and joined San Francisco’s Them Hellas hip-hop collective as a music videographer, adopting the name Queens D.Light after her Tumblr, A Queen’s Delight. After some coaxing from her crew, Queens started competing in cyphers. Impressed, fellow collective member Duckwrth asked her to collaborate with him on a track. Once she swallowed her nerves, she couldn’t get enough of performing on stage.
Queens cites lyricist Lauryn Hill as a huge influence, along with the late Alice Coltrane, who layered bells and chants over jazz piano melodies. The MC takes a similarly kaleidoscopic approach on California Wildflower. Take “Love Pistol,” which opens with dialogue from the 1979 gang drama The Warriors — a nod to Queens’ film background — before shifting into a bebop beat as she raps about her cosmic birth from the West African deity Oshun and owning her sexuality: “Let’s not forget I can freak, though.” Meanwhile, “Shroomin’,” featuring Duckwrth, echoes with the refrain “Ashay to the most high,” a phrase often used in African-American cultural ceremonies, like Kwanzaa.
Andreana Clay, a hip-hop scholar and associate professor of sociology at San Francisco State University, praises Queens’ “solid flow” but finds some of the sampling “disorienting” and not necessarily rooted in the lyrics. And on her collab tracks, she seems to fade into the background. Because of Queens’ distinctly Bay Area sound — progressive lyrics over chill, ’90s golden-era beats — Clay envisions her attracting a small, loyal local following. To reach mainstream success, however, she would need to “fit squarely within a stereotypical bombshell, hyper-feminized role,” à la Nicki Minaj. “I think women in scenes like [Queens’], … they kind of exist in the margins.”
Check out Queens’ video for “Love Pistol” — which she helped produce — featuring the MC wearing warpaint and a tie-dyed dress as she hunts her virile prey with a bow and flaming arrow in a West Oakland garden. If the margins look this fierce, then we’re happy to linger here.