- Ryan Edmund for Chicago Reader
- Roy Kinsey released his first album in 2010, but only last year did he feel he'd earned the right to call himself an artist.
Roy Kinsey thinks about rap every day. In middle school in the late 90s, he carried around a notebook to write down rhymes, often trading bars with a friend or two. In high school, he gathered $50 and five buddies to record a demo at a Lakeview studio—they rapped over the instrumental for the 2002 Birdman single "What Happened to That Boy." Kinsey started recording as RoyAl, but just before he released his debut album, 2010's Keep the Receipt, he switched to his real name. Now 34 years old, he's been performing regularly since the mid- to late 2000s, when he began gigging at AliveOne and Tonic Room as a student at DePaul.
Kinsey never called himself an artist, though, even though he'd put out three full-lengths by 2013—he didn't think his work was worthy of what he imagined the title to signify. After dropping Beautiful Only that year, he withdrew from the stage and didn't release another album for nearly five years. Five years is a lifetime in hip-hop, and enough to undo any musician's forward momentum—but when Kinsey reemerged in February 2018, he did so with Blackie: A Story by Roy Kinsey, one of the most exceptional hip-hop releases to come out of a regional scene that's hardly short on extraordinary rappers. It was then that he felt he'd finally earned the right to the word "artist."
On Blackie, Kinsey tackles the pervasiveness and adaptability of systemic racism, describing how it transformed itself between the post-Reconstruction south and contemporary Chicago. His grandmother and mother moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1965, and throughout the album he uses his family history as a lens, drawing details from interviews and other research to give his ambitious music emotional heft. His maternal grandmother, Helen Thompson, died in 2016, but he talked to her about her life before she passed away. He read Isabel Wilkerson's celebrated 2010 history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns. He's been a librarian for a decade and a reader for his whole life, so research is second nature to him—but when he'd first taken on these subjects, he had no intention of going public with his work, much less making an album about it. "It was a story, I realized, that I was wanting to come out of me," Kinsey says of Blackie.
Blackie attracted positive coverage from Billboard, the Los Angeles Times, and NPR. In January, Kinsey brought his live Blackie show to Steppenwolf as part of the theater's cross-genre series LookOut. "Since Blackie has come out, there have been a lot of people that have received it well—it really opened my eyes to a lot of my possibilities," he says. "It sparked a fire within me again. It gave me an opportunity to be consistently making music, and to understand what is one of the most important things for me, which is writing, making music, and contributing to the arts and humanities of the world—and helping me to find myself."
Roy Kinsey, Eli Major, Semiratruth, DJ Cash Era
Tue 12/17, 8 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, $13, $10 in advance, 18+
One vital aspect of Kinsey's identity has been conspicuously absent as a focal point of his work, though, even when his lyrics are at their most vulnerable. "That was a trouble of mine that I had after Blackie," he says. "Like, 'You're a queer rapper, but I think that people just kind of know that about you. But what would it sound like, on record?' That was important for me—that was important for me to define what I would sound like." His album in progress, currently titled Kinsey: A Memoir, uses his well-honed observational skills to explore his experiences as a gay Black man.
On early Kinsey single "Fetish," he raps about the emotional bruises he endured during a night in Boystown as a young Black man. Atop solemn piano and thin, echoing percussion, he describes going home with a stranger who tokenized and objectified him: "Not sure when I left / Felt like I stepped out of the auction / Going once, got twice / Got yanked, got pulled / Got called boss, bear, and then bull / He asleep, he got fooled / I threw out the caution / I threw out the condom / I threw out my guards / I threw up in the washroom."
Kinsey navigates this emotional minefield with a firm flow and the same warmth he shows in much of his rapping—even when he's got a racist cop in his crosshairs, he sounds affable and tender. On "Fetish" and many of the other early Kinsey demos I've heard, he delivers his version of gay rap—but despite this new emphasis, he sounds just like he does on Blackie. He sounds like Roy Kinsey.
Kinsey's grandmother, Helen Thompson, used to come get him at elementary school after class. But in 1991, she fell out a window of the apartment she shared with Kinsey's family, suffering injuries that would leave her paralyzed in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She could no longer meet Kinsey at the end of the day, so he enrolled in an afterschool program run by the Marcy-Newberry Association.
He joined the program's choir, whose repertoire included pop hits of the day. Kinsey remembers a wintertime concert in Orland Park when he rapped Lil' Zane's verse in 112's 1998 song "Anywhere." "We performed that song—this crowded, packed auditorium at Carl Sandburg High School in the suburbs goes crazy for me," he says. "I felt so good. I think I've been chasing that ever since."
In middle school, Kinsey shared his original rhymes with friends, who'd sometimes playfully tease him about his work. His seventh-grade teacher saw one of his more salacious lines and confronted Kinsey's mom—a memory he had a chance to revisit when that same teacher surprised him by attending his Steppenwolf show in January. "I'm like, 'Oh, I have a very vivid memory of you calling my mom in the middle of class, reading my inappropriate rap to her'—because I started the rap saying, 'Dear Mr. President, I want to be just like you,' talking about Bill Clinton," Kinsey says. "It was ridiculous—I'm terrible!"
In high school, Kinsey and his younger brother got some gear to record at home, but it wasn't till Kinsey enrolled at DePaul in 2004 that his career as a rapper starting going anywhere. In school he met Nick Castle, aka DJ Castle, who got Kinsey his first paid rap gig and eventually produced most of Keep the Receipt. He also met Jack Hill, aka producer Doc Ill, who became so close with Kinsey that they decided to room together in the dorms—to the surprise of the roommates DePaul had assigned them. During winter break their first year, Kinsey sneaked his stuff into Hill's room, and they deposited Hill's roommate's belongings in Kinsey's old room. "We had a small courtyard in between our two buildings, so they were about 40 yards away from each other," Hill says. "I think we did it late at night so no one would see us."
The arrangement made it easy for Hill and Kinsey to record without bothering anyone else. Hill's taste began to rub off on Kinsey. "I was really only listening to glossy, flossy hip-hop—pop stuff, Cam, Jay-Z, and Ruff Ryders—and he hated everything commercial," Kinsey says. "I started listening, with him, to people like Qwel, Immortal Technique, Typical Cats, and a bunch of underground dudes, and realized to try to fit in with them, now I gotta shift my rapping in another way—sharpen my sword in this other way. That's kind of where I really started paying attention to lyrical prowess and what I said, on top of how I say it."
Hill says that back then, Kinsey was already a profound writer with a talent for choosing compelling details—a gift that could even reach folks who didn't care about the underground rap that inspired the two of them. "His lyrics were accessible to people that maybe wouldn't have been listening to our music," Hill says. "He has really grown with the people that he's met in the city, and I think that he's been able to have a lot more lanes to grow with."
After school, Hill got involved in the arty instrumental hip-hop scene as a member of Push Beats. And though they didn't stay as close as they'd been at DePaul, they continued working together—Hill provided Kinsey with instrumentals for his second album, 2012's Rookie of the Year. Kinsey, who'd graduated in 2009, landed a job that same year at the Chicago Public Library's Austin-Irving branch.
Kinsey's parents met in 1984 at CPL's main branch, in what's now the Chicago Cultural Center. His father was working there, and his mother came in to interview for a job. "They went out on a date to go see Purple Rain," Kinsey says. "And now here I am."
Kinsey's mom used to bring him to CPL's storytime sessions, and his family encouraged his early love of reading. "My grandmother, for my seventh birthday, got me an orange book that is a story about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but I'm the protagonist," Kinsey says. "It's me doing a presentation—like, writing a paper on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., about his life, and then at the end of the book I get an A on the paper."
At 16, Kinsey took a summer volunteer position at a library, foreshadowing his career to come. "I spent so much time in libraries, and working in libraries," he says. But when he took his first paying job, after DePaul, he soon realized he needed more training if he wanted to keep advancing: "I can't front about the fact that I was working there for a long time and had pretty much hit as far as I would go without my masters in library and information science." Kinsey went to graduate school at Dominican University, graduating in 2015—and along the way he took a storytelling class from Janice Del Negro, one of the librarians who'd led the storytime sessions he attended as a child. "My mom was like, 'I used to take you to her storytellings,'" Kinsey says. "She taught me a lot about the story."
Today Kinsey is a teen-services librarian at the Richard M. Daley branch in Humboldt Park. Part of his job is to help build programming for young people in the neighborhood, which is where his rap career comes in handy: he hosts open mikes and monthly rap-writing workshops. He can count on support from the larger institution too, because CPL already has a great reputation for its teen hip-hop programming—launched in 2009, Harold Washington Library's teen open-mike series, Lyricist Loft, quickly became a hub for future stars, including Saba, Noname, Lucki, and Chance the Rapper.
In fall 2017, as Kinsey prepared for the release of Blackie, he performed selections from the album at a handful of library branches as part of the citywide reading program One Book, One Chicago. (CPL had chosen Greg Kot's 2014 book on Mavis Staples, I'll Take You There, and organized music-centric programming to accompany it.) At one of those library shows, he met another teen-services librarian, Ralph Rivera, who runs the hardcore punk label Not Normal Tapes & Records. "He sat in, seen me perform, and asked me some questions," Kinsey says. "He brought his teens, and was just like, 'Yo, let me make tapes. This is an incredible album, this is a beautiful album.'"
Kinsey technically self-released Blackie, but he didn't exactly spurn Rivera's offer: Not Normal has manufactured Blackie cassettes and vinyl, which Kinsey has been selling hand-to-hand and through Not Normal's Bandcamp and Storenvy pages. Queer rap collective and label Futurehood has also supported Blackie, though it doesn't sell the album—its website includes a page dedicated to Kinsey that's packed with press clips, embedded videos, and links to his music. "I always looked at my album being a thing that I felt could help position all of us really well," Kinsey says of Futurehood. "As far as having a really solid album for a label."
- Ryan Edmund for Chicago Reader
- In July, Roy Kinsey dropped the video for "Fetish," the first single from his in-progress fourth album.
As much as Kinsey loves hip-hop, he acknowledges that he developed rap skills as a kid as a means to protect himself from bullying. "It served as this thing that was like, 'All right, they may have clocked my feminine qualities, but if I rap well, then I'll be undeniable,'" he says. "'I'll still be able to maneuver in the world in the way that I wanted.' That was this thing that didn't necessarily make me masculine, but it made the boys that were masculine respect me. And that was important to me."
As an adult, Kinsey has met lots of other queer hip-hop artists and fans at Boystown cocktail lounge Wang's, though he hasn't visited in years. Wang's manager Anthony Pabey, who produces hip-hop as Aceb00mbap, used the bar as a hub for his queer hip-hop podcast and party, Banjee Report; Erik Wallace, better known as rapper Mister Wallace, met Pabey at Wang's in 2011 and helped build Banjee Report into an event for queer hip-hop fans of color marginalized by Boystown's mainstream culture. They hosted shows at Wang's by in-demand gay rappers such as Mykki Blanco and Cakes da Killa, and in the process fostered a community—one that they still serve with Futurehood, which evolved out of Banjee Report in 2016.
"Roy being a longtime hip-hopper, someone who had been putting out records since they were in college, was just a natural addition to that community," Wallace says. "As far as I'm concerned, he's one of the most talented storytellers that I've ever met."
Kinsey says the feedback he got from people he met through Banjee Report went a long way. "Just having someone there that's championing you, and saying that you're good and being like, 'Yo, you're next, your voice is needed,' was incredible," he says. They offered him input on his art too, and helped him learn to embrace his queerness in his music on his own terms. Pabey directed the video for what Kinsey considers his first gay rap song, the hard-hitting club single "BSAYF" (pronounced "be safe"). Debuted in March 2018, it features Wallace and stars drag queen Saya Naomi.
"It made me feel like this is what I need to be doing," Kinsey says. "I was just very slow with it, because I don't ever want to come out with a voice that's not mine. I know that queer hip-hop exists. If I wasn't true to myself and didn't have the integrity, it would be easy for me to try to go and sound like something else, and say these things, or take on a persona that wasn't mine, in the name of queer hip-hop, without bringing my true self, my character, along with me."
In summer 2015, Kinsey was at the Taste of Chicago to see Erykah Badu when he ran into an acquaintance from the hip-hop scene named Mike Jones. Jones used to rap as Mike Schpitz in a duo called Grumpy Old Men, who did one show with Kinsey in the early 2010s. They hadn't hung out since that gig, but when they reconnected at the Taste, they bonded quickly and started collaborating.
They began working on tracks that ended up on Blackie, and Jones produced several of them, including "For Colored Boys" and "Jungle Book." Jones says it wasn't until after he gave Kinsey some instrumentals he'd bought from rapper, singer, and producer Phoelix (best known for his work with Noname) that he realized what his friend was putting together.
"Roy picked three and then he wrote the songs 'Red Black and Green' and 'Ring Ring.' I was like, 'Oh shit, OK, this is really, really gonna be a special record," Jones says. Over the next couple years, Jones recorded Kinsey at makeshift studios in both their homes. "We believed in this product we liked a lot—it just kind of became a thing," Jones says. "We joke it kind of became a marriage pretty quickly during the creation of this project."
Jones is helping with Kinsey: A Memoir too, helping shape Kinsey's current batch of songs into the ambitious, cohesive album of his dreams. Kinsey wants to make the record that he needed but couldn't find as a young man, when he was still seeking refuge in whatever queer stories he could dig up in the library. "We don't have a lot of young, Black gay men telling their stories," he says. "We are the ones writing that story—figuring ourselves out and then turning it into a story. So it's like saving our lives first, and then hopefully someone can use it." v
Ryan Edmund for Chicago Reader