“People Be Making Music for the Wrong Reasons”: An Interview with Kamaiyah

Steven Louis speaks to the Oakland emcee about the difficulty of promoting her new album Another Summer Night while grieving, navigating Oakland's gentrification, going to therapy and more.
By    December 13, 2023

Image via Brandon Almego

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Steven Louis was NOT born December 4th, weighing in at 10 pounds, 8 ounces, the last of Gloria Carter’s four children.

By her own estimates, Kamaiyah is behind on the numbers. The East Oakland hitmaker subscribes to a local rap tradition of one release every quarter. E-40 and Too $hort were the suede-suited proofs of concept, Mac Dre made it happen for the mixtape generation, and Larry June is doing it in real time. Seven years into her career, she explains, she should really have 28 projects out by now. Instead, Another Summer Night is only her ninth drop.

It’s neither for lack of audience nor motivation. Though Kamaiyah broke out with a unique look, fully-formed sound and enough forceful confidence to collapse the Bay Bridge, she found herself in an all-too-familiar cipher of record deal hell just two years later. Her first full album, A Good Night In the Ghetto, made every year-end list and put her on an accelerated path to superstardom; next came a chart-topper with Drake and a TV spot with LeBron. Then came the multiple delayed release dates, comprehensive mismanagement at the label, and what she describes as an overall disinterest in her organic growth. Somehow, Kamaiyah had just one release (the buoyant and fantastic Before I Wake) between her successful 2016 debut and the start of the pandemic. Now free from the confines of Interscope and 4Hunnid, the founder of Keep It Lit Records is making up for stolen time.

To listen to Kamaiyah’s music is to get great news and run to celebrate with all the homies. Production is neon-lit, liquor-stained and subwoofer-destroying. Raps are bellowed anthemically with group vocals. The swagger matches a centrifugal force of a thousand suns, but the delivery itself is effortless and chilly. Another Summer Night comes on the heels of a collaborative album with Jay Worthy and Harry Fraud, though as evidenced by the title, it was supposed to drop earlier to support a summer tour with YG, Tyga and Saweetie. Still, Kamaiyah’s latest is a heavily-poured cocktail of all that makes her captivating – bottles rattle from the bass of “Take a Sip,” chest-out self-reliance occupies every second of “XXL Letterman,” and the freaks and gangstas commingle on the club floors of “Every Friday” and “Extra Love.” Another Summer Night also boasts two heart-racing joints laced by 03 Greedo, and as Kamaiyah tells us, a dual project may be in the works for 2024.

Though she admitted to libra-scaling a gang of personal issues, ranging from the sudden passing of her uncle to an imminent move from Long Beach back to The Bay, Kamaiyah is hilarious and spirited in conversation. She’s balanced mourning and progression her entire adult life – the critical distinction now is that she’s the one calling her own shots. We talked to her about hard-won independence, being “the most mainstream underground artist,” where she fits into the lineage of Oakland and her goal of performing at the Warriors’ arena for 2025 NBA All-Star Weekend.

​​(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

What’s good, Kamaiyah? How are you feeling?

Kamaiyah: I’m good, but I done ate and now I’m exhausted in the middle of the day.

Damn, what was for lunch?

Kamaiyah: I had a Philly cheesesteak and some buffalo wings. That tore my ass up.

That’s an ambitious lunch.

Kamaiyah: I know, but I haven’t been eating! The elevator in my building isn’t working, so when I step out, I really eat. That shit is terrible and it’s pissing me off. I’m on one of the top floors, and I’m actually supposed to move next week. How y’all expecting me to move out of here without the elevator? They better figure that out, it’s inhumane at this point.

California landlords are the worst of the worst.

Kamaiyah: Is what it is.

I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your uncle. My condolences. How do you promote an album independently while also grieving? I can’t imagine it’s easy.

Kamaiyah: There’s no real orthodox way to go about it. Me doing press now, like, I should’ve been doing that last week, but someone perished, and I had to deal with it. I usually give myself a full 72 hours to cry, punch a wall, whatever I’ve got to do. But after that, it’s like, back to normal. Life doesn’t stop just because someone’s ended, they want you to keep going and thriving.

To me, one of the most special things about hip hop is that it carries names across the world. Fans from all over can honor your uncle indirectly through the music.

Kamaiyah: That’s real shit. He was a good dude, my “Druncle Carl.” A lot of people loved him. I looked up in the middle of his candlelight vigil, and G-Eazy was there. I was surprised, but you just never knew who he knew in the Bay Area. Two, three hundred people were out in the middle of the street in Oakland, and he wasn’t a celebrity, it just goes to show what he meant to the culture.

It seems like you’ve done this two-step before, too – I’m thinking about Brenda calling in from above on Divine Timing.

Kamaiyah: My grandmother and grandfather died during the pandemic, and I actually had a lot of people pass during the pandemic. You gotta understand, at the beginning of my career, everyone got to watch my brother die from cancer as I was ascending to the top. I dunno, for some reason, my success is rooted in grieving.

How do you reconcile that?

Kamaiyah: I had to understand that was just part of my journey. And I had to start going to therapy for that, for sure. I used to feel like I didn’t deserve stuff, like, why am I alive when other people weren’t? It took me a while to reinforce that this is my life, and I can’t change the route I have to walk based on other circumstances. So, this is all part of my story.

Every city has its fallen OGs and martyrs, but what is it about Oakland that shows up with such collectivism?

Kamaiyah: People really have to understand, our culture thrives from the Black Panthers. That sisterhood, brotherhood, it’s rooted in here. So when someone perishes, it feels like a family coming back and uniting to honor them.

How does that community live on, as Oakland gets gentrified and capital flees the city. Like, all the sports teams just left!

Kamaiyah: We’re at a pivotal period with that. But don’t get it twisted – we still have the Warriors, and now we’re getting a WNBA team. The city should be updating, rather than just demolishing, and then building some new raggedy ass apartments. Why not renovate Oracle, rather than build something new? In music, the shit you’re talking about was really paved by Too $hort and E-40. They were independent leaders, so it’s genetically just our thing now. [Laughing] I signed a deal by way of damn near force, kidnapped by management and I needed money if I wasn’t going back to work. But A Good Night in the Ghetto is owned by me. I always wanted to build my catalog, feed my family off owning my stuff. Truthfully, at this point in my career, I should have 28 albums. Seven years, one a quarter. The label was a delay, so now I’m building my catalog back up to those numbers.

Twenty-eight albums in seven years sounds crazy.

Kamaiyah: Not really! Look what Larry June is doing. Look what Mozzy is doing. Mac Dre, E-40. That’s just the formula for the Bay Area, an album a quarter. It’s organic to me, because when you get it, you get it. When you’re independent, who is gonna stop you? And that builds a narrative.

Another Summer Night has a lot of party songs, but a bit more melancholy than usual with something like “Every Friday” or “Whole Lotta Ms.” Did therapy change the way you go about music these days?

Kamaiyah: Hell no. I go to therapy to heal my childhood f*ckin’ trauma, not to change the drama. [Laughing] I need the drama, because I feel like a big part of being a music artist is being toxic. Like, you have to be, the f*ck?! I love Future, because he’s unapologetically toxic. He tells you: I want to be married, I want to be a family man, but my fans would not like that, so I’m out here living this life. And he’s not wrong!

How does that confidence manifest in your stuff, then?

Kamaiyah: You have to already know who you are in order to fill that out. I came into the game already popular and confident, so music didn’t change who I was. It just elevated it. Look, I’m the only person with my name, so as a kid, everyone knew me. At first, I used to be fighting and shit. People knew me very f*cking well, from the parties to the local talent contests. I was winning rap battles and stuff.

You were a battler? I’m a huge fan of what Chrome 23 is doing with women emcees.

Kamaiyah: Yeah, but I hated doing that shit. [Laughing] What separated me, and why I focused on making music, is that it feels good for me to write actual songs. That shit makes me feel 50 times better than some battle verse shit. I wouldn’t ever hop back in that arena again, but maybe I’d host one.

What about the creation of Another Summer Night surprised you most?

Kamaiyah: I mean, based on the title, it was supposed to come out in the summer, and I was gonna tour with YG, Saweetie and Tyga, then they pushed it back. So now it’s Another Summer Night in the winter, which kinda threw things off. It would’ve been better in the summer, but whatever.

Does that frustrate you? Or will you go just make another summer project next season?

Kamaiyah: It’s funny, I was just talking to my producers about that. Here’s the thing: we own that music, we can start a f*cking TikTok challenge throughout the city in May. It doesn’t matter. More than timing, consistency is what really activates a consumer. Larry, Curren$y, all the people that’s independent and thriving, that’s what inspires me.

Tell me about arriving at your independence. Was it a lightbulb moment one day, or was it always a gradual march to this from day one?

Kamaiyah: I always wanted to do it this way, I just never found a flow for it. The industry really never had a female artist that was 100 percent independent, building up the touring, standing on business and everything. You got mainstream folks pretending to be independent, but totally independent with no secret situation behind the curtain? I think the only woman who had her own label was Queen Latifah with Flavor, when she signed Naughty By Nature and all them. Other than her, these bitches be lying. Even Young. M.A, she said she was independent but – you know the whole thing where you’re signed to distribution in your city, and they have a partnership with someone bigger type shit? So yeah, there really was no example for what that independent woman looked like.

I gotta say, the highlight of Another Summer Night for me might be your chemistry with 03 Greedo. Were those songs recorded in person?

Kamaiyah: Nah. So, me and Greedo have had a relationship for like five or six years. When he first came home, I called him and we just conversed. I threw him two songs I thought he’d sound good on, and boom, sent those bitches right back. We sound so good together.

A joint project would be really special, I hope I can actualize this.

Kamaiyah: Don’t you worry, we working on it! We’re definitely talking about it, definitely in the works.

What was it like hearing yourself on a record with Max B? In my opinion, he’s the one of the best to ever do it.

Kamaiyah: I’m very honored. That experience was all due to Harry Fraud. He called me and Worthy one day, saying “I’m about to pull some shit off, y’all are about to be juiced.” And that was that, I knew New York was about to be with it.

It sounds like Harry and Jay are fun to work with?

Kamaiyah: It’s honestly so easy. Harry is one of the most genuine and sweet people I’ve ever worked with. He doesn’t make it complicated; he says, “this is your world, I’ll go with it.” It’s so easy to work with him, we knock out songs in a day. I’d love to keep working. And I’ve been on Jay Worthy since like 2016. That just happened off the strength, and we’re practically family at this point.

As The Bay experiences its own mini rap renaissance right now, is there anything that concerns you? Do you still feel like y’all are not getting the credit you deserve up there?

Kamaiyah: If you look at the trajectories of the people who have made it out of The Bay in the last 10 years, we were all established artists. We’re not brand new. With someone like Larry June, he had his moment, lost his sound, found a new one and made a resurgence. I love The Bay, but it feels like not a lot of folks here make music for people outside The Bay. They don’t try to make world-renowned music that feels good everywhere. I feel like, when I make music, whether you’re in Atlanta or New York, you’re gonna feel it. Sometimes in The Bay, I be listening to music and thinking, “what the f*ck is this?!” They’ve got lasers, whistles, whispers. I love it, but y’all gotta start making songs!

Look, my dad was on drugs, my mom didn’t raise me. And I still found a way to make it out. Folks from The Bay be saying how “nobody f*cks with us.” What’s the solution? What are you doing to make them f*ck with you? How are you making yourself stand out so that the world will accept you? Cuz I did not complain. When I came in the game, I didn’t look like nothing that was already out. But I knew I would stand out. It’s like, people from The Bay don’t even believe in the concept of star power. Just throw on a white T, jeans and rap with a blunt behind my ear. That’s not how it’s gonna work.

On the subject of “whistles and whispers,” I gotta ask about getting Keak Da Sneak on “Oakland Nights.”

Kamaiyah: So, Keak worked with my ex-boyfriend’s brother, that was his management. Keak also grew up with my older cousin, they’re from the same neighborhood. So I’m a huge Keak Da Sneak fan, all the way from 3X Krazy! To get together and make a record, and not only that, but for it to become an Oakland anthem…I mean, when I go out and drive around, I still hear people playing that. Shit, I did what I was supposed to do! We both did, because for him, it bridged a gap in generations. That song was actually supposed to be in the film Blindspotting, but it got caught up in some red tape.

Another one of my favorite collabs of yours is “It’s On the Flo,” with the late, great Young Slo-Be. Did you two have any relationship prior to working on that?

Kamaiyah: I knew him because he and my lil cousin’s child’s father are like best friends. So I got to know Slo-Be personally before he perished. He was actually supposed to pull up on me like two days before he died. I didn’t press him, but damn. It’s crazy that now, you have a bunch of little Slo-Bes, like 27 of them!

And on the subject of reaching beyond California, what are the most turned-up cities for Kamaiyah shows?

Kamaiyah: Salt Lake City, they Keep It Lit, oh yeah. And I sold out a show in Hawaii, I did like 1500 tickets. That shit was so fun. The Polynesians, the islanders, they really f*ck with me. Maybe it’s my name, like there must be an island out there called Kamaiyah or something. I hit the stage and heard CHEE-HOO like crazy. [Laughing] We made it a whole vacation. The day before the show, we were on the water, parasailing and all that. And the day after, we rode scooters around the island to explore. We really had fun.

For those who don’t already know, what’s going on at these Kamaiyah shows?

Kamaiyah: We’re a physical ticket fanbase. I’m so over the festivals when I’ve got real crowds chanting all my lyrics. A Kamaiyah show is like a house party. No violence, no drama, everyone just having a great f*cking time. You’ll smoke your smoke, drink your drink, and probably meet the love of your life. And we’re not in there mosh pitting. Sometimes you just wanna vibe. That shit single-handedly killed a lot of concert culture. Now you’ve got a bunch of folks in dirty Air Force 1s trying to push everyone over. Move the f*ck out of the way, you’re spilling Budweiser on me! Look, a lot of people don’t know that I’m a big Travis Scott fan. But I’m not trying to jump up and down and push on people. Everyone trying to do that killed the festival culture. You’re coming in to mosh, but then it’s like, why the f*ck are you jumping up and down to SZA? [Laughing] We’re not all making that music, and y’all are gonna be jumping to stuff you have no business jumping to. You get all worked up for Travis Scott and whoever, and the next person you see after that is Mariah Carey.

As someone who makes music for the come-up, for the underdogs, is it hard to maintain that energy as you become more established and successful?

Kamaiyah: I still feel like I’m the underdog, I just have a lot of accolades. I’m like the most mainstream underground artist you’ve ever met. I’ve had a double-platinum record with Drake, a commercial with LeBron James, but I never got to build my own brand because I was stuck in a recording contract. That keeps me with a hunger that just doesn’t go away. I feel like I deserve Grammys, VMAs and shit. I don’t put a time constraint on any of these goals these days. I know that folks get what they deserve. Look at Priscilla Renea: she was signed to a record deal years and years ago, then she was writing songs for everyone else, and just now is she getting her due as Muni Long. I don’t give a f*ck if I’m 57 years old when I get my diamond record, because I got it. I’ve watched Tina Turner documentaries, Rick James documentaries, Jay Z documentaries, and you realize folks get into their mid-30s before they become truly successful. 50 Cent was in his f*ckin’ 30s, and we were thinking he was young as hell. Is age really a thing? I feel like Missy Elliott and I have careers that ironically mirror each other, and if you look at her, she really didn’t peak in popularity until later on. She had singles since the mid-90s, and “Lose Control” was like full a decade later. Don’t put no time limit on yourself. Again, look at Future, this man just turned FORTY. Think of what he accomplished from 2013 to now. Seriously, don’t put no damn time limit on yourself.

It must be easier said than done, right? You must have moments wondering why things didn’t break one way or the other?

Kamaiyah: Like I said with my album, I believe in Divine Timing. When the universe opens itself up for you, can’t nobody stop that for you but you. We may have clocks in our heads or ideas on when something should occur, but it’s not up to us. When God says go, you gotta go and get yours. I do believe, through the alchemy of life, that the universe can open itself to you multiple times. That’s why you can never stop believing. After all, who has ever achieved just one goal and then stopped trying? Nah, you wanna do more shit. That’s why rich folks don’t get complacent! They don’t say, “I finally bought a Maybach”; they say, “now I have to get a yacht, f*ck it, let’s get a jet.”

Any other unstated goals for the future, whenever it comes?

Kamaiyah: Look, NBA All-Star Weekend is here in 2025. I have 12 months to turn the f*ck up so that when they come here, all they hear is my Black ass. To me, that’s achievable, and other things can be accomplished in service of that goal. I may work toward NBA All-Star and end up getting a BET Award, like, that wasn’t my intention but thank you God! From believing in one thing, a lot of other things can come with it. And I want my own platinum record. It’s cool to be featured on one, but I want my own. I know that if I got on TikTok every day, shaking my ass, I’d get that platinum record. But that’s not why I got into the entertainment industry. I did it to connect with people, and to do it organically.

What do those people tell you when you meet them in person?

Kamaiyah: I’ve had multiple fans tell me they were contemplating committing suicide, but listened to my music and were influenced by my positivity. That’s what this shit is for. People of every single race, color and sexuality, being themselves and having a good time. Don’t nothing else really matter other than the love and happiness. I swear, people be making music for the wrong reasons.

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