Young M.A arrives at the photo studio close enough to call time to be considered tardy, but not actually late. Her hair — a silky cloud of near-elbow-length unbraided tresses – makes it through the narrow white door before the rest of her does. She takes a quick, almost imperceptible survey of the room before sliding her surprisingly diminutive frame into the studio. Her team trail in after her, promptly fanning out to find seats on the couch or in one of the Eames-inspired chairs littering the space. Although her rider requests several bottles of Belaire Rare Rosé (Rick Ross’s brand ambassadorship seems to have made it a popular choice), M.A seems unperturbed that the drinks, nor the grilled chicken, shrimp cocktail or Smart waters that were also requested, are nowhere in sight. In truth, our crew is much more noticeably disgruntled about the lack of food. Provisions were somehow relegated to the bottom of the priority list in the frantic preparations for her arrival. M.A doesn’t outwardly indicate that she picks up on any nervous (or hungry) energy, though she circulates the space in that way of the deceptively observant — never saying too much but probably missing very little.
After a brief discussion about the styling and direction of the shoot, M.A is shown to the makeup chair. She seems resigned to the prospect of what’s to come, though she’s also seemingly unenthused. As primer, concealer and makeup brushes are laid across the table, the hairdresser hovers over her, anxiously surveying the top of her head like it’s unmapped terrain. M.A hasn’t had time to get her hair re-braided and it’s clear the stylist is nervous about being responsible for perfecting her signature four-braid style. “Can I?,” he asks hesitantly, hand poised just over her scalp. M.A shrugs noncommittally as if to say, “I don’t know, can you?” It’s confirmation enough for him to timidly begin to part her hair and attempt to apply some product. “Hold up,” M.A says almost immediately, “what are you using?” He holds aloft a natural hair conditioning cream from Shea Moisture with the expression of a doomed man who can see gallows rising above the horizon line. M.A momentarily studies the label before finally giving a nod of approval. His relief is tangible.
M.A isn’t intimidating, dismissive or remotely impolite, she’s actually quite the opposite. She often pauses before responding to questions, carefully weighing her answers as if confirming the verity of her statements internally before sharing them with the larger world. Soft spoken but quick to flash a toothy, gold-grill-accented grin, she projects an aura of uncommon reserve. Especially for a rapper whose breakout single, “OOOUUU” is a cheeky little hat-tip to lesbianism, the bond of bromances, and “HennyNHoes.” The latter being a phrase M.A, in true millennial fashion, re-appropriated as an Instagram handle. She also released a single of the same name via her 2015 debut mixtape, Sleep Walkin. At the time, M.A was an under-the-radar artist who had to fund the full cost of the project on her own. When pressed about where she acquired the money to pay for the mixtape, she curls the right side of her lip into something resembling a smile and says, “I can’t tell you that. I did have a job right out of high school though because I wasn’t with the broke shit.” Without skipping a beat she redirects back to the album, “I called it Sleep Walkin because that’s how I felt,” M.A explains, tilting her head meditatively in the direction of the hairstylist’s steady hand. “It just felt like a lot of people were sleeping on me and my talent.”
She was probably right. The project was generally regarded as a thoughtful, well-conceived rookie effort, but that alone wasn’t enough to propel her onto the playlists of a broader audience, although she’d already amassed an impressive East Coast following. In 2015, however, M.A received a visibility boost when one of her old freestyles went viral. The grainy YouTube footage from 2014 features a wifebeater-clad M.A dropping bars over the late Chicago rapper Young Pappy’s “Chiraq” beat. Social commentator and economist Dr. Boyce Watkins posted a well-timed, if not slightly supercilious, video takedown of the freestyle, deriding the lyrics for promoting genocide and homicide in black communities. Yet for all his rancor, even he couldn’t pretend M.A wasn’t without impressive talent. Watkins openly stated that, in his opinion, she delivered the best remix he’d heard.
As an introduction to M.A, “Chiraq” is a jarring, raw display of her ability to string together gritty narratives and malevolent punchlines informed by the realities of violence and murder. Lines like, “Put the Desert Eagle to his forehead and make the nigga have a change of mind” flow innately into lyrics, that, by content alone, separate M.A from her heteronormative male counterparts — many of whom still labor under the restrictive rules of masculinity ever-present in hip-hop. “Stop talking that tough shit ’cause you dyke bitches ain’t ’bout that,” she crows, before later following up with, “Never been a pussy type / but I know a lot of pussy dykes / your shit’s trash you can’t rap.”
M.A’s ability to occupy the space of being other, without being othered — both in her music and everyday life — is part of what has made her ascension to the top of New York’s hip-hop elite so fascinating. She is an openly lesbian, masculine-presenting rapper who talks freely — and sometimes with a flair of misogyny, though she expertly sidesteps the subject when I bring it up — about her sexual desires for women. Yet even in doing so, she refuses to allow her orientation to define her artistry, or even her identity. M.A doesn’t care to be idolized as the new “lesbian rapper” championing gender parity in hip-hop any more than she cares if her preference for women is a source of fascination or revulsion to others. “I don’t give a fuck,” she says, with the frank confidence of someone who knows what giving too much of a fuck feels like. She understands that sometimes the better option really is to stop caring. For M.A, making that choice directly parallels her journey in music. All of it is underpinned by the moment she finally found the courage to come out.
“One of the first rhymes I remember writing was like, ‘Pimps in the club ridin’ on dubs smoking that bud we ain’t tryna show them love,’ or something like that.”
Young M.A was born Katorah Marrero in East New York. Her mother, Latasha, raised her and her two siblings with the help of M.A’s grandmother, who lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn to this day. As a child, she was exposed to classic New York hip-hop and gangsta rap by her mother, who M.A describes as a lifelong music lover and a former aspiring musician. “I probably started writing raps when I was like eight or nine. I didn’t even know what I was talking about back then,” M.A says. When she got bored with her classes she would scrawl half-conceived rhymes in her school notebook to tame her wandering mind. In 2003, she heard 50 Cent’s debut studio album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, a record that would go on to deeply influence M.A’s approach to lyricism, and cement her young ambition of being a rapper. “One of the first rhymes I remember writing was like, ‘Pimps in the club ridin’ on dubs smoking that bud we ain’t tryna show them love,’ or something like that,” says M.A with a self-deprecating laugh.
Life in a single parent home, though loving and supportive, wasn’t always easy, nor was life in East New York. When M.A was 10, her mother moved the family to Chesterfield, Virginia in pursuit of better opportunities. There, M.A excelled in sports, particularly football where she was the first and only girl to play on her school team. She also continued to hone her music skills, writing raps at every opportunity and even partnering with three friends to form a pseudo rap crew. Despite feeling fairly content with her life in Virginia, M.A says something still nagged at her for most of her adolescence — it was the notion that maybe who she thought she was or who she thought she wanted to be, wasn’t actually what would make her happy. “I knew I liked women very, very young, since I was like five years old or something,” she says. “It’s not so much I was scared to come out or anything like that. I just think where I was it wasn’t really that common. In New York there’s so many different kinds of people. Shit, there’s gay people everywhere, but it wasn’t like that in Virginia.”
After years of summers shuttling back and forth between New York and Virginia, M.A finally moved to Brooklyn in 2009 when she was 17. For a teenager anxiously suppressing her sexual identity, returning to the cosmopolitan thrum of the Big Apple must have felt like a welcome relief. Sadly, it was short-lived: only a few months after relocating, M.A’s older brother Kenneth was murdered in Pennsylvania following a gang-related dispute. He was only 20-years-old. Kenneth’s tragic passing and the nature of his death would eventually lead to incorrect assumptions about M.A’s RedLyfe crew affiliation. “I hate that people think it’s about gang shit because it’s not,” she says of her longtime group of friends. “Everyone thinks we’re on some blood shit but really red is just my favorite color and they been holding me down,” she shares.
Kenneth, who M.A admits was involved in the street life, was like an older brother and father figure in one. She was immediately devastated by his loss. “I was really dealing with a lot of shit then,” she says. “I wasn’t happy, I was unfocused and I wasn’t really in a space for music.” Despite that, she kept writing songs, cycling through her grief, confusion and pain in lyrics. She also finally came out. “I came out after my brother died because I just stopped giving a fuck,” she shares. “I don’t know if he knew but I think he probably did. I was a tomboy growing up — I always wanted to play sports and be around the boys — he used to tease me sometimes and tell me I was gay, but I’d always be like ‘no I’m not!'”
At one point, she says she even tried to wear more girls’ clothing, hoping that her mother, who, over the course of M.A’s childhood occasionally dropped hints and even asked her if she was gay, wouldn’t think she was. When she finally dropped the pretense, M.A says the conversation was surprisingly anti-climactic. “Man, my mama already knew,” she laughs. She touches on the topic in “Quiet Storm,” rapping, “Mama wondered why I never liked to wear a skirt / Or wear a purse, I tried to be girly once / But fortunately it didn’t work.”
“People from my community, the gay community, know what I’m talking about.
If other people don’t like it or they’re curious that’s not my problem. They can figure out how all of that works if they really want to.”
It is fortunate for the fans who herald her as a return to real, gritty, street-centric New York hip-hop. Even though coming out was never intrinsically connected to her ability to make music, M.A admits that a lot of the internal turmoil that mired her in self-doubt resolved itself once she felt like she was at peace with who she was. “Before I came out I used to be really shy, like I wouldn’t want to perform on stage or go to events to meet industry people and stuff like that,” she admits. Picturing a bashful younger version of M.A isn’t actually that difficult. Even today, she retains a certain reticence that sometimes requires a bit of prodding to overcome. What’s apparent is that her reservation isn’t borne from a lack of self-confidence, but rather a lack of care about the way others perceive her. M.A likes what she likes and she won’t compromise her conviction for anyone. The makeup artist gets a firsthand lesson when she peers at herself in a mirror and promptly pronounces her face too heavily made-up. “I only used primer and concealer,” he tells M.A appeasingly, but she isn’t budging. “I was just on the phone and there’s makeup on my screen. It’s too much,” she says with a finality that soon has him resignedly blotting the excess from her face.
During interviews if the topic sways from her music to something as personal as her sex life, as it occasionally does with curious journalists and hosts hoping to land some titillating content, she handles herself with the same charming tenacity. If there’s one thing M.A has become a pro at it’s communicating that who she is isn’t predicated on who she sleeps with, and who she sleeps with has absolutely nothing to do with her music. While she’s never shied away from proclaiming her preferences on a track, she’s made it clear that her personal life is off limits. “I just say whatever I feel like saying in my music,” she says. “People from my community, the gay community, know what I’m talking about. If other people don’t like it or they’re curious that’s not my problem. They can figure out how all of that works if they really want to.”
Last year when she appeared on Power 105.1’s notoriously uncensored morning show, The Breakfast Club, she demonstrated that mentality in real-time. For emerging entertainers, facing down the tag team gauntlet of Charlamagne Tha God, Angela Yee and DJ Envy is a rite of passage. When Charlamagne mentioned “OOOUUU”‘s most-perennially discussed line: “Baby gave me head, that’s a low blow / Damn she make me weak when she deep throat,” and promptly followed up by asking M.A, “What the hell was she deep throating?,” the rookie pulled an Olivia Pope move on the vet. “Listen, I’m not going to tell you that. That’s none of your business, that’s my business. You shouldn’t even want to know what a dildo does buddy,” she said, earning a round of laughs from the room. Moments later she pulled another firm but polite evasive maneuver on DJ Envy, who had followed up with a question of his own about her sex life. It was one of the first times she had been publicly challenged to steer the conversation away from her sexuality and back to the topic she wanted to discuss: music. “Yeah, you see how I handled that,” she laughs. “I expected that because it’s The Breakfast Club but I do think it’s weird that so many people feel like they can ask me stuff like that — it’s like me asking a dude about his penis, it’s weird.”
These days, though, weird is just a normal state of being for M.A. The success of “OOOUUU,” which currently has over 200 million views on YouTube, catapulted her into a new echelon of stardom, taking her from local talent to globally recognized name. Even the grocery store in her new, more gentrified neighborhood has become a forum for meet-and-greets: she tells me how a cashier offered to help her pick out some cheeses the day before, but really it was just an excuse to ask for a picture. “OOOUUU” also triggered a roll-in of record deal offers last year, something M.A admits she thought she wanted at one time, but realized she didn’t need after seeing how well she was doing making music on her own terms with her own team. She turned down a recurring role on Empire for the same reason. That, and because she was slated to be cast as a gay female rapper and didn’t want her actual reality to become blurred with that of a fictional character. M.A is making moves in the business department too, securing relationships with behemoths like Beats by Dre. She recently appeared in the company’s celebrity-filled “Got No Strings” campaign. “I definitely felt like it was a fit just because Beats is just so part of the culture, you know? Back in the day it was the big speakers you carried around and then iPods and stuff… now it’s Beats. Dre was a huge part of hip-hop and somebody I looked up to coming up. Everything just felt really natural the way it happened and it didn’t feel forced. They were really willing to work with me and my team so it was just a great opportunity that made sense to us,” M.A says of the burgeoning relationship.
At the rate her star is rising, it’s unlikely Beats will be the last of her endorsement deals or partnerships. What seems more likely is that a self-described “pretty but loco” girl from East New York will cement herself as the city’s reigning rap king, and nobody will have a thing to say about it.
- Words: Stephanie Smith-Strickland
- Photography: CG Watkins
- Styling: Jenny Haapala
- Hair: Nero @ Vijin Using Amika
- Make Up: Kunio Katoaka Using MAC
- Photography Assistant: Rashied Black & Victoria Espinoza
- Cinematographer: Gladimir Gelin
- Special Thanks: Carlitos Ross from #unknxwskeletxn