I was at a panel recently about representation in the arts, and the head of a local arts organization talked about how they didn’t want to force artists from marginalized communities to do “buckskin and beads.” In other words, people from marginalized communities shouldn’t have to make art that was about their particular identity, or the struggles of their community.
I thought about that while listening to Kamaiyah’s 2016 mixtape “A Good Night in the Ghetto.” When I first listened to the album by the 21-year-old Oakland rapper, I was disappointed. Here’s a woman from a community that is being decimated by gentrification, police brutality, and gang violence, and all she’s rapping about is having money, getting drunk, and getting laid. The framing skits are her calling her friends to get ready to go out. It struck me as frivolous given where she’s coming from.
The more I listened to Kamaiyah, however, the more I realized that she wasn’t ignoring or even glossing over the more negative aspects of her experience; she was just choosing to not focus on them. For example “I’m On” celebrates making it, while making reference to a rough upbringing:
“I grew up in the slums, wasn’t raised up in a mansion
Days full of hurt, I was sad
Pallet on the floor
No pads for the mattress
Music was my answer to the madness
I say I gotta do this, so I focused on the rapping
Father was on drugs was my daddy
Mama ain’t around
Black queen, but I’m damaged
This is the life that I came from
Struggling, hurting, and anger
But I stayed down with my day ones
God made a way and I came up”
She doesn’t dwell on her past, however. The song is more about how great it is to have money and ride around in nice cars. It’s like she’s saying, yes, life can be really terrible, so I’m going to live as much as I can. sWhen the world is trying to beat you down, living well is the best revenge.
If you want more depth, album closer “For My Dawg” is about a friend with cancer. While that song is touching, Kamaiyah really hits her stride when she’s celebrating. She offers a different perspective on the standard party rap. There’s songs about loving ’em and leaving ’em, but it’s less obnoxious with the genders swapped.
Production is supplied by CT Beats, Trackademicks, DJ Official, 1-O.A.K, WTF NonStop, Link Up, Drew Banga, and P-Lo. The beats either owe a lot to DJ Mustard (“F*** It Up”) or 90s Bay Area rap (most of the rest of the album). There are lots of slapping drums with synths that sound like they came straight out of a 90s R&B song.
What ultimately won me over to “A Good Night in the Ghetto” was Kamaiyah’s sing-song flow, her breezy confidence, and the smooth, effortless style of the album. It also doesn’t hurt that what seems like a shallow party album reveals itself to have hidden depths.