New York emcee Quay Dash has an infectious laugh and a sharp sense of humour. When I ask her why she called her debut EP Transphobic, she immediately jokes: “So it’s not about me being transphobic, for anyone who might be confused.” Then she stops and gets serious: “This is the T [truth], OK: as a trans woman I go through transphobic things on a regular basis, which brought up the EP and the five songs on it.”
I ask for examples and she lists incidents of transphobia that have happened to her personally: “You can be walking down the street and someone says 'You're a dude!' or 'You’re a man!' or 'He has a dick!' or 'She has a dick!' People try to point out a flaw that they see in you. Sometimes people in restaurants don’t like trans people being in their spaces so they'll treat you differently.” At this point, she gestures to where we’re sitting, an otherwise empty Chinese restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side, a few blocks away from where she lives with her cat, Tyson.
Quay was born in Alabama in 1992 but moved to the Bronx with her parents as a toddler. She moved around New York City growing up – “I’m from the Bronx but also everywhere in New York, up and down New York City”. She spent time in foster homes, where she first started writing in journals, an exercise in putting her feelings to paper. Writing rap lyrics didn’t come 'til later, however, around the age of 18 or 19, when she also came out as trans. “Those years were very foggy for me, mentally and physically,” she says now – but explains that the two events were related, rap a way of articulating what was going on, as well as a form of empowerment.
“I started rapping when I felt like it was time for me to get out there and do something. I was in a fucked up situation, homeless, then living at my mum’s house and sister’s house, everywhere. I was going to warehouse parties, underground raves in Brooklyn, meeting people. That’s how I got my rep up.” She joined Cunt Mafia, a queer-friendly NYC party collective who hosted events with everyone from Le1F to A$AP Rocky, but eventually decided to go it alone. “I needed to get my own shot so I moved on and did things by myself, probably about two years ago.”
Quay’s music is an update on boom bap, a hip-hop style that emerged on the East Coast in the 1990s. Quay describes this as “the golden age” and cites rappers like Foxy Brown, Lauryn Hill and Wu-Tang Clan as her influences, although she admits that before that, she grew up on a diet of Hilary Duff, Britney Spears and Ashlee Simpson: “It’s part of being trans-feminine and young, I looked up to them,” she explains.
Back then, there were no trans artists to look up to, and there still aren’t many, she points out. “A trans artist is still new, not something that’s main or that appealing to a wide audience. We don't have one big, famous trans artist yet. I am the only trans MC that is successful at what they're doing right now.” She mentions the fact that, on MTV’s recent rundown of up and coming “women and femmes in hip-hop you need to know”, she was top of the list.
On Transphobic, Quay’s lyrics are aggressive but witty. “Queen of NY” whisks you through a day in the life (you know, shopping for Fendi on Fifth Ave, dominating men in the bedroom S&M-style). “Squared Toe Leather Boot” takes aim at men who are attracted to trans women in private, but are transphobic in public.
“It’s about my life in general, who I am, what I go through when I step in a room, am on the street, in a relationship,” says Quay of her lyrics. That doesn’t just appeal to trans people: “It’s about being a woman in general – that’s why a lot of women relate to my music too, and say, ‘I can listen to it when I'm in the shower and I feel like I relate to what you're saying’.” And men? “Maybe men can’t relate so much,” Quay concedes. “But they can bump to it,” she smiles. “I got bars.”
Her music – documenting the trans experience and putting her in the public eye as a role model for young trans women – automatically becomes activism. “I think what I do is very political,” she agrees. “In one interview I said I'm not political but I meant that I don't care about the presidency or the vote. When it comes to my community I am very political. Being a trans, black person putting out an EP and making herstory – that’s what I’m doing, I'm representing for all women. Women always get the shitty end of the stick and I'm sick of that.”
This particularly applies to women in hip-hop, she adds: “Even in female hip-hop you don't see the women shining as much as the male rappers and I think it’s about that time to have a female take over. We have Nicki Minaj, Remi, Cardi B, Trina, Lil' Kim, but that’s it. Are these people shining, out here making anything spectacular? It needs to be more… I’m not saying they're not doing anything, I'm saying they’re not getting enough attention – press. It goes to the men, and it’s fucked up.”
In the near future, Quay is billed to be working with Diplo, and she has just finished a new track called “Number 1”, about the difficulties she’s faced in her career. One example is censorship: When she first released Transphobic to her fans via her Soundcloud in 2016, the EP cover featured her in red lingerie. When she got signed to a UK label and it was re-released officially in 2017, they made her reshoot the cover to be more… “classy,” she tuts. “I didn't like it, it didn't represent me and it’s a mistake I made in my life that I’ll never make again.”
For now, Quay says she’s happy to talk about trans issues, as it’s out of political necessity, but ultimately, she does not want to be put in the nebulous category of “queer hip-hop” as she has been in the past. “In my experience I don't like other people labelling me as something until I label myself it. I don't wanna be always listed as trans. I wanna be seen as a woman. Can’t I just be seen as Quay Dash? It should be about talent.”
A DJ, producer and rising rapper, Quay is proving to have that talent. Before I leave, I ask her if she ever thought she’d become an emcee when she was a kid. She thinks for a minute: “No. I remember at my daycare centre they asked all the little kids, ‘What do you wanna be when you grow up?' I said I wanted to be a firefighter. Why did I say that? I was probably brainwashed about male culture or masculine shit.” That laugh again. “It’s like: I don't wanna be a firefighter, I wanna be a firestarter!”