Rap music has always been criticized for misogynistic lyrics, but the summer of 2016 was a doozy. Over two months, hip-hop fans (myself included) had songs on repeat that not only used offensive words, but also glorified some very questionable behavior. There was Lil’ Uzi Vert's "Money Longer" about "liking it rough" and "blasting" in that "pussy." There was rapper 21 Savage, who riffed in "X" that he would "hit her with no condom and make her eat a Plan B." And then there was Young M.A, a lesser-known rapper who burst onto the scene with "Ooouuu," a braggy, shake-the-haters-off anthem that encapsulated the sound of the season. "Man she make me weak when she deep throat," the song goes. "I just want the neck, nothin’ more."
Of the three, it was "Ooouuu" that blared out of car radios, clubs, and New York apartment stoops, despite having no major social media campaign, advertising, or label backing. Eventually it would become a Billboard hit, make number 11 on Rolling Stone’s Top 50 songs of 2016, and was remixed by everyone from Nicki Minaj to French Montana. Beyoncé even posted it on Instagram to mark her 35th birthday. (Young M.A's response: "When Beyoncé @beyonce uses your song 😳😩😩🙌🏽🙏🏽🙏🏽 #LostForWords 😶")
That summer, I danced my ass off to the track, totally unaware of who was singing it, applying the same selective hearing I use for every other sexist song I hate to love. And then someone told me Young M.A was a woman. I laughed at first, but then, I listened again. And there it was: Behind the bravado and sexual declarations, it was a woman’s voice that was booming: "You call her Stephanie/I call her Headphaniiiie." It was a surprise that took me a minute to wrap my head around completely.
Young M.A is the first female rapper to own her sexual identity and hit the mainstream in an industry that’s not only unkind to gay people — slurs are common, and there is virtual silence around LGBTQ rights — but also hard on women. Contemporaries like Nicki Minaj and Foxy Brown have often hinted at bisexuality, but it’s always felt less like an authentic, complicated exploration of sexual identity and more like a play to raise eyebrows. Even Cardi B, one of the buzziest rap stars of the moment, proudly flaunts her femininity.
Young M.A, meanwhile, is about as opposite as you can get. She arrives for a photoshoot at Refinery29’s New York headquarters in a solid red Arizona college sweatshirt, jeans, and white Pumas. A fitted hat covers freshly done braids, and the only signs of rapper-level flashiness are a set of grills in her mouth, a glittering pinky ring, and the Louis Vuitton scarf hanging out of her back pocket.
"I like to dress comfortable, and I don’t like to do too much," she says. "Maybe that makes me look like a boy, but whatever. I don’t care about feminine or masculine, I just don’t ever want to try to look like somebody else."
You might think a gender-bending, 25-year-old rising rap star must automatically be a trailblazer with a political, LGBTQ rights-focused agenda. You would be wrong. "I’m not trying to force the fact that I’m gay on people. I’m not rapping ‘Why aren’t there more gays in hip-hop?’ Because I get it. I grew up in this community, I know that me being gay might make people uncomfortable. You can’t expect people to change their views overnight. You gotta slowly, gradually get them used to it. So I just smoothly came into the game like ‘Dudes, I just might steal your girl. Ladies, when you tired of your man, call me.’ And now everyone’s getting used to me."
It would also be a mistake to limit Young M.A’s rhymes to her identity. As a voice of her generation, she is hauntingly vulnerable in her music, touching on everything from anxiety and depression to her absentee father and the gang-related murder of her brother, Kenneth, when she was 16. On a remix of Drake’s "Over My Dead Body" titled "Dear Bro," she raps: "The other day I was thinking 'bout that time when you called me out the blue/And you told me spit a rhyme for you/Now everyday, I grind for you."
Still, the rapper does wax poetic about her "hoes" and conquests. And she argues that there isn’t anything wrong with that. "Yes, I rap about being a girl getting head from another girl," she says. "That might be unheard of for hip-hop, but it's normal for me. I’m just talking about the things that I do and want to do with women, the same way every man in hip-hop will rap about what he does with women."
M.A by the way, stands for "Me, Always."
Born Katorah Marrero, Young M.A grew up in East New York, Brooklyn. She was raised by her single mother, Latasha, and she went to church with her grandmother every Sunday. Her father wasn’t in the picture, and her mother often struggled to put food on the table. Young M.A realized at an early age that she was attracted to girls, but says she didn’t know how to articulate her feelings to the people in her life. Instead, she holed up in her room and recorded songs on an old karaoke machine and cassette player.
"I never talked about anything with anyone," Young M.A says. "Music was just my outlet. That pen and paper was who I confided in."
Although she struggled with her sexuality as a teenager and held tightly to her secret for years, she says many people around her had their suspicions. In high school, she began to tell a select few friends, including her cousin, who wasn’t surprised because Young M.A had "always been like the boy in the family." Her own mother, in fact, straight up asked her about it on numerous occasions.
"She would ask me if I liked boys, and I used to be like 'Ma! Come on! Why you asking me that?!'" Young M.A remembers. "And then one year, I was going to Gay Pride. And she was all 'Pull your pants up! Wait, why are you going to Gay Pride anyway?' And I tried to front, like, 'Auntie used to go there! It’s not a big deal!' Even though I was dating women at that point, I was still hiding it from the one person I wanted to accept me more than anybody. I just wasn’t ready."
A few months later, she and her mother had a disagreement. Young M.A moved out. It wasn’t until her mother saw a birthday post from Young M.A to her then-girlfriend on Facebook that they finally had an honest conversation about it.
"I just said ‘Ma, I have a girlfriend.' And she had absolutely no problem with it." Young M.A says. "I think she knew all along. She just wanted her daughter to confirm it herself."
After high school and a few odd jobs at places like T.J. Maxx and Shake Shack, Young M.A began focusing on her music full-time, posting freestyle videos online. In 2014, she gained a following thanks to a clip of her hard-hitting, no-holds-barred freestyle "Brooklyn (Chiraq Freestyle)," which established her as a rapper without a gimmick. The song painted a raw and honest look at the environment she grew up around; Young M.A.’s brutal declarations against the rival crews in her neighborhood drew criticism from the famed scholar, Dr. Boyce Watkins, who blasted the rapper in a Facebook post for encouraging violence. Both Watkins' critique and the video went viral, and Young M.A was quickly embraced on the burgeoning rapper scenes of YouTube and Soundcloud. To date, the video has garnered 10.4 million views.
"I was never even supposed to do that 'Brooklyn Chiraq' freestyle — it was one of my boys that encouraged me to do it," she says. "And then one day I just couldn’t stop writing, and we recorded this freestyle and posted the video. I’d done a lot of freestyles before that, but this one — the one I didn’t want to do — was the one where I spoke my heart, and it went viral. That’s when people started paying attention. Like wait, who is this Young M.A person from Brooklyn? Sometimes, even when we don’t want to do something, there’s a plan that’s bigger than us."
A year later came her debut, a self-released mixtape SleepWalkin that only increased her credibility. Then, in May 2016 came "Ooouuu," which skyrocketed her from internet emcee to Billboard Top 20. She's since opened for Beyoncé during her New Jersey "Formation" tour stop and released her first EP, HerStory. This time, the release didn’t just get online buzz, but positive reviews from music critics, thanks to her straightforward storytelling and gritty flow. Young M.A had officially arrived.
It might seem curious that a rising star who’s had this much attention hasn't signed with a label. There was no shortage of record deal offers, Young M.A says. But she declined them all, afraid of what adding the mechanics of a well-oiled machine would do to her art. She was even given the chance to play rapper Freda Gatz on Fox’s Empire, but she declined: She didn’t want to build a reputation off of a fictional character. "I just be feeling like I know what’s best for my creative energy," Young M.A says. "A lot of people will make decisions based on business and numbers."
Young M.A says she’s not interested in rhyming about politics ("It just feels so scary and unfair. Look at our freakin’ President, bro. It’s stressful just thinking about him"), but she does have plenty to say about the need for the women of rap to forge a stronger sisterhood. "There needs to be more unity between women in hip-hop, because these motherfuckers are always trying to put us against each other!" she says. "They’ve been doing this to women in hip-hop since way back. I’m talking about the era of Lil’ Kim and Queen Latifah, Foxy Brown. That’s why it’s barely been any female rappers in the mainstream, because hip-hop will only allow one girl at the top. Matter of fact, that’s music, period. They do it to Beyoncé and Rihanna, too. They’ve been doing this to women forever, and nothing’s going to change if we don’t start fighting that together."
I have to admit, it’s a first to hear a rapper who boasts about the hoes that she pulls simultaneously champion female empowerment. But it also exemplifies just how layered the culture of rap music truly is; the few straight female rappers in the industry also proudly boast about their sexual exploits with men. (Remember Nicki Minaj proclaiming she wanted to ride "dick bicycle" on Ariana Grande’s song "Problem" last year?)
So far, Young M.A has yet to collaborate with any other female rappers, but she says for her first official album — which she hopes to release early next year — she’d love to work with rapper-singer Dej Loaf. And she’s proud of fellow New Yorker Cardi B for being the first female rapper to reach number one on the Billboard chart since Lauryn Hill in 1998.
As for the women in her life, Young M.A has been dating DJ and actress Tori Hughes — stage name Tori Brixx — since last year, when one of the rapper’s managers gave her Brixx’s number. The two connected via long phone conversations between New York and Los Angeles and are still bi-coastal. (In the middle of Young M.A telling me this story, Brixx calls her, and she smiles from ear to ear. Her phone flashes with the word "Wife.")
As sweet at this moment is, their relationship is not all warm fuzzies. The rapper admits that many people (specifically, Young M.A’s Instagram followers) question Hughes’ motives. "People make slick comments like, 'oh, Tori just wants to be famous, she’s about to use M.A because she’s on the come up,'" the rapper says. "But I’ve never been stupid. I know when people have a motive or bad intentions. People forget that at the end of the day, I’m a woman. I have that intuition."
On her new single, "Walk," she rhymes: "You think I give a fuck what a hater got to say about me? That's exactly what they hate about me." It's clear Young M.A is far from concerned about any naysayers. But as the only proudly out, queer, Black female rapper in pop-culture, I ask her if she ever feels pressure to be a role model.
"Absolutely," she says. "I’m not out here trying to represent for all people. I’m just doing me. But I do realize there are people who are counting on me, and people who are listening. So that’s what motivates me to put these stories out there, because maybe someone needs to hear my story right now."
A few weeks after we meet, Forbes names Young M.A one of their "30 Under 30" in the music category. It's immediately evident how much of a unicorn she is, as one of only seven women of color on the list, one of the few independent artists included, and the only one who's openly queer. These are all qualities that, for most people, could keep them far away from the top of anyone's best-of list, especially five years before even touching 30 years old. And yet, there Young M.A is — because she's just that good.
Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Welcome to Gender Nation, where gender is defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary.