On a cloudy afternoon in New York City, rapper Kamaiyah is dressed for comfort, wearing a purple sweatsuit, and the purple beads adorning her signature box braids match her fit. She’s made a stop at the VIBE office during a day of interviews, accompanied by a crew of three women, including her newly appointed A&R Justice Davis. Kamaiyah is observing more than speaking, preserving her voice since she is recovering from a nuisance cold. But the East Oakland native’s energy switches from laidback to zealous as we discuss her lead single “Still I Am” for Got It Made, her long-delayed forthcoming project dropping February 21.
On the CT Beats track, the go-to producer for her hypnotic g-funk sound, she earnestly raps, “I done took plenty losses/ That’s why I feel like I deserve to keep flossin’/ This shit is exhausting/ When you boss up and run your own office.” The verses point to her departure from Interscope Records and YG’s 4 Hunnid Records and the launch of her new label GRND.WRK (pronounced groundwork), in partnership with Empire last August. She decided to dip after the release date for her project Something To Ride To was pushed back multiple times. This makes Kamaiyah one of few women in hip-hop, and perhaps the first from the West Coast, to run her own shop.
“It’s very important and vital because a lot of people feel you need a man to make you an artist,” Kamaiyah said. “You need a man to mold you into what you need to be.” But Kamaiyah — who has been rapping since she was 9, recording in the studio since she was 11, and dropped a critically acclaimed mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto (2016) before she was signed to a major deal — already knew what kind of artist she wanted to be before she signed on the dotted line.
In the months since she left the label, she began building her office in the upstairs area of her loft; finished recording, mixing and mastering Got It Made, a project she was planning before she parted from Interscope; and her manager Brandon Moore became her partner on her new venture. 2020 will be the first year Kamaiyah has full control of her career since breaking into the mainstream hip-hop world in 2016. This was always part of her master plan and why the previous arrangement did not fit her.
“I signed too fast, but I never wanted to sign,” she reflects. “I was always the artist that was like, ‘I don’t want no deal.’ I wanted to hustle because I knew where I come from. Everybody does it independently. But at that time it was the best decision for everybody. I took that L for the team and we learned a lot. It was like four years of music business school.”
Kamaiyah wants to carry on in the spirit of Bay Area hip-hop legends like E-40, known for their independent spirit of hustling their CDs out of their car trunks. But she also wants the pop accolades of hip-hop superstars like Drake, Missy Elliot, and Oakland’s original hip-hop icon MC Hammer. Her biggest hit to date is YG’s “Why You Always Hatin?” also featuring Drake, which charted at no. 62 on the Billboard Hot 100. But she wants more. Success for Kamaiyah means Grammys, Billboard No. 1’s, and gold and platinum plaques. Partnering with Empire, a digital-first independent distributor, and a label launched by San Francisco native Ghazi Shami in 2010, could be her winning ticket. In the past decade, Empire’s launched several successful hip-hop projects such as Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 album and Anderson .Paak’s album Malibu. This partnership can give Kamaiyah the independence and support toward the mass appeal she’s seeking. Having dealt with project release delays in the past, her strategy going forward is consistency.
“Great quality music at a rapid rate…People just want to see you [working]. And if they know you consistent, they gon’ consume the music.” Kamaiyah also wants to use her platform to sign new talent, especially in the Bay Area, where she said artists can benefit from music business education when their records go viral. “Once they get the traction and the record, it becomes this egotistical thing and it’s like ‘I made it cause I’m cracking out here.’ But they don’t realize it’s a whole world to build towards.”
Her first project Got It Made will be the blueprint for GRND.WRK. The project is feel-good music her fans “can shake their asses to and vibe out to and ride out to,” she said. For instance, she teamed up with veteran Trina for the f**k boy revenge track “Set It Up.” They role-play as two women who have been cheated on by the same man. “We get together and we go against the ni**a instead of us going against each other,” Kamaiyah says. On “Get Ratchet,” which she calls a “modern bounce” record, she taps DJ Espinosa, a San Francisco native known for winning Red Bull Music’s 3Style DJ competition, to spin at the end of the track. For “Digits,” a song about getting someone’s number, she brings on fellow Oakland rapper Capolow, a newcomer she’s excited to give a bigger platform to. She describes the track as “magical gangsta sh*t.” On past projects, Kamaiyah sampled ’80s and ’90s R&B (i.e. “I’m On” and “Leave Em”) but says the only track on Got It Made that has a sample is “1-800-IM-HORNY.” She intentionally avoided the high cost of clearances, an obstacle contributing to past project delays. She won’t mention names but says she enlisted “legends who created those records that we’re sampling” to shape the project’s sound. Fans can expect Kamaiyah to begin touring the project in April.
Although she’s finally releasing her project, her fans might be curious about the status of her other promised records such as Woke and Don’t Ever Get It Twisted. Will they see the light of day? “Anything I did at that part of my life I have PTSD from,” Kamaiyah said frankly. “It was done with good intentions, but then it became something negative and when you put that out, the world is going to feel that. And energy is transferable so I’m not putting out that shit.”
While Kamaiyah was facing career obstacles in recent years, she witnessed the impact of tragedies close to her community. The death of Nia Wilson, an 18-year-old Black woman who was murdered at a train station in the Bay Area Rapid Transit in 2018, hit close to home as Kamaiyah has family close to Wilson’s family. (John Lee Cowell, who is accused of stabbing Wilson to death, is currently on trial.) “Do I feel like he should be convicted? Absolutely. To the furthest extent. You took this woman’s life. She barely got to live.” Then there was Nipsey Hussle’s murder in 2019. Kamaiyah said she had a long talk with Nip a month before he was killed last March. He wanted to see her reach her full potential, especially as a woman representing the Bay Area. “He’s telling me, ‘What you mean to our culture we never had’,” Kamaiyah said. That last conversation put the battery in her back when she was on the fence about her music. “I’m frustrated career-wise and that’s a person that was like, ‘Don’t stop because we need you in this culture.’ So I gotta hustle 10 times harder ‘cause other people see the long end of the vision.”
Justice Davis, Kamaiyah’s A&R, is ready for Kamaiyah’s vision to come to life. Davis began working as Moore’s assistant and after giving input, moved up the ranks. As a Los Angeles native, Davis said she brings the knowledge of her city’s culture together with Kamaiyah’s Oakland hustle. She wants to see Kamaiyah grow as a businesswoman, artist, and for their team to prosper. “[I hope] for people to see her talent and know she really is the queen of the West coast.”