2. KayelaJ (60 points)
SOUNDS LIKE: When self-discovery and twerking become one.
NOTABLE VOTES: The Incredible Kid, Good Cheer Records owner Blake Hickman, Wynne, Blossom, XRAY FM president Jenny Logan.
KayelaJ has been playing the music game for years. Now, she's really ready to tell everyone what's up.
"Since this is my first project after all these years, this is 23 years' worth of things I've been through that I never talked about in my music," she says about her upcoming debut album. "I've had a lot of things to say about myself, my life and my opinion, and I know I'm the best person to get across exactly what I'm trying to say."
She's not lying, either. Her upcoming album, D.Y.K.E., or Don't Yield, Keep Enduring, contains some of the most open and honest material that's come out of this city in a long time. KayelaJ, born Makayela Johnson, gets aggressively vulnerable within the three phases of the record—depression, rage and love. It's an album that can make you hype and make you think. From issues with her family growing up, to colorism and struggling with her sexual identity, Johnson doesn't hold back any lyrical rawness, even when the beats call for a twerk or two. But ultimately, every bit of the record is her own personal catharsis.
"It's for me first, and then it's for y'all," says Johnson. "Well, it ain't even really for y'all—y'all just happen to fuck with it, but I don't need anyone trying to get in my head and tell me I shouldn't be saying this or that. A lot of people who are around me aren't a gay black woman, so I'm not even trying to take in what they're saying because they're not a part of these identities that I'm trying to reach out to."
Johnson has been writing and performing her own material since she was 6, but it wasn't until last year that she began pursuing a rap career in earnest. Even with only a few singles and a mixtape to her name, Johnson's music has touched many. Released last spring, "Heat Gentlemen's Club" may just seem like a song about throwing ones in the strip club, but it's actually about self-sufficiency and supporting women. Before that came "Kayela to the MFJ," her debut single and her first time opening up about her sexual identity. One of her latest singles, "Depression Was Trash," gets even more personal, discussing everything from childhood molestation and fighting extreme depression. Johnson's willingness to be frank with her experiences is endearing and relatable on so many levels, and for many, a reassurance that they're not alone in the things they've been through.
Once D.Y.K.E. drops, Johnson is sure to reach an even wider audience. She already jokes about not being able to leave her performances without being stopped by fans who feel heavily affected by her music. "Nothing will ever be better than that—no amount of money, no awards," she says. "Nothing will ever be better than someone coming up to you and telling you how your music makes them get emotional. I used to want to be a counselor, and I feel like I'm getting to do that now with my music."
The reactions she receives aren't always emotional outpourings, though. She's often noticed that she takes people—especially men—by surprise whenever she shows up for a gig. "I think I shock people every time I perform because I'm so little, I'm a woman and I'm black," Johnson says. "They're not expecting my lyricism or my energy to be on point like that."
Part of her impeccable performance style is because of her gender, though. "We take our shit seriously. Because we are women, we already know we're going to be judged anyway, so we have to be on point," she says about femmes in Portland's music scene. Yet she doesn't want that to be a deterrent from other young artists trying to get attention: "I need the next generation of female artists to be put on and be doing their thing, too."
Johnson's ambition runs deep. On top of trying to create a comfortable space for young female artists in her hometown, she wants to reach a broader audience that may also be dealing with the topics she discusses on D.Y.K.E. She's well aware there aren't many artists who can turn you up and turn you down in a song like she can.
"The way I'm so provocative and so fearless with the things that I say, I feel like I could really fill a void and really add to the larger conversation," she says. "I don't want to just do this here; I want to do this around the world. My mission is much bigger than just here in Portland."
NEXT SHOW: June 21 at Mississippi Studios for WW's Best New Band Showcase.