KayelaJ didn't plan to write a strip club anthem.
For one of her first singles, the MC had asked her producer, Sir Nai, for a club banger. Nai delivered a track with hallucinatory, chimelike synths underneath a bumping 808. In her dorm at Lewis & Clark College, KayelaJ sang a melody over Nai's beat that became the distorted, AutoTune chorus of "Heat Gentlemens Club"—"I'm here today but guess what I'm gon do tomorrow/Imma go support my home girl at the titty bar."
"Just by the chorus, it ended up being a strip club song," says KayelaJ, born Makayela Johnson. "But I wanted to not make it a typical strip club anthem."
The subject of the song is an amalgamation of several of Johnson's friends who are strippers. She isn't stripping her way through school—she's using her job to pay for her own apartment, her bills and her Bentley. Johnson delivers her ballad with ferocious phrasing. On the last verse, Johnson lets loose about how women have to constantly take care of men, but men still pretend they do everything themselves. "I'm not saying it's all men/But ya'll know who you is," Johnson raps. When she performs it live, she makes eye contact with men in the audience.
Johnson has the ability to turn discursive themes into bold rap anthems. Her first single, "Kayela to the MF J" is a continuous, revved-up flow that boasts about drowning in pussy, proving her haters wrong and black girl magic. On her follow-up, "Check X3," Johnson's sexuality is even more integral to her bravado. "I would die if I woke up with my tongue missing" eventually morphs into, "I could out-rap you with my mouth missing."
Johnson started releasing singles as KaylelaJ in February. She's currently working on her debut mixtape, Homage, on which she raps over samples from 25 different women-of-color rappers. The samples, one per song, range from Yo-Yo and MC Lyte to Cardi B and M.I.A.
It's a satisfying retort to a common narrative. Cardi B and Lauryn Hill might be the only solo women rappers ever to top the Billboard 100, but that doesn't mean women in rap lack hits. "All of these women, it's not them, it's society," says Johnson. "Nicki Minaj can just post a selfie. All in the comments, you just see stuff about Cardi B."
This week, Johnson plays PDX Pop Now. It's not her first time at the festival. In 2012, when she was only 15, Johnson performed as MC Rose. Under her new moniker, Johnson has quickly established herself as an intrepid artist with inimitable phrasing. But sipping a caramel frappuccino in her local Starbucks on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Johnson says that kind of assertiveness is new for her.
"If you're a rapper, you have to be confident, and I didn't have the confidence because I didn't even know I was gay," she says. "I didn't even come out with myself, and I was just having a lot of issues with myself and my identity."
The 22-year-old rapper has lived in the King neighborhood her whole life. She was inspired to start rapping at age 6, when she first heard Lauryn Hill's "Doo-Wop." Almost immediately, Johnson began performing at talent shows with backup dancers leaning and rocking to her verses about arguing with her mom and drinking soda.
Since then, Johnson has been a studious rap fan and performer. But it wasn't until she came out last year that Johnson began to see a rap career as a serious possibility. "I want to be truthful and honest with my music and I wasn't being truthful with myself—like, 'Kayela, you're gay,'" says Johnson. "I want to talk about that. I want to talk about whatever I want to talk about with my music."
After releasing her three singles this winter, Johnson planned to release an album with all-original beats that was entirely her own sound. Instead, she decided to put a more traditional album on hold and write Homage.
"Any of the music I make after this, I wouldn't be able to make it if it wasn't for them," she says of the rappers she samples on Homage. "It's not even a looks kind of thing, like, 'Oh, she's trying to look humble,' or whatever. I just genuinely want to say thank you to those girls."
The scratched records and retro beats on Homage are a stark shift from the dark, trippy synths and bassy beats on Johnson's singles. On Homage's first song, Johnson samples the noir saxophone from Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." But it's less an ode to Latifah's sound than to her philosophy. "You're supposed to love a black woman from infinity to infinity/That's what the Queen said and that's what I believe," Johnson raps amid stream-of-consciousness bars about men who mistreated her mom, the pain left by her absent father, and hard-won self-acceptance.
For Johnson, the personal and stylistic are indistinguishable. Johnson's mixtape is about how the 25 rappers on Homage have inspired Johnson, but it's also about their place in history. Women rappers are egregiously underrepresented on the pop charts. But there are plenty of seminal rock bands that never released any chart-topping singles, and no one questions their validity as artists or their impact on history.
Johnson's music is always a little bit about her, but never only about her. "Heat Gentlemens Club" started off as a song about Johnson's plans for the week, then quickly evolved into a larger thesis about sex work.
"It's sad, like, that has to be her justification for stripping—she's in college paying off her school loans," says Johnson. "She got her own apartment, she got no roommate. It's just like, yo, she just taking care of herself."
In that way, Johnson's music is as much of an essay as it is a diary entry.
"That's kind of where I'm coming from, and where I'm pulling a lot of the stuff that I'm saying in my music," she says. "Not necessarily from experience, but just listening to other people."
SEE IT: KayelaJ plays PDX Pop Now, 226 SE Madison St., pdxpopnow.com, on Saturday, July 21. 2 pm. The festival runs July 21-22. Free.