With her debut album THE PEOPLE VS EMMA LEE dropping in Autumn. We caught up with EMMA LEE to talk about her music, growing up in Harlem and interning for Funk Master Flex!
EMMA LEE, welcome to File Under Hip Hop. Tell us what it was like for you growing in Harlem and around New York?
Yerrrr! Peace and positives y’all.
The city is vibrantly normalized bittersweet insanity that can open legendary pathways or break a good soul. Anyone can visit but not everyone can hang. A wonderful, terrible, cut-throat, ever-blossoming, lesson learning, and adventurous concrete jungle of a place. It can be tiring asf but I love it. There are so many people who leave out about it! It’s definitely prepared me for all levels of competition, beauty, and crazy.
Harlem has changed a lot like most places around NYC. but Harlem has always moved to the beat of its own soulful drum, I adore that. It used to be known as “the home of the hustler” and “the mecca of Black culture.” The mindset of style and self-ownership is at its core. It’s like Manhattan’s cool independent Black cousin who always shows up fly with stories to tell.
You’d have to fact check me but at the time of Prohibition in the US, I believe tiny little Harlem was home to over 300 speakeasies and 400 churches. We’re talking about a territory that’s roughly 2½ miles long and 2 miles wide. Historically lit!
You can feel a different kind of electricity in the air uptown. It’s a little warmer people speak to each other. A tinge of crime and unrest, connected generations. The ghosts of the Renaissance, Black Arts Movement, crack era, Apollo Theater, Malcolm X, Black Panthers, and so many different cultures lurk on every other block. “Bitches brew” and bright futures collide in Harlem. Growing up in it had its dangers but was a blessing especially as an artist.
You have so many different skills and talents rapper, dancer, videographer, public speaker, and business owner! How did you gravitate into pursuing a career in Hip Hop?
That’s all on the grand creator that I have a lot of raw ability for a lot of things, but Hip Hop found me to be honest. When I got to NYC at two years old the elements of Hip Hop were all over the streets. It was like a big flirtation because Hip Hop wasn’t played in my house. I’m from a 1st generation immigrant family so everything was very eye-opening.
Once I started studying songs I knew I wanted to be involved in music for the rest of my life. But once I killed my first rap cipher I knew I wanted to rap. Being around so many people with family members etc. who were dancers, DJs, filmmakers, etc.
I saw so much vision in being creative and started a life-long juggling act. Mostly because I didn’t have direct access to being a recording artist. But writing and performing became a constant as well as attending Hip Hop events. The transcendent energy of Hip Hop most accurately fits my soul. I have a place in it and it has an investment in me.
How would describe your sound?
“The iron fist in velvet glove.” Chocolate bars. Militant Hip Hop-soul. Lyrical afrofuturism. Loaded Lux, Sun Ra and a Faith Evans interlude walk into a bar. Whatever the fuck I want.
Recently you released the track ‘Hugo Pinell, (MOSH)’. Tell us about that
Why yes I did!
Hugo “Yogi” Pinell was an iconic California-based Nicaraguan-born political prisoner murdered in prison after over 40 years in solitary confinement. The summer he was murdered was the summer I engaged in my first Black August. A 31-day commemoration of fallen soldiers, revolutionary history, and collective re-dedication to uplift through fasting, training, study, and community.
Hugo was an immigrant like me, raised in the hood like me, grew his mind and evolved to a higher state of being despite all the odds against him like I aspire to. He united races in uplift, became aware of the world and his own power yet did not break. So much so that after decades of not committing a crime or behavioral infraction of any kind he was deemed still a threat to society because of his mind, heart, and soul. The song uplifts his name, psychological unity, all the like-spirits battling odds and reminds me to never let the world break me. MOSH is in the mind.
The track is taken from your upcoming debut album, THE PEOPLE VS EMMA LEE. What can we expect to hear from you?
Some wild shit. I’m a wild universal spirit child with a viciously poetic tongue. I dream vivid dreams and nightmares almost every night. I’m obsessed with transcendence, passion, and energy.
I grew up doing real things in NYC where everybody’s competitively talented so I’m coming with flavor and pushing what makes me, me. You’re getting a real woman’s voice. You’re getting a collision of human experiences, plenty of bars, street stories, mystical stories. A couple of things to get through your daily grind nods to the past and the future.
You can expect a deviation from the norm, especially for what the modern Hip Hop scene is giving. The algorithms may have a hard time, but they will be stimulated.
When will the album be released?
Shiiiit good question!
Nah definitely this year, likely the fall. COVID-19 definitely threw things for a loop. It’s been harder to get musicians etc. into studios to complete the brush strokes at hand. But actually the project is stronger now and I insist on coming strong.
You started as a content writer/creator for Funkmaster Flex, how did that come about?
Mmm word, what a time. This was one of those perks of being in New York re: vicinity to opportunity.
One of my lil bro’s from the performance group I grew up in Harlem saw the call for interns and hit me up about it. I decided to go for it and out of a good number we ended up on the same team that season. He’s gone on to work in branding and marketing with some of the biggest major labels in music so I’m super proud, thankful, and was obviously in good company.
I ended up taking lead on a lot of the intern writing and I don’t know how I did it with the busted ass laptop I had, so thankful. It basically died right after that! I had never interned before, learned a lot. I even got yelled at by Flex. Classic! (*drops a bomb*)
With so many professions under your belt which one would you say is your most favourite and why?
Each one corresponds to an energy/part of my personality and I’m still growing into all of them. But I can say the energy that feels the best, most total, most true is being an emcee.
Not only do I feel grounded and unexplainable electricity in the act of it but there are so many acts of it. It brings a lot of powerful forces together. In 1 rhyme are 100 parts of life and 1-10 elements of craft.
Basically everything else I’ve ever done is because I chose to learn something while I was waiting to use my voice. I hate to use the word “waiting,” but it’s clearly been intended this way.
Do you think that to survive in the music industry today you need to more than just a recording artist?
Everything in life requires diligence still it depends on what one is and what one wants to be.
I’m a firm believer that nothing can come out of the artist that’s not in the person and that anything is possible. As well in general the time we’re in right now as a society, industry, the flow of human interaction, information and technology—everything short of total extinction is survival.
There are top billing recording artists struggling right now and niche independent artists thriving right now, in the same economy, same social landscape. So what success are you focused on creating? With that said, if someone does not have the mind, will, goal, timing, or resources to be seasoned in business, law, marketing, promotion, graphic design etc. Then they’ll need to be effective communicators and delegators. They need to know whether they’re going to put their manifest in the hands of investors or create their own budget to build from.
The business and contractual side of the creative community is always shifting, you need to be aware of big pictures and what details affect you. If someone just wants to be a recording artist (not a songwriter, musician, producer, visual artist, creative) I guess all we’re really talking about is the ability to record and distribute music. But then you have to know how to secure your rights and protect your works.
Whatever pool you’re trying to swim in with your music will require intentional action from you unless you already have an engaged audience. This is assuming you’re already choosing sounds, working with writers, your vocal delivery/styles, the mixing and mastering process. But some people stumble their way into triumphs too. Just be careful…stay tuned and watch documentaries.
Tell us your social media channels.
Instagram – @emiliaisemmalee
Facebook – @emiliaisemmalee
Twitter – @emiliaisemma
YouTube – @emilia is emma
What’s next for EMMA LEE?
Getting a fire ass stage show together and collaborating with more DJs and musicians!
Thanks for taking the time out to do this interview, is there anything else that you would like to add?
Thank y’all for everything you do for the culture and for uplifting dope artists with something to contribute. You are appreciated!
Interview by Jai Boo