Rap rebel BIA is unfiltered, unapologetic and unconventional

The Boston-born rapper discusses her mixed race upbringing, near-death experiences and getting the Pharrell Williams seal of approval

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BIAPhotography Fumi Nagasaka, Styling Alison Marie Isbell

With a lilting, steady flow and a mane of striking dark hair, Boston-born rapper BIA (Bianca Landrau) has teetered on the edge of widespread fame for the past few years. The 25-year-old says her music is currently in a state of flux, but this doesn’t seem to be anything new. Currently living in between LA and Boston, BIA, like so many of her mixed-race millennial contemporaries, knows what it feels like to not quite belong anywhere. Born to a Puerto Rican father and Italian mother, in the past year she has embraced her Latina heritage, contributing Spanish rhymes to J Balvin and Pharrell’s bouncy, bongo-infused hit, “Safari”, and explaining that “it’s things like that shape your sound and changes your direction without you even knowing.”

As of yet, however, she hasn’t quite lost her edge as a trap artist – in evidence on tracks like “Whip It” and “Gucci Comin’ Home”. The latter was a 2016 anthem for Gucci Mane’s prison release that can be defined by this stellar lyric: “If Gucci comin’ home, we don’t need no Donald Trump.”

Often described as one of Pharrell’s protegés (a musician well-known in the industry for supporting his youngers), BIA was first picked up from obscurity after the bolshy, raw video for her track “High” surfaced on YouTube in 2011. Having spent the past five years curating her sound, and currently on a sell-out tour supporting everyone’s favourite pint-sized popstar Ariana Grande, she was an obvious choice for inclusion in the collective who are modelling Pharrell Williams’ new collaboration with G-Star RAW. As Pharrell describes her, “BIA… who better to lead the charge for unfiltered, unapologetic, and unconventional women?”

We spoke to BIA about her near-death experience on a motorbike and why she takes time out of her busy life to support other women, as well as honing in on her fashion choices for G-Star RAW.

What was your upbringing like?

BIA: I grew up in different cities throughout Boston. Boston’s my hometown, where my family is, so I’ll always have a home there. It’s hard to explain; it’s just really beautiful, we love our sports. There’s culture everywhere. You can go on the street, the Boston Commons, go shopping and soak it up. My father’s from New York so I’ve travelled frequently my whole life. I’ve been back and forth. I’m half Italian, half Puerto-Rican so all my friends are pretty diverse. I come from a melting pot of different people and cultures.

I know it can be hard growing up mixed race.

BIA: Yeah, it’s difficult because you don’t really fit in specifically with one group that’s well-rounded. I’ve always wondered whether other mixed kids (in other countries) go through (the same thing). It feels like it’s a mixed kid thing that we all go through – having that sense of trying to find ourselves because there’s not really just one place that you grew up.

“I go through growth all the time... I always have these revelations of like, ‘Okay, how am I going to be better?’” – BIA

When did you start sorting that stuff out?

BIA: I moved to Miami about two years ago and I feel like I hit a point where I was trying to figure out what my calling was, and at the same time I found a deeper faith in God. My circle of friends completely changed. I now had friends that I was going to church with and having revelations about life. That’s also when I found music. Everything just clicked at one moment. But I go through growth all the time. I constantly look back on my decisions and my work and things that I do and the people that I’m around. I always have these revelations of like, ‘Okay, how am I going to be better? Why was I this way at this time with these people.’ I think it’s all about going through the motions, growing and learning yourself.

You’ve said in the past that you found your family on the streets. What did you mean by that?

BIA: I feel like I’ve always had strong family support, but I’m a Leo so I’ve always had a lot of friends. They end up feeling like family. There were times where I really needed my friends and I didn’t want to have to run to my family because I didn’t want them to think I was weak or giving up. In those times I leaned on my friends. When you’re 18, 17, 16 you don’t necessarily tell your family everything that you’re going through. Friends are the family you choose. There were times where I might have been hungry and I didn’t want to call my family and tell them I’m struggling because they would have been like ‘Well come home then!’ but you’re like, ‘No, I’m still doing it!’ In that moment you call your friends and have them come and cook for you.

Do you think hip hop, and the type of music that you make, is still authentically attached to that way of living – on the streets?

BIA: I think the music that you make will always reflect the experiences that you’ve had or how you’ve grown up. That was a chapter of my life that’s always stuck with me and I’ll never forget it. I’ll always have those people who’ll be like, ‘Yo, this is you, this is who you are. Accept it.’ I’m not restrained from who I was, I’ve only known exactly who I was. I just feel like music is a way to take all the pieces that I am and express that.

I loved reading about your greatest moment of rebellion, when you packed up all your stuff and moved from Boston to Miami.

BIA: It’s so funny because I recently started a collective called The New Women which is embracing us and our different stories. I’m hearing from so many different women who’re like, ‘Yo, I hit this point and I got sick of my regular life and moved to a new state.’ It’s just been so inspiring to hear that they did the same thing. The one common denominator we all share in The New Women is that we’ve kicked the old school idea of women to the curb. We don't care for the stigmas and cookie cutter image. We are strong, bold, unfiltered, unapologetic and, most of all, unconventional. We want to show the world that that’s perfectly okay.

“The one common denominator we all share in The New Women is that we’ve kicked the old school idea of women to the curb... We are strong, bold, unfiltered, unapologetic and, most of all, unconventional” – BIA

Did it feel normal to you because you moved quite a lot as a kid or did it still feel radical and scary?

BIA: Of course. At the time it was the most petrifying moment of my life. That geared me for every other move I’ve made after that. I’ve lived everywhere from North Carolina to California. It’s made it so much easier to adjust and no matter what challenge is front of me, when you’re always ready when that moment comes you’re even more ready.

I heard about your motorcycle accident in 2013 which sounded terrible. Is that still changing your attitude to life?

BIA: My motorcycle accident will always impact my life. I was so close to not knowing what was going to happen to me or my leg (which was split open). I always wake up with that appreciation that I could not be here. And every time I look at the scar it’s a reminder. I’ve definitely grown from it. I’m a lot more careful, I don’t put myself in a lot of situations that could kill me. I still do some wild shit. But I’ve definitely toned it down a bit. I might jump off a cliff into water, but I definitely won’t get on motorcycles. I might get on a rollercoaster but I won’t strap myself to a bungee.

When did you first start making music?

BIA: When I was younger I wasn’t really making music I was just soaking it all up. Fortunately it was all rap. It was a lot of punchlines and a lot of bars and a lot of just real rap. I didn’t decide I wanted to make my own until I needed that form of therapy. That form of release.

Why did you need the release and therapy at the time?

BIA: I was at a point where I liked school but it was not really for me. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in, I couldn’t decide. It was hard for me to grasp the thought of what everybody else was doing. It just didn’t feel like the plan for me. I felt like I had been through more in life. I had a message. My testimony as a person and my struggle was deeper than what anybody could teach me. I felt like at that point I needed something that I could channel through all my thoughts and feelings. That’s what music became for me. That was my favourite thing to do. Like, ‘What am I going to write about? What’s the best beat I can find right now?’

What was the first thing you produced that you were proud of?

BIA: I have tonnes of songs I’m proud of, but the first song for me that I’m proud of was ‘High’. I was just riding around, hitting a revelation. I found my own way. That was my first real video. It’s different from what I’m doing now, but still very much completely me.

And not something you’d ever feel ashamed of?

BIA: No, because that’s what growth is! I can pull out a bunch of embarrassing pictures from anyone from when they were like 18. I just happen to have mine on video, so I share them with the world. It’s not even embarrassing because it’s who I was. It’s still me.

Where did you get the limo from?

BIA: (laughs) My homeboy who was driving just had one. His mom had a limo or whatever and it just became this funmobile. It would be a whole bunch of friends in there.

And after you made the video, the rapper Fam-Lay saw it?

BIA: Yeah, Fam found it on YouTube and he was like ‘Yeah, this is pretty cool,’ and he sent it to Pharrell, and he thought it was cool and different. I met them shortly after and they just helped me develop who I was as a person and who I wanted to be. To not settle for what everybody else is doing. It’s okay to have your own path and to do your own thing.

“I think style is different than being able to buy expensive clothes, and my style has grown with me. As I found myself out, I found my style” – BIA

Do you like being described as ‘Pharrell’s protegé’?

BIA: I think it’s such an honour! Wouldn’t you? I’m humbled, of course. The fact that somebody who’s that amazing and that talented looks to me as a young genius is incredible. I just work to carry the same characteristics and apply them to what I’m doing. He’s very humble. I try to keep that all the time and work hard and remember where I came from. He paid it forward to so many different artists and shaped so many minds. It’s much better that being a normal (musician). All I can do is to try to make that same contribution.

What are you working on at the moment?

BIA: I’m at a turning point. I’m still the same person I was so I have so many things I want to get off my chest and a certain way that I like to tell my own story, but in the past year I’ve done so much. I have a Latin record – I was featured on J Balvin and Pharrell's ‘Safari’. I hadn’t thought about doing Latin music until I was so inspired by that song. It’s things like that shape your sound and changes your direction without you even knowing. I want (my music) to feel powerful to anybody who can relate to the struggle.

So why did you choose your particular G-Star RAW print?

BIA: It stuck out to me. It looked like it could be worn by a girl or worn by a guy. It felt like me. It could be for everybody. It just felt like a good pant to me. It was like my style in a pant. They’re camo – green with a dash of red in it.

Did they let you keep them?

BIA: Yeah, and I was so excited about it too!

How would you describe your fashion? Have your tastes got more luxurious as you’ve found fame?

BIA: My fashion sense is girly, tomboy-ish. I’m into pieces. I really like signature things. Knitted, fishnet socks. Stuff that stands out. Things that make an outfit. I’ve always had really good taste, but I couldn’t always afford what I wanted – I still can’t! But I think style is different than being able to buy expensive clothes, and my style has grown with me. As I found myself out, I found my style.

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