With her self-titled debut album out now, the Awful Records protégé tells us why she’s more than just a ‘fetish rapper’
Sex sells, and watching Tommy Genesis in one of her videos – writhing in a pile of puppies and a pit of tampons, naked in milky bathwater, or spitting lyrics offering up a “pound of clit” – it might seem like she’s the embodiment of this idea. But Tommy is quick to shoot down any notion that she’s only here to put on a show for a mainstream who don’t dig deeper. Outside of her adored, hypersexual aesthetic, the Canadian-born, LA-based, Swedish-Tamil rapper has got another side.
“I really wanted to make a project that I felt was a leap of faith towards something that wasn’t expected of me,” Tommy says of her debut album, the recently released, self-titled Tommy Genesis, while talking over a late night phone call. “My music has this very cult feeling that if you’re in on it and you fuck with it, then you fuck with it. If you don’t? That’s okay. It’s not meant for you.”
Tommy’s enigmatic musical prowess has racked up a lengthy list of accolades since she appeared on the scene in 2015 with her World Vision mixtape. A protégé of Atlanta rap collective Awful Records, the self-proclaimed “art-hoe” and “fetish rapper” (or, as we described her in 2016, “the internet’s most rebellious underground rap queen”) has since modelled for Calvin Klein, inked a deal with Downtown Records, and now released her debut album. This rise feels a long way from her early days as a bedroom rapper in art school, or her stints in emo and punk bands – let alone in a church group called ‘God’s Girls’ back in Vancouver.
Following the release of the album, and ahead of her European tour in February, we caught up with Tommy about what inspired her latest musical shift, art, climate change, and her penchant for keeping people guessing.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Tommy Genesis: I’ve had to do less with my visual aesthetic so that the music could catch up. I needed this album so that people could be like, “Oh this is what Tommy Genesis sounds like.” The moment I released it, I stopped caring what people think. Like, I really stopped! Before this, if something rubbed me the wrong way, it would give me mad anxiety. But now that I have music out, nobody can ask me if I’m “just a model”. Nobody can come at me, because I’m good with this project. Like, I’m good.
Do you have a track that feels most personal?
Tommy Genesis: I obviously pulled from myself and my own feelings, but I didn’t set out to make an autobiographical album with Tommy. It’s not that I won’t make one eventually, I just didn’t this time. No one gave me these songs. It’s obviously by me and music that I wrote at different points and moods in my life, but it’s not some kind of Horcrux. This album doesn’t contain a part of me. I made it and walked away.
Fuck, I love how I just shouted out Harry Potter.
What’s behind the shift in your sound away from your earlier experimental rap?
Tommy Genesis: I really wanted to make a project that I felt was a leap of faith towards something that wasn’t expected of me. I wouldn’t say I’m a singer, but I would definitely say that, the way my voice is, I’m really comfortable singing in my own way. It’s not like I’m out here hitting crazy notes or anything, but in a lot of ways, I feel more comfortable like this than rapping. That doesn’t mean I won’t make experimental rap again, I just wanted to explore this album this way.
Do you consider yourself shocking?
Tommy Genesis: Female and male rappers have rapped about the stuff I’m saying before. This isn’t anything new. But I feel like for some reason, when you take it out of the context of pure rap, that’s when it becomes shocking. I feel like a lot of people will just label my music as “sexual” or “fetish rap”, but in my opinion, it’s just me being fearless in what I have to say, and not worrying if the way I say it makes someone uncomfortable that can’t fuck with it.
What shocks you?
Tommy Genesis: I like to be pleasantly shocked. What shocks me the most is having my expectations defied in good ways. When strangers are super genuine and kind – that type of shit shocks me, like, “Right, there’s still good people out there?!” But I think it’s super subjective. What shocks me might not shock you, and being from a generation that grew up with the internet, I wouldn’t say there’s much that shocks any of us that we haven’t already seen.
“Being from a generation that grew up with the internet, I wouldn’t say there’s much that shocks any of us” – Tommy Genesis
You’ve played a lot with the theme of duality in your music. What does each side contribute?
Tommy Genesis: I’m not confused about what side I am. They’re both me. I self-titled the album because even in my own name there are two sides. Duality for me is about playing with different mediums within myself to make my art and paint a sort of sonic self-portrait. I try to make music that’s open but at the same time, the lyrics are not exactly digestible to just ‘anyone’. They’re explicit, they can’t be played on the radio, and not everyone can fuck with that. So I feel like I have one foot I feel l dipped in something really underground, where my music is sorta weird, and then my other foot dipped in what just sounds good.
What’s been the most physically challenging of your video concepts?
Tommy Genesis: The “Tommy” video for sure was the worst. We were in New York, and it was already raining and cold outside. I wound up in that bathtub for over three hours I think, and the water was freezing! I’ve done a lot of things for shoots that aren’t fun. The days are long and hard work, but it’s for my art, so once I’m there I think, “Get it done, and then you go home, eat pizza, and watch TV.”
Being so hands on across all aspects of your music, and coming from an art school background, what’s been the most artistically rewarding thing you’ve done?
Tommy Genesis: I based my whole “Lucky” video off Richard Prince and his Girlfriends series. I’ve been inspired by artists like Tracey Emin and Nobuyoshi Araki as well – but I feel like these past videos haven’t really been artistically rewarding. I haven’t crossed music and art together yet the way I’d like too. Those are two very separate worlds.
Editing takes a really really long time, especially because I’m crazy about composition – like, I’ll move something over a centimetre until I’m happy. Up until now, my video concepts have been about trying to figure out what the song needs and then trying to put a video out asap. No one’s there telling me how to pose in the bathtub. I don’t get to just call up and pick the puppies, it’s whatever puppies are available that day!
“Drive” has a country twang that wouldn’t feel out of place at a rodeo in western Canada. Were you inspired by your roots?
Tommy Genesis: It’s so country! I kept it because it was one of the first songs that I wrote that sounded like that. In terms of musical inspirations, sometimes I’ll pick someone in an interview just to fuck with them, but honestly no. I don’t know if it’s my personality, but I don’t draw inspiration from the past. I don’t look back.
Speaking of “Drive” – what’s the biggest thing that drives you?
Tommy Genesis: I never really felt like I was who I was supposed to be in life. By playing shows and music coming into my life, all that changed. It’s like the universe said, “It’s okay that you don’t fit in. It’s alright that you never did what everyone you grew up with around you did.”
What do you consider art?
Tommy Genesis: I was really infatuated with this idea of “What is art?” and “How can you push the boundaries of that?” One of my favourite pieces is by this artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres called Untitled (Loverboy), where he put a pile of candy in the corner of the gallery and invited people to eat it. It was powerful because this was during the 80s, and the Aids epidemic, and also when interactive art was still a very new concept. It soon came out that the candy in the piece was the exact weight of his lover’s body at the time he had died from Aids.
It doesn’t take much to make a “fuck you”, or disrupt a gallery’s preconceptions of what should be considered art, but when a piece like that invites you to ingest it one way and then reveals itself to have unexpected layers that make you discover it another – for me, that’s art.
Working with the likes of Abra and Charli XCX, as well as a slew of producers, who’s still the dream to collaborate with?
Tommy Genesis: Always Rihanna. Producer-wise? There are the producer gods out there, but I’m more about the idea that the right people always find you if they fuck with you. I have some remixes coming out soon, so I’m excited for those. Musically, I’d say I don’t have a plan. I’m just going with my instinct – and so far, that’s been pretty fire.
What do you think still needs to change in the music industry?
Tommy Genesis: Music ‘matters’, but if you look at the state of the world, it doesn’t really matter. We’re literally on the tipping point, as humans, where we decide if we survive. They just did this study where we have, like, 12 years to change our climate situation or that’s it for us. So you can go sell out a stadium, or buy a flash car – but what does that matter if in 20 years the world ends? That shit’s scary. You can’t drink the water in LA. It’s 2018, and I can’t drink my own tap water? That matters.