Taken from the spring/summer 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here
“They’ll take you to jail for anything,” sighs Bali Baby, her eye-roll almost audible. On the phone from her home in Atlanta, Bali (the nickname-turned-rap moniker of 21-year-old Kaitlin Fletcher) is talking about the series of events that led to 2 Chainz sharing a ‘Free Bali’ post on Instagram in 2016. “It was for a speeding ticket!” she says with a laugh. “(My friend) DJ Small knows 2 Chainz and tagged him in a picture of us. That’s how he found out about me. My mom called me up like, ‘You’re famous!’”
That year turned out to be a pivotal one for Bali. She paid her debts to society and, one day, at the suggestion of her brothers, decided to drop a freestyle. “They kept saying, ‘Everyone’s doing it, you should drop a little video, you don’t have to rap for real, just do a little freestyle.’ And that’s literally what happened!” With no ambitions of pursuing a career in music, Bali posted the (since-deleted) clip. The reaction – first from friends, and then from a larger, online audience – spurred her on to take things more seriously.“People were into it! After seeing the reaction from everyone, I found a studio, found a beat on YouTube, and recorded my first song. After that I was obsessed with it. I just wanted to keep going back, keep making more music, keep trying to get better.”
Bali’s first song, “Designer”, quickly went viral. Over a hammering beat, she promises to steal your girl in a glitchy celebration of sexuality, power and high-end labels that’s a showcase for Bali’s brash confidence and brazen humour. From there, Bali played catch-up, spending as much time as she could in the studio, where she immersed herself in beats found on YouTube or via social media callouts, and then spat over them with words reflecting however she felt in the moment. “I’m just playful,” explains Bali. “I say what’s in my head. Whether it’s about performing at my shows or going on the road, when I go get new jewellery, buy new clothes, buy a new designer... every little thing I’ll talk about.”
Stylistically, she’s every bit as broad, fusing elements of pop, trap and rock. Bali gets a kick out of switching up genres, and, as part of a generation who grew up with access to a wealth of musical styles and subcultures via the internet, she’s far from a hip hop purist. In fact, one of her biggest musical influences comes from a love of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, games she grew up playing with her siblings.
“If it wasn’t on Guitar Hero, I wouldn’t listen to it,” says Bali of her earliest musical phase. “Back then I didn’t really know what to explore, but I could sing every song off Guitar Hero and Rock Band.” A love of rock music via a love of computer games might be an unexpected gateway into hip hop, but it’s exactly what makes Bali Baby so scintillating. On her 2018 mixtape Baylor Swift, she embraces her classic-rock influences, singing (and rapping) over chopped-up synths and throbbing basslines. Produced entirely by her longtime collaborator, NYC producer Chicken, it has a scrappy, punk edge.
“Forget being a female rapper. In every sense, people are still sexist. Of course that’s gonna come when women are trying to take over a male-dominated industry” – Bali Baby
“It makes me think of dungeons,” says Bali of the song “Tough”, in which her sickly-sweet, Auto-tuned vocals clash with grungey instrumentation. “It makes me feel tough.” Baylor Swift sees her move from “gangster shit” – the outlandish bravado of some of her biggest earlier tracks like “Designer” or “Banana Clip” – to a more personal approach, as she tackles heartbreak and creeping angst. Standout track “Backseat” is a ferocious heater about the demise of a relationship with an ex-girlfriend. Her voice is shrill: she makes no effort to hide the pain. “It’s the first time I’d done anything like that. I’d never talked about it before,” admits Bali. “I didn’t know what to say at first, but I was trying to be fully open.” She says the process helped her to keep moving after her first proper breakup. “But you have to. You better dust that shit off and get up! The world is not stopping.”
Growing up in a city famed for nurturing a new generation of hip hop, it wasn’t until her later years at high school that Bali started listening to “Bankroll Fresh and Young Thug... Things that everyone else in Atlanta was listening to”. Instead, the Guitar Hero soundtrack gave way to a teenage obsession with Lana Del Rey, Jhené Aiko and Ariana Grande, strong women whose influence shaped Bali ’s own ideas of what it meant to be an artist, despite operating in wildly different genres. In a move more typically associated with mainstream superstars, Bali even released a Christmas album, Merry Bhristmas, in 2017. “I did it because that’s what all the greatest females did,” she explains. “I just wanted to go ahead and stake my legacy in there. I did it for my favourite person, Mariah Carey.”
Bali has always felt slightly distant from the scene that she appears – on paper, at least – so connected to. In the video for “Banana Clip”, she snarls about being “hotter than a pan” and a “road-runner like an Uber man” with tricks “like Superman”, while wielding a banana in front of the camera. In taking virtually nothing seriously – she ‘signs’ her tracks with a trademark mwah! – Bali has become a unique figure in the city’s often po-faced hip hop scene. In the visual for last year’s “Amber Alert”, she’s surrounded by a laughing entourage of her bikini-clad friends, moving from private yacht to jewellery shop, flashing gold chains and perfectly manicured talons at every opportunity. “My money tall like a tower,” she declares, as she and her crew drive around Atlanta in golf carts. “I’m screaming ‘Pussy is power!’”
As a bisexual woman operating in an industry which is still largely male-dominated, Bali makes a point of surrounding herself with powerful women. On Instagram, she recently shared a post looking for female DJs and camerawomen for her tour. “I’d rather work with females first,” she explains. “If I can find a cool female I would definitely rather work with them than a cool male... I’m trying to give them a bigger platform (in an industry where) women are not people’s first choice.” Her crew, the Playgirls, is made up of her closest friends: proud and assertive women who are always in her corner. “They’re basically like my mini-record label,” Bali explains. “My unofficial label that’s full of girls who do everything – rapping, singing, modelling. Whenever I do videos I make sure to have them in.”
“We’re all funny as hell,” she continues, with the relatable confidence of someone who knows their friends, and only their friends, are the best. “Honestly, we’re hilarious – all we do is joke all day. We’re cool, we’re not bitchy, we get along and everybody is friends outside of the business aspect of it. We were cool before all of this, before the music and before Playgirls, and now it’s the coolest thing to be able to work with my best friends.”
Bali knows that, as a queer female rapper, she’s still a minority in hip hop. “Maybe I just brush it off, but it’s not something that I’ve had a problem with,” she says. “It’s definitely gonna be ‘a thing’ for a little bit longer. This is still new to everyone – it’s gonna take a little bit of time because people are sexist, period. Forget being a female rapper. Just in every sense, people are still sexist. Of course that’s gonna come when women are trying to take over a male-dominated industry. Of course they don’t want the females to take over.” Of her LGBTQ+ fans, she promises to “speak out all the time for them. I love that they accept me, and they go hard for me, and so I try to make sure I go hard for them too.”
While Bali says that her appreciation of Atlanta’s rap legacy is growing, she refuses to feel intimidated. As a musician, she is committed to continuing her playful experiments, straying into any genre that interests her, and bringing her humour and queer perspective to the table. Her follow-up up to Baylor Swift, October’s horror-inspired LP Resurrection, pushed her aesthetic further into the weird. “I’ve always wanted to be the best in whatever I do,” she says. “That’s the main thing and it really motivates me to do everything. Wanting to be the best really pushes me. No matter what I’m taking on, I always go as hard as I possibly can.”
Bali Baby’s new mixtape is out in June
Hair Shingo Shibata at The Wall Group, make-up Grace Ahn at Julian Watson Agency, nails Ada Yeung at Bridge Artists, set design Mila Taylor-Young at D+V, photography assistants Eduardo Silva, Matt Baffa, styling assistants Gregory Miller, Natsumi Takahashi, set design assistants Kate Atkinson, Reid Oshan, Caz Slattery, production D+V, special thanks Lytehouse Studio, Idabkha, Tony Perez