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Photography Thistle Brown, styling Andrew Sauceda

MHYSA’s sound takes the pop we know to someplace new

As they prepare a show to celebrate their Hyperdub-released LP NEVAEH, the artist and The Studio Museum resident reflects on the ways they are working the creases of R&B

E. Jane is taking the incredients from pop that we know, and making something from it that we don't. On their newest album, last year's NEVAEH, they went about chipping away at the boundaries of the music they grew up with in Maryland: the latex-bass intricacies of Missy Elliott, the rusted thud of Baltimore House. In the basement of their family home, E. Jane’s father would play them Janet Jackson’s seminal trip-hop LP, The Velvet Rope. “I hear the range of that album, the queerness in that album, all these experimental flourishes that I was obsessed with in private,” the artist says. “The music I love the most from my childhood had all these beautiful, experimental moments because Black people are already expansive futurists.” As one of half of DJ duo SCRAAATCH with musician and producer lawd knows, E. Jane has long filled the clubs of New York and beyond with liminal waypoints – beats that sit nowhere in particular and send dancefloors somewhere else.

Most recently, E. Jane just finished up a residency at The Studio Museum in Harlem and has work in the museum's annual AIR show, This Longing Vessel, currently on view at MoMA PS1. The latter exhibition, which launched in December and runs until March 14, saw creatives explore a range of topics, including the intersections of Blackness and queerness as paths are navigated forward. As they prepare for a performance at Ps1 to celebrate the first anniversary of NEVAEH next month, E. Jane discusses the innumerable ways they are experimenting, searching, and dissolving.

Explain some of the thinking around the work you made for your 2019-2020 residency at The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Artist-in-Residence exhibition at MoMA PS1, “This Longing Vessel”. In what ways did it explore the intersection of Blackness and queerness?

MHYSA: I started my residency at The Studio Museum in Harlem in October of 2019 along with artists Elliot Reed and Naudline Pierre. The AIR group show “This Longing Vessel” opened in December of 2020 at Ps1.  I think Blackness and queerness interacted for each artist in the show in our own way and I can only really speak for myself. Being a Black and queer person, Black culture, and queerness as a way of being in the world always shape my lens. This is how I see the world and my art comes from how I interpret or dream about what I see. I think about Black women’s culture, what it means to be a Black femme, what it means to channel feminity in a Black body, to claim the signifier of the feminine, and what the traditions of Black feminity are. There is a queerness inherent to Black feminity inside of a colonial framework, because femininity is white inside of white supremacy and Black women and femmes are being judged based on a white ideal of feminine performance. We Black people have created our own thing while trying to emulate this ideal, and I believe MHYSA also engages that tradition of the Black feminine archetype but sometimes I intentionally fuck with the tradition. In the work “In lieu of an explanation or an appeal, they shouted and stomped and screamed. How else were they to express the longing to be free?” (2020) which I titled after a line about a protest in a women’s prison in Saidiya Hartman’s essay “The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner” shows me performing the track “BELIEVE” from the NEVAEH LP. It’s a moment when I’m screaming and shouting and I look fierce in the image instead of the soft way I like to be represented on my album covers. That moment is a kinda queering of a Black pop star, this feminine, soft ideal.

At other times, l lean into a Black performance of ideal femininity like in theBrand Nu/Sanaa Lathan" music video, which shows up in the show in the diptych “co-directing a music video I + II” (2020). This installation includes two selfies I took on the set for the video on a decorative alter I created. In the domestic scene in the video, I wanted to feel like Kirsten Dunst playing Marie Antoinette, and I think the queerness comes from how colonialism teaches you to view my body in relation to that role.

In what ways did this intersection steer your debut album for Hyperdub, NEVAEH, and your music as MHYSA more generally?

MHYSA: As I said before, Blackness and queerness shape my subjectivity, so all my music is also shaped by this. Black queer club spaces are a big part of my social life and are really the spaces where I can be myself the most. It’s the space where I came/come into being. When I’m seeking desire, when I’m longing for healing and time with myself to love myself, because no one loves me better. When I sing about longing for a lover to want me, those feelings are shaped by my experiences as a Black and queer femme.

Take us back a little to growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland. You’ve described how you wanted to reframe the melodic R&B you grew up with – how did you always interpret this music?

MHYSA: I loved the music I grew up with and I think I just want to make it mine. I want to play with it. I’ve been playing with it for the past few years, deconstructing it and reshaping it in ways that feel good to me. But I still don’t think I combine experimental and R&B together as well as Janet Jackson. When I was seven, my dad sat me down and played me The Velvet Rope album, specifically the track “Together Again” which he loved and would blast on this crazy sound system he built us, that filled the basement with a really rich sound. He was explaining how the rhythms she was playing were African, like us. It was a beautiful moment, but what really struck me were all the songs on that album that I played alone when I got a little older. So I guess more than potential I see a lot of beauty in the music, and I see myself inside of this musical tradition. I’m currently taking vocal lessons and trying to take R&B vocals more seriously, studying it as I find my voice. There was this moment when I was like 17 when I was really, really into Baltimore Club Music and going to gay nights at the Paradox in Baltimore. But also listening to the Noisettes and how they played with feedback in the track “Iwe”. I started to listen to Linkin Park on MTV, Alanis Morissette and all these other rock and indie bands like Feist and I know that also shapes how I view music. All these genres play with noise, dissonance and how that energy also exists in R&B through people like TLC, Missy Elliott, and Janet Jackson. All contemporary American music traces back to the blues and gospel, so these sounds already have a relationship to one another and even as a teenager when I didn’t know that, I still felt their connection and I like drawing that connection out in my music, maybe too much – LOL.

“I loved the music I grew up with and I think I just want to make it mine. I’ve been playing with it for the past few years, deconstructing it and reshaping it in ways that feel good to me. But I still don’t think I combine experimental and R&B together as well as Janet Jackson” – MHYSA

Where are you hoping to take your music next, are you working on or collaborating with anyone new – any new inspirations, or influences that are steering it?

MHYSA: I have a post-it note on my wall that says “experiment with making a good song” and I’m really exploring that. There are some people who I think make really good songs including, Summer Walker, Ari Lennox, KeiyaA, Ms. Carrie Stacks, Desire Marea, L’Rain, and Kelis, who’ve I’ve always been obsessed with, but I’ve been playing her Wonderland album on repeat which I never knew about until last year. It is SO, SO good. I’m also into City Girls, Megan thee Stallion and Bbymutha and I’ve been listening to a lot of Laraaji and Alice Contrane during Quarantine, Buffy Saint Marie... these are some of the musicians new and old that I think make GOOD songs and are really inspiring me, the list could really go on. I also get deep pleasure out of making dance tracks and seeing people dance to my music and I’m thinking about that as a center to whatever I put out next.

How does the creative process with Lawd Knows usually work? Are you working with any other producers at the moment, too?  

MHYSA: Lawd knows and I live together, so our working relationship is very intimate. I wake up sometimes with ideas in my head, want to cover songs I can’t stop singing in the shower, and it's great because our set up is in our apartment, so when we’re in the studio we can work as long as we want and he gives me his undivided attention. When he helps me with a beat, I generally describe the type of sound I’m looking for and then he’ll work on helping me make that sound, then I’ll add more production, some sound design and the arrangement. I like to be hands-on when producing a track, I like to think about the arrangement and how my voice will sound, melody, but I also like working with Lawd Knows and I love his sense for drums and certain melodic stuff he does. We’re both self taught and we try to be patient with one another and learn together. We’ve been making music together as SCRAAATCH since before I started my solo project and I hope we’ll always work together. I’m working with a couple of other producers on tracks right now, but I don’t want to say too much about it, the process is still really new but I’m excited about what could come of it.

What can you say about the events of 2020, the way protest came out of tragic events propelled by a break in the cycles of late capitalism. Has it inspired new ideas and conversations in you, that may one day come out in your work?

MHYSA: 2020 as a year of protest isn’t really new, people just seem to have short memories. When Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and many other people died in 2014 through 2015, there were mass protests, but that wasn’t even the first wave of protests in the past decade. With social media being so popular, everyone can see protests, they can see folks demanding changes many have been demanding since before I was born. This desire for a reckoning has always been in my music. The fear that our world isn’t sustainable, that collapse is already here, has always been in my work. I never had the privilege of being shielded from danger in the world but 2020 was a year that many people who felt safe had to deal with their own precarity. I hope it makes people with privilege more compassionate to those who lack their privilege, as well as each other, but it’s hard to be optimistic about it. I did finally start watching anime because of all the time I had at home in 2020, including this series “.hack//Sign” kawd knows got me into. I love the music in that show and the way they were talking about how real online life is in relation to IRL, that became most evident this year as many things that used to be IRL had to go online, because of the pandemic. Some of these thoughts have kinda made their way into new songs I’ve been writing and will probably manifest in other ways as well.

Could you explain MHYSA, your moniker, and how it is distinct from your name, E. Jane?

MHYSA: I changed my last name to Jane when I was 18, because my father didn’t want me to make any art using his last name. I changed my first name to E. when I was 22 because I wanted to be separated from gender identification. I just come from Maryland, not outer space, my parents weren’t rockstars or anything, they were African American government workers, but E. Jane is my name for now. And MHYSA is my second name, my performance self, you might say my stage name but also she’s an energy I embody. Tina Turner feels a separation and connection with Anna Mae Bullock and I feel the same way. I began the project while I was still getting my MFA at Penn and always saw it as Total Art. I take all my art skills and use it to build out my creative vision for my music and to think very critically about what artists I collaborate with. I hope my work in This Longing Vessel expresses the way my two selves are very much in conversation in my art practice and my music. I was watching someone talk about wearing a mask while performing and how that allowed them to perform freely and that’s how I feel about MHYSA. Being MHYSA allows me to perform freely, she’s me becoming an avatar I created for myself based on lived experiences, fantasies and dreams I want to honor, feelings that are sometimes hard to express and that maybe I want some distance from in my personal life. But in a way, becoming her allows me to become more of myself. 

“I was watching someone talk about wearing a mask while performing and how that allowed them to perform freely and that’s how I feel about Mhysa” – MHYSA

You’re wearing Women’s History Museum on the cover of NEVAEH. What is it about their fashion that excites you? Are there any other brands that are pushing the boat out like WHM, for you? Explain a little about the role that clothes play in your self-expression.

MHYSA: I love that Women’s History Museum makes clothes that highlight my curves. I have a big butt that I love and I love that Women’s History Museum’s dresses and skirts allow me to show my beautiful body off. Their clothes also let me be playful, like a woodland nymph, and sexy like a video vixen, and how I always feel like everything I’m wearing is held together by a single thread and going to fall apart but never does. They have a Lou Dallas energy and I also love that brand too. I’ve been building a relationship with Mattie and Amanda since 2019 and I’m really devoted to their vision. I also like that they create visual art as well and I feel like they understand me. They’re styling my upcoming performance at MoMA PS1 that’s happening on Feb 14, the anniversary of NEVAEH’s 2020 release.

As for other brands I’m obsessed with, obviously No Sesso. It’s my dream to work with No Sesso – I love every dress they’ve ever made. Pierre is a genius. She’s also an icon at this point. Clothes help me get into performing. I love something frilly or a corset to make me really feel like that Diva on stage. Clothes also help me get into the performance of the everyday. I love jewel tones and pastels and garments that help me feel in control.

MHYSA will perform at MoMA PS1 on February 14, to mark the anniversary of NEVAEH