'It'd be nice to have a few vaginas onstage': Psalm One calls out Rhymesayers 20

Psalm One

Psalm One

Rhymesayers will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a massive concert on December 4 at Target Center, one that serves as a retrospective of the dozens of artists it's been involved with over the years. But one name is notably missing from the roster: Psalm One, the "first lady of Rhymesayers," and the only solo female artist the Twin Cities label has signed in its two decades of existence.

Chicago's Psalm One released her first commercial album, The Death of Frequent Flyer, through Rhymesayers Entertainment in 2006. But the real-life Cristalle Bowen has since put out music — including her Woman At Work and Get In The Van series, and full-length projects like 2014's Free Hugs, and her most recent project, P.O.L.Y. (Psalm One Loves You) — and toured the world independently, finding less support from the label in recent years.

The Rhymesayers 20 blowout touts 29 artists from the label's storied history (including no less than three Aesop Rock projects), but represents an issue the label has had since its inception: There is little to no involvement from female artists. Kimya Dawson's appearance as part of the Uncluded stands to be the only female presence on stage.

Psalm One is currently releasing some of the best music of her career, as well as remaining incredibly active in the Chicago rap scene and beyond, which makes her exclusion from the label's retrospective concert a glaring omission. It's also representative of independent hip-hop's woman problem: While in many ways underground rap, as Rhymesayers helped to define it, aims to challenge tropes present in mainstream music, misogyny and erasure continue to play out in the independent realm.

We spoke with Psalm One about her exclusion from the upcoming concert, and her relationship with the label in the years preceding. Rhymesayers declined to comment for this story. 

City Pages: How did you get connected with Rhymesayers when you first started?

Psalm One: I'd been touring a little bit super early in my career with a group called Nacrobats, and I was fortunate enough to do a show with Eyedea, rest in peace, for his Oliver Hart album that he dropped. So that was my first introduction to working with the Rhymesayers camp. From that I met Siddiq [aka Brent Sayers, president of Rhymesayers], and of course Mikey [Larsen] and a couple of other people, that night.

One of my first DJs, also he was best friends with J-Bird, who's high-ranking over there at the office, so I'm sure that there was wind of me already, but I think really what did it was me actually linking with Brother Ali when I was down at [University of Illinois]. He took a liking to my music, and just kept showing people my music, and finally I was creating an element they were interested in, so we kinda just made the deal work. It took about a year for the deal to finally go through, but we did it.

I think it was just a combination of having met some of the higher-ups at Rhymesayers, plus having an artist like Brother Ali kinda be in my corner and showing them my music and stuff. That coupled with knowing that I had a good work ethic, and meeting everyone and kinda going to shows, doing that kinda thing, it ended up working out.

CP: Beyond your 2006 album with Rhymesayers, you've mostly been putting out solo records?

PO: I put out [The Death of] Frequent Flyer with them, and I put out a couple of mixtapes here and there, but I was working on music under the impression I was going to be able to work with the label after that, you feel me? That's always what was kind of told to me, from the office. The impression I always got was, we would always be able to work on music. They had the first right of refusal for the material that I would deliver.

Since I signed in 2006, maybe around 2008, is when I started feeling kind of the cold shoulder. Not sure why or how or what or when, but I never felt — other than a few members, a few artists — I never felt completely comfortable over there. I never felt completely comfortable to be myself. When you see some of the artists that have been touted on Rhymesayers ... Atmosphere, Ali, P.O.S, Eyedea, all these artists, they exude an image and a confidence of being very self-aware, and being unapologetically them. And I don't think that that's what was desired for me.

I was almost apologetically me. You know when the little sister is hanging out with all the big brothers, and just wants to kind of be down and be accepted, almost like the girl in West Side Story who was always around, they would never let her fight.

CP: As you moved more in that kind of "unapologetically you" direction with your work, do you feel like that was not met with the same respect or understanding from the RSE camp?

PO: Absolutely, that's pretty much my feeling. Even having this conversation is a little weird for me, because I don't want to sound like the bitter rapper. I feel like I've had a great career. I feel like I could have done a lot more work with Rhymesayers, but I don't feel I was ever given that opportunity or platform to kind of grow, spread my wings, and shine like other artists were. I don't know if it was the gay thing.

I've never been really big on talking about sex period at the beginning of my career [in my] lyrics, 'cause I was always about skill. I wasn't into actually revealing those parts of my character. I definitely didn't feel comfortable being like quote unquote "the gay rapper," because I don't identify with being lesbian, but it doesn't matter. As soon as you do something gay, you're gay [laughs]. So for me, I felt like that part of me was not expected to be talked about. I felt very uncomfortable at Rhymesayers being open about my sexuality. Brother Ali would be the only artist I actually spoke to semi-candidly about that, but you know, some of the people close to him would say things like "dyke".

In the office, I've been called a "dyke," you know what I'm saying? That word to me is offensive. You haven't really heard me say it ever in my lyrics. I don't refer to myself as one. So for me, as a younger rapper, that word was really offensive to me, and being called that word early in my career over at Rhymesayers, it kind of quieted me a little bit about that part of myself. Which was okay at the time, 'cause I wasn't really trying to reveal all that anyway.

CP: What made you feel more comfortable about revealing that part of yourself, both in your work and outside of your work?

PO: Just growing up as a woman and being me, being a rapper and seeing how women are treated. Seeing how, even though rap is almost this grand gesture of "fuck you" to society, it's rebellion and all of that, it's still very oppressive to certain people, certain members of society, whether it be gays or women or certain races.

For me, through growing up and that just being me shouldn't bother anyone, it should actually inspire people. I already know that I have a very impressive flow. I know that I'm intelligent, I come from an academic background ... There's a lot to my story, and I didn't want to just keep pushing this one part of me away just because I'm a rapper. I just slowly found the confidence while I was finding the confidence to put out music independent of Rhymesayers.

Once you get such a big platform, even though I feel like I wasn't pushed like the other artists, it was still the best platform that I could see going with, and it still gave me a great boost to my career. But after releasing a project like that, like The Death Of Frequent Flyer, and then trying to figure out, "How the fuck do I follow this up?" I didn't necessarily want to jump in bed with another label, because I felt like if I'm having problems with my dream label, so to speak, I know I'm going to have problems with another label.

So for me, I never really wanted to jump in bed with other labels. If I was going to do something with another label, it's going to be an artist-run situation, like we all work together to put our hands in the project to make sure it comes out the way we want them to come out.

CP: Rhymesayers give the impression of signing artists that talk openly and honestly about themselves honest in a way than mainstream labels don't, but in your case it was only to an extent and only to certain...

PO: ... parameters, absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know what, that makes sense though, doesn't it? When you're a huge label, they're not considered a mainstream label, they're a huge indie label, there has to be some sort of formula, there has to be something that you know works. You kind of like bottle that up. Some of the things are the condensation, anything that's outside of the bottle might be a little intimidating to try to filter through.

I know I was doing music that was different than anybody when I got signed. Anybody at that label, I was doing music that was different. I'm not from Minneapolis. I don't have the same resources. So for me, that's what I thought they were looking for. And possibly they were. I don't know where things went left to be honest. I have had not as many conversations as I would have liked with upper management; not as many opportunities to get feedback.

I've been actually denied feedback on some of my music, not given much of an explanation about things. I'm sure that this is something plenty of artists have gone through, and to be clear, I'm not here to just talk shit about a label because they didn't put my music out, you know what I mean? It's more about understanding that they have this inclusive demeanor about the company itself, the label itself. We're family-friendly, we're inclusive, but they do things that I see behind the scenes, things that affect me and things that don't have anything to do with me, that aren't very inclusive at all, that aren't very open-minded at all.

For me personally, being bisexual, I was never fully comfortable exploring that in my music. However, you have the certain artists on the label who have done "the gay song": "It's okay to be gay!" But is it really, though? Or is that you just saying that, you feel me? Do you actually practice that kind of politics in your own life? You say women are great, women are wonderful, but the only women, the only solo act that is a woman, me, that you've had in 20 years is not invited to the 20 year anniversary? I'm not dead. I'm out here super active. I just put out a really good album.

For me, I've actually taken the Rhymesayers brand, and without them, still repped it very hard. I get asked every time I step in a venue, I get asked about Rhymesayers. You think I wanna always wax poetic about them, knowing that they haven't treated me as fairly as I've seen them treat other artists? I'll just put it like that. Sometimes, communications get fucked up, people are just busy, I get it. Like, I understand. But there are just basic things, basic human courtesies that I wasn't given.

I will forever appreciate Brother Ali and Siddiq, and anybody over there who has ever been in my corner, especially Eyedea, rest in peace. He was the one that talked to me the most, and was very cool and critical and very honest and very loving about what it was that he was doing and about what I was doing as well. He was very instrumental in having me not have nervous breakdowns, because it is a big platform, especially for an artist like myself who didn't have much preparation.

Where I came from, my homie Overflow, who kind of helped me get my deal with Rhymesayers, we were just kind of babies in this situation. We were putting out good stuff, doing good things in Chicago, got discovered by a much bigger label, and I got an opportunity to shine. And I will forever be grateful for that. It's just certain things that have happened between me and Rhymsayers seem like a slap in the face, and unfair to me.

I don't know if it's because I'm a woman; I don't know if it's because I'm one of the few black artists on the label; and also, is it the gay thing? I was very much just trying to rap and do my best, and I feel like I did. I did a really good job. A lot of the things I learned throughout my career have nothing to do with the label. Some of the moves I make, people still to this day try to attribute those to the Rhymesayers office, and I'm like, no, they didn't do that, I did that. They gave me an opportunity for a few years to really shine on that label, but even that opportunity, I feel, paled in comparison to a P.O.S, or even a Mac Lethal. These people were signed around the same time I was signed.

I don't know, there are plenty of questions. For me, I'm not even gonna front. It hurt when I... I definitely was invited earlier this year. I was told about the Rhymesayers 20th show at South by Southwest, because there was a huge Rhymesayers showcase that I wasn't a part, but I went to that showcase to support, and say "hi" to the team, and I was personally invited to be a part of that show. Once I started booking some — I just got off tour for my P.O.L.Y. album, and I was trying to figure out when that show was going to be so I can open my schedule for it, and wasn't getting calls back from the office, wasn't getting my emails returned ... And then they just came out with the roster, with the bill, and I can't even front. It felt like a slap in the face. Yet another.

Just the latest in a handful of slaps in the face, with no explanation. For me, it was just like, damn, they trying to be all inclusive and family-friendly, and again, the lone female on the label — no diss to Kimya Dawson, she's part of a group, though. Shout out to the Uncluded. Shout out to Aesop Rock, and shout out to Kimya Dawson. Both of those artists have been very nice to me, as people, you feel me? I've got nothing against that. But being a woman and being a strong woman, and being who I am, it just seems crazy to me that you can't invite a chick on the show for one damn song? Like, what the hell?

I don't ask for much, but I'm given less than nothing, you know what I mean? I'm not even really pressing them about the music anymore, because I know the type of music that I'm making isn't necessarily going to fit that mode, and that's okay. That's something I had to figure out on my own. That wasn't something that Rhymesayers even told me. I have an album with Oh No that they were interested in, and then all of a sudden, for some reason, they weren't.

You know what I mean? It's like shit like that. What the fuck? That's why, at one point in my career, I was talking about this Oh No album, that's why I was on Soundset [in 2013], with Oh No. It's all documented, it's all there, but why hasn't that album come out? It has nothing to do with me, you feel me? I know it's not the music or the talent or the skill, because I wouldn't have been picked up by them, in the first fucking place. I'm raw.

There's a lot of years, man, where I'm like, man, am I not raw? Am I not dope? Really second-guessing myself as an artist, as a person, and that's part of the reason I took a hiatus in my career from 2008-2010; I didn't release any fucking music. I lived in the Bay, I was building my mentoring program. I was working with kids. That's why i have [the Chicago Rhymeschool Youth Program] now, and I'm able to do when I'm not touring. Those years when I was really second-guessing my music and all this shit, I was at least doing something worthwhile to help others. So I'm proud of that time in my life, but that really was a time in my life where I was kind of depressed and very much doubted myself. When I got out of that, I realized that the music I'm making is what I wanna make.

I'm not really hellbent on doing something that Rhymesayers is gonna like, because I'm not getting much feedback from them anyway. Even when someone like a Slug [label co-founder, member of Atmosphere] will email me and tell me, "I really enjoyed this music that you sent in,"... motherfuckers will tell me, Ant has told me, "This is some dope shit. I don't know if Rhymesayers is going to put this out, but this is dope." I knew it wasn't necessarily the music. As far as interpersonal relationships, shit was cool for a little while, but shit got weird.

I was pretty much friends with Brother Ali because I went on like three tours with him. Nate Collis, who used to play guitar and do production for Atmosphere, him and me are tight to this day, you know what I'm saying? Me and P.O.S are super tight, we have music together. He worked on my album Hug Life that came out last year. So I still have some connection with the label, but it got weird with people like Slug, with people like Siddiq, with J-Bird, who like, he's like one degree of separation away from someone who's really important to me in my life. But I never really acted weird, I was just kinda being me. I feel like I'm a pretty cool individual. I don't always say the right thing, but who does?

For me, I've always been more than extra respectful about Rhymesayers, and I still am. I'm not walking around saying, "Fuck them." I know I'm a passionate person; [I'm] human, and I'm vulnerable, and I have feelings and all that shit, and I'm very romantic about music. I ain't had to do this shit; I was a chemist, you know what I'm saying? On my way to managing a lab. I ain't do it for the money, you feel me? I certainly didn't do it for the fame, because, you know, that was never my intent. I started making music, I was gonna do that shit anyway. If I never got signed by anybody, I'd still be making music.

I just happened to get an opportunity to get one of the most influential labels in hip-hop period, and that will forever be something I'm proud of, and even though I'm not on that Rhymesayers 20 show, I'm still the first lady of Rhymesayers. Can't nobody take that shit away from me. It is what it is, you feel me? For me, that's something I'm proud of. I've had challenges with the label, but I don't think any artist on Earth hasn't had challenges with their record label.

CP: You definitely seem like you're in a place creatively where you're thriving, and your stuff is better and more personal now than it's ever been.

PO: Absolutely. But think of how weird that is though. That's kind of weird, because the artists on that label are supposed to grow like that. Their audience is damn near half women. So why are you not giving women more of a chance to shine? Why are you not even showcasing the only woman that they've signed in 20 years? Why wouldn't you showcase her for the little girls coming up?

I'm a fucking role model! I run a fucking youth program. I do adult things because I'm an adult, and I'm not ashamed to say them. I'm not doing anything but being me. My sexual orientation, how I identify myself, has nothing to do with the type of person that I am, and what I stand for. For me, what are you saving your fans from, you know what I mean?

CP: I don't hear a lot of hip-hop that deals directly with the type of relationship issues that you talk about on P.O.L.Y., for instance, in a real honest way in terms of your personal experiences.

PO: And guess who I learn that from? Talking about relationships, and sexuality in a real, honest way? Guess who I could have learned that from as a young non-rapper, hip-hop fan? Atmosphere! I mean, come on! He's like the king of that. It's just like weird to me, it's just one of those things. I think it's worth mentioning and worth noting that, a label that is supposedly so inclusive and so open-minded and has so many women fans, to be like, the woman over there getting straight crumbs off the table, and nothing.

And I'm out here super active. It's just wack. It sucks to me, it just sucks. And it's not on some like... I know there are going to be some Rhymesayers fanatics who will just be like, well, you're just not good enough. You're just not this enough ... Eh, maybe, but I don't think that's the reason. That's opinion, and I'm outchea, man. I do have fans, and I don't need Rhymesayers for a career. I didn't in the first place. It was an opportunity that anybody would have taken. Anybody. And I think I thrived in it.

Being actually invited, and then not getting a response, and then ... It would've been dope if they would've just been like, you know what, we overbooked it, we don't have enough time, obviously here's the VIP passes or whatever, you know what I'm saying? Shit like that. It would've sucked to hear, but it would've been decent. Being invited and then being uninvited, and not told, and having everybody be like, "Oh, this show's great, why aren't you on the bill?" I'm getting texts and emails like, "Yo, you're not on this?" I'm like, damn G.

CP: It struck me looking at the bill that they were really trying to represent all the different projects they'd been involved in over the last 20 years, and to not see Psalm One on there kind of shocked me at first.

PO: It is shocking. I agree. Whatever. It's not going to change anything. At the end of the day, it's one show. There's plenty of Rhymesayers shows I haven't been involved in. This particular one kind of hurt a little bit, especially considering I was literally invited by Siddiq, the president of Rhymesayers, to be on the show, and definitely reminded him in August and then in September about it, and did not get a response.

So, I don't know what happened between being personally invited to now. What could I have done or said? I don't do or say anything with Rhymesayers. I'm pretty much self-made. I have this one really cool thing on my resume, but that's not the only thing on my resume. That's kind of how I look at it.

CP: They've also not signed any other solo female artists besides you, which is reflective of something larger.

PO: It's telling. It's very telling that I'm the only woman that they've signed. They haven't signed another woman as a solo act, and the only other woman, her genre wouldn't necessarily be hip-hop. I love Kimya Dawson, I love her stuff with the Moldy Peaches and the stuff that she's done beyond that, the stuff she does with Aesop. She does not necessarily identify with being a female MC. She's more than that. Much respect to her, but the only female MC on the label not being represented very well at all, and there hasn't been another one since.

It's all good. It's not actually fucking up my career at all not being on that show. It's one show, and it's not like I haven't played arenas before. And it wasn't a Rhymesayers show. If I was just sitting at home, bitter about Rhymesayers and my whole career, then I'd be like fucked up about it, but I'm honestly saying it honestly hurts a little, but it's not going to stop anything. I mean, it'd be nice to have a few vaginas onstage. It's all good.