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Rapper the Lioness aims to 'speak to the beautiful black people around the world'

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If you prefer hip-hop that's rich and deep in substance, then the Lioness is your girl.

Her music addresses heavy themes like injustice, bullying, suicide, spiritual searching, survival, and inner beauty. It is confrontational and challenging, yet catchy, and even celebratory at times.

The 28-year-old born Shaiwna Adams started singing in her youth in the church choir. The youngest of six siblings, many of them equally musically inclined, she naturally gravitated toward powerful, socially minded singers like Lauryn Hill, remnants of whom are evident in her style. A 2010 graduate of McNally Smith, Adams was initially interested in the technical side of music-making but ended up behind the mic instead.

After releasing three mixtapes in as many years, she’s finally putting out her first solo full-length, Growing Pains. City Pages spoke to her in anticipation of her album-release show Thursday at the 7th St. Entry.

City Pages: What does the album title Growing Pains refer to?

The Lioness: Man, Growing Pains is pretty much everything I’ve been dealing with the past two years. I had to separate and sever ties with a lot of people that I thought that I couldn’t live without. I was able to pick up and grow out of the old me, the old lifestyle, and transition so I can be a better person.

The Lioness: An advocate for "women of hip-hop and women of color."

The Lioness: An advocate for "women of hip-hop and women of color."

For an example: a best friend. If all they want to do is party and drink, that’s not what I want to do. I can’t do that. On occasion, that’s fine, go out, have a good time and enjoy yourself. But if that’s all you want to do, if you don’t see anything better for yourself, I can’t be around you. You’re gonna rub off on me.

Someone told me, “If everyone in your circle is looking up to you, it’s time to find a new circle.” If I’m not being fed, I have to move around, I have to find someone that would give back to me. Just separating from old habits, the old lifestyle that I used to live, transitioning, clearing my mind, and focusing on being a better person and evolving, even in music.

CP: What was the spark that made you want to pursue making your own music?

TL: Just being a voice and an advocate for women — women of hip-hop and women of color especially. Talking about things they may have been afraid to speak out on, letting them know that there’s hope for them, and lifting them up. That’s always been the message that I’ve had.

CP: A lot of your songs are advocating for someone or a cause, and that’s not especially common in rap. It’s a really interesting take.

TL: Thank you.

CP: From the point when you made your first mixtape to now, how have you evolved?

TL: I think I’ve evolved greatly, just transformed. Now [I know that] I don’t have to fit in with any crowd. Being myself is OK.

I think before I was a little too worried about what others thought instead of being able to stand alone now and knowing even if you don’t agree with me, I’m still going to be myself. I think I’ve grown a lot from when I first started, talking about different things that even I’ve been afraid to talk about. I think that’s huge.

CP: What has been the toughest topic that you’ve addressed in your music so far?

TL: Speaking up on black culture, police brutality. Speaking about problems that I’ve dealt with personally with my family and my parents. Different belief systems.

My mother’s a minister, so me separating from the church and kind of learning my own thing and doing my research about who I truly am and who my people are. At first it was hard, but it’s becoming more and more easy to talk about as I’ve been getting more comfortable with it.

CP: Is your music a form of ministering?

TL: I wouldn’t use the word ministering. It is not religious at all. It’s factual. I’m just speaking on what I see and experience. I’m leading people to their higher selves.

CP: How has the local music scene treated you? Is it a constant battle to get noticed?

TL: At first, it was a constant battle. Before, I was so frustrated with not getting the recognition and being overlooked for so long. It was pretty discouraging. But now, I’ve been getting so much love from the community and pillars in the hip-hop game. It’s overwhelming. I’m really grateful. Hard work pays off.

Sometimes, you just gotta take a step back and revisit it. If I gave up, maybe I didn’t deserve to be recognized. But now that things are starting to reverse, people are sharing and downloading and there’s a lot of love now. I’m not exactly where I want to be, but I’m working towards it every day. 

CP: You’ve been involved with the Mobile Jazz Project in the St. Paul Public Schools. What is it like to teach young people? How has that affected you as an artist?

TL: It’s a summer program and an after-school program. I’ve always wanted to teach, but I was kind of scared to take that leap. After a meditation, I was sitting and wondering, “What is my purpose? What am I supposed to be doing?

There has to be more to life than just working a regular 9-to-5 and not being happy. There’s something that I need to do, but I don’t know what it is.” Literally the next day, I got a call asking to come and teach —and I had no experience in teaching — to come and teach a class for writing at the Mobile Jazz Project.

I’ve learned so much from the students. My students were really honest. They talked about, and wrote about, and shared topics that I would be so nervous to put out there. I’ve learned so much from them. 

CP: Have you lived in north Minneapolis your whole life?

TL: Pretty much, yeah.

CP: What is it about the community that feels like home to you?

TL: It’s a lot of unity. I know that lately, if you turn on the news, you see all the different things that go wrong: the shootings, the killings. But that’s not the only thing the North Side is known for.

We have great organizations to build the community and I believe that they’re overlooked and I really want to touch on them. VOC (Voice of Culture): They have an African drum and dance class every Saturday for anyone to come in and dance and it’s free to drop your kids off. They have NOC [Neighborhoods Organizing for Change] on Broadway. MAD DADS [Men Against Destruction-Defending Against Drugs and Social-Disorder].

There’s a lot of community leaders and there’s a lot of positive people there. This is home to me. It’s family.

CP: What plans or dreams do you have for your music in the future?

TL: That’s a great question. I would want to drop another album. I would love to tour internationally, just getting my music out there, outside of this state. That’s a huge dream for me. I would love to gain a larger audience.

It would be such a tremendous experience to perform on the main stage of Soundset! My main focus is to speak to the beautiful black people around the world. I want them to know their value. I want to let them know they are beautiful just as they are.

The Lioness

With: Taylor J, Why Khaliq, Distiny Roberts, DJ Advance, and Tek.

When: 8 p.m. Thu., June 30.

Where: 7th St. Entry.

Tickets: $8-$10; more info here.