When I dial in for my phoner with Rico Nasty, I’m not quite sure who’s going to meet me on the other end. It could be Rico, the spikey-haired shit-starter who spits on tracks like ‘Smack A Bitch’ and ‘Countin Up’; or Tacobella, the sensitive singer; or the loud, metal-blasting Trap Lavigne. When she answers, though, she’s just Maria-Cecilia Simone Kelly: the 21-year-old single mother from Baltimore, who started rapping when she was in high school and is now gearing up to release her debut album later this year.
Despite the unapologetic brashness of her personas, the real Maria is apprehensive about her sexuality and outright afraid of rejection — just like everybody else. She tells me how these different identities have created a distance that allows her to connect with people without worrying about how they’ll respond to her. “They don’t have to like all of me, but I give them so many options, they have to like one [of me],” she explains.
As part of a new wave of female rappers, Rico Nasty is capitalising on her feelings of being a perennial outsider — as a woman in the male-dominated world of hip-hop; as a black girl who’s into metal and emo; as someone whose teen pregnancy dismantled her coming of age and made her feel judged by the people around her. Undefeated, she’s using her narrative to appeal to more than your usual hip-hop hungry teenagers. Rico is here for the outcasts and the weirdos — the ones who are nasty, just like her.
Alexandra Weiss: How did you get into rap?
Maria-Cecilia Simone Kelly: When I was in high school, somebody made a diss about me, and I posted my response on SoundCloud. It literally just started with a girl talking shit about me online. After that, I just figured, ‘Hey, why don’t I keep doing this? This could be fun.’
You’ve said before that you’ve always felt like an outcast. With your music, you draw inspiration from so many different genres, and you often wear your hair in punk rock spikes — you’re definitely not a traditional rapper, in that sense. So, do you still feel like an outsider, particularly in the rap world?
Yes. But being content and being accepted is not something I want or have ever wanted. You know that idea of the golden child? I’ve never been that. I’ve never been someone’s first choice. So, if I am an outcast, that’s just because of who I am, and how I am, and because people don’t understand me or my music. People are boring. They don’t want to listen to someone who sounds weird or dresses weird, especially a girl. But I was made for the weirdos, and I don’t mind being an outcast, because at the end of the day, it’s how I stay sane.
You have your three alter egos: Rico Nasty, Tacobella and Trap Lavigne. Do you think they’re a kind of security for you? Like, ‘If you’re going to think I’m an outsider, then I’m going to be the most outside outsider you know.’
Definitely, and especially with Trap Lavigne. She’s — is it called an exhibitionist? — someone who just seeks constant attention. That’s what she is. She’s loud, she’s crazy and she always wants to be seen. But I call that a persona instead of being completely who I am, because I’m only like that sometimes. Sometimes, I wake up and I’m like, ‘Oh my god I want everybody to love me,’ and other times I’m a total hermit crab and don’t want anybody around.
Are you a Gemini?
I’m not. I’m a Taurus, but everyone thinks I’m a Gemini.
I only ask because I’m a Gemini and you seem to be describing the kind of Gemini duality.
Some days I feel like the world be owing me shit. I’m like, ‘Everybody needs to appreciate how awesome I am,’ and then other days I’m like, ‘What a fucking weirdo. I hate myself.’ It’s always a constant battle, but I’m okay with it because it just pushes me to go harder and constantly get out of the box and not be so afraid of shit. I’m definitely my own biggest critic.
What are the other differences between your personas?
Tacobella is a more sensitive woman, and Rico is more of a cocky, ‘Get the fuck out of my face’ type of woman. Trap Lavigne is the brash, unapologetic in your face type of girl. They’ve all been pretty prominent and obvious in my music. Tacobella sings and Trap Lavigne plays rock and metal, and then we have Rico Nasty who sings songs like ‘Countin Up’ and ‘Bitch I’m Nasty.’
Who are you IRL?
Maria. She’s the person who is in charge of all of them, and Maria is nothing like them. Maria is a mother. But she wishes she was more like them in a lot of ways. Honestly, it’s a subconscious thing, and I don’t necessarily see any of these characters until I’m at a show or in the studio. It’s a defence mechanism for me.
Right. If Rico Nasty fails, Maria doesn’t.
Exactly. If people don’t like Rico Nasty, they’ll like Tacobella or Trap Lavigne. I created them so people could cling to whichever one they connect with most — they don’t have to like all of me but I give them so many options, they have to like one [of me].
Are you afraid of failure?
Aren’t we all afraid of failure? Or am I really the only one? I mean, I know I definitely am. But I think the better question is, ‘Are you afraid of rejection?’ Because I’m constantly afraid of that. I’m slowly getting over it, though, because in this industry you can’t necessarily put on a superhero cape and be liked by everybody, even though you wish you could.
A lot of musicians actually tell me they aren’t afraid of failure — that they make music for themselves because it’s their way of processing things. Why do you write songs?
I make music because I’m trying to get people to be more comfortable with themselves and their emotions, especially the emotions people are scared to feel, like rage and wanting to smack a bitch, and sometimes having a big ego, like I do. I just want people to feel better because I remember some really dark times when I wished I had an artist or someone that cared, or at least understood, what I was going through. But that’s where the fear of rejection comes in — when you’re sharing so much and being so vulnerable with people, it can get really scary being an underdog. I also make music for my kid — he likes what I do.
Did you grow up listening to rap?
Yeah, I grew up listening to hip-hop and Amy Winehouse. My mum literally loved her.
That’s something so interesting in the music industry right now — the women in hip-hop are so diverse in their musical tastes. Like you said, you make music that blends rap and metal, and other female artists are also experimenting with emo and pop, but I don’t really see that with all the big male rappers. Why do you think that is?
Because they’re tired, and they’ve been doing this shit for so long. This has been a male-dominated industry since the beginning — since the root of hip-hop, it’s always been about men. Every now and then you might have had a woman who got the chance to say something, but we’re finally living in a time where social media gives everyone a voice and a platform. So, now we can’t be stopped. It doesn’t even matter what goes on with men. Females will always rise to the occasion. And I feel like that’s what’s happening right now. The men are getting winded from running around and stealing each other’s concepts and names and ideas for personas, and the girls have just been quietly studying all of it. People don’t want to buy the same shit over and over — I mean, how many ‘Lils’ can you have? At a certain point, people want diversity, even if it’s just one new voice… and right now, there’s so many of us. We out here, and we’re not going anywhere.
Do you feel like you get copied a lot?
Yeah, I feel like I get copied way too fucking much. But at the end of the day, if they don’t copy me, how will I set trends? How will I ever grow? Plus, I’m a creator and a creative person. I can always recreate and redo something if someone takes it from me. So, I don’t really get mad over the copying shit too much anymore. I feel like it’s just survival of the fittest at this point. But with my fans, I love that they find confidence in dressing like me. I’m happy I can be a fucking costume, bro. People need to get away, they need relief, they need to be someone else for a day. I get that shit, one hundred per cent.
You mentioned earlier that you’re a mother. What role do you think that’s played in shaping you as an artist?
I speak for myself and nobody else when I say this, but I feel like being a mother has made me more honest, and more understanding of the fact that my body is a temple. Also, I’m not the most sexual person and I don’t sexualise a lot of things, because I have this weird little fucking baby boy looking up to me and I don’t want him to grow up and think, ‘Oh look, mum has been popping her pussy this whole time.’ Music lives forever and I’m very cautious about what I put in my lyrics — I try to make most of my music as fun as possible because he listens to a lot of it. I try to make everything as vibrant and happy as I can because life is what you make it and I want my art to imitate my life.
I noticed you don’t talk a lot about sex in your lyrics, but you do talk a lot about rage. What are you so angry about?
I think they go hand in hand. I’m angry because no one taught me how to be sexy. I’m a woman, and I want to be sexy — I’d kill to be sexy — but I’m not. There’s an art to it that I just haven’t figured out. I’m like the girl on the outside looking in. I think it stems from always being an outcast, always being the person who people thought was weird. It almost became hard to take myself seriously enough to be sexy.
You also had your baby when you were only 18. So, you didn’t really have time to grow into your sexuality yet.
Shit, I never thought of it like that. But you’re right. No one is happy when an 18-year-old gets pregnant. No one wants to think about their teenage daughter having sex. So, I think it became this kind of, ‘Don’t do that, do ever show anyone’ kind of thing. Like, ‘No one will ever see how sexual I am.’ I put it in a dark chest and shipped it far away. Maybe one day it will come back, but that’s funny as shit. That’s real life. Parents will make you feel bad or feel weird about some shit until you stop doing it. I don’t know if that means I was sexy before or maybe I was just coming into it and I would have been sexy if that hadn’t had happened. Now I want to call my mum and ask her if it’s okay to be sexual now.
Right after having a child, you dove head first into your career. What was that transition like?
It’s really amazing that I was even able to get a career. Knowing I was bringing a child into the world came with a lot of fear, but I feel like that fear is what motivated me to be a crutch for others through music. I mean, shit gets hard and sometimes you just want to lose your shit and break something, but as a woman, it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s crazy.’ If you’re driving down the street and you see a man breaking something with a baseball bat, you’ll be like, ‘Damn that man is strong as shit,’ but if you see a girl breaking something you’ll think, ‘That probably belongs to her boyfriend.’ I just hate that. I hate that it’s like that because we are humans and we are allowed to be upset about shit. However you want to take out your rage, you deserve to. You really do. It’s human.
How do you get your rage out? Through music?
Yes. I am so passive-aggressive throughout my daily life that when I get into the studio, I think about what pissed me off so that I can channel my energy and my aggression into my delivery. It’s like whoever did me dirty is standing right there and I’m talking to them.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
No. I don’t believe that men and women are equal. I believe that — this is going to sound fucking crazy but — women are always going to be more powerful than men because we create life. Women carry life in their bodies. We have the option to do that and they do not. So, we will always be better than them.
You’re currently working on your debut album. What can we expect from it?
I just want the visuals to be fucking crazy, and I want it to be way more established. I feel like I’m established now, but I want everything to have a more cohesive look.
What do you want people to take away from your music?
Not to be afraid to try new things and to always push the envelope and fucking do that shit. I want people to understand that life is not promised.
How does that affect how you live your life?
I live every day like I’m going to die the next one. If you’re too scared to try something today, you probably won’t get the opportunity to try it tomorrow. If you’re too scared to get on that stage, you probably won’t have the chance. If you’re too scared to drop that video, it won’t ever come out. If you’re scared of anything, you’ll never do anything, because you’re just going to be fucking scared. But the fear is only in your head.
Do you have any regrets?
I don’t like to say ‘regrets’ because I feel like if I take one thing out of my life, there’s a domino effect of shit that doesn’t happen for me in the future. If all the shit I’ve been through didn’t happen to me, would I be so fearless? Probably not. I’d just be a regular fucking girl.
words and creative direction Alexandra Weiss, photography Logan White, styling Henna Koskinen, hair Ashley Lynn Hall @ Art Department, makeup Scott Osbourne, production assistant Antoripa Dey. Shot at Apex Studios, Los Angeles. Special thanks to Sarah Thomas @ Warner Music Australia and Apple Bagios.