In our current environment of social media oversharing, no one’s a mystery anymore — except Tommy Genesis. Having risen to viral underground fame in 2015 with her Awful Records-produced album, World Vision, the self-proclaimed fetish rapper became an instantly recognisable voice in the music industry, as well as in the fashion world, where Calvin Klein and Miuccia Prada tapped her for campaigns and performances. Still, the Canadian-born musician won’t reveal where she’s from (some articles have mistakenly listed Vancouver as her hometown), her age, or even her real name. Born with the name Genesis to a Tamil father and Scandinavian mother, the artist only chose the moniker Tommy when she first began her career. Though, of course, she won’t tell us the reason behind that, either. But what she will tell us is more important: why she scrapped so much new music; realising her value as an artist; and why she keeps quiet about her real self — even in the face of rumours.
After finishing art school, she began crafting rhymes like the radical ‘Execute’ and unapologetic ‘Hair Like Water Wavy Like The Sea’ that explored sexuality and identity in an aggressive no-fucks-given flow that immediately had fans calling her rap’s new reigning feminist. As a result of World Vision, Tommy signed to a major label and began working on what she thought would be her next release. But her “OCD,” as she likes to call it, kicked in and she ended up trashing the entire album. While most artists would’ve rushed to drop new music in order to capitalise on their growing fame, Tommy decided to wait — and grew up in the process. Now, she’s finally gearing up to release her record, tentatively out this June. Whereas her last album was an audacious introduction to the world, her new record is a more subtle, yet more powerful statement: Tommy Genesis is here, but only because she wants to be.
Alexandra Weiss: What does it feel like to finally be releasing new music?
Tommy Genesis: It’s really been a process. Right before I started writing, I went through this huge transition with everything in my life. I decided I wanted to switch gears and I didn’t have management. I’d also just signed to this label, but I wasn’t really looking at developing as an artist, I was just kind of hanging out. I had all of these songs that got me signed, but I didn’t want to put them out. So, I had to reconnect with myself and figure out, “What does it all fucking mean?” because the albums I love the most are the ones that invite you into their world and really create their own feeling, own emotion. I’ve spent so much time on the record — basically since last May — that it has to be perfect before I put it out.
You’ve taken a different route than a lot of other artists who, once they receive an initial buzz, rush to profit from it by releasing an album. Was that a conscious choice?
No, it was me being unhappy with what I had made. I mean, I threw out a whole album. But I was also going through a big transition. I used to make rap music with Awful Records, which was more freestyle rapping that I made on the spot. Then I moved to a major label and suddenly it was like, “What producers do you want to work with?” and I was making music with really talented people, but it just didn’t feel like who I was anymore. For me, it’s always been super important that I’m in charge of everything. It’s really my OCD, but I want everything to be my vision. So, it all takes a lot of time. It’s not like someone else writes me a song and I pull up and just put down the lyrics, or someone else has an idea for a video and I show up — that’s not how I work at all. I have to write it, then rewrite it, then fall in love with it before I’m even willing to consider it a real track. Every single stage, it’s all my choice.
You said you went through a life transition — from basically messing around with Awful Records to suddenly having to make major label decisions — but it also feels like you went through a musical transition. Your first singles — and the stuff you’ve really become known for — are overtly sexual and brash rap tracks. But your new music feels, in a lot of ways, more serious.
Now, I’m just more about whatever the song calls for, unless I’m writing lyrics beforehand. For instance, ‘Angelina’ is something I wrote without a beat. So it feels more like poetry. But right now, I’m writing a lot more with the beat and it’s different — it’s simpler and my lyrics have become more colloquial and digestible so that people can enter into it a little bit easier. I want people like my little sister to not just listen to my music, but to get into it and understand it. At the same time, I’m not going to let anyone tell me what I can or can’t write about.
With everything that’s happening in the world right now, do you feel like you have a responsibility as an artist to approach certain subjects?
Regardless of what’s happening in the world, there are certain things about me that people are going to identify with.
My sexuality, or my identity, or my confidence, or even how I was raised. I never put that out there so people could latch onto it — they saw it and responded to it themselves. But for me, I didn’t start out doing it for women, or girls, or kids who are still trying to figure out their own different feelings in regards to sexuality or identity. I started out making music for myself. Now that I’m able to see that that’s what people want from me and my music, it’s easier to write with that in mind. At the same time, I don’t think that means I need to be explicit or shocking to get through to them — I just want to be genuine. No matter what, I always think that’s the best way to relate to people.
Do you consider your music feminist?
I’ve never used the word feminist in regards to myself. Ever. I believe true feminism is true equality. The moment you stop thinking of me as a female and just as a human — that’s what I would prefer.
Do you think your Tamil heritage plays a part in how people see you, especially when it comes to the topics people expect you to focus on?
I don’t really think about it. I don’t really talk about my heritage. Not for any political or non-political reasons, but because I think it’s important to not spill out everything about yourself. It’s a huge part of who I am, but I’m private about it. There are things you could never get out of me, that I will never talk about publicly. Like, I won’t tell you my siblings’ names. I think sharing like that would be way weirder than the fact that I’m not open about everything. I’m just not comfortable letting anyone all the way in. And why should I? That’s not my job.
That’s a really rare attitude. We live in a culture where most people share everything with total strangers on the internet. Why have you decided to keep things fairly private?
I’d just rather you listen to my music. What I say in my music is how I feel and I don’t like to have to talk about it any further. I don’t get paid to talk. Some people can talk, and what they say is just an extension of their art. But I’m not that comfortable trying to talk about my music. I do a way better job communicating my feelings when I’m alone writing my songs than I ever can in an interview or social media story.
How did you become a musician?
It’s not something I really wanted until recently, honestly. Even when I was doing it with World Vision, everyone in my life would tell me, “It doesn’t even feel like you want this.” But I’m also just not the type of person who, when I am happy, is running around screaming, “Oh I’m so happy!” You can tell I want something if I’m actually doing it. Only recently did I really start to feel like, “Oh this is fire. I get to travel around the world, do fun photo shoots, make music and be myself.” I feel blessed. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be hard.
Has being a more public person been challenging for you?
It’s just a lot of energy because it’s almost like a performance in its own way. It’s hard for me because even though I’m super friendly and open, if I could choose, I’d probably almost always choose to be by myself. That’s not because I don’t love my friends or adore my fans, it’s just because that’s who I am. Like, if you asked me what’s anything in the world I could be doing right now, I’d probably say, “At home, watching cartoons with a bunch of animals.” I just don’t try to be anything but myself.
How do you think you’ve grown as an artist?
My music has definitely grown. When I first started, I would say so much in such a short period of time that people couldn’t really understand what I was talking about. I now like to just have that one important thing that represents me. I just say it or sing it as it is, and I don’t sugar-coat it. It’s more minimalistic, but still true to how I feel.
As far as the album goes, how would you describe it?
It feels like a summer album to me and a melancholy happiness. It’s not a sad album, but it’s not necessarily a happy one either. It’s just honest. And this time, it was a lot more about the feeling than it was about what I was saying. As an artist, I just want to create spaces that you can live in.
What do you think makes a good song?
Even if it sounds good, it’s got to be more than that. I don’t want the lyrics to be there just for the sake of it. Sometimes I’ll think, “That’s a good flow,” but the lyrics don’t mean anything. Then I’ll really have to stop and think, “What would make me feel something right now?” or “What would get me to snap out of just going along with my day and really get into this?” I love Frank Ocean because sometimes when you say things in your own way, it really makes people stop and listen. But it’s also about listening to yourself and not writing things just because you think people will respond to them. I’ve written a lot of songs where I’ve said shit and then months later, when I listened to it, realised it did not come across the way I meant it. You learn really quickly how powerful words are when they come to bite you in the ass. Even if you don’t mean it that way, it doesn’t really matter. People perceive things how they want to perceive them, so you have to do your best to communicate your truth clearly and consciously. Right now, people are the most diverse and the most sensitive they’ve ever been, especially when it comes to the media and people with a platform. It’s like, you can’t say anything without offending someone, and yet they all want you to say some-thing new. It’s a really tricky balance.
It also seems like people are really desperate for artists to pick a side.
Not even so much take a side as take a stance and make sure that stance is different. But nothing’s really new anymore. So you really just have to be yourself. Because if you’re not happy, then fuck off with everyone else’s happiness.
I do feel like the spirit of rap music is sort of all about taking a stance. That, and oversharing or bragging — two things you seem to completely shy away from.
It’s actually hilarious, the shit about me that’s out there that’s not true. But I just never came at it like that. I was never like, “Hey, I’m Genesis, here’s my personal history.” I was more like, “Hey, I make art.” I’ve never even called myself a rapper.
I just don’t really talk about it. I mean, I’ve rapped. I’ve made rap. But that’s not who I am — a rapper. I don’t feel attached to that label.
Do you consider yourself a musician?
I don’t see myself as a musician, even though I know I am because I make music. But it’s like, what does any of that stuff mean anyway? Rapper, musician… I make art, but I don’t even always make good art.
No one can think everything they’re making is good all the time.
I just mean I don’t consider everything I make to even be art, let alone good or bad art, you know? But I think anyone can make art.
Do you mean anyone can write a song?
No. Anyone can make art. Art is something anyone can touch and it can touch anyone. I went to art school and I was really pretentious for a minute because I would only make art that referenced art history and if you didn’t get it, I’d be like, “Whatever.” But the best art is art that can touch art history, that can touch the present, that can touch history that hasn’t even been written yet — that can make anyone feel something. It’s important to think about different types of people when you’re working. When I started, I would just make music that I knew someone who’s a carbon copy of me, or was into the shit I was into, would like. Then I started making music for everyone. Even people like my uncle, who’s a musician. I can finally play him some of my music, because it’s not so crazy anymore. It’s more accessible. So, I can finally share this part of me with all the different people in my life.
Has that been freeing for you?
Absolutely. I mean, now I don’t have to be stressed if my parents listen to a song. I was just on tour with Dua [Lipa] and I was freaking out because my family was going to come to a show. Someone said, “Why do you put yourself through that? Why don’t you just make a pure representation of yourself that you can be comfortable with wherever you go?” That’s always been a crazy internal struggle for me, because I really, really don’t like to make certain people uncomfortable. I’d never even want certain people to listen to my music because I know they would be. That’s why I don’t really personally promote my music. I don’t believe in proselytising, I don’t believe in telling anyone what to do or what to like. If you want to listen to my music, you’ll find it in your own way. It’s the same when I have a conversation with someone. I’m never going to ask you super personal information about yourself, it doesn’t matter how close we are. I’m never going to force it. And I’m never going to force my music on anyone, either.
Someone once told me that your art isn’t successful until you successfully make someone uncomfortable.
I get that. But I think the issue becomes the fact that I’m a female, and my image is really sexual sometimes. Look at ‘Tommy’. If you’re someone who’s seen ‘Tommy’ and heard ‘Tommy’ and seen what I look like, you could easily think, “Oh that’s all she is. Someone else wrote her song, who cares, people only listen to her music because sex sells.” But what they don’t ever talk about is the fact that I edited that video, I directed it, that it’s my vision and I wrote the song. Nobody cares about that part. So, they say, “Oh you only have buzz because you’re hot.”
So, you think the way you look plays a role in how people perceive your music?
No. It wouldn’t really matter what I looked like. As a female, they’re always going to say that and put you in that box, to take your power away. It’s the easiest way to dilute my message.
Does that make you self-conscious?
Not at all. It’s just a real life thing. So, with my album, I wanted to make sure it didn’t leave any room for people to misunderstand or underestimate me and put me in some fictitious box. So, no one could tell me I’m not really a musician or that I’m where I am for any reason but my music. I didn’t leave any room for that. But it’s also why I care so much. It’s almost like a challenge.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
A feeling. Everyone goes through so much shit, and you never know what people are going through at that moment. For me, I don’t listen to a lot of music, but if I’m going through something, I’m listening to something on repeat that helps me get through that shit. I remember talking to someone once who worked in medicine and she was telling me about it. I said, “Oh I wish I did what you did, because you have the power to save lives.” She said back to me, “Well, you might save lives, too. Who knows what your music could get someone through?” And that just really stuck with me. It made me feel better about the fact that I’m doing something that’s really about me. Like, maybe it is more important than just me. You never know — you never know what you’re going to put out there that might be there for someone. I mean, we’re all in this world together and you’d never even consider the stuff that’s touched me or saved my life. So, maybe my work can do that. Yeah, it’s an extension of me, but once you put something out there, it doesn’t really even belong to you anymore.
photography Renell Medrano, creative direction and production Alexandra Weiss, fashion Paul Bui, hair Akihisa Yamaguchi using Oribe Hair Care, make-up Caitlin Wooters using MAC Cosmetics, fashion assistant Ebele Anueyiagu. Shot at Milk Studios NYC.
Originally published in Oyster #114