It’s not that often that a new artist gets us excited. But then again, there’s nothing common about imbi the girl. The Australian artist, who uses the pronoun ‘they,’ delivers dreamy and quietly introspective “melodic rap” focused on spirituality, gender identity and their experiences being queer. It’s a far cry from the redundant trap bangers of male rappers with a name beginning in Lil — and that’s exactly why we can’t stop listening. The Sydney-based musician is carving their own path in the industry, both as a non-binary artist, and with their mix “hip-hop, soul, R&B and spoken word.”
“It’s kind of this ironic ‘stick it to the man’ type moment,” they told me, “and it challenges people, which is something I like to do with all facets of my work.”
How do you describe what you do?
My name is Imbar Amira Nassi, but my nickname has been Imbi for as long as I can remember. I started singing at a really young age and found myself quite in love with poetry when I was in high school. So, I racked my brain for so long for how I could merge the two and obviously the answer is rap, and merging that slow sort of spoken word element with melody and harmony.
As someone who identifies as non-binary, why did you choose the name imbi the girl?
To be totally frank, my gender crisis as I like to call it, pretty much occurred at the same time as my music launch. At the time, I was really just figuring it out for myself, let alone coming out and feeling comfortable having these conversations in industry settings. imbi the girl was meant to be really empowering, which it was and still is, and I still advocate for more femmes to the front and I still think it’s an important and powerful name, but also because I am now out as non-binary, it’s kind of ironic, even though I think that irony is lost on the masses. Before I forget, what are your pronouns?
Cool. But yeah, when I first came out, I had this moment with my friends where I was like, ‘Fuck, my artist name is imbi the girl, how confusing and conflicting!’ My friends sat me down and were like, ‘Girl doesn’t even mean anything.’ It’s just more binary bullshit I don’t need to buy into. It’s a big fuck you to the system, to the confines of language and the fact that that’s our primary form of communication which is inaccessible in and of itself. I could go on and on, but that was really comforting — to realise I could use this as a statement. People do seem to struggle with that sort of discourse when you’re first coming into it, though.
It is interesting, because there are so many more femme rappers and hip-hop artists, but non-binary artists are still so underrepresented in the industry, even now.
Hip-hop has been a masc game as long as it’s existed — it’s been a fight for femmes to get any stage time. But that is shifting, and I think the idea of the genre is shifting, as well. There will always be that sort of classic, hip-hop, R&B trope, but I don’t think people can really harness it like they could in its prime. The genre is just changing too much, and there are so many more interpretations of hip-hop, and what that means these days, and I think that’s creating space for more people outside of standard binaries to enter into that realm and take that limelight for themselves.
What does that mean for you, especially when it comes to your sound?
I have long term goals to completely neglect the idea of genre — I’m trying really hard not to get boxed into anything — but at the moment, it’s really just the merging of poetry and song. I take a lot of inspiration from the Beat Generation — not as people but as poets — and I think hip-hop and soul have been things that have come naturally to me for a very long time. Particularly soul, and having moments to really belt and push my voice to the extreme, and mold that with contemporary music and what I like to listen to, has left me in this realm between hip-hop, soul, R&B and spoken word. It’s a weird little mix at the moment, but I’m super into it.
How do you describe your music then?
I usually say melodic rap. That’s my go-to.
What soul artists or rappers did you grow up listening to?
I grew up listening to Amy Winehouse and Macy Gray with my mum, and then Wycleaf Jean and The Fugees with my dad. Thinking about it now, that sort of comes together to create something quite similar to what I’m making now. But those were my main influences when I was younger, and as I got older, I started listening to Chance [The Rapper] and Childish Gambino and NONAME and Lizzo — all of those amazing big names who bring so much power and feeling to their music. That’s my shit — I like listening to music that captures a feeling so well, you put your headphones in and you’re just like, overwhelmed by it.
I grew up listening to punk rock, and I know for me, at least, all the bands I saw were all masculine, there was no femme presence… and then I found Riot Grrrl. That was so radical to me because it was the first time I realised like, ‘I can do that. I’m allowed to do that.’ I know your — as you called it — gender crisis didn’t come until a bit later in your life, but growing up and not seeing many non-binary musicians, how did that play into your choice to be come an artist, if at all?
I mean, I always knew I didn’t fit into classic categories. When I told my mom I wanted to be a pop star when I was young, she was basically like, ‘No. That’s not going to work, you need something with a stable income that will allow you to sustain a family.’ So, you’re dealing with family influence on top of society’s. I was told it wasn’t achievable by my main support, which obviously affected me for a long time. But other than that, I never felt like a woman. That was never something I was comfortable calling myself but I knew it was how I was being read by society. So, when I started listening to artists like Lil Simz — she was huge in my realisation that music was something I could pursue. I listened to her and the things she was saying and it was just so empowering, all the strength she expresses through her music. The power is so captivating. I was like, ‘This is something I want to do. This is a feeling I want to communicate to people who need to hear it, because there are so many of us who need messages of strength and empowerment.’
Do you think coming out as non-binary has changed the way you approach your music?
It’s changed how I see the world, honestly. I went to a very small, private Jewish school — they called themselves left-wing but in the Jewish community it was pretty conservative. I was always radical, trying to push the limit, but when I started learning about queerness is when it all started to make sense. With that, I became more politically engaged, and with that, I became more aware of the complexities in society, which led to exploring my spirituality, which really changed everything. Now, I’m here and I just see everything in such a different way, and I really do attribute that to discovering my queerness, and discovering the fact that binaries exist and that we can exist outside of them.
How did you learn about queerness, as you put it?
It definitely had a lot to do with a Jewish youth movement I was part of, but the majority had to do with my sibling. My sibling is 15 months older than me and we have a really beautiful relationship that we’ve worked really hard to achieve and sustain. They started their queer journey and really took me under their wing, even though I was so reluctant at first. So reluctant. Like, holy shit, I was so closeted, you wouldn’t have even recognised me. It was wild. And it was a lot — it’s a lot to deconstruct your own patterns and your own behavioural patterns and realise like, ‘Shit, this has all been coming from the fact that I couldn’t express this part of myself or even know how to identify this part of myself.’ It shifts your whole perspective.
Did you start exploring those feelings through your music, or your poetry, at the time?
To be honest, no. At the time, when I first started writing poetry and really invested in my music, I was super depressed and the majority of my work was just sad. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the fact that I wasn’t out, and I didn’t realise the full extent of my identity and I was just so confused and lost. But I was kind of an outcast at school, I was a bit of a weird kid. I had friends but we never really spoke about the things that interested me. So, I felt super alone and that’s what i really poured into my creative content. But the older I get the more I use it as a tool to investigate myself and learn more about myself and my spirituality, which has been super cool.
When did that transition into the music you make now?
That really only really happened two or three years ago. When I graduated, I went on a little gap year program in Israel and Palestine for ten months with my youth movement where we volunteered in lower socioeconomic areas of the country and learned a lot about the conflict, and socialism, by living in socialist communes. It was really interesting, and when I came back, it was a major period of readjustment that led to my queer self-discovery and embodiment of imbi the girl and decision to pursue music. There was an element of responsibility that came with all of that because I realised that if I was going to take this seriously and say what I wanted to say, I needed to change my message. I needed to empower people. Dwelling in sadness is important, processing emotions is really, really important, but that’s not the only thing I want to bring to the table. So it pushed me to work on myself in a big way and find these new avenues of expression that help me say something more powerful and more activating, in a way, than just experiencing sadness.
So, what are you working on now?
I have an EP that will be out at the end of this year, beginning of next. And I’m also working on a new project. I recently got back from London where I was doing a writing workshop, and I came up with these three really interesting songs with people I’d never worked with before. So, I ended up with these three songs that are completely different than anything I would’ve made on my own, and I want to explore that because it was a really powerful experience.
What do you want people to take away from your music?
I think I want them to walk away with a bit of hope. The last few weeks for me, and for a lot of the people that I know, have been really, really difficult. Australia just went through its federal election and we have liberals back in power, so the queer and spiritual communities in Sydney are in a lot of pain. Everyone’s feeling hopeless, and I want people to listen to my music and firstly feel like they’re not alone, that there is solidarity in that darkness, but also, that we have the power collectively to really change the world. It’s a big message to get across, but I’m going to keep trying.
Images: Rene Vaile