Interview with Roy Kinsey (Part I) – Kinsey: A Memoir

In a two-part interview, Roy Kinsey shares some of his story and the stories behind his incredible new record Kinsey: A Memoir.

Chicago born, queer-identified, rapper and librarian Roy Kinsey, first featured on WtMM in 2018 with his brilliant record Blackie: A Story by Roy Kinsey, is back with a new record Kinsey: A Memoir. To mark the official release of the new album (dropping February 20), we are honored to share a two-part interview with Roy Kinsey and some select tracks from the record.  In Part I, Roy shares a bit more about himself and the process of writing Kinsey. In Part II, he delves more into the record itself, some favorite tracks, and how it does and does not compare to Blackie.

[WtMM] On Instagram a while back, you posted a comment a friend made to you that he didn’t want anyone to review Kinsey because they’d fuck it up. His words, not yours. But, what do you think people might miss from this record or get wrong about it?

[Laughs] Yeah, those were his words, not mine. But, I think he was saying that people wouldn’t get the work or the references. Like how deeply rooted it is in black culture or the references to African spirituality (like on I Don’t Beg with the line “I come from a long line of very evil women”). Or just that people aren’t going to get it because it’s so deep that there’s no way that people are going to be able to properly critique the work. That this is a life that Roy lived that is generations and covers so many aspects of life that a person saying this isn’t a good album are probably going to miss the things that they couldn’t recognize. I think that’s what he was saying. But, I also think that there are people who can get it. 

What is your writing process for making records like Blackie and Kinsey?

I write a lot. A lot of artists put their entire lives into their work, but they do it differently. Mine is, like, this is the story right here. I’m not going to change the story or process it differently or make it more abstract. I’m not an abstract artist. When I write or do deep inner work and I realize that something is coming up and it’s asking me to heal it or that is a portal to the next version of Roy, I go there. That’s a thing we understand about memoirs: what’s necessary for me to tell and what can be omitted. It’s interesting that I’m finding myself getting to new versions of me. Because, on Blackie, I really thought I was who I was going to be. I didn’t think there would be many more changes after that, but right when you start thinking like that, life is like “Lemme throw you this curve ball right here.” 

And, you process those changes — your life — by rapping, right? I have always been amazed at how deeply personal and candid you are in your music.

Music was a character in our family. It was always around and had it’s own presence and role. My mom and my grandmother and auntie would sit around the dinner table listening to Whitney, singing her songs, writing down and learning all of the lyrics. I was devouring music early and I was always drawn to writing down what I was feeling in notebooks.

In college, I took psychology classes and have always thought a lot about how the mind works or how the mind could work. That interest has definitely crept into my work. There’s a deeply psychological aspect to my music and to Kinsey. It’s partially inspired by the film Us where you’re basically battling yourself. I mean, that’s a thriller movie, but it can be scary when you feel like you’re battling a part of you that you haven’t brought to the front. I wrote Fetish [an early Kinsey single] and recorded it as a voice memo and sent it to someone. But, then I forgot about it until they played it back for me. And, I was like “Oh shit, I don’t know if I’m ready to put that out.” 

I’m trying to do this lifting that I need to happen. I need a vulnerability to happen in my life and in my relationships with people. I need something that’s genuine. I need us to be able to converse heart-to-heart, in-person and on a record. All of that comes into a song.

What comes first for you: the beat or the lyrics? 

More times than not, I write to a beat. My thoughts are my thoughts and they’re always there, in my notebook. But, the beat determines what I’m going to talk about.

When and how did you start rapping?

I was young, 5th grade. Always had that notebook. I was part of a choir then and we’d sing a lot of pop songs. I remember a wintertime concert at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, [a predominantly white, wealthy suburb of Chicago] when I rapped Lil’ Zane’s verse in 112’s song Anywhere. It was packed and the crowd went crazy when I did that. I kept writing raps and sharing them with friends, putting some music together with my brother. But, I only got serious in college, putting out songs with friends who would make beats and getting gigs with them. 

You plainly and proudly identify as a queer-identified rapper. How intentional, if that’s the right word, was it to identify yourself in that way?   

The more records I put out and the more that I tell the truth on a record, I feel like there’s a truth I didn’t tell. And, when you’re the kind of artist I am and the kind of artist I want to be, it got to a point that [I didn’t feel I was] being truthful about who I am when it comes to being a queer artist. It was beginning to feel that way.

On my early albums, I didn’t want to be identified only as being queer, thinking “I’m so much more than my sexuality. I don’t want to be reduced to my sexuality.” And, I understood why I thought that at the time. No one wants to be reduced to the sex that you have. But, then I began to embrace the story that that would lead me to. And, it wouldn’t be just, “He’s a rapper and he’s dope and we don’t gotta hear about his queerness” It’s actually, “No, you’re going to hear about these stories.”

I’m not asking a gatekeeper. I’m not asking for the mic. I’m snatching the mic, in the tradition of hip-hop. I’m snatching the mic like everybody else snatched the mic and I’m going to tell this story with the listenability and the flow. I’m still marking off those traditional hip-hop boxes, but a new story needs to be told. A new energy needs to be brought in here. So much of my existence in hip-hop in Chicago — and in hip-hop in general — is that they could take me or leave me. On Kinsey, I’m kind of rising out victimization and self-victimhood. 

I have a deep need to express myself as genuinely I can. Because that’s what my music is. That’s my specific approach to making music: truth and integrity in who you are because we are all human. Because we all deserve that kind of dignity. It’s a mission for me now in my music.

Do you feel that there is more room and space emerging for a different definition or view of masculinity in our collective culture? And in the hip-hop community?

Yeah, I think it’s being had. There were not really conversations around masculinity happening even a few years ago. I think that it’s always been changing in a lot of ways. Kanye did what Kanye could do when College Dropout came out. A pink polo, backpack. That was a pushing, a pushing of the envelope. Just thinking of new ideas of how we can represent ourselves. And, now we’re having a necessary conversation about the masculinity that we thought was serving us, but isn’t.

I never feel like I’m moving hip-hop forward as a culture because I’m relatively unknown. But, I know what hip-hop needs as a culture. I know what my Black culture needs, which is a lot of healing and care and acknowledgment of trauma. And, as my other culture — hip-hop — I know what we need to continue to grow, and evolve, and sustain itself. Whether we want my story or not, we need it.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part II of our conversation with Roy Kinsey.

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More songs like this can be found at our weekly updated Spotify playlist: