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RVA rapper Alfred. on emotional masculinity and queering hip-hop

"I definitely want people, especially people in hip-hop, to get a grip and understand that you gotta get with the times.”

Ishan Bose | July 5, 2017

Though I’d been told his name before from my friend and fellow organizer Zaira Qureshi, I’d never heard local rapper Alfred’s music before she booked him for the POCollective reboot fundraiser show last Halloween.

Known for his energetic and cool stage presence, Alfred’s (stylized Alfred.) performance at house show spot Witch Mountain had the room lit up like spaceships. In the ambiance of blacklight, combined with his lyrical flow and dexterity, Alfred’s set was a mesmerizing experience. I didn’t know it then, but the up-and-coming rapper was then working on his debut album, So Sensitive, a slower and softer paced experience than the show I’d witnessed, but still had that edge-like quality of a rapper comfortable in his verses.

So Sensitive carries on Alfred’s artistic goals and emanates his authenticity as a person who has come to terms with the balance and flow of emotional needs in himself and others.

Self-described as a ‘queer rap scallion’, Alfred., whose real name is Aaron Brown, strives to open up hip-hop spaces to explore and celebrate more than than the typical cis-masculine heteronormativity.

Originally from Woodbridge, Brown was introduced to Richmond’s hip-hop scenes when he began attending VCU. Born to a Black father and a Filipina mother, Brown lives in the (often underlooked and underrepresented) racial intersections of a Black Asian person.

“Being Black and Filipino… can be confusing by the principle of being bi-racial,” Brown said. “More often than not, I come across different bouts of anti-blackness in some non-black POC communities and although a lot of microaggressions aren’t always intentional, [I’d] rather save my breath than delve further.”

The rapper identifies as queer, a label many identify with as the antithesis of heterosexuality and cisnormativity. Brown uses the pronouns he/him and they/them. (I will be using he/him pronouns throughout this piece for consistency and clarity).

“I don’t really know— I’ve always just said I was ‘queer’,” Brown said. “Just ’cause I know I don’t really have one specific deeply rooted preference, but I definitely didn’t think I was straight growing up.”

The rapper said that he experiences anti-blackness and queerphobia in many non-black POC and nonqueer spaces, while not to a point where he feels unsafe, it’s enough to not feel welcome.

“I think education is a process (and is accessible), but trying to bridge understanding for those who aren’t willing to openly receive is tiring and I’d rather let my work help begin to bridge communication with others,” he said.

Like many queer and trans people and especially individuals of color, keeping their queerness —which can be a huge part of their identity— a secret from conservative, traditional (and often nosy) family members can not only be frustrating, but also stifling to their growth.

“It’s honestly like— you think a lot about yourself when you grow up in a specific kind of home, where people [aren't okay with who you are],” said Brown. “My family’s Southern Baptist — super traditional, super conservative — they’re like 60-plus-years-old so they’re in a completely different [space and] frame of time.”

“I don’t think I have the full capability to express my sexuality or identity in front of family.”

Brown is a member of B.CKWARDS HAUS OPS, a Richmond-based collective and artist family of songmakers, writers, producers and visual artists consisting of eight members including Afrocat, MNLV (pronounced minilove), chï, Heja Rames, and GoGo Leche.

Released last month, So Sensitive is a collaborative album between the aspiring rapper and the producer Yung Pocket$ (also known as Matthew Hirsch).

 “So Sensitive is a form of two artists showing our vulnerability via the content of our sounds, collaborations with others, and the connection between us as Alfred and Yung Pocket$,” Brown said. “Personally, it’s like the best thing I’ve worked on. It’s probably my most emotionally and mentally mature piece of work.”

 Particularly, he noted the contrast between So Sensitive and his previous work.

“I feel like this piece of work is really soft. Like, not just in the sense that it’s called So Sensitive, but soft in like a lot of its musical texture, which is a very big contrast to what Alfred’s been known to do live and with the music that I’ve made,” Brown admitted. “I really think I need to show so much more dexterity with my writing and my literal arranging of songs.”

Able to only listen to Christian rap growing up, Brown’s music is influenced by the gospel of his Southern Baptist roots. Undulating and atmospheric, So Sensitive laps off the listener in waves and gives them a sense of ease and calmness.

The rapper gives credit to the Black-Eyed Peas, Odd Future, Lauryn Hill, Ab-Soul, and Justin Timberlake as some of his influences.

“We ended up working on this project for a little bit over a year,” Brown said. “There were so many steps and it was so highly collaborative and there were so many moments where I would make songs or write to these songs he had.“It was like…I had this shit in my head— and then to have it come out as a song, like damn, this literally sounded like it was from my head…that was like another level of creating…and I didn’t really care if people liked it or didn’t.”

Recently, Alfred. traveled across the East Coast for the BackHand tour over the span of two weeks, along with Bedroom Hijinx, his companions in B.CKWARDS HAUS, and his friends in Master Hand Records. Starting toward the end of May, the first week was spent in mostly North Carolina, while the second week’s venues were in New York.

After touring up in Rochester and Brooklyn, Alfred. noted the differences in the city’s music scenes and cultures compared to Richmond’s own.

“I think Richmond’s kind of fickle with its support,” Brown said. “That’s no shade to [the city]— that’s just how people are. People don’t really pay attention or can only pay attention for so long.”

Alfred. discussed how tricky it can sometimes be to navigate small city music scenes like Richmond as a queer Black person. Sometimes this can mean being a cultural ambassador of sorts, having to continuously recount and process one’s lived experiences to have them acknowledged and validated, as the only person of color or Black person in the room.

“In Richmond, I feel like Black and brown people are put [to] this, it’s almost expected for people of color and Black folks to be the socioencyclopedia for those around them…which at one point, I thought was kinda cool, but now think is kinda wack,” he said.

Alfred. expressed how in DIY music scenes it sometimes feels like rap isn’t taken as seriously as an expressive and personal art form as beatmaking or DJ-ing.

“I feel like people would much rather take a white boy who’s with his band and jamming out to something that’s pretty average and sounds like some other band we’ve heard”, said Brown. “People would be much more inclined to take that more seriously than [when] I’m like, ‘Oh hey, I’m a rapper’ — And you know, perhaps I am taken seriously, but once I traverse a space with cishet men— how visible am I really being? Or how transparent am I allowed to be? How apologetic can I be?”

Many queer artists and musicians of color who participate and play in these spaces also often have to perform a significant amount of emotional labor to explain and make space for their own identities — whether it be queer, trans, disability, or race. This labor, Alfred said, can often be exhausting.

“Survival’s still a pretty prominent thing; navigation’s still a pretty prominent thing and [so is] trying to give yourself a healthy amount of space so you don’t have to do emotional labor or redirect someone’s bullshit — homophobic, bigoted, racist, whatever-it-be bullshit — it gets tiring trying to redirect that,” Brown said.

For young queer musicians and artists of color looking for role models or someone like them they could look up to, Alfred’s advice is to be yourself.

“I wish there was someone like me that existed for me when I was, like, fifteen,” Brown said.

You can listen to the full album stream of So Sensitive on Soundcloud. Alfred’s music can also be found on Spotify and iTunes.