City Paper is not for tourists
There are plenty of rappers out there who would love to sign with a label. Tarica June isn’t one of them.
Her reluctance stems from her disdain for the archetype she derides as “the male fantasy female rapper.”
“They all rap about sex. They all are overly sexualized, and that’s not an image I want to put out there,” she says. “I could just be wrong, but I feel like the labels must be pushing people to do this, because it’s not that there’s this lack of deep thought by female artists.”
A few more things you should know about Tarica June: The persuasiveness of her arguments surely dovetails with her day job—she is a practicing lawyer, having graduated cum laude on scholarship from Howard University School of Law. Before that, she attended Stanford University on a full scholarship, so there’s a distinct possibility that she’s smarter than you.
The video released last year for her song “But Anyway,” a brilliant, withering takedown of gentrified D.C., is currently at 4.2 million views online. Her new song “Selfie” and its video represent a shift in both tone and subject: It’s a joyful self-love anthem with a laid-back go-go flavor and an overwhelmingly positive message.
What connects them both—and the rest of her oeuvre so far—is June’s razor-sharp lyricism and intelligence paired with compelling messages of both uplift and defiance. Her strongly held views have everything to do with her determination to shape her own music career.
“Selfie” resulted from her frustration with media depictions of African-American women and girls. “We seem to be moving in a direction where these mainstream ideas of beauty are taking women of color, specifically black women, further and further away from their natural selves,” she says. “I wanted to push the conversation in a different direction and provide something that gives little girls an alternative and allows them to see themselves as beautiful just as they are.”
While “Selfie” is clearly aimed at young girls—“I love my selfie just as I am/ No perm, no weave, no bleaching, no ma’am/ I’m beautiful just the way that I am”—there’s nothing childish about its message, which was partly inspired by her admiration for Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
The subject of “natural hair” is particularly irritating to June, who started growing her dreadlocks at age 15.
“Having relaxed hair is now the norm, and that to me is so warped,” she says. “People will be like, ‘Tell me, what made you decide to go natural?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Tell me, what made you decide to go chemical?’
“Why is that a foregone conclusion?… You’re just expected to perm your hair? What if you don’t? Or what if I don’t think I need to do something to myself?”
Anyone who thinks Tarica June came out of nowhere with “But Anyway” hasn’t been paying attention. She started performing at U Street clubs in 2010 and released the Moonlight Revolution mixtape the same year. She first put out “But Anyway” on her 2014 Stream of Consciousness mixtape, but the song didn’t gain traction until its re-release with an accompanying music video last year.
Acting as her own manager, producer, video director, and publicist, June is still figuring out how to present herself. She records the interview for this story on her phone, just to be sure she’s not misquoted. Reluctant to reveal her age, she asks whether all journalists will ask that question and why.
Except for “Selfie,” which is sold on iTunes, her music can be downloaded for free. Visiting her website, you might read her blog entry “Check out my special tips for growing long healthy locs” and buy one of the t-shirts she’s selling: a Tarica June crop top, a tee that reads “Femcee is not a word,” or her ampersand “homage” tee—“Latifah & Lyte & Left-Eye & Lauryn.”
While “But Anyway” surely deserves a spot on any compilation of the best D.C. songs in recent memory, it is not her only standout work. “Dear Hip-Hop” mourns the wasted potential of mainstream hip-hop, and “4-Unit (My Life)” outlines her challenges as an independent artist, which include having to wait until the guy downstairs finishes showering before she can. “If I was doing what would be expected for me to be doing with a Stanford degree and a law degree, then I definitely would be living in a nicer place,” she says.
But her sacrifices are yielding results. Her recordings and live performances, for which she often plays guitar with a band, have won over admirers including Rare Essence’s Killa Cal, We Act Radio’s Kymone Freeman, and Ben Woods, a community organizer and activist who booked her for a Students Against Mass Incarceration conference at Howard.
“Tarica is one of the best that I’ve ever heard,” says Drew Anderson, host of the long-running Spit Dat open mic. “She’s really just what hip-hop needs right now. Her understanding of who she is and who she represents is something that I think hip-hop in general has been missing.
“It’s nice to see the genuine article, someone who’s in charge of her own image, someone who’s not an industry construct, and someone who writes her own rhymes, because there are still people who care about that,” Anderson continues. “She’s kind of in her own lane. I don’t think anybody’s done it the way that Tarica is trying to do it. She studies hip-hop, and she studies the rules enough to know how and when to break them. She’s a pioneer for real.”
Longtime D.C. poet Reuben Jackson is another admirer. “There are many things I love about her work. One is the musicality of language, which I think a lot of poets tend to overlook, and then there’s her mastery of language and understanding how language works,” he says. “To be able to combine that beautiful use of the word with something that’s accessible but is also multilayered in terms of meaning and relevance, that’s a damn hard thing to do.”
Tarica June spent her earliest years in Greece and Scotland, where her father was stationed during his Navy service. By the time she was five, her family returned home to D.C. They lived by 14th and Allison streets Northwest, a few doors down from her maternal grandmother’s house.
Like many musicians, she was raised in a musical family. Her father, who grew up on nearby Emerson Street NW, performed ’70s R&B with the Emerson Street Band. Her mother, a political scientist, regularly played Bob Marley and other reggae legends, possibly inspiring June’s track “Babylon System.”
June’s older brother was heavily into hip-hop, which broadened her exposure to the music—not only was she listening to the artists she gravitated towards, she was also hearing his playlist. While at West Elementary, June began to find her voice. “I was very introverted. I wrote songs, I wrote poetry, and nobody ever knew,” she says with an easy laugh.
After several members of her mother’s family fell victim to street violence, it was decided that June should be educated in a safer environment. And so she attended a tony private girls school in Virginia. As a weekday boarder returning home for weekends, she was geographically close to home, but a world apart, one of six black students in her graduating class.
At private school, she began to gain an understanding of the kind of privilege one might find in certain sectors of gentrified D.C. “I felt like everybody was rich, and it was just the total opposite of what I knew growing up,” she says. She marveled at girls who seemed to have everything but would curse at their parents. “I just didn’t feel like I really related to people there… and the level of insensitivity sometimes was really crazy.”
She recalls one classmate who was baffled by a lesson on the plight of Native Americans. After describing how Native Americans had been wronged throughout American history, the teacher asked what could be done on their behalf. “This girl—I promise she seemed like she was really racking her brain—and she was like, ‘Wait! I’m confused. Didn’t we give them reservations already?’”
Tarica June bursts into laughter. “Guurrrl!… It’s like, where have you been living and whaaat?
“It wasn’t that I felt like disconnected from how they viewed the world,” she notes. “I just felt that it was unfortunate that that was their perspective.”
Stanford was a more positive experience. She felt homesick, but she also performed rap in public for the first time.
Returning to D.C., she had not planned to attend law school, but was spurred to learn about her legal rights thanks to her experiences with a slumlord as well as a music colleague who released a song she wrote for him without crediting her. Now she practices general business law related to regulatory work. She still lives in the same apartment she had during law school and spends a significant portion of her day job earnings on studio time and making videos.
The video for “But Anyway” cost a little more than a thousand dollars, with most of that going to equipment rental and the cameraman’s fee. Its backdrop includes Aniekan Udofia’s Marvin Gaye mural as well as the Petworth Chuck Brown mural painted by D.C. middle school students. Adding to its D.C. feel is her use of tracks that sampled “Ashley’s Roachclip,” an early Soul Searchers song that has been frequently plundered by out-of-town hip-hop artists. But there’s much more than that.
Jackson believes that “But Anyway” resonates because it speaks truth about the District’s gentrification with Tarica June’s characteristic depth and insight, taking a closer look at what happens when longtime African-American residents are displaced to make way for trendy shops and cafes. “The gentrification angle is a big part of it, but it has so much more to it than that,” he says. “She’s asking what does it mean to be alive in a place that’s your home and is changing, and what is her relationship to the change taking place? I just think it’s beautifully done.
“I’ve probably driven my neighbors crazy listening to that song,” adds Jackson. “As a Washingtonian, it really struck me. I think she captures the flavor of the city, her relationship to it as a third-generation Washingtonian, and that kind of witty, sometimes acerbic look at what gentrification has brought to D.C.,” he says. “I’m not always thrilled with where spoken word and hip-hop is today, and to hear something that’s accessible, topical and original… I just feel this great sense of pride about her and her work. I don’t know her, but it’s touched me in a really deep way.”