The only female member of the once magnetic, California-based hip-hop collective Odd Future and lead singer of the Internet, Syd Tha Kyd, is no ordinary artist. At 14, the singer and producer built her own recording studio, formerly called The Trap, in her house. Her sound is eclectic. Her politics are forward-thinking. And she's been using all three to detonate the boxes that tend to confine some artists.
Writing and performing in a time shaped by protest and calls for radical social transformation, presents some black artists, like now 23-year-old Syd Tha Kyd, with a challenge. Art is as political as it is aesthetic, and it has long been a useful tool for inspiring social change. Cue Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, John Legend and Beyoncé. The Internet's music may not sound as immediately political as some from those names, but many of their songs aim at liberation and a more inclusive future. Syd is determined to nurture that impulse.
"There's a sense of responsibility I feel as an artist, as somebody with some kind of voice," Syd said when we spoke by phone. "I don't think my voice is that big yet, but I do think that it will get there."
She called me from the home she shares with her family, which also doubles as the location of her recording studio, in Los Angeles. We talked social responsibility, labels, family and futures. We talked about the future of the Internet, the Grammy-nominated band she and Matt "Martians" Martin co-created in 2011, which now includes Jameel Bruner, Patrick Paige II, Christopher Smith and Steve Lacy.
What follows is a version of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Darnell L. Moore: Talk to me about your sound and your influences, you're working with something very different.
Syd Tha Kyd: I started producing, making beats and building a studio when I was 14, and through that have met a lot of people. Eventually, I decided I wanted to get more creative, but I started out on the more technical side of things, because I was very insecure about my sound. And then finally, I met someone who understood my sound and complemented it: my partner Matt [Martians]. And that's when we started the Internet in 2011.
As a child you were shy, and yet you still envisioned yourself as a star. What did you have to do to prepare yourself to get up onstage? Because there's an intimacy in your music, a sense of a person being in a safe space where you're able to create. Do you feel it's hard to translate when you're on stage?
Syd: It just took time. Being on stage with Odd Future in the beginning helped a lot because there was like a really unique kind of confidence you have to have to be onstage with those guys — just being able to keep up with them, and that was a rowdy type of situation. But I think the harder part was just being comfortable with my voice. I can sing around myself all day and really enjoy it, but I don't necessarily want to listen back all the time. Having to perform and having to be comfortable with the outcome, that was probably the hardest part.
I'm thinking about the lyrics Odd Future produced as well. It was like, here are our black and brown artists who are shunning the need for respectable lyrics. And this is like a sign of the times, that people want to create art and history to express yourselves, and you all did that. Odd Future got both praise and critique for it. Heading in a more solo direction, do you think your role as an artist is, and do you feel like you need to censor yourself?
Syd: No, I don't. I don't feel the need really to censor myself. Because that's the point of art, to express yourself the most honest way possible. Those lyrics that upset those people were honest ones.
I don't like identifying people, but one of the things I wanted to talk about is the fact you identify as "human." In other words, maybe we should not be narrowing people down to aspects of just one piece of their identity — but look at the whole person. There are some who may want to identify you as lesbian, for example, and maybe none of these words fit you. How do you identify, and why is it important for you to identify the way you do?
Syd: I know why people like to put labels on things. I personally don't really think that much about them or use them that often, but I understand it. It makes it easier to talk about things. I don't know. I don't really ever have to call myself anything. Yeah, I'm gay. I date women — and only women right now. It's not really a lifestyle I live, though. I don't really see myself as part of any gay lifestyle. I just kind of do my thing.
I identify as a gay man. This is not a lifestyle.
Syd: But you understand how some gays make it a lifestyle. I totally get that. People who have been outcasted like we can be are even more prone to wanting to feel part of a group, part of something and to fight for something.
"I don't feel the need really to censor myself. Because that's the point of art, to express yourself the most honest way possible. Those lyrics that upset those people were honest ones." — Syd Tha Kyd
I'm interested, as part of Odd Future, what did you think of all the media hype happening around Frank Ocean coming out?
Syd: I just sat back and watched. I didn't really feel any kind of way about it. I thought it was interesting, but I understand the music industry has yet to really see a black singer come out in that way, and say it and then really never say anything about it again — you know what I mean? So it's not really like the guys back in the day who, everybody kind of knew but nobody talked about it.
I think I was in Atlanta when it happened, I was walking to a restaurant and they had a picture of Frank on the door and I was like "Oh, that's cool." I can't hate on it, man. It was cool. it was a good time for the camp I think.
Were you at all shocked when you were nominated for best urban contemporary album? How did you feel?
Syd: I wasn't expecting it at all; I wasn't even looking for it. My phone started ringing that morning and I was upset. I was still asleep. I honestly wasn't even checking for it because I didn't think it would happen. I knew we were submitted, and I made sure that we were submitted. I didn't actually think we'd get nominated.
"For the World" — I keep that song on repeat. The layering is amazing; the music is amazing; your voice of course, but also its themes of black love, of future, of art, the music. We're in this moment where people are beginning to think about liberation in different ways. I don't know if you've ever thought about this, but I see your group, The Internet, as a part of that. You all are artists who are part of a movement. Did you ever think that you would actually be given space and power to create music in this moment, when all this was going on?
Syd: I mean, there's a sense of responsibility I feel as an artist, as somebody with some kind of voice. I don't think my voice is that big yet, but I do think that it will get there. And I don't really like to speak on these kinds of topics on social media, so you won't really see much of my opinions on these things on my Twitter or my Instagram or anything, because I feel like that's not the right place for me to express those feelings, I try to do it in the music.
I actually didn't write "For the World," but there's another song ["Penthouse Cloud"] on there I did write. I wrote it the morning after the Mike Brown verdict was read because I didn't really know how to feel and that's kind of my take on everything right now. I'm still in like a woe-is-me kind of vibe where I don't really know what to feel or do. I don't really know what the answer is, and it's sad when it's like that.
I feel like everybody has to take a little bit of responsibility, but I think for the most part it's going to have to start on the ground, with us, and I think we're off to a pretty good start. I appreciate the Black Lives Matter movement, and I support it and I try to make music to go along with it.