After years of collaborating with fellow Camp and Street affiliates Le1f and DonChristian (most notably on Le1f’s ‘Air Max’ and ‘Star Me’ and DonChristian’s acclaimed album Renzo Piano), New York-based vocalist Rahel delivered her own effort earlier this year with her debut, Alkali. The 10-track album, which is slated for an iTunes release soon, is a well-crafted, emotionally complex narrative of her protagonist’s attempt to secure the affection of an uncooperative lover. Despite the ultimately frustrating and futile attempts to win love, she manages to remains strong-willed and resilient, espousing a sense of relief and ostensible triumph in her ability to recuperate.
Championing the R&B tradition with a palette for contemporary elements and her alluring charm, Rahel doesn’t shy away from genuinely expressing vulnerability that young love and relationships invite. I had the pleasure of catching up with Rahel to talk more about the record and finding her place in the rich artistic community she inhabits.
Apparently a year in the making, you released your debut album, Alkali, earlier this year. It’s also set for release via iTunes soon. How are you feeling now that it’s out there for the world to listen?
I feel great! It was a long time coming, but the slow build-up was worth it.
The album, executive produced by Jeremiah Meece of The-Drum, features collaborations with fellow Camp and Street members Le1f and DonChristian as well as Chicago-based musician Khallee. What was it like working with them on your own project? Having collaborated with both DonChristian and Le1f on their respective projects, was it different this time?
Working with Jeremiah was really an amazing learning experience. I was pretty virginal when it came to music production and recording, but he has moves like a mad scientist when it comes to it. He’s got almost an encyclopedic knowledge of sounds and references, so when I came along with very little knowledge of his field, he was able to understand and communicate issues and sounds I didn’t have the language to. At the time he was in JODY with Khallee, and when I recorded it I thought it would be nice to have a guy/the guys featured on it, so Khallee recorded his verse in Chicago and it meshed perfectly. Le1f and DonChristian have been long-time friends of mine, and were before I even decided to make this album. They both explicitly and implicitly encouraged me to make music and, for all intents and purposes, held my hand through the process. So really, working with them has been a blessing. It was a really seamless transition going from doing features on their works to working on mine because, first and foremost, we were always friends.
What were some of the challenges you had to overcome in the making of the record?
I had to find my own voice as an artist. I’m a very vocal and opinionated person generally, but translating that into music is difficult, let alone liking your product. I had to really find the confidence to face my fears of self-actualizing as an artist and just do it. It was rough - I sometimes still struggle with liking my product, liking my voice in my music - but that has everything to do with self-confidence. I’m growing out of that fairly quickly though.
What are some of the artists that influenced you in the making of Alkali? I get a little of the afro-futuristic tilt of the likes of Andre 3000 and Erykah Badu, especially on the second track ‘Bae.’
I grew up looking up to artists like Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Sade, Mariah Carey, Destiny’s Child, and Brandy, so their sounds have definitely left an indelible mark on me. But I’m typically inspired by my friends and peers to be honest. I have the privilege of being based in New York City, so I’m constantly stimulated by the many ways artists out here are approaching music. It’s not so much the music artists make that have influenced me, but rather their approach - is it subversive? Does it turn music on its head? That’s what I’m into - artists that inspire me to approach my work in an unconventional, critical way.
When did you decide music was your thing? Did you have any doubts about it?
I think making music has always been on my subconscious since I was a child, very subtly guiding my decisions. I kind of always knew I had a taste for it, never really explored it whole-heartedly until about 3 years ago when Le1f asked me to sing vocals on his Fly Zone mixtape. I had plenty of doubts. I went to college and graduated thousands of dollars in debt. I wanted steady income, my own place and stability - things not typically guaranteed an artist getting her start in her 20’s. But I soon realized all of those things would fall into place in due time, so long as I followed my calling.
Hailing from the Bronx, in what ways has this had a major impact on your artistic development?
I feel being from the Bronx exposed me to glaring problems with structures of power in NY and the U.S. in the grand scheme of things - like wealth disparities, racial and gender inequalities - that it forced me to understand and place myself in how structures of power really work. That sort of mentality really permeates everything I do in some implicit way. I’m hyper-aware of what’s up against me because I was so exposed to it in my own backyard, so I’m always trying to find a way to do something about it.
When and how did you get involved with the Camp and Street collective? What is it about the collective that drew you to it?
I became involved with Camp & Street right around the time I started doing features on Le1f’s mixtapes. It seemed like the obvious thing to do - DonChristian and Le1f were good friends of mine before I was singing, so it just made sense.
I’ve noticed a pattern by many music writers to classify rising R&B artists as either ‘futuristic/alt’ or falling strictly within the stylistic framework of 90’s R&B. Is this a marketing tool that you believe ‘Alkali’ resists, given how it incorporates contemporary sonic cues in its soundscape while also referencing and paying homage to the rich and influential 90’s style?
I think it’s important to remember that R&B, especially 90’s R&B, has been hugely influential. Its scope has reached many, many different genres of music and has influenced so many artists of varying musical backgrounds, so its inklings can be seen or heard anywhere, really. For some artists it’s an easy space and sound to reference without fully embracing - and this is where I think this “alt” prefix comes into play. I find this to be intensely problematic and, honestly, kind of disrespectful. Sound-wise I’m no R&B purist, but I was raised in it and it’s what I know through and through. It’s a genre that has become very accessible - too accessible in my eyes. I have a deep love and respect for R&B, and that’s what I tried to convey sonically. It’s 2015, so it would be unrealistic for me to come out with a track sounding like it came straight out of 1995. But that music has shaped me, and the newer sounds of producers today have helped finesse what I’m going for.
The album has unsurprisingly received excellent reviews from the likes of FACT and Complex Magazine, as well as the general public. It must certainly be exciting news as you move ahead in your career. Do you have anything planned for the near future in terms of further releases or tour dates?
As of now, I’m working on new music, which people might hear a bit of in the next couple of months. Taking my time and laying low has proven to do me well, so I’m sticking to that formula for now.
Are there any particular artists you are dying to work with in the future?
Other than collaborating with my friends, I’m really just taking the “happy to be here” approach and staying humble, taking it one day at a time. I’m excited to be working with the producers and artists I’m collaborating with now. There’s definitely more to come.
Photo credit: Lauren Gesswein. Words by Mark Pieterson (follow Mark on Twitter )