Halloween is almost upon us, and that means it’s time for spooky music. It’s good news, then, that New York rappers Aja and Shilow have released their ‘Nail In The Coffin’ EP, a ghoulish anthology of heavy hitting hip-hop bangers that shout-out Jason from the Friday The 13th movies and the more recent likes of The Purge. Aja is also a drag queen who appeared the third series of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, the show that recently glitterbombed onto UK small screens.
What’s it like to go from drag to horrorcore rap? Has hip-hop become more welcoming of queer people? Why make a horror-themed EP in the first place? And – crucially – what’s their favourite horror movie? We gave Aja a call to find out.
Hey Aja! So how come you and Shilow made a horror-themed EP?
“We’re both really into horror, which can be touched upon best by hip-hop and rap and rock music because it’s so aggressive. I’ve never heard of a soft horror. You can do a soft romance, or a soft comedy, but a soft horror? Come on! So it was an excuse for us to be really aggressive and no-one could say, ‘Oh, this is too much’, because it’s Halloween. But at the time same time I think it’s gonna live past Halloween.
“The songs are spooky sounding, but they’re also alternative and grungy. They don’t all just scream” – Aja adopts a booming Broadway voice – “‘This is Halloween, this is Halloween!’. We put so much real shit and emotion into it.”
Do you give ‘Nail In The Coffin’ a horror theme to show fans that you can be aggressive, despite having been a fun drag queen?
“It’s a hard pill for people to swallow – and even harder because I’m not really into queer niches. There’s nothing wrong with a queer niche, but if you don’t know who I am and you hear my music, you don’t really get a gay or queer vibe. People often want to pigeonhole people in the queer community – especially if you’re more feminine – as having to be comical. They expect you to be campy and jokey about sex and make-up. My experience as a queer person has not been that glamorous. I don’t think there’s any reason to glamourise myself just for other people to be entertained by it.”
Do you think pop culture is more porous now, so that people can move from reality TV to music and vice-versa?
“Yeah, people can go from reality TV and do different things. For me it’s a bit more of a complex situation because I’m doing a polar opposite thing. I’m going from being a reality television drag – we’ll call it what it is: legend – and my story on television was so impactful to people, so they’re interested in what the storyline is afterward. I lost a lot of fans when I made the transition to only doing music. Now a lot of my supporters aren’t necessarily Drag Race fans. There are a lot of punk kids and queers of colour.”
“I often get a better reception from straight people than gay people, though. Queer people don’t wanna see me yelling at them. They wanna see Kim Petras being a bubblegum sweetheart, talking about her heartbreak. They don’t wanna see me jumping up at them and being like, ‘What the fuuuck!’”
Has Ru Paul been supportive of your music career?
“To be honest with you, no-one I’ve met on reality TV has been extremely supportive of my music career. I went my own way; I don’t carry the brand of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. It might be different if I was like, ‘Oh I’m a drag queen! And also a musician!’ But I don’t even say that. I’m just a musician. I know it can be heartbreaking to my fans who say, ‘Oh my God! Go back on the show!’, but I really don’t want to. I’m a musician. If I turn up to my gig in sneakers, it shouldn’t be like, ‘Why don’t you have a wig on?’”
Do you ever get that?
“Let me tell you something. As a person who is very fluid on the gender spectrum, I think any performer has the right to wear anything they wanna wear. Aja has always been just me. I’m not a man in a dress; that’s not me. And I think that is tough for people to swallow because people like things that are packaged up nicely and delivered simply. That doesn’t just come from outside the queer community; it comes from inside the queer community as well – actually, more frequently, because the queer community is put under so much scrutiny. Skinny white twinks are the poster children for the queer community. They’re the face of Pride and attractiveness. They carry that privilege.”
Has rap made more space for queer artists in recent years?
“I think in the past music in general has been compartmentalised where they try to categorise everything. For example, people seem to categorise female rappers as their own thing. People like Kevin Abstract and Lil Nas X are just hip-hop artists. Would you say it’s gay hip-hop? To me, that doesn’t make sense. I think what’s confusing for people is that they think people from the queer community put our identities before our art. Would you call somebody a ‘black musician’? It’s the same shit.”
No, but I would say that there has, historically, been homophobia in some elements of hip-hop
“People say that hip-hop has a history of being homophobic, but I think that was just the normalisation, back when hip-hop came into the light, of people downplaying feminism and femininity.
“Hip-hop hasn’t just been been homophobic, but also misogynistic as well. Hip-hop has always been a way for people of colour to say, ‘You say that we’re uneducated and inexpressive, but we’re expressing ourselves in a safe way off the streets.’ When it spread, it reached communities where masculinity is praised and looked up to. It’s been a common idea since man wanted to enforce patriarchy that you have to put down femininity. If someone that society considers to be a man decides to do something feminine, it’s seen as if they are disempowering themselves. That idea doesn’t make sense to macho-macho men, which is why that idea’s been prevalent in hip-hop and rap.
“Now, though, we’ve entered an age of underground musicians who are rising above that. The internet’s taken over and nothing’s like as it used to be. I don’t think it matters now who’s queer, who’s not queer, who’s transgender and who’s not. It’s just: ‘Is the artist making quality art? Yes or no?’”
As far as I know there’s never been a trans rapper in the mainstream
“Anyone can break the mould. People don’t break the mould because we’re often told, ‘No’, and people listen to it. I’m not saying my goal is to be in the mainstream, or playing Madison Square Garden, but I can tell you that nothing is unachievable. If you put enough work in and go for it, nothing’s gonna stop you. It’s a common misconception that if somebody tells you ‘No’, you can’t make a ‘Yes’ for yourself.
Finally: what’s your favourite horror movie?
“Oh, I love every horror movie – even down to the terrible B-movies. I love the Nightmare On Elm Street series because it’s so campy and I think it’s, like, unintentionally queer. Freddy was so gay. Also, there’s so much queer iconography in the second movie. Jesse, the main character, is so defenceless and emasculated. His bomb-ass girlfriend has to save his ass. I was like: ‘This is everything.’
– ‘Nail In The Coffin’ is out now