“I am a very sexual person. But it was never something anybody told me to do or that I consciously was like, ‘I want to be shocking.’ I didn’t actually think it was shocking, honestly.”
Tommy Genesis is sitting on the patio of a café in Los Angeles, in a neighbourhood where twenty-dollar ‘Progurt Probiotic’ shots on the menu seem weirdly normal. Across from me, under a mane of bleached blonde hair, Genesis talks about the process of maturing as an artist and as a woman in her early twenties. “I used to just write music and it was like throw-up - I would just put it out and it’d be music. I didn’t really care who listened to it and I didn’t really give a fuck if you fucked with it or didn’t. I really felt nothing. I was just like, ‘I just made it. I don’t know.’”
This is Genesis’s favourite café in Los Angeles, but not for its gastrointestinal elixirs. She orders a latte, and cups it in her hands as she speaks, fluctuating between glances off to the side and direct eye contact. It’s the look of someone who knows they’re smart enough to out-argue anyone - one she might have perfected in primary school, when she’d often scrawl the word ‘cunt’ on her socks during class.
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There’s another expression that regularly graces Genesis’s face during our conversation: a massive, thousand-watt smile. It ignites when our waitress compliments her on her choice of nail polish, when our conversation swerves into a mutual nerd-out over science fiction (she claims to have read every book by Philip K. Dick, and makes a convincing pitch for why Asimov is essential), and I get blasted with its full brilliance whenever I ask her a question she doesn’t want to answer - which happens with surprising frequency.
“Was the school you went to in Vancouver?” I ask, thinking I’ve found a safe question about the artist from British Columbia.
“Do you like Vancouver?” I press.
“Let’s not talk about it,” Genesis says, her teeth threatening to blind me.
This, and the deliberate pauses she takes between words to weigh how they might be misinterpreted seem like the response of an artist who’s learned the hard way that in a culture that prioritises blurbs, tweets, and the informational equivalent of fast food, one can easily have all their human complexities rendered into one single, constrictive dimension. “I definitely went in and out of being comfortable with who I was as a person,” she admits at one point. “I’m one of those kids who had phases. I wouldn’t even really say I’m comfortable with who I am now. I think it’s ok in admitting that you’re still growing.”
Few young artists are as aptly positioned to draw the attention of the media in 2018 as Tommy Genesis. Since her 2015 debut dropped on Atlanta-based label, Awful Records, people haven’t been able to stop talking about Genesis’s tearaway lyricism, leftfield beats and, most notably, the sexual content of her music. This is, after all, someone who throws out lyrics like, “When you leave me I need to go take my mind off your dick / Get some yogurt covered pretzels and a pound of a clit.” The half-Tamil, half-Swedish artist is an enigmatic, bold, rapper/producer/model/auteur, who’s reclaiming her own image, challenging heteronormativity, and inverting the male gaze in the process.
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Nowhere is this more apparent than in the self-directed video for her recent single where, as she’ll tell you repeatedly, her name is Tommy. The visual sees a naked Genesis writhing around in a bathtub of murky white water, an ‘Oops I Did It Again’-style schoolgirl Genesis pouting at the camera, and an S&M Genesis locked inside a dog cage sporting thigh high patent leather stilettos.
“As an artist it’s difficult because people are always trying to brand you and keep you in your branded box. Like, ‘Ok, you’re Tommy Genesis. You wear a schoolgirl outfit, you make ‘fetish rap’ and that’s where you live. So if I step outside of that, people get uncomfortable because that’s where they put me.”
For Genesis, ‘fetish rap’ is not so much a genre as a defense mechanism created to protect herself from the attention on the sexual content of her music. “I just made that up,” she shrugs. “I think I just did it because I was just tired of talking so much about my sexuality.”
Men have always rapped explicitly and loquaciously about sex: it’s one of rap’s most banal tropes, entirely par for the course and the chorus. When Juicy J invited women to “slob on [his] knob like corn on the cob,” before delivering this gentlemanly introduction: “Juicy is my name, sex is my game / Let’s call the boys, let’s run a train,” how many journalists asked him how his sexuality informed his music? Or if engaging in group sex with his boys might allude to some latent bisexuality?
This tendency to get pigeonholed has lit a fire inside Genesis for creative authority. “I’m so OCD about making shit. I get jealous if someone is like, ‘I made your merch design, do you like it?’ Even if I like it, I’m like, ‘You did that without me?’,” she says of her desire for full creative control. “And they’re like, ‘Tommy, you can’t do everything.’ And I’m like, ‘I want to.’”
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Rather than online commentators, it’s ultimately down to Tommy Genesis to define who she is: “I’m a musician. I really am a musician,” she insists. “I play piano, I write everything, I’m very involved in the production. I’m immersed in everything I do. I’m a creative.”
With her new album, ‘Genesis’, set for release later this year on Interscope-distributed Downtown Records, she intends to reclaim any preconceptions. “This year I’ve really approached it as: nothing you know about me exists and this is how I feel. I think as an artist we always change,” she says. If her latest single, ‘Lucky’, a breezy, reggae-pop tune that finds Genesis singing rather than rapping, is any indication, ‘Genesis’ will be an evolution for her.
“I’ve definitely stepped away from rap and there’s a few reasons for it. But at the bottom of it all, it’s really [about] how close can I get to being genuine… I think there’s so much self-empowerment in, instead of just doing what I think I should be doing - being who I think you think I am - I’m just gonna not think about it and be myself.”
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Photography: Bella Howard
Styling: Mindy Le Brock
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