Virginia rapper McKinley Dixon on the power of community and making music for himself
Although McKinley Dixon grew up between Annapolis, Md. and Queens, N.Y., he ultimately found his home as an artist in Richmond, Va. Growing up an avid drawer who loved cartoons, he moved to Richmond in 2013 to pursue animation, but soon discovered that music gave him the best space to communicate.
“I loved being transported to other worlds through media,” Dixon explains. “But there was a moment where I felt like I had a lot to say and a lot of time and distance traveled, and drawing wasn’t moving fast enough for my head, so I started making music.”
Dixon’s first two albums, Who Taught You to Hate Yourself? (2016) and The Importance of Self Belief (2018) served as vehicles for processing, healing and exploration. His latest album For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her, released last year on Richmond’s Spacebomb Records, rounds out the musical trilogy. As a storyteller Dixon draws on the imagery and techniques of Gothic literature, and is a self-described “musical time traveler,” relying on genres from hip-hop to jazz to analyze the past and enact change in the present.=
At times dark and brooding, and other moments rejuvenating and cleansing, For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her is deeply personal, but also serves as an homage to Dixon’s community. Each track features around a dozen instrumentalists, with a large portion from Richmond. He spoke with Desiré Moses from WNRN Radio in Central Virginia about arranging records and the influence of place.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Desiré Moses, WNRN: Can you talk about when you moved to Richmond and how the region helped you come into your own as an artist?
McKinley Dixon: When I started making music and first had the idea to create a song, it came out of a necessity in my life to express myself. But I didn’t really get as confident in myself and in my music until I came to Richmond. Around that time, I had been making music that was very jazz and instrument-centric, you know, but nobody knew who I was. But then I was put into this position of being a rapper who is not rapper, but a rapper who was not in the indie crowd, either. It sort of became this thing where my music was intrinsically linked to me being in the Richmond community because the Richmond community has such a heightened indie scene. So many people have come from this community to go on and do great things in and outside of the underground. I definitely think being [in Richmond] pushed me to be more confident in how I approach music.
I have been [in Richmond] for almost a decade and the things that I’ve done in music would not have been accomplished if I didn’t have a home base in a community like this. I’ve learned about so many different things including identity, racial construct[s]. I’ve decided to approach things from a more non-binary perspective in how I move about my life, and I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that without my loved ones here in Richmond. The Black and brown queer community of Richmond, it really was something that sort of showed me that there’s nothing to really be afraid of and if you are afraid, it’s okay to be afraid. I think those are the reasons why people find truth in my music and approach it from that perspective, because it’s sort of this vulnerable thing that is not linked to one group, but an overarching community.
Who were the key players and venues in this overarching community that had an impact on you?
Rest in peace [to the music venue] Strange Matter. That was a really big one. Before now, [when] everybody is so bent on making safer spaces for everybody, there was a community that was Black and brown, queer kids that were doing house shows: 3 Moons, rest in peace, Rock Bottom, a house venue, and Soft Web, a DIY venue.
And these were people that in 2015 would, at the beginning of the shows, read manifestos and things like, “If you are this person, please come to the front of the room.” And these were my peers. I was 18 years old, these kids [were] 18 years old, dealing with these things and these ideas. Of course we were young and it didn’t really always pan out and we were trying, but those were the venues and moments that really sort of stuck with me.
Like Manny [Lemus] from Citrus City [Records], if it wasn’t for him, Combo Chimbita would never have came to Richmond and I’ve seen Combo Chimbita five times now. If it wasn’t for Soft Web, Soul Glo would have never come to Richmond and that band was so formal in how I approach music and incorporating punk music into my stuff. If it wasn’t for 3 Moons, I would have never known that you can state your intentions at the beginning of things and if people have problems with it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s conflicts — it just means that maybe it’s time to approach it differently. Going to these venues and shows that no longer exist anymore, those were the formidable players and moments in my time.
Your music is very intricate and layered and you’ve had more than a dozen instrumentalists on each of your releases. What’s the creative process like when you sit down to make a record?
There’s still this weird notion that people don’t know that rap is instruments. It’s so wild because people will be like, “I’ve never even thought this could happen.” Rap technically came before a lot of other genres, if you really want to go there, you know what I mean?
I always have to kind of be prepared for people approaching me after my shows. I think a lot of people hear me talk about these vulnerable moments, and they sort of then think, “OK, I have a vulnerable moment that he wants to hear at this moment.” I love people talking to me about things, it can just be hard, you know. A lot of people ask a lot of questions all the time with my music and I think it’s sort of this thing where this record was just written for me to process — not for others to dissect.
Because you’re putting these ideas out into the world, do you think that then comes with a certain responsibility?
I think the other thing is that I am Black. I think I’m maneuvering through scenes that are usually white folks, or white folks that are not themselves. When you have a band and you hear a band’s story, you automatically assume it’s the story of these four people that came together to write this. I mean, there’s a lead singer but these people move as a unit. Whereas with me, I am the one that wrote this and I am the one that is going to receive your thoughts on my life. It’s not like the history of the band, you are talking about the history of me. So it gets interesting being on stage and then coming off stage and people have a lot to say.
You mentioned the manifestos being read at the house shows and some of the ways you now navigate the world based on what you learned there. Are there any other touchstones or lessons that you’ve incorporated into your live performance from that time?
I’ve learned that when you’re walking into these spaces, nobody is scarier than my grandma. So if anyone’s going to try to cut myself short for a band, I’m gonna be like, “No, you’re not.” [Laughs] What I’ve found [while] maneuvering through this community of such a vast level of popular peers is that you really have to start being more confident in yourself. And I think I learned that by being in these house shows, by my set getting cut short one too many times in the early 2010s.
Can you explain why your sets would get cut short?
Another problem is that rappers are not seen to be as interesting unless they have a band. So they will put about 10 or so rappers for 15 minute sets on a bill, which is usually not good — it’s a lot to do that. But then with rock music, if it’s a five-person bill and if somebody needs to go over or somebody needs to come on, because I’m the rapper, I am the one that is now not on the bill.
It don’t feel good to me; it don’t feel good to my band. So that’s what I learned from these house shows — to not take nothing. You have to have that tough skin.
I read in another interview that you would bring the lyrics to the band you were working with and they would craft something based on how they felt and what their reaction was to the written piece that you brought. Is that how a song usually gets started for you?
A lot of people think For My Mama was made in the studio. For My Mama was made over the course of three years starting in 2017 and ending in probably 2020. Honestly, the way I would work was because I didn’t have the resources to record a full band at the same time.
I’d write a lot in my notebook — really meticulous notes and arrangements and then I would record verses, like me just rapping or me humming a melody. Once I had that, I would then send it out to a lot of people. The first thing in my notes is to find the bass for this song, so then I’d send it to one or two bassists. I wasn’t pressing people. People would get back to me when they had something and I would move on to the next instrument. And then when I had all of those individual pieces, I would rearrange everything and sort of build choruses.
My ideology for For My Mama was that people are people and this is real life, you know, everyone’s going through real things. I’m going through real things — that’s why I’m making this music. I would approach it like, if this person is recording on this song, no pressure, they can get back to me whenever. They will either record when they are in a moment where there’s so much emotion that they feel like they need to express it, or when they’re so comfortable that they can think about it. I was just moving on my own time. So with that intention, then people would send these wonderful things that I used wherever I needed them because you feel it. I don’t think any of [the record] was recorded in the same room at the same time, because everybody was sort of given the freedom and control to play whenever, whatever — then it wound up feeling cohesive.
You had musicians from other states and even other countries sending you their parts, but you also kept it close to home with a lot of Central Virginia musicians.
Natalie Prass is on [“Mama’s Home”] and literally just says, “Have heart.” Gina Sobel [from Charlottesville] did all the flute arrangements and some singing. That song was [rapper] Alfred. in Richmond, Gina in Charlottesville doing the trumpet and saxophone and singing, Natalie in Nashville or wherever she was at the time and then harp by Caroline Bryant who recorded at her house in Richmond.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on the title of the record, For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her and how it speaks to the importance of representation.
I didn’t conceive this idea. There’s somebody who said it better than me and this is how I approach this teaching, you know what I mean? I think it’s all just trying to find language. Songs like “Make a Poet Black” were me searching for languages and then “Mama’s Home” and “Chain Sooo Heavy” were me finding it, in a way. I just want everyone to be able to tell their stories better. I didn’t really make this record for people. I say that and people think that means I didn’t care that there was going to be an audience. But in actuality, I did make it for myself and I hope that language is provided by this. I just hope that someone is trying to learn from it.
Over the past year, Richmond has been spotlighted in the national news surrounding the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Ave. As we’re talking about language, have you noticed a shift on a local level in the way the Richmond community vocalizes itself?
I definitely believe there’s always kind of been that movement. I think that monuments are distractions, if we’re being honest. The community that I move with has always been on the move. So it’s never really been this sort of thing where certain moments like this are impactful, because in actuality certain moments like this usually are diversions. Monuments and things like that don’t really make it into my family’s world, because what does it mean to us?
Most of my community doesn’t participate in the protests because in actuality, what’s going to happen? I’m going to get knocked out and it’s going to be an issue. It’s going to be another one. We look for safety, moreso. Moments of rest, really big moments of communal love are more impactful than a monument getting taken down.