Kiara Johnson did not plan on a rap career.
In fact, she had never before rapped on record when her cousin, Donta Moye, 23, who produces music under the name Block on da Trakk, asked her to record a track at his house last summer. Johnson, then 18, of Bronzeville, was eager to give it a shot.
Block thought the local music scene needed a new female voice, especially in the aggressive Chicago rap subgenre known as drill music. He had the perfect beat and wanted to help his cousin get away from some of the dangerous behavior and influences with which she was involved. They recorded a slow-burning street anthem called "I Need a Hitta," and the rap career of Katie Got Bandz was born.
Well, sort of—the career part was unexpected. Katie was serving jail time on a gun charge when the video for "I Need a Hitta" came out and became a YouTube hit among local youth, so it was a surprise for her to come home to a fan base. The sudden success, however, prompted her to keep making music.
"I ain't want to be a one-hit wonder so I'm like. 'Let me just keep going,'" she explained recently in Pilsen's CarterCo recording studio, where she is working on her proper mixtape debut, "Bands and Hittas." In the months since the video for "I Need a Hitta" came out, Katie has released only a handful of songs, but one of them, "Ridin' Around and Drillin'," caught the attention of Chicago rapper King L (formerly King Louie) and his team at Lawless Inc. Katie signed a deal with Lawless in May—prompting her to quit her job at McDonald's—and appears poised to become Chicago's next breakout rapper.
"She's unique. She's something that the game has been missing," said Larry "Larro" Wilson, CEO of Lawless Inc. "Katie is definitely original and organic."
Katie is part of a cohort of young female MCs in Chicago attracting attention in the wake of the recent success of local male rappers such as Chief Keef (signed to Interscope Records), King L (signed to Sony/Epic Records), Rockie Fresh (signed to Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group) and others. The music industry has been quick to sign these rappers to major label deals, but recognition for their female counterparts has not been as rapid.
That is a gap these artists are ready to confront.
"So many guys think that girl rappers are just a waste of listening time," said Chimekay Powell, 23, better known as Harvey rapper Chin Chilla Meek. She added, "We don't get the same publicity. Period. Just from being females and doing this. … The guys do rule this one. Whatever. We're changing that."
Chin Chilla Meek's mixtape, "It Feels Good to be Great," was released in late June, kicking off a wave of summer mixtape releases by young Chicago lady MCs. Where Katie Got Bandz's style falls into the blunt, straightforward mold of Chicago drill music, Meek's output is more lyrically dense and reliant on wordplay.
Splitting the difference is Sasha Go Hard (real name: Yaneisha Franklin), a 20-year-old rapper from Hyde Park, whose mixtape "Do You Know Who I Am?" was released in early July. Sasha's lyrics focus on topics like relationships while adopting some of the sonic style of drill music.
"I talk real-life stuff most of the time, and I know people go through the same stuff or can relate to it," she said.
One obstacle Sasha and her peers encounter, however, particularly because of their lyrical openness, is an expectation that they sexualize their output or their image. She dislikes "having to deal with guys wanting something in order for me to get something from them."
"I feel like it shouldn't be like that just because I'm a female, but it doesn't seem like it's going to change," she said. "So I still grind. [There are] people out there that's rocking with me for real—guys—that's just like 'man Sasha, you go hard, I'm going to help you.'"
Katie agreed that the expectations for female rappers (for whom the only real mainstream model is Nicki Minaj) tend to be different from those for male rappers. "A lot of people think female rappers have to sell sex. I'm not selling sex," she said. "You know all the males are going to stick together. The females you've got to be this sort of—you've got to look this way; you've got to rap about this."
"Sasha, Katie and them, they're setting standards. They're basically putting their foot down," Block said, referring to gender-based preconceptions. "Katie, most of her fans [are] males."
Wilson says that Katie's unique outlook—her willingness to rap about the hard-edged, frequently violent subjects that many listeners associate purely with male artists—was part of the appeal of signing her. "She's coming from the perspective of most youth from the inner city. ... She tells the story of that. She tells the story about it being tough. That [bleep]'s real," he said.
Katie also observed the unique appeal of her personal style. "I like girly stuff. But people respect me for who I am because I'm me 24/7. I don't pretend to be something I'm not," she said.
Block confirms the reality behind Katie's music, but he also credits it for helping her to engage in a safer lifestyle than before.
"She was going down a road that wasn't going to be right ... and instead of doing that she could express it in words," he said.
It's worked better than expected. Katie still seems surprised that a few songs made in her cousin's bedroom have generated such positive attention.
"I thought it was a prank," she said, referring to King L and Lawless reaching out to remix her song and further work with her. She's now preparing for the August release of her mixtape with noted mixtape DJs Trap-A-Holics, who have released mixtapes for artists such as Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy, but, if anything, the success music has brought so far has renewed her focus elsewhere.
She has wrapped up a semester of pre-med and biology classes at Truman College, and, although the unpredictability of her music career complicates things, she plans to continue with online classes in the fall to pursue her goal of becoming an anesthesiologist.
"I've always got to keep a backup plan," she said.
So far, though, rapping is working out pretty well.
MEET THE TALENT
Katie Got Bandz
Full name: Kiara Johnson
"I Need a Hitta" was the first time you'd ever been in the studio rapping? "I'm not a shy person, but when I recorded it—you see how 'I Need a Hitta' sounds, and then how my other tracks [sound]. I was real shy ... I wasn't [turned] up in the booth at all."
So now when you record it's more high energy? "Yeah. Give me an energy drink, and I'm gone."
Mixtape: "Bands and Hittas," out in August
Key videos: "I Need a Hitta," "Ridin' Around and Drillin'"
Chin Chilla Meek
Full name: Chimekay Powell
How did you start rapping? "[My boyfriend] was writing and reciting raps, and I'm like, 'Dude, I can rap better than you.' I literally told him, 'I can rap better than you.' But they always thought that I was just kidding. I went and wrote a verse and surprised them."
Mixtape: "It Feels Good to be Great"
Key videos: "Go Getta," "Smoker's Delight"
Full name: Trinity Home
Home: Calumet City
Do you stand around at lunch and rap with people? "We used to do that, like in the hallways between classes and stuff. Everybody would huddle around and I'd just like spit a verse that I wrote the night before. And they'd be like 'aw, she's so raw' and 'say another one the next period.'"
What are your favorite subjects in school? "English. I love to write. It kind of helps me out with the rapping and singing and whatnot. And math."
Mixtapes: "Winter's Diary," "Alter Ego"
Key video: "Fingers Up"
Sasha Go Hard
Full name: Yaneisha Franklin
Neighborhood: Hyde Park
What was your first recording? "My first, first time recording—I recorded with Dgainz—I thought I was going to be scared because in grammar school I used to talk on the mics, like get on the stage in school, and I hated my voice. And then when I recorded ... I was happy. I was like, 'I'm in the studio!'"
Do you like your voice more now? "Yes. I love my voice. I listen to my voice on my songs like, 'Damn, my voice [is] sexy.'"
Mixtape: "Do You Know Who I Am?"
Key videos: "Why They Mad," "Welcome to the Real World"
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor.