Rebel Rae is a firecracker in her own right, and that same energy bleeds through her music. Similar to the impact of her biggest influences including Tracy Chapman, Bob Dylan, and Bob Marley, the singer-songwriter strives to create music that serves her generation — healing those individuals who are feeling unheard or unseen amidst the chaos of this thing called life.
With a diverse, cultural background, Rebel’s music resonates with audiences all around the globe. The Washington D.C. native states, “She’s the best person you’re going to meet in 2020 because I’m about it! I’m real, I’m fun, I’m a friend, I’m around. People need some foundations right now and that’s me.”
While she’s a fairly new artist, she’s already embarked on a full-blown European tour opening for R&B’s favorite, Ari Lennox. Currently based in Los Angeles, Rebel drops off her latest effort, the “Like Rain” visual, holding fans over until the real deal album The View From Down Here. The music Rebel makes is exactly what she’d want to hear herself, giving her ears a dose of her own medication.
Flaunt caught up with Rebel via Zoom to discuss the message she hopes to deliver in her music, Black Lives Matter, and her new album The View From Down Here.
You’re from DMV, what were you seeing growing up?
Loud. [laughs] The Nicholson household was loud. It was very musical, my dad always has Jazz posters in every room. All my family is musicheads, my grandpa is a jazz musician so music’s very fluid in my household. We have a whole room dedicated to it. Loud and musical is how the DMV is to me, that’s home.
Was go-go music an influence on you too?
Oh for sure, I even have a song called “Hustle” on the album which is my go-go song. I couldn’t do an album and not put go-go music on it, that’s my DMV default. You grow up with that on the radio every day. The best part of waking up in the morning is go-go, that’s your breakfast. I couldn’t make music and say I’m real and authentic, and not put that on my tracks. Not find a song for it.
Biggest influences growing up?
Growing up and now are two different eras. I listened to honestly a lot of pop music, I was a huge fan of singers like Christina Aguilera and Whitney Houston. I was taking down everything I could. I was going down to the basement, putting my dad’s records on and listening to that. It wasn’t until I got very very serious about being my own music that I started my own program for myself, what I call music education. I committed myself to music. I studied nonstop artists, how they wrote, their biographies, everything. You can hear that in my music, excellent modern music mixed with all these old styles. The other day, I always write it down and try to figure out what sound I’m trying to deliver. I realize I have 3 different categories: a way that I sound, I have a music style I respect that I want to always bring into my music, and my influences. All of those things combine to make Rebel Rae.
My top artists now are Nina Simone, Odetta, she’s a blues singer from the 1940s. I love Robert Johnson, I listen to a lot of blues. I love lyricism. My categories are how I sing, how my music sounds, and how I write my lyrics. My lyricism focuses heavily on the 1970’s so I listen to a lot of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Take any major artist in the 1970s from hard rock to singer-songwriter folk, that’s really where my lyricism concentration comes from. I can sing hard rock any day. Sound-wise, I like old jazz singers and modern jazz singers like Amy. I combine that with my influence and love of modern music. Pop, hip-hop, anything I grew up on really comes through. I’m really trying to take these old sounds and lyrics I appreciate and put them to modern music I listen to.
At what point did you realize this music thing was forreal?
I’ve always been on this train. I’ve always been singing since I was a child, I took music classes. At age 6, the first song I ever sung in a recital was “Reflection” by Christina Aguilera. I got out to LA, was actually working in the fashion industry. My roommates, everybody around me said “sing sing sing! All you do is sing anyways, you should sing.” I have this timidness to me, then realized anything I’ve ever applied myself in has worked out. Music is my blood and everything else is a passion, I can’t escape it even if I wanted to.
Some of my songs speak through me on a genetic level, on an internal level. Through my musical journey, I found out more about my family, more about my DNA where it nailed that thought-process in. I remember sitting down with myself and being like “if you apply yourself to this the same way you applied yourself to anything else in your life…” Within a year of applying myself to fashion in LA, I had internships. I was in custom design, I was styling. I’ll do the same thing with music, something will happen. I was interning at a record company, my hours were ridiculous. I’d stay 20 hours in the studio between working, going home, writing, and recording with the people coming through the studio. Oh, you’re committed, this is what you’re going to do. This is who you are, time to pick a name. Time to start up because this is it. It sounds so crazy but there’s nothing else, it feels so beyond me to move away from it.
Inspo behind your name?
That’s how I was born. [laughs] I was really into lyricism, on another level because I write all of my songs acapella. 95% of my music is created almost as poetry, then I bring it to producers and he cocoons around it. I was really focused on words. I was going through a few names honestly. Rae is my middle name. My given name, it’s what people call me. Rebel was a definition I pinned to my name because I wanted something to hold me accountable. A lot of artists in modern times fall off from what their message is, who they want to be, what they want to say, what they want to do. I wanted a name that if I stray from who I am, will hold me accountable. You can’t be a rebel and be one of the crowd or be pumped out through the music industry. You can, but then you’re fake. I like how it sounded, it identified with me. This is rebellion, Shirley!
Loved seeing Deante Hitchcock on “We The People.” How did that collab come about?
Me and D met about a year before “We The People” through our teams. We connected right away because I said a quote about Harry Potter, he’s like “oh you’re into Harry Potter.” needed a rapper, didn’t want this song to come out without a rapper on it. D had just put out music. You meet artists but you don’t know what they’re about till you hear their sounds. He was so new, he’d done some touring but he didn’t have anything out. The song took a year for us from fruition to finish to get out.
I heard a few of his tracks, hit up my boy to see if he wants to get on it. My inner Virgo took over, I was texting him like “you’re getting on it.” He was really excited. We put it out, it did very well. He came to London, we performed it together. It was the feature meant to be. It was a friendship which is how most collabs in this industry happen, but the people you know is a very slow path. [laughs]
What does it mean to create music for our current times?
I’ve been creating music for our current times since my genesis. The original message behind Rebel was the fact that I wanted to speak about something. My first song “Good Vibes” wasn’t necessarily social justice-related but the underlying message still goes back to you don’t know me, you don’t know the music. It doesn’t always have to be about what you think it is. I’m active in the community with social justice. Being from D.C., I don’t understand how people aren’t involved.
I was listening to so much music from the 1970s where all they do is talk about what’s happening on the ground. I was listening to modern music, mmm nothing that we do talks about what’s happening on the ground really. It became my mission and my goal. We have to talk about what’s happening and what’s real. I didn’t know that’d isolate some parties, make my come up slower. My whole thing is an album coming out with the view from down here: what is it like to be part of the people? I know that once people get put on, it gets hard to talk about.
As both a songwriter and artist, how can you continue to use your platform to be a voice?
You have to embody it. You literally have to decide to. For me, it’s definitely to keep showing up on the ground which I’ve been doing since before 2014. As long as it’s ingrained as part of my life, as long as I’m a black woman, it’ll always be there. As a musician, I need to decide to talk about it. I have to lead back to it and decide to fall back on it, not get caught up on the stars and diamonds. Remember there’s always something happening everywhere worth talking about, it’s way more interesting than stars and diamonds.
What can we expect from your new album titled The View From Down Here?
The View From Down Here is real, it’s honest. It reads like a story, I approached it as a soundtrack to the times. It honestly took about 5 years to create. What you get from that is a building, what an artist’s developed sound like? Now music, you got to the studio and you put it out. This album has lived, it’s the soundtrack to my life. Showing up to protests, getting my heart broken, hanging out with my friends, everything. You’re not going to get an R&B album, you’re going to get a soundtrack from a girl who was evicted from her apartment, who needs money, who sees black people getting killed in the streets, who’s showing up to the protests and donating her time, who again is struggling for money. I’m not trying to hide anything from my life before I was Rebel Rae. I want my introduction to be a time capsule to that younger girl and to who she’s become.
How was opening for Ari Lennox? She’s amazing.
Dope, real cool. She’s from D.C. from I’m from, which is the foundation. I don’t understand how you can have a problem with the girl because she is life. She’s so funny, a down-to-earth person. It was really restorative to see how a European audience responds to my music. I’m an American girl, I make American music. I’m from America. I don’t know who this blonde, blue-eyed girl is because she’s not around anymore. I’m me. My roots, my foundations are American so it’s really interesting to see that transcribe in different countries. See them get it, hear it, listen to it, want more, and ask for more. It’s a beautiful opportunity in a beautiful space.
How was it doing the live benefit for cancer research? Pelotonia’s Legends Live! event helps the organization raise millions of dollars toward cancer research through the help of its community and partners.
That was great, I loved that. I have a relationship with Pelotonia, did a live benefit for them a year ago in Ohio in person. Definitely a crazy COVID-type situation to see yourself going from oh I’m on a big stage in the middle of Ohio to an interview. I love the organization Pelotonia, they’re one of the top leading cancer research organizations in the nation. As a musician, my music has really introduced me to these people, what they do and how they do it. It’s bike riding, for cancer research, so we see how many people come out and share their stories. You talk to people, everybody‘s been touched by cancer. It’s crazy and mind-opening, it’s beautiful.
Goals for yourself at this point of your career?
My main goal is to reach the ears, I need to touch as many people as possible. I’m sent with messages, my greatest duty to make sure those messages get to the people who need to hear them. All the fuss and fuzz in between is cute, it’s fluffy, but I’m here to reach people. It’s not about clout, fame, or getting big, it’s about all those people who actually need to hear what I have to say because nobody else is saying it for them.