Over the past decade, Kilo Kish has been a gem in the indie music space. Now, she talks about her roots, her new album American Gurl, and how she found her way in New York.
Kilo Kish has never wanted to fit in. For the past 10 years, music has been the connecting factor between all the creative spaces the multi-hyphenate exists in. But before she became known as the alternative Black artist behind music projects like her 2012 debut Homeschool EP and the recently-released American Gurl (as well as a visual artist whose work has been displayed at The Getty Center and The Hammer Museum), Kish was Lakesha Robinson, a kid from Orlando, Florida.
From a young age, Kish felt different from those she grew up with because of her interests: listening to Bjork, cutting up and creating clothes, and reading Vogue. But she found camaraderie in a group of close friends she did everything with when she started to attend Winter Park High School, as well as friends she met in church.
“[High school] was pretty chill, it was also kind of crazy. When I was in high school, I just also smoked weed a bunch and did drugs,” she said. “It was weird because it was this dichotomy of having all this academic stuff and then also exploring.”
When she wasn’t with friends, she was taking International Baccalaureate (IB) classes and drawing classes, the latter of which came about after she decided she’d be applying to art schools in New York for college. After building a portfolio, she applied to Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), Pratt, Parsons, and other art schools in New York before landing at Pratt, where she left after a year of being there because her financial aid fell through. Kish would later return to college — this time, FIT — after taking up jobs at a Black-owned salon and different restaurants. During this time, she’d also met Justin, her late manager who introduced her to The Internet’s Matt Martians. That introduction would culminate into a collaboration between Kish and Martians’ other group with Pyramid Vritra, The Jet Age of Tomorrow, as well as play a part in Kish making her own music.
From there, Kish said a weird convergence of things began happening: more music-making, booking modeling gigs and attending college. But it would be in 2012, when she made her debut with Homeschool, that things really took off. Fast-forward to now, and Kish has released American Gurl, which is out today. At its core, the album provided space for her to showcase how she identifies within a culture driven by the internet and social media. But it’s also a full-circle moment: a testament to her being able to enjoy who she is as an alternative Black artist who continues to explore an experimental path.
“I’m a musician, but I don’t necessarily identify fully as that,” she said. “I identify just as an artist that works in different mediums.”
Okayplayer spoke with Kish about the origins of American Gurl, why she feels she constantly dives deep into her mental state within her music, her earliest years in New York, and finding her identity as an alternative Black artist.
Let’s start at the beginning, what was it like growing up in Orlando?
I painted a lot. I was really into graffiti and I was trying to learn how to do spray paint and graffiti. I would always cut up clothes and try to make clothes. So yeah, I was creative. I tried to be on the step team. That didn’t really work out that well. I was really a part of my church as well. I was always at church because my mom was super religious, which was fun. I felt like I could be who I wanted to be, but I definitely felt different. People were like, “She’s a little bit weird, that one.”
Hip-hop was poppin’ in the South at that time but people weren’t listening to hip-hop from the North, at least that’s my experience. So it was just very interesting. My parents are from up here.
Mine, too. My mom, it was like she would always be like, “You’re from up North.” She would always try to say that. And I [would tell her], “I actually was born here and I’ve been living here this whole time, so I’m pretty much Floridian.” She’s like, “You spent time in New Jersey. You’re from up north.” It’s like, it was this weird thing of not wanting to be “country” or that kind of vibe.
People get stuck in Florida.
For sure, and it gets harder to get unstuck the older you get, too. It’s funny being from Florida and then moving to a city like New York. I did feel like a New Yorker when I lived here. I learned the culture of how to behave in New York, but it’s not my first language. It’s like, the first language is like, “Oh, slower pace.” So you’re always like, “I could just chill.” There’s always that. And I feel like that’s still part of my personality for sure.
Can you tell me what it was like when your music took off after Homeschool?
That was around the time when I graduated from FIT. I just remember not really having a plan and having this amazing opportunity come up with people caring about my music, which was not my goal at all at the time. I wanted to do textile design or do something in fashion. At the same time, [I was] getting street cast for modeling stuff and all of that — this was before Instagram. So it was like, people would just see you at a restaurant and be like, “Oh, would you like to go to this casting for this thing?” And you would get a lot of those types of things. So, it was all of that and this weird convergence that all happened at the same time that birthed Kilo Kish.
It’s been ten years since your first SoundCloud project. How does that feel?
I feel good about the last 10 years. I feel like, obviously, some things did not go as planned but that’s just the nature of life and learning a whole industry — a hard industry as well. I feel like I have created a space for myself that’s mine, that’s unique, and that’s all that I really wanted to do. Be as honest and truthful as I can about who I am and explore it and learn more about myself, and learn more about my world and dissect it.
I also feel like in the last 10 years, so much of my time was spent trying to fit into music. And it’s like — from the very get-go, I wasn’t interested in the same things that my music artist peers were interested in, and I fought against that for so many years. It’s just not my personality. I like to work by myself. I like to be insular. I like to be heady and think about things, and then I like to share them and present them at the end and give context and all of that, as opposed to being a personality that’s constantly in your face and people are constantly seeing.
I feel like that has to be very draining to do that.
Well, I think for some people it’s actually what they love. For some people, getting on stage and just being that center of attention or just being that star is really empowering for them and important. There needs to be people like that but not all artists have the same personality. And I think that’s part of the industry — it kind of sucks that the introverted ones are like, “You just get less because you’re just not constantly putting yourself out there all the time.”
I think I’ve just learned — or at least I’m learning — to try to respect my actual self more. Respect what I need, respect my own boundaries of what I feel comfortable doing or not feel comfortable doing.
Would you say that’s the biggest lesson that you’ve had to learn in the past 10 years?
That, and also trusting your own vision of something. I’m pretty rebellious still. I still like to do my own thing, but there’s been times [when] I’ve tried something that someone else wanted to do and it totally backfired. I was like, “See, I should have done my idea. I would’ve been much happier.”
What about your life allows you to keep making music that focuses on your inner feelings? Has it always been your goal to share that part of yourself with your fans?
I think I’m just constantly in an inner dialogue. Everybody is, but it’s what I am constantly thinking about. So, I’m always just wondering about everything in life and how things are connected. That’s what I choose to make my music about because it’s what interests me.
There’s a lot of things you could write about but I guess I always try to think like, “What could I do that someone hasn’t done?” Even though, obviously, a lot of things have been done, the only thing that I can speak on is my personal experience and the way that I see the world. That changes all the time. But sometimes it does feel uncomfortable. For example, in Reflections in Real Time, I felt really vulnerable to release a project like that because it was really my headspace, and it wasn’t always the best headspace.
What was the driving force behind your new album American Gurl?
I was super, super, super burned out. And I was frustrated with all the things that I was talking about before. I was frustrated by [the] industry and teams and trying to do all of these different things. I mean, being alternative — alternative black artists in general — it’s a weird kind of space that people don’t really always know where to [put us]. It’s much more well-received now, but I think sometimes people are like, “Well, can’t you just do it like this? Or can’t you just do it like that?” I think this project was like me detoxifying myself from all of the stuff that I heard all the time and the people that I was around, and the scenes and the conversations and just the sugarcoated nature of everything.
I don’t know why, I just started thinking about McDonald’s in this way — like sugary candy and Coca-Cola. I just started thinking, “What if I made an album that feels really bright and really kind of like pop on the surface, but then it’s really diving into some themes?” It’s kind of more like Reflections in Real Time, where it’s something that’s very near and dear to me but it’s coated in this plastic. That’s the theme of American Gurl — exploring that I am a product of my environment and these are the things that have been put on me in this time so far.