• Feature

Women Behind the Music in Cincinnati: Abiyah

Photo credit: Annette Navarro

Abiyah is a force in Cincinnati. As an artist for over fifteen years in the Cincinnati music scene, she has gone over and beyond to help her fellow artists out. 

Abiyah is a woman I admire and respect and I was honored to talk to her about being a Woman Behind the Music (and in front of) in Cincinnati!

Tell us about the evolution of Abiyah… What prompted you to a life of music?
Let me start by saying that I never imagined myself onstage. As a child, I was shy in school and was made fun of a lot for being a nerd. Fast forward to high school, and I found my figurative voice in poetry, some of which was published in The Seven Hills Review, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s quarterly juried collection of poetry written by Hamilton County students in grades 7 through 12. Take the express bus to 1998/99, when I picked up the pen again and took the page to the stage via the Love Jones-style poetry open mic night at the now-defunct Cafe Cin/Cin at 25 W. 5th St in downtown Cincinnati.

Enter hip hop into the equation. I was also hanging around a lot of underground hip hop MCs and producers at the time, going to Top Cat’s Wednesday hip hop nights, etc. And let’s be real: hip hop lyricism is poetry. I asked a producer friend of mine to give me a CD of beats to listen to so that I could record my poems over them. I recorded a few poems over some of those beats and become the ‘First Lady’ of a local underground hip hop collective, doing several shows with them, including at the University of Louisville. 

During that time, I was also on a writers email listserv, and came across a post about submitting poetry over beats to an Internet radio show called ‘Flobonics’, hosted by NYC-based poet/MC/producer Native Sun. NativeSun was the creative force behind the iconic 1998 hip hop poetry-influenced compilation Eargasms: Crucialpoetics, Vol. I, as well as the co-producer of Saul Williams’ “Ohm” and “Twice the First Time”. His premise was that POETRY+BEATS=FLOETRY. Native was trying to start a movement, and, as such, encouraged poets to add hooks/choruses to their poems when recording over beats to create a complete song. One of the MCs/producers from the previously-mentioned collective offered to record some of my floetry songs to send to him. I ended up taking them up to NYC in 2000 (my first time there) and sharing them with Native Sun in person. He dug them, enough to produce a song for me which I recorded in 2001 (and re-recorded again in 2002) with him in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. That song was ‘Free Wild Muse’.

‘Free Wild Muse’ got around the local non-hip hop music scene, and somehow became a crossover pop hit locally. The three long poetic verses don’t rhyme, but apparently the hook was super catchy to many: ‘I live in the basement of gravity / I am the salt of the Dead Sea / But rhythm jive break me loose / I be that free wild muse / Move with me. 

I connected with another NYC producer, Obafemi Kitching, while I was up there Native Sun, and he ended up producing three tracks for me. Those three tracks, ‘Free Wild Muse’, and ‘Warrior Princesses’, produced by the late Skandal da Ruckus Man, comprised my first and only EP, the 2001 “Flow Tectonics.”

Next up was playing the first MidPoint Music Festival in 2002, and I haven’t stopped since then. I guess I said all of that to say this: poetry led me to a life of music.  

I feel like you are not only an amazing artist, but a constant cheerleader for the scene itself. What is it that drives you?
I think that, as a woman, Cancerian and mother, I have a sense of taking care of everyone, being supportive and helping others. Sometimes that has been to my detriment, and led to me being taken advantage of, but most of the time it has been extremely rewarding. We have so much talent in Cincinnati, across genres, experience levels, songwriting approaches, performance styles…who wouldn’t want to celebrate that? As someone who has been prominent in the Cincinnati music scene for 15+ years, and as both an elevator within and relative architect of of the scene over the years, I also feel like it’s a responsibility. If you want to be a leader, you have the responsibility to also lead by example, and if you SAY you’re about it, you better BE about it.

A recent magazine feature I was in noted that I am ‘someone you can find out almost any night of the week at every type of show.’ Just as my own music is influenced by many genres, I love to see those same genres performed live by my friends. When I go to a show, I’m not going to be ‘seen’, I’m going because I want to hear a specific band or bands on the bill and support. Whether the scene supports me or not, I will always support it and go to as many shows as I can.

What have been some of the most memorable shows for you thus far? Ones either you have played or put together…
So many, but here are a few favorites:

  • First MidPoint Music Festival in 2002: I kicked off that evening (a Friday) at Plush downtown. I was joined onstage by Todd Uttley on sampler and slide guitar, Olufemi on backing vocals, Sophia Zapf on electric violin, guest vocalist Ron C, and dancer Holly Price doing improv movement near the stage, on the speakers and in the crowd during our set. It was packed wall-to-wall, and CityBeat later called it one of the most creative sets of the festival.
  • Bitch’s Brew:  I was so honored to be a member of this diverse all-female poetry troupe curated by Cincinnati writer extraordinaire Kathy Y. Wilson (of CityBeat’s ‘Your Negro Tour Guide’ column). Original members Yvette Nepper, Murray, and Ophelia, and DJ Apryl Reign made it one of the most special things of which I’ve been a part.
  • Abiyah Presents Hip Hop @ The Comet: I produced and curated this themed six months-long monthly series in 2013 to showcase local indie hip hop artists in a variety of subgenres in order to give voice to as many different types of hip hop artists as possible. The themes were: Classic Edition, featuring scene OGs; Fresh and Brand New Edition, featuring newer artists or artists newer to Cincinnati; Alternative Universe Edition, with a focus on alternative hip hop; Get Your Game On Edition, featuring nerdcore artists; Ladies First Edition, an all-grrrl bill; and a Hip Hop Open Mic Edition, where participants could select a classic hip hop instrumental from a list and perform their OWN lyrics to it.
  • First Ladies Tour:  My first tour and it will probably be the most significant and meaningful. NYC-based songstress Corina Corina and I set out for two weeks on a March 2014 tour sarcastically named after the title many of us women are given in all-male hip hop collectives/labels. Corina is a similarly-minded hustler and fellow vegetarian, and it was one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done.
  • Mike Ladd’s Majesticons and Beans: Opening for these two iconic avant-hip hop acts, and fellow Cancerians, in 2003 was truly a bucket list moment. 
  • Open Mike Eagle, Louis Logic, Psalm One, Ceschi, Serengeti, Homeboy Sandman, Mega Ran, and all the other awesome national indie hip hop artists I booked and played with from 2012-2015, many of whom remain close friends.
  • Ladies First Showcase at North Bar in Chicago: Last July, I traveled to Chicago to perform at a showcase dedicated solely to female hip hop, soul and spoken word artists. It was life-affirming to say the least. Many of us traveled from outside of Chicago, and I met a fellow Cincinnatian who was also performing, the amazingly talented singer/songwriter Lauren Eylise, who I would later book at my October residency at The Comet and am playing with again in April at MOTR.
  • Rockshops for Girls at the inaugural Louisville Outskirts Festival (2014): Mahogany (of Mahogany Reign) and I were honored to have been invited to perform the morning of our Louisville Outskirts sets for the young ladies participating in the Rockshops for Girls. Forty-two beautiful empowered girls between the ages of 10 and 18 who signed up to participate in the Rockshops, vocal and instrumental workshops where the girls formed bands and were tasked to write a song that they would perform the next day. Tens of pre-teen and teen girls countering the myth that they should not be getting along with each other. No self-segregation by age, race or any other societal-imposed division. Just positivity and enthusiasm all around. I don't think I've ever been more inspired in my entire life.I explained my background of being a punk rocker when I was their age and having a mohawk (one girl yelled "yeah!") and my struggles being a weirdo girl when it wasn't as accepted as it is today. One of the young ladies shouted "you can look however you want to!" I had to hold back the tears. 
  • 2016 CEAs: With my fifth nomination in the Hip Hop category (and no wins…I’m the Susan Lucci of the CEAs…haha), I’d been waiting for this moment since my first nomination in 2002. Accompanied by my longtime ride-or-die friend and backing vocalist Dana Hamblen (Fairmount Girls/Darlene/Culture Queer), video by Nebulagirl, and song title cassette sign ‘ring girl’ Melissa Molasses, it was everything I expected it to be and more. 
  • Ladyfest Dayton 2016: Last year was the first time I’ve ever played in my hometown, and Paige Beller and the other organizers of Ladyfest Dayton put together an awesome fest at a super rad venue.
  • Ladyfest Cincinnati Hip Hop Stage (2015) : Super proud of this stage that I curated and performed at featuring LoAhmmi, half of the late 90s Cincinnati female hip hop duo NADANUF (the first hip hop group from Cincinnati signed to a major label); avant-garde art-pop-rap duo Le Technopuss13s; Mahogany Reign, featuring Mahogany on the mic and DJ Apryl Reign on the cuts; D.S.Sense, an incredibly powerful and poetic MC from Detroit who performed her entire set a cappella, and myself. We had a dance party at the same space to close out the night and the fest, DJed by myself and DJ Apryl Reign.

I have to also mention the two most memorable shows I attended: Love and Rockets at the Jockey Club in December 1985, and Grace Jones at Afropunk Brooklyn in August 2015. 

As a woman in Cincinnati music, do you feel that your gender has ever hindered your path? Do you feel that you have to work harder to get your voice heard?
I could write a dissertation on this, but I’ll keep it brief and elaborate elsewhere at a later date. 

For a long time, especially in the early years of my music career, I didn’t see my gender as an issue, or at least pretended like it wasn’t. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t as confident then in expressing my opinions or taking a stand as I am now. Also, as usually the only girl artist in the hip hop crowd back then, especially one who was rocking headwraps and having a poetic rapping style that many men deemed as non-purist, I was viewed as more of a novelty than a threat. I was enjoying free beats and free recording, just like all the boys were.

As my music style is more than just hip hop, I then moved primarily into the ‘rock’ scene; that is, the Cincinnati music scene that included indie rock, electronic, Americana, punk, metal, pop, singer/songwriter, etc. There were way more women in that scene, and I was treated more like a peer, all while still doing the same thing I was doing in the hip hop scene.

I ventured back into the Cincinnati hip hop scene around five or six years ago, after accumulating CityBeat Cincinnati Entertainment Awards nominations in the Hip Hop category, establishing myself as a credible and respected local musician and songwriter, and having gained significant performance and curatorial experience.

Everything was going well, I was booking and performing at a lot of shows and working toward rebuilding the alternative hip hop scene here, and it felt more like a peer situation. That is, until I started exerting my power, strength and knowledge. When there is a woman around, I think men think ‘Mom’ so they think she’s going to do everything for them, and it became tiring because no one was trying to contribute. At that time, my son was now an adult, so unless your name is Zeque, I ain’t your mama. As much as I love to help things grow and progress, I couldn’t persist in that particular environment where I was once again an outlier. One where my ‘rapper’ ability was delegitimized by placing that term in quotes when referencing me. One where I have been cyber-bullied, slut-shamed and makeup-shamed by men in this hip hop community. One where men attempted to take credit for my efforts. One where I have been accused not only of booking touring acts just to fuck them, but also accused of actually fucking all of them…including the gay one, the married ones, etc. in an attempt to discredit my achievements and efforts. Incessant sexual harassment was a given, and, as recently as a few months ago, was still occurring…from someone in the scene that I’ve known for over 10 years. I’m too grown for this.

[Side note: I do have to say that my experience with male hip hop artist friends outside of Cincinnati has been much different than what I’ve experienced here. It’s more egalitarian, respectful and empowering. I understand that when you’re around for so long in the same city, you get road-weary of each other. However, I do think there are things unique to Cincinnati that keep the scene here in a constant state of flux. I also have to add that the DIY hip hop community in Cincinnati is also more welcoming to women in hip hop, and actually highly encourages our inclusion. In a community of outliers and outsiders, we’re not outliers and outsiders.]

I would assert that the only privilege in hip hop is male privilege. Dudes stick together. However, we women in hip hop are now countering that by working together. We have built networks across the countries with each other, as artists, promoters and organizers, to counter any gender bias or discrimination we’ve experienced in our respective cities’ scenes. Across race, age, class, identity, and more. We are empowering ourselves and each other through efforts like the Women in Hip Hop Conference in Detroit, organized by the Foundation of Women in Hip Hip, which includes beat production sessions for girls of all ages, panel discussions on the sociological impact and contributions of #BlackGirlMagic in the hip hop community, sharing our stories with each other about what we endure as women in our respective scenes and learning how to take that power back. We help each other write our artist bios and book shows and tours. We write blogs about our experiences. We share our business connections and recommendations with each other.

There is no better time than now to be a woman in hip hop because we have each other’s backs.

What is the most rebellious thing you have ever done?
Being myself.

What do you want people to take away with them when they think of you?
Both now, and when it’s all said and done, I want to be viewed as a builder, creator and innovator. As someone who uses music to connect us to each other and to the world around us. Who builds bridges and not only pushes boundaries, but isn’t afraid to shatter them to pieces. As a strong woman and leader who doesn’t give a fuck. Most importantly, however, that I’m an ethical and genuine human being.

March is Women’s History Month, in celebration, CincyMusic.com will be featuring important women behind the music scene in Cincinnati. Cincinnati is the home of so many amazing women within the music industry. These women include; an activist, a Director of Marketing, Music Editor, DJ, Producer, musicians, and many more!

Stay tuned to CincyMusic.com for our Features on these talented women this month!  



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