Interview: Backxwash interviewed by Spartan Jet-Plex

BACKXWASH is a trans rapper (they/them/she/her) from Zambia whose music provides an eccentric and aggressive social commentary. Topics include blackness and queerness, as they strive to bring an intersectional perspective. Inspired by Missy Elliot and Redman, Backxwash is known for their complex lyricism on weird instrumentals.

photo by Bianca Lecompte

I am a huge fan of Backxwash (aka Ashanti Mutinta) and love her first album, F.R.E.A.K.S., and her follow up album, Black Sailor Moon, so when she decided to join our collective and allow us to help her release her third album, Deviancy, I was personally beyond thrilled! She and I recently connected so I could ask her some questions about music, her process and her new album, Deviancy. After sitting through Deviancy several times and pondering on her words, I wrote down some of my thoughts and ideas and decided to mix them in with my questions to her to give you a feel for what I personally took from listening to her new album numerous times and so you can obtain a better understanding of her music, ideas and thoughts.

cover art by Chachi Revah

Nancy: I love collaboration and I’m usually drawn to working with people whose music is completely different than mine. I love stretching my musical abilities and blending sounds together that may seem unnatural, but yet work with them to end up creating music that in the end fits naturally together. I am curious how you go about collaboration and working with producers and how much of that you do yourself and how much people collaborate on that with you? Also, how you go about deciding what’s right for a particular song and how you decide who to work with?

Backxwash: Collaborating with people is essentially a 3 part process. 1) If they are good people,  2) If i feel safe, 3) if we share similar politics, Music is an experience and I would like to make sure all those things line up just to create the best environment possible.

For particular songs, I just go with a producer that I think will have a best sound for the record. Flying Fisher is good for creating weird and excellent bangers while SurgeryHead has got excellent aggressive gritty sounds. The rest goes to me. *laughs*

For this album I wanted to produce at least half of the material, I needed to make that step because I was not confident in my producing ability even though I have been doing it for a long time. I just wasn’t confident to rap on my own beats, but I did it and even plan on making Don’t Come to the Woods a single.

Nancy: Don’t Come to the Woods is an excellent opening song for the record. I love it and it really sets the mood for the album. 

I usually end up writing lyrics while writing the music or after the music is written, but occasionally the words come first. Most of the time I start with a base idea or riff and then build around that. Can you describe your usual writing process and do you usually write lyrics before the music or vice versa or how do you usually approach songwriting in general?

Backxwash: For this project I approached some of the songs a bit different. I grew up on 50 cent and one thing that I learned from him was that if he can’t find the hook to a song then he won’t write the song. For my previous projects, I usually hear a bit that I like and if I can’t figure out the hook in a few minutes, I won’t use the beat. I will go to something else.

For this album, it was very different in that my hooks were expressions that I had before writing the songs. There were these sentences that I had in my mind, when making the beats. It was a matter of applying these expressions in a catchy way. An example of that is Don’t Come To the Woods. The verses I thought were the easiest part. Learning from my previous project, is that an overlooked aspect of writing verses is how dope you say them. So this album was me experimenting with different cadences.

Track 1: Don’t Come to the Woods

Nancy’s thoughts:

the woods

the darkest and most dangerous of places

but also a place of healing and calming

a safe spot to find peace and solace

spells have all been cast

don’t dare enter

unless you’re worthy

Nancy: This song is easily a trailer for a horror thriller film like Evil Dead 2 meets Brave New World but even more political and absolutely queer. I see this song as a metaphor for living in this world, especially for qtpoc. You use humor a lot in your music as well which I can relate to. I feel like I use it to cope with the darkness of a lot of the subject matter I deal with in my songs. It’s also a defense mechanism for me. How do you feel about the use of humor in your music?

Backxwash: Oh yes for this song, I looked at how western media shows witchcraft as something dastardly and spooky. Spiritualism where I am from would be also seen as witchcraft to the west but it is not as ridiculous as they make it out to be. That is why I wrote this song just to play on those stereotypes and kinda make fun of that trope.

Track 2: Devil In a Moshpit

Nancy’s thoughts:

toxicity of much of the punk, noise and metal scenes

moshpits can be the epitome of white hate and misogyny

Nancy: A lot of queer people, especially qtpoc experience, violence on a daily basis. Most have a multitude of stories, even within so-called safe DIY spaces. I feel like this is where this song is rooted. How much of your personal experiences within the various music scenes you’ve been a part of or shows you’ve attended went into this song?

Backxwash: Oh yeah that is something that I struggle with. When I was performing in Vancouver, I was afraid I would see people who I don’t want to see and that is something that people who have gone through shitty stuff have to deal with when performing sadly. I just thought I should pull from those experiences and write a song about that and I already had the hook.

Nancy: I also feel like a lot of the best parts of punk music with bands like Bad Brains, The Slits, Crass and Dead Kennedys is very much connected to the message of a lot rap and hip hop. I got into bands like them along side ones like Public Enemy at the same time and a lot of that had to do with the message of the music. How do you feel your music fits into those genres?

Backxwash: I think I pull a lot from punk bands with a message, There is a beauty to sounding angry on a record. I listened to a lot of Zach de la Rocha before coming up with this and his voice just has so much conviction. I always say I am an angry trans woman rapper and I do not know how else I could rap. This is the only way it makes sense for me.

Nancy: Music for me is a way to process the world, especially the dark and horrible parts of it, and find a way to heal and create something positive out of all the darkness. There’s also a lot of misogyny, queerphobia and transphobia in punk and rap and hip hop and this song seems to be a counter anthem to all that. What are your thoughts on music as a kind of activism, but also as a way to heal from that?

Backxwash: Music is really awesome therapy. I find myself being able to tap into places I wouldn’t have been able to by other means. I think this Backxwash character gives me the confidence needed to confront these issues the way I want. Music gives a voice and I do like that.

Track 3: Foundation + Face Tattoos

Nancy’s thoughts:

classic Robin Hood and I’m all about it.

Nancy: White people have been stealing and appropriating black culture at the expense of black people for forever- people from Elvis to Ariana Grande.  People like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian appropriate black hair, fashion and make-up and profit and build their brands off of it. Capitalism is an oppressive system that requires the suffering and subordination of a large population of people politically, culturally, and economically, and capitalism and racism support each other. These ideas seem to be the themes of this song and I am wondering if you could talk about that a bit. I feel like this is one of those songs where you really are trying to process and channel your anger regarding these things into something positive through music. I don’t think anyone can listen to your music or this song in particular and not think about these things.

Backxwash: Absolutely, most of the bad shit that happens with oppressed minorities has capitalism as one of the leading driving forces. Part of me thinks that what if there was this person who went around robbing rich people and giving the earnings to the people that really need it. There is really no reason why anyone should hoard all this money.

Track 4: Bad Juju

Nancy’s thoughts:

If only I could cast off doing the daily walk in this disgusting and transphobic world every day.

Nancy: From my understanding, people who are LGBTQ in Zambia face severe abuse and death due to harsh and deadly laws and societal beliefs. I feel like I can hear in this song your justified anger. Humans have a crazy ability to survive at all costs, which you touch on in Burn Me at the Stake. Trans and queer people have always existed and we are never disappearing however hard any people try.  Although Canada does not have those harsh and deadly discriminatory laws like Zambia, I am sure much like here in the United States, you have been subjected to a lot of the same sort of ignorance from people throughout your life. Our current administration is constantly trying to strip our rights. Almost every day we hear about another murder of a black trans woman. I cannot help but think about these things when listening to this song. I also know witchcraft is important to you and so many people have misconceptions about what it is as part of a spiritual practice. Could you talk a bit about any of these things as it relates to this song and your music in general?

Backxwash: Oh yeah when I was writing this I was trying to make music for fighting back against these oppressive systems.  This song was kinda like “don’t mess with us or we will hex you” and just playing with that idea. I listen to battle rap and it is usually raps about how the other opponent can dismantle the other one, but I thought this would be a nice twist and hardcore hip hop song about using witchcraft instead. Essentially just saying there is an intersection of queerness and witchcraft. We recognize that so don’t mess with us and we will go in peace.

Track 5: Deviancy

Nancy’s thoughts:

My thoughts do not do your songs any justice, but this song traps the disgusting stench of colonialism and holds that mirror up for people to see how we participate in it every day.

Nancy: My last album, Godless Goddess, was about my personal struggles growing up Catholic and being subjected to attending Catholic school for 1st through 8th grade and how that religion affected my mental health and contributed to some of the other abuse and trauma I was experiencing at that time and just processing it and coming to terms with it. I spent much of my childhood, teens and 20s trying to deal with the guilt of rejecting those beliefs and the deep pain and damage religion did to my self esteem and mental health. Christianity and Catholicism is deeply connected to patriarchy and colonialism. You touch on various related things in this song like the prison system and police brutality and how all these things are related and interconnected, and possibly how all these things are at odds with your spiritual beliefs and who you are at the core, and how these systems, institutions and the people who participate in them see you as deviant. What were your thoughts when connecting all these things together in this song?

Backxwash: Yes this was a thought that started from how colonialism painted most of my culture as evil and bad and how everyone should read this bible thing. From that we got all of these oppressive structures just because the missionaries decided to come in and exploit our people. It is kind of painting a timeline of how all of that happened but in a less in direct way.

Track 6: Dying Seems Like Fun (Interlude)

Nancy: I liked how you also had an instrumental on F.R.E.A.K.S. with Sounds Like Molly. In this case, you use this backwards swirl of  repetitive sounds and noise as a calm and meditative break before the body/beauty/gender affirming love ballad, You Like My Body the Way it Is. Is that something you consciously did?

Backxwash: Oh yes I thought this would be a nice transition. I got my friend SurgeryHead to play a guitar and Will Bennett and I expanded on this sound to make it sound more soothing. Just to ease the listener into the next song.

Track 7: You Like My Body the Way It Is

Nancy’s thoughts:

This song is every single woman’s and trans person’s anthem ever. We are taught to hate our bodies every day. It doesn’t matter who we are. We all feel horribly insufficient and have worth only equal to material and binary standards of beauty.

Nancy: This is the softest song on the album. The lyrics are relatable and the song feels like a love song to yourself as much as to your loved one and stands in defiance and in the face of everything and everyone that looks at trans people as lacking or not enough. It’s also much different in sound and tone from the other songs on this album and your other albums. It’s a nice surprise. What inspired you to write a love ballad? With repeat listens, this song is also the ultimate queer and trans friend song too. It’s really sweet and shows a vulnerable side unlike most of your songs but also has the don’t fuck with me side that’s often in your message.

Backxwash: Well when I was writing the album, I had the title in my mind as well. The album was gonna be aggressive throughout but I thought in hindsight, what is more deviant to the people that hate me than a trans woman dealing with dysphoria and being told to love herself? These people completely hate that, and I just felt so connected to my partner that the pieces of the puzzle just fell into place. It is actually one of my favorite songs on the album.

Track 8: Burn Me at the Stake

Nancy’s thoughts:

Everything good that has happened and rights gained has come from the sweat and blood of our trans sisters and brothers.

Nancy: I love that you are unapologetically yourself and express your anger and displeasure with the injustices you have experienced and see around you. I’m sure that frequently makes you a target. I think a while ago you mentioned having to lock down your social media temporarily due to online harassment. This song feels like an anthem to all that. You’re not backing down and I love that about you and this song. Can you talk a bit about how you came to embracing who you are and putting that into your message and music? Was your music always like that or was it a process to get to where grew to it ? What was your music like prior to the album F.R.E.A.K.S. or was that your first set of songs?

Backxwash: My music wasn’t always like this, Before it was more like revolutionary conscious rap, but the more I started discovering about myself, the more that I decided to put this in my music. Music is the most authentic expression for me and I don’t know what else to write about without being my authentic self. This just made the most sense to me. It’s funny because I always wanted to use this sample,  remember making a beat when I was 16 with this loop and the drums were horrible, It is awesome that I eventually found a good use for it.

photo by Jerez Challenger

Nancy: I feel like I have such a mix match of musical icons and perhaps that comes out in my music because sometimes people have a difficult time describing it or nailing down the genre. I get the feeling that even though you are making rap and hip hop for the most part, you don’t limit yourself and that you seem to have a broad list of musical influences. I already know some of your musical inspiration and people you admire. Can you talk a little about who you look to for production inspiration and also lyrical flow? Also, who are some musicians or bands you listen to that you think might surprise people?

Backxwash: Production inspiration has to be JPEGMafia. Just the way he uses his samples is incredible. Missy Elliot as well, her music has such a bounce to it and is so catchy, I love that too. I think most of the inspiration comes from the sample that is being flipped because thats hip hop in my opinion.

In terms of rap I have Redman, Missy Elliot again, Lady Of Rage, Quay Dash, Queen Latifah, Zach de la Rocha. I usually like anyone with a bit of complexity to their raps, as well as an angry cadence. I love conviction in someone’s voice and love people that experiment with their voices.

In terms of surprising inspirations, I would say I did pull a lot of Lady Gaga just from an aesthetic perspective. MIA also for her approach to experimentation.

Nancy: I am someone who still listens to whole albums in the age of just streaming random songs on shuffle. Sometimes I put my phone on shuffle, but usually, I listen to albums beginning to end. Maybe it’s my age. When I was a kid there were just records and then tapes so that’s how I usually listened to music except for making and listening to mixtapes. That was the 80s and 90s of listening to music on shuffle. *laughs* I always love listening to new things I haven’t heard, but there’s several musicians and albums I always go back to. Can you talk a little about your listening habits and thoughts on that? Who are you listening to right now and also who are some of the musicians or albums you often come back to?

Backxwash: My listening habits are similar and I like to take an album as a whole product because I think that is an experience as well. I also do not mind single tracks by themselves, but the album experience is really great for me.

Right now I have been listening to a lot of JPEGMafia. I went back to his earlier shit and I really like how unapologetically radical he is. The tape he did with Freaky is a must-have for any radical leftist.

It was a pleasure speaking to Backxwash and I cannot wait to hear what she does next. You can purchase the full length on limited edition cassette and lathe cut out on Grimalkin Records here. Proceeds from cassette sales go to Project 10 in Montreal, digital only proceeds go to Nationz Foundation in RVA, and lathe cut proceeds support future physical releases on Grimalkin Records.

All of Grimalkin’s tapes are hand dubbed and limited edition.
The first run of tapes sold out on release day but Grimalkin will be doing a 2nd run. Since tapes are hand dubbed, please be patient. They are coming soon!
Lathe cuts made by Groovy Dude Records. Grimalkin did a tiny limited edition run. If they sell out, they may do a 2nd run.
Stickers of the cover art by Chachi Revah & this design by Elizabeth Owens & Nancy Kells come with physical releases of Deviancy.
A Backxwash pin designed by Chachi Revah comes with physical releases of Deviancy.

Project 10 works to promote the personal, social, sexual and mental well being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, intersexed and questioning youth and adults 14-25.”

Nationz Foundation a 501(c)3 non-profit organization was organized to fulfill our mission to “provide education and information related to HIV prevention and overall health and wellness, while inspiring the community to take responsibility for their health while working towards a more inclusive Central Virginia for LGBTQIA+ identified individuals.”

Grimalkin is a queer-focused record label and collective comprised of artists from all over the world to raise money and support social justice and civil rights organizations through releases, benefit shows & zines locally in RVA/Hampton Roads USA and worldwide. You can learn more about the collective here.

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