East Oakland has a prismatic reputation. Though the mainstream media tends to focus on illegal sideshows or exaggerated tales of crime and lawlessness, local residents know East Oakland more for its barbecues, banging-ass parties, and friendly-though-struggling neighborhoods.
Former High Street resident, rapper, and producer Kamaiyah is an ambassador for all of these visions of East Oakland — and for Oakland hip-hop culture in general — who has consistently shown a positive representation of The Town. In 2016 the independent artist released her first album, A Good Night In The Ghetto, to universal praise from both the streets and the charts.
"My friend was dying of cancer and what everyone around me needed was a good night in the ghetto," she said. "That was the whole theme. To have fun, to live right now in the moment without being worried about tomorrow."
Her first video release from the recording was "How Does It Feel," in which the rapper was surrounded by gear and video games paying homage to early '90s, Bay Area hip-hop. Not only was she sporting clothes that looked like FUBU and Cross-Colors, she was also flexing with an early "mobile phone," AKA a brick phone, first seen in the hand of Tupac Shakur in videos from that era. The brick phone, as it turns out, means more to her than first expected.
"Brick phones are a theme for me," she said, "It's how I gave away my first project. I had my EP on these little brick-phone USBs."
It's this combination of humor and savvy that makes Kamaiyah stand out. "How Does It Feel" was an aspirational track, with her asking, "How does it feel to be rich?" By the time Kamaiyah released her second album, Before I Wake, she had secured a coveted spot among XXL Magazine's 2017 Freshmen Class, and had moved to Los Angeles to pursue more than just wealth or fame.
"I've created my own label, and I'm hustling on my own," she said. "I'm not the same woman that I once was. Not in a bad way, but a good one. I'm becoming an owner. I'm becoming a mogul."
Having brokered a deal with EMPIRE and Roc Nation, Kamaiyah now has her own GRND.WRK label, which she used to release her third album, Got It Made, which just came out on February 21.
"I'd rather have my own label and have the liberty to move how I want to move and do what I want to do," she said. "People don't know how to do me for me. They want me to be what they want me to be and that's not the kind of game I'm kicking. I want to be me at all times. I want to live in my truth, and the only way that I can thoroughly do that is have my own label and establish myself as an artist on my own."
Got It Made is Kamaiyah's first project as an independent artist, and she's already dropped the singles "Still I Am" and "Set It Up," featuring Miami's "diamond princess" Trina. The video for "Set It Up" is a sight to behold. The duo holds court on the gritty streets, armed with baseball bats and impeccable style, preparing to exact some violent retribution for the sins of an unidentified man. Asked to describe what the video is about, Kamaiyah said, "It's a song about two women coming together and runnin' up a n****," she said, "That's exactly what it is."
"On a serious note, I think this album is the first piece to the puzzle of me coming back and establishing myself with consistency, because I haven't been able to put out music at a rapid rate like I've been wanting to do," she added. "This is the first chapter of what's to come in 2020."
Although Kamaiyah has only been rapping professionally since 2016, in just four years she's already seen more success than many artists see over a lifetime. As a woman who understands how to use an economy of words, when asked about how she feels about being swept up into a world of cash, clothes, and consumables, "It just feels lit," is all she has to say.
For being a rapper, Kamaiyah is surprisingly reserved and reflective. So it took a bit of prodding to get her to describe how she felt about her trajectory.
"I always knew I would be who I am, there was never a doubt in my mind," she added. "If you know what you want to do and you put your mind to it, you just never stop or let anything deter you from your goals. Whatever you aspire to is what it will be in fruition."
Kamaiyah had to overcome some hurdles to get where she is now. The primary one was the stigma that has followed Oakland hip-hop since the early '90s period that she so reveres. To this day, the music industry remains dismissive of Oakland hip-hop, even as it changes the game time and again, from Tupac to The Souls Of Mischief. Kamaiyah has had to deal with this since she began. But as Kamaiyah has predicted, "The West Coast is back."
"When I released Good Night In The Ghetto independently, labels were coming to me saying, 'We need this type of record or that type of record,' and I'm like, 'Naw. I came in this way and this is the way I'm going out. Don't try to take me from my culture.' If you're saying you don't fuck with me, you're saying you don't fuck with my culture, and I don't fuck with that. It is what it is."