Siri (Jhsiri Emerson Massey) has a naturally musical mind, but the nineteen-year-old Oakland rapper only embraced it recently: "For a long time I didn't want to get into music because my dad is a rapper," she said. "But I have a whole bunch of sounds in my head so it didn't really work out."
Her father, Tajai Massey, is a member of Hieroglyphics and Souls of Mischief — two defining groups of early-Nineties conscious hip-hop. The other eight members of these overlapping collectives are like extended family to Siri, and her mom, Acacia Emerson, is a singer and furniture designer.
Even though Siri grew accustomed to the music industry and tour life at an early age, she feels most comfortable in Northern California's forests, where she often goes to hike, smoke weed, or draw and listen to jazz by herself. The artist is an incoming sophomore at Humboldt State University, where she's pursuing an art education degree. While away at school, she spends a lot of her time outdoors, surrounded by a bucolic setting far removed from the city life she grew up around. But come fall, Siri will be commuting from Oakland, where her rap career is starting to take off in the underground scene.
Siri's solitary outings off the grid were key to informing her creative process for Gloe, an experimental EP that blends strains of hip-hop, soul, and R&B and is due out at the end of June. "We all have this inner glow," she said, explaining the project's title. "When you connect to nature, you find out about yourself, and it illuminates what you're doing. When you put that energy into things, you essentially get farther in life, so you 'glow up.'"
She continued, "It's kind of an inner illumination type of thing. When you absorb all the energies around you, you kind of Super Saiyan." She chuckled at how easily the Dragon Ball reference summed up her point. Siri's great-grandmother is Japanese and introduced her to anime, and the rapper's love for Japanese pop culture is apparent in her kawaii personal aesthetic.
Siri is part of the creative collective Le Vanguard, which has been throwing art shows and parties in West Oakland warehouses throughout the year. When she performed last month at one such function, Queens D.Light — another well-known Oakland rapper with similarly eclectic, Afrofuturist inclinations — was her DJ. Jjaahz, a visual artist who recently crossed over into rapping, was also on the bill, and she and Siri got on stage together to perform their collaborative track, "More Money Ain't Enough." In a male-dominated hip-hop scene, seeing their sisterly camaraderie blossom was a cool development.
Growing up in a creative household has definitely made Siri self-assured and comfortable with her quirks, and her diverse interests add depth to her idiosyncratic lyrical subject matter and visual presentation of her work. But the young artist strives to be self-made instead of relying on family connections. She mentioned in passing that her dad is a rapper, but didn't go into specifics until prodded further. She insisted that even though she's grown up around some legendary artists, she's not phased by fame ("Everybody is normal, we all go to the bathroom," she joked).
"The whole goal of what I'm doing is not to be famous, but to be heard," she said.
Although Siri toured with Hieroglyphics when she was in high school and is familiar with the ins and outs of professional musicianship, she said her approach to her music career has been largely DIY. She books her own shows and doesn't have a manager, and has steadily been gaining a following through her performances, uplifting Twitter presence, and creative fashion choices. (Her penchant for ornate septum rings, pastel colors, and skater gear have made her something of a style icon in the local scene.)
For Gloe, she collaborated with several local producers who made slow-paced, psychedelic beats that evoke the solitary walks in the woods and beach outings that are part of her routine while away at school. Dephkhan, Black Excellence, Multirex, and Wizzo Mack were among the beat makers who contributed layered, lush instrumentals for the project.
The ambient, understated beats throughout Gloe allow Siri to experiment with different flows and cadences. And in contrast to her chipper speaking voice, throughout the EP, she assumes a sultry, smoky timbre as she easily switches between singing soulful hooks and rapping verses. Let's flow through galaxies/As we climb higher off the green trees/And get lost inside the giant skies/I see the whole planet in the pupil of your eye, she croons on "Peaceful Situation."
Her sound has an unhurried, meditative quality she matches with poetic, introspective lyrics that often broach topics such as spirituality, perception, and the human mind in addition to more worldly themes like ambition, relationships, and partying.
While Gloe shows Siri treading into experimental territory and blending elements of different genres, the singles she's released on her SoundCloud so far have more of an old-school sensibility that evokes her Hieroglyphics heritage. "Bluffin," which Black Excellence and IcyStew produced, has a warm, jazzy beat with twinkling keys and bright horn samples, and Siri uses the track to show off her dexterity as a rapper.
Gloe and her previous singles attest to Siri's versatility, and she's planning to spend the summer home from school working on new visual art and music, and shooting music videos for the new EP. She said one thing she's taken away from her Hieroglyphics family is the value of consistency and hard work.
"You can do anything you put your mind to," she said. "[Hieroglyphics] started out as just a couple dudes who were friends and they rapped, and now they have their own holiday, [Hiero Day], you feel me."