Aja, mostly, doesn’t care what you think. The rap artist, whose pronouns are “they/them,” came to prominence as a drag queen, through two stints on reality TV (RuPaul’s Drag Race season 9, and Drag Race: All Stars season 3). The two industries they straddle don’t often overlap: one world is dominated, traditionally, by masculinity, and the other by femininity, each with weirdly impermeable borders. But about not conforming to industry standards—or to fan expectations—they’re brash and unapologetic.
They’re also passionate, palpably emotionally driven. They’ve been writing music since they were a teenager, in their home neighborhood of Bed Stuy, Brooklyn: rap is their first artistic love, the mode of expression they’ve long been primarily drawn to, and it’s what they say they’ll be focusing on, from this point forward. They might be in drag while they perform, or they might not—the exterior expression is totally dependent on what they feel, and changeable by the day. Also, pretty inconsequential to the sound.
Aja’s new EP, out today, is ALL CAPS, a defiant shout about being misunderstood and overlooked. Like a lot of their earlier musical output, ALL CAPS is influenced by their love of ’90s rap and trap sound. It has many quick and quick-witted lyrical turns, a strong heartbeat, and a deep emotionality—by Aja’s own characterization, the EP is angry. It was born of their frustration with the way they have been publicly treated, not taken seriously, dismissed for a confluence of reasons by both queer and music communities. In the pre-chorus of “Commercial,” Aja begins by aggressively addressing “these bitches/who think they fans, but they all snitches.” Then, the tone changes. Aja adopts the nonchalance they project equally often, rapping: “Nah, it’s cool, I’m only fuckin’ with the stans/who appreciate all my switches.” The switch even here is a little dizzying, but it’s entirely, honestly Aja. They contain inconsistencies like we all do, knotty, abundant layers.
The most striking song on ALL CAPS might be the final one, “Erasure,” which is milder and slower than the rest of the output. It touches on childhood pain, a search for acceptance, and an admission that Aja has, in many recent moments, “been feeling so small.” That vulnerability is incredibly welcome: Aja cites defensiveness in how they navigate the world, but “Erasure” is open, raw. Devoted fans will appreciate this closeness, this confirmation that Aja is as sensitive as they are walled-off. Both soft and hard. And really just doing them.
I caught up with Aja over the phone, to talk about ALL CAPS and this important career juncture. Our conversation is condensed below.
Can you tell me about some of your early musical influences and interests? Who you were listening to when you were young?
For me, it’s always been a mixture of things, especially growing up. I liked a lot of ’90s rap and R&B. But when I started writing music, Nicki Minaj[’s “Pink Friday”] had just come out, and she had this insane aesthetic. I was just like…she’s great. She’s dominating this whole femininity thing, while also being better than all the men at their own game. And it made me feel—because I’m more on the feminine side of the spectrum—I was like, maybe I can do this as well.
Were there queer figures you were drawn to at a young age, who were making music?
Actually, no. Still today, there’s not much queer representation in the mainstream music industry. And I don’t really care for the typical, quote unquote “gay icons”…you know, they’re not really gay, or part of the community. For me, what I really wanted was to have more queer representation—people who were openly queer from the beginning of their career, able to receive proper accolades for being an entertainer, being a good musician. We kind of don’t have that. As far as queer artistry in music, we have Sam Smith, we have Kevin Abstract…but, you know, that’s really it. Right now, most of the men in music are like, macho men.
Being queer and trying to establish myself in hip hop and rap…it’s hard because, to be honest with you, a lot of queer people don’t like hip hop and rap. [These genres] have been painted in the mainstream media to be slightly homophobic and transphobic, as a whole. That’s the assumption about it, because of specific things that [some artists] have said, but I don’t think that a few people can really speak for an entire genre. And then on the flip side, a lot of music people look at the aesthetic, or look at me, and are like—a lot of people just look at me as a joke, just a clown. Like, your music is not serious.
How would you describe the musical voice you’ve settled into? The sound, the messaging, if you had to distill it.
My music style is still evolving, but at this point, [I’m working] in the direction of channeling every part of me. I love the seriousness [that rap allows]—I feel like it’s a forum for you to be as serious as possible, but you can also be campy. There’s so much room. You can play with how you say things, have fun with lyrics. And [in addition to] the rap, there’s also some punk undertones. There are some undertones that are a little EDM, but not crazy dance music. A lot of rhythm. I’m experimenting—there’s a whole underlayer of experimentation.
Has it always been that way for you creatively? Just kind of experimenting, until you find what feels right?
Well, I can pretty much rap to any beat. You could give me a country song, I could rap over it. For me, music is kind of like finding a lover. You can’t judge it on how it looks, you have to vibe with it.
Can we talk about the drag career as it intersects with the music career? I know that when you started getting more recognition in drag, you put the music on pause for a second and that has, of course, since changed.
For me, it’s all about the music. I do enjoy partaking in the festivities of drag, but I never wanted to put music on the back burner. I just didn’t really have the money or the resources to do what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to just, like, bite the bullet.
So do expressing yourself through drag and expressing yourself through music not feel interconnected for you, then? Are they completely separate creative impulses?
For me, drag is honestly just the clothes you put on. Drag is not my art form, I don’t think it ever has been. I don’t really stress the art of drag, I’m not trying to be the best at anything in drag. Actually, I’m not trying to be the best at anything! I’m just tryna be me. Whatever’s in the closet that I wanna wear, that’s what drag was for me. It’s almost like a mood ring. Whatever I felt is whatever I did.
I can rap in a wig or out of a wig—drag is just an expression, so either we’re all doing drag, or I’ve never done drag in my life. In my opinion, when somebody is onstage in hair, makeup, nails, and you’re doing your VMA set, you’re in drag. That’s drag. It’s literally the same shit. I feel like people use the term “drag” to separate queer people from the rest of the industry. But at the end of the day, we’re all doing the same shit.
Let’s talk about the new EP, ALL CAPS. What was the impulse behind it? What’s the statement you’re making with it?
Everybody had this imaginary transition in their minds, they’re like, you’ve brought this music thing out of nowhere. There are some people…Drag Race fans especially…who, to this day, have a vendetta against me, because I’m not doing what they want me to do. Any person of color in the industry will tell you: if you’re not doing what little white girls want, they’re upset.
This EP is all about me saying, fuck the narrative. [I’m asking], why do I have to stop where people tell me to stop? Why do I have to stay in the box where people tell me to stay? Fuck that. It’s me saying I’m pissed, I’m angry. People have dubbed me—and other people of color, when they go against what people want them to say—as the “angry” ones. Well guess what? I am angry, and I have a reason to be angry. There’s a song on this EP called “Erasure,” and it’s about people wanting to erase my entire experience. But I don’t give a fuck what people think about what I’m doing, I’m gonna do what I want regardless.
The only thing I wish—with songs like “Commercial” and “I Ain’t Left”—I wish that people like me could have actual respect from the music industry. I’m never gonna stop fighting, I just want to express myself and be happy, as anybody would. But it would be nice to be treated equally to other people who maybe are not queer, who have the same exact exposure I have, and they’re getting paid multiples what I’m getting paid. They’re getting treated way differently, when we show up at a gig together. Everything in their rider’s fulfilled, and I’m thrown into, like, a hole in the basement. I have been kicked out of dressing rooms, for another musical talent who was not queer.
With all this broad inequality you’re talking about in the music industry—do you think of this new EP, or your musical output more generally, as an activist project? Or is it mostly a mode of self-expression, an individualized kind of reclamation?
It’s both, to me. I’m a walking form of protest. I want queer people to know that they can make music. And I also want to educate people who are not in our community. We’re just here trying to make the same type of living, and express our art, and be treated equally for it. There’s no reason why—we both bleed the same blood, we have the same cells that make up skin and hair and nails.
Since this EP touches so much on fan reaction, I wonder how you’re thinking about listeners as you move forward in your career. Are you trying to bring fans of an older version of yourself along for this ride, or are you hoping to reach new audiences?
All the people who were honest, real fans from the start are still here. The ones from the beginning—to me, that’s what a true supporter is, anyway. But if I literally had a dollar for every time I have heard someone say, oh I loved you so much on All Stars. Where is that Aja?… I would have a lot of fucking money. There’s a lot of people who want me to stay in this television moment forever. A real supporter or fan needs to be keeping up with me. If you can keep up with me, it shows that, you know, we’re growing together.
Leaving room for the possibility that you’re a human, who grows and changes.
Apparently I’m a hamster running on a fucking wheel!
What else can you tell us about the production of ALL CAPS
It’s called ALL CAPS, one, because I’m screaming. Also because I’m a Capricorn, and also, like in the hood, caps are bullets. When I made the EP I was like, guns ablazing, going straight for the kill.
The tracks, in order…it progressively gets angrier and angrier, till “Flawless Victory” where I’m literally screaming, and then it goes down to “Erasure” where it’s soft.
Yeah, that emotional arc is striking do you use the process of writing music to work through things, emotionally? To understand things about yourself?
Yes. At first, I found it hard to use my music and writing as a way to get over my own personal issues, but especially when I wrote ALL CAPS, there would be times when I was going through the things I was writing about, and I would have a lyric that would help me think about it. [Writing personal lyrics] is important to me because I feel like, as a person, I always have a guard up. I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve ever gotten in my life. There’s always a defensiveness to who I am. I want to move to projects where I’m not being defensive, and I’m just saying, here you go.