Artist of the Month is an accolade awarded to an up-and-coming artist whom we believe is set to break out. In May, we turn our attention to rising rapper McKinley Dixon as he caps off an ambitious trilogy of albums with For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her.
Less than 30 seconds into our conversation, McKinley Dixon abruptly travelled through time. It happens frequently if you learn to see the world from a certain perspective, as Dixon has.
The DMV rapper has a boundless cache of interesting ideas, and one of them — involving shifts in chronology — lands somewhere between a philosophical framework and a poetic theory of knowledge. One moment he’s perched by a laptop camera, in front of a bookcase full of Black authors, other writers of color, and an enviable collection of science fiction. In the next, a strand of the past stretches out like so much temporal pizza dough, folding and merging into the present.
“That is my niece, Elizabeth,” he said, bringing Elizabeth into the camera frame, taking the lens backwards in time. We were talking about a line from his 2018 album, The Importance of Self Belief, on which the voice of a young girl gives a dedication: “For my mama and anyone like her.” In that moment, Elizabeth not only connected herself to generations of Black women inside and outside her family, she also anticipated the name of her uncle’s 2021 album. When I asked about it, Dixon said, “Everything is tied together in this world.”
For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her is the final, climactic statement in a saga that goes back half a decade. Dixon, who grew up splitting time between New York and Maryland, launched his rap career in 2016 with Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?, a scorching examination of masculinity in general, and Black masculinity in particular. With The Importance of Self Belief he expanded his purview, writing about how, “Black women are at the base of Blackness.”
“I don’t know if I found a synthesis,” he said about For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her. “I think I found more questions, honestly.”
Don’t underestimate the power of asking the right questions. For My Mama is a musical tour de force: intellectually challenging, serious yet playful, and often irresistibly fun. Watch our full interview with McKinley Dixon below and read on to learn about the album’s conception, Dixon’s influences from Toni Morrison to Cowboy Bebop, the best way to fix the police, and of course, time travel.
The conversation has been condensed and edited for readability.
Trouble viewing the video above? Watch on YouTube.
On Toni Morrison and Trilogies
I always had in mind that I wanted to create this third album, right, so I got the idea from Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison has a trilogy, which I think is Beloved, Paradise, and Jazz. You know how it’s going to end. She had it in mind, this ending for these sort of black magical books that she was writing. I thought that was incredible. I feel like a lot of things kind of came from her, you know, whether people acknowledge it or not, and I think that with me, I just knew that there should be some big finish. Why not just keep the theatrics going and make some big finish that can not only show as the ending of these albums, but also sort of the ending of a chapter of my learning?
On How This Album Differs from His Previous Work
It sounds like anger, but I think it’s also more so vulnerability and confidence in what I’m saying, you know. With Who Taught You to Hate Yourself, that was mainly beats and it was this controlled environment where I was like, “I know what’s going to happen next. I don’t need to guess, I know this beat is going to loop, I know when the chorus is coming.” And that kind of mimicked me at that time period, thinking about black masculinity being the end-all, be-all of black liberation, and the problematic aspects of that. So, with The Importance of Self-Belief, there was a lot of confusion, where I’m starting to open my ideologies. It’s more so about how black women are at the base of blackness.
I was also confused, because I was also experimenting sonically. So I think that is when I started pushing more beats having hip-hop with jazz, you know, a live thing, maybe. And then with this one, because I’m so confident in who I am and how I approach music, I think I was able to feel more comfortable being vulnerable. And that’s why a lot it is like, me just jazzing, skirting back and forth mentally. So I think it’s a lot more of my mind.
I don’t know if I found a synthesis [on For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her]. I think I found– I found more questions, honestly. I think now I’m just prepared a little bit better. Not really like I found any resolutions. I think this album is more of a processing, because there’s definitely my own internal journey, figuring out those sort of politics. But this album, it sort of took a left turn, I sort of wanted to process feelings that revolve around certain things in my life, you know, and that kind of took away from me thinking about the overarching community in a way and more so how I interact with it. I think that is a good way to sort of keep yourself grounded when you’re trying to make a story that involves everybody. It’s really hard. It’s hard to put the whole community into your music, but if your intentions are there, then eventually you’ll find a way. So I think I’m a little bit more practiced now with this album.
On Cowboy Bebop
Shinichirō Watanabe, the guy who made Cowboy Bebop — it’s an incredible piece of media. So it’s funny, because the way cartoons usually work is that you get licensed by a toy company. So a toy company will fund the whole thing in efforts to sell toys eventually. So I thought that — I was reading about how he wrote Cowboy Bebop. And I think it was Bandai that was the company that had the rights to Cowboy Bebop. And they wanted him to make this space opera, because around that time was Star Trek. So he was kind of like, “If I if I’m able to write the beginning and the ending first, then I’ll have a definitive way to lock these into — I won’t have to do this forever.” You know, this can end when it ends. I thought that was really interesting.
I wrote “Twist My Hair” and “Chain Sooo Heavy” around the same time, the first and the last song. I always had the chorus for “Twist My Hair” in my head. I knew I didn’t have the resources to make something like that. So even the language, you know, the third verse didn’t come until 2019 or so. I think that it’s a great way to show how this record traverses time-wise and physically. I went all over the last couple of years touring wise and it definitely informed how I’ve looked at my music. I think “Twist My Hair” was a cool way to have this song that was that was started in 2017 and that wasn’t finished until 2019 and the end of this album.
On “make a poet Black” and the Death of a Childhood Friend
I had a very close friend from my childhood. I split my time in my childhood between my mother and my grandmother’s house, and there was a friend that was across the street from me, that I grew very close to at my grandmother’s house and we kind of — I kind of split my childhood with this person. Then we split up. As we got older, it became this thing where the street was sort of a literal barrier between us two, you know. The difference is, I could go back to my mother’s house. And it became this physical barrier, the street. So, for “make a poet Black” — in 2018 I found out that they had passed away because of gun violence.
There were a lot of stories that only involve me and him. There’s a lot of moments that are now just me, and my moments, and I’m the only one that has them. So “make a poet Black” was sort of this thing where it’s like, this imposter syndrome — am I the one to really be telling this, now, because this person isn’t there, to validate them? Is it my space to become the expert on this timeline, even though I wasn’t part of it? But it was like, why is this death now? And it kind of became this song where I was like, let me explore that. Let me really kind of explore what I’m thinking. And that’s why there’s a lot of comical moments mixed with a lot of sad moments, a lot of chaotic aspects of it.
On How to Improve the Police
Eradicate it. Eradicate it. I think that if we have communal ways to handle harm and things like that, then that’s better liberation for everyone in the world. The police should be eradicated. I have no thoughts on how the police should operate because I think they should not exist.
On Time Travel
So, I love talking about time travel, but I am not a horologist [Editor’s note: one who studies or measures time]. I am also not a linguist. So that means don’t look anything up. I mean, you can feel it, but don’t look it up. But when I view time travel, the way I see it is as blackness and rap. So rap is something that is so heavily reliant on blackness, because it’s mainly about where you’re at, where you want to go. Who are you with right now that you want to take with you? What sort of situation are you trying to describe and how visually — how well do you want to allow the listener to see what you’re saying? And I think that is so deeply rooted in the Black experience that it makes rap sort of different from other genres. I think because of that, and because of who I am and how Black people are, we kind of see and listen to these stories and we put ourselves in positions, we take it in, we can see how I’m going to approach something next because of these tales, these people.
Rap is different because it’s a personal story. I think with bands you can have multiple people input their experiences. But with rap, it kind of is so personal to the Black experience. And I think in the West we view time travel as something that we can capture, or sort of like use as a tool. When in actuality there are small instances of time travel around us. Me explaining to a younger cousin about a time with somebody — that could be a passing of culture and stories, short time travel. I think language access allows for quick time travel, and I think that rap provides that so heavily, with just what it is at it’s root. And I think for me, while this is me processing things in the past, present, and how I’m going to move forward in the future, it sort of can be the same for other Black people that looked like my mama. And how they can kind of think, “Okay, now I have language for this incident that I might be into, or this run-in that I’m going to have.” Time travel is not as convoluted as we think.
It’s a philosophical approach. But to me, I feel like rappers and Black people kind of just know it, you know? I think that also puts the magical and mythical aspect into the vocabulary. Because, in a way, we just kind of know, you know? The language that I speak and how I talk to other Black folks can kind of be seen as time traveling. I think that it’s so easy for people that look like me to do it that they don’t even think they’re doing it.