With mainstream rap mamas such as Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown and Eve recently appearing to have lost their momentum, sanity and buzz respectively, talk has turned to the apparent lack of talented female lyricists in hip-hop. But anyone who thinks there hasn’t been a microphone queen worth listening to since Lauryn Hill stopped rhyming and started strumming her guitar obviously hasn’t been doing their homework. Enter feisty Canadian femcee Eternia.
Honing her craft since a young age, Eternia has spent the best part of the last decade operating under the radar whilst steadily building herself both a strong reputation as a lyrical firecracker and a loyal fan base. Embodying the strong but feminine approach of other respected testosterone-deficient artists such as MC Lyte, Rah Digga and Jean Grae, Eternia hasn’t sacrificed her womanly ways in order to fit into the male-dominated rap field, instead ensuring her experiences and opinions as a member of the fairer sex seep naturally into her music. Yet she still drops enough verbal bombs to let anyone know that, irrespective of gender politics, this lady is no gimmick and shouldn’t be taken lightly. So don’t expect any over-the-top porn rhymes, gangsta bitch posturing or half-naked videos from this husky-voiced hip-hop heroine.
Following the 2005 release of her debut album “It’s Your Life”, a place on the Vans Warped Tour and a Juno nomination (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy), Eternia decided to go for broke and relocated to New York in an attempt to further her music career, a decision which has led to the 27-year-old MC having to face some uncomfortable truths about the rap business. She also recently released her new project “Where I’m At – The Set-Up”, featuring collaborations with the likes of 9th Wonder, Polyrhythm Addicts, Wordsworth and Kenn Starr.Prior to embarking on a two-week tour across Europe with DITC legend O.C. and Jedi Mind Tricks affiliate Reef The Lost Cauze, Eternia kicked it with Sixshot.com and talked candidly about the Canadian hip-hop scene, the problems faced by female artists, and the future of her rap career.
An obvious first question, but when and how did you first become aware of hip-hop?
I feel like I’ve told this story so many times (laughs). I’ve been listening to hip-hop since I was about 8-years-old. My brother was a fan of all good music, not just hip-hop. But it was through him that I was introduced to the music. He was listening to popular stuff of the day like N.W.A., 2 Live Crew, Public Enemy, LL Cool J and Run-DMC. So it was hearing those groups that first got me interested. I’m the type of person who, when I love something, I become very committed and I stick to it. So, however many years later, nobody probably thought I’d still be here, but here I am today still listening to and now making the music my brother introduced me to when I was a kid.
What drew you towards the lyrical aspect of the music?
Way before I ever started rapping I was singing and also writing poetry, which was something that had been inside me since I was basically old enough to write. To me, rap was a natural progression from that which just meant me drawing on a talent I already had with words before hip-hop was in my life.
What are your opinions on Canada’s present day hip-hop scene?
I’ve loved watching the Canadian scene grow. But whilst I think we’ve grown a lot when it comes to talent, other than Maestro we still don’t have any other platinum selling rappers out of Canada. If you look at some of our biggest rap artists, like Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates, Choclair, even k-os, none of these artists have gone platinum in Canada. But when it comes to the talent Canada has to offer, whether it be MCs, DJs, writers or dancers, I think we have people who can compete with the best in the world. So I stand by the music and creativity Canada has to offer, I just think that because we’re so close to the US we sometimes have a hard time carving out our own unique identity. It feels like we go through waves in Canada where it’ll look like we’re at the beginning of something good happening and there’ll be a couple of artists getting some attention, but then all of a sudden everything will come to a halt. It’s really tough for artists in Canada but I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, that’s just the way it is.
Do you get tired of having to answer the standard questions about you being a white female rapper?
Definitely. I feel like I have an almost rehearsed answer to those sorts of questions which I’ll try not to give you now (laughs). I do get tired of it, but at the same time I understand the importance of it because to some people it’s newsworthy. When I first started putting out singles leading up to my debut album I did feel like a lot of the press I was getting was because I’m looked at as being ‘different’ to some extent and journalists are always looking for that new angle. So in that sense I guess the whole ‘white female rapper’ tag worked in my favor. But to be honest with you, when I was coming up in hip-hop I wasn’t trying to base my identity as an artist on either of those things. I just focused on being viewed as a dope MC and I wanted to be compared to my counterparts on an equal level. It’s only been as I’ve gotten older, done more interviews and traveled that my gender and race have become things I really have to think about based on questions that I sometimes have to answer. In Canada it was never really that much of a big deal because it’s a very multi-cultural place, so everyone hung together and it was just a case of if you’re dope, you’re dope. But since moving to New York it’s definitely been made very apparent to me that my gender and race can be an issue for some people and others are just shocked to learn that someone like me even exists, a half-white, half-middle-eastern female who loves hip-hop and is good at it.
You released your debut album “It’s Your Life” in 2005. What were your hopes for that project and did it meet your expectations?
I always look back on 2005 as being a great year because I achieved so much. I dropped my mix-CD, then my debut album, I toured Australia, and I shot at least two music videos as well. I know that’s nowhere near as much as some of my counterparts achieve, but for one woman with no management or team behind her, I think I did really well over that period. I’m a realist, so going into the album I definitely wasn’t naïve. I knew that album sales were declining; I knew that a lot of people didn’t really know who I was. I didn’t go into releasing the album thinking I was going to blow up off of it. I put the album out with the intention of creating a buzz and I think it definitely achieved that one hundred percent. The only regret I have about that album is that I wasn’t able to get proper distribution in the US and Europe. I had distribution in Canada and Australia but it would’ve been nice to have gotten the album in more stores worldwide. I actually moved to New York with the sole intention of getting US distribution for the album. But by the time I got here people were like, ‘You put the album out last year! Why would we put it in stores now?’”
(Eternia ft. Wordsworth & Kenn Starr – “Struggle” – Urbnet / 2005)
After moving from Canada to New York how difficult did you find it to break into the city’s hip-hop circles as an out-of-town artist?
I didn’t find breaking into hip-hop circles in New York that hard in terms of the real fans and artists. Plus, I already knew a lot of people because I’d been back and forth to New York since the mid-90s and had made a lot of connections. One of my first recordings was with The Atoms Family and I was really close to Cannibal Ox and other crews like The Anomalies and The Arsonists. So a lot of the people I’d forged relationships with in the 90s were very welcoming when I came out to NY. For example, Danny Castro from Lyricist Lounge had seen me rocking open mics in NYC in like 97 / 98, so when I came through he was throwing me on bills straight away because he’d already caught a glimpse of what I was about back then. I often wish I’d been able to move to New York in 1995 instead of 2005 (laughs). But to get back to your question, as far as breaking into real hip-hop circles in New York, I had no problems. But trying to break into industry circles has been something else all together. If nothing else, living in New York has really shown me the reality of what’s going on with the music business right now. I moved to New York to try and increase my fan base and make a living doing music and it has been hard for me to learn some of the harsh realities of the music game because the industry is in a really shitty state right now.
There’s a lot of attention being paid at the moment to what many people see as a distinct lack of quality female rappers in the game right now. What’s your response to that?
That makes me so mad! At first I’ll be mad at the journalist or whoever’s making that statement because they obviously didn’t do their research well enough. But then I realize that they’re talking about mainstream artists and I’m not on that level yet. So then I start to get mad at the industry because there’s a whole bunch of things that have nothing to do with music or talent that play a part in putting an artist in the spotlight. Then I become frustrated that I’m not in a position to be well known, but really that just makes me push harder. You can’t get bitter about things like that as an artist; you have to use it to inspire you. I will say though that hip-hop is still very much a boys club, and I don’t think people really wanna see what they claim they wanna see in some of those articles about how we need more female MCs. I mean, there’s a reason Lauryn Hill went crazy and I’m very empathetic to her situation. I have days myself where I feel like I’m about fall into that black hole that so many other female MCs have already fallen into. I’d love to write an essay on where those missing female rappers went and why. I guarantee that if I interviewed a hundred female MCs from over the last three decades there’d be a commonality in the reasons why they dropped off. I’m not saying there’s some big conspiracy against female artists, but the industry just isn’t conducive to female rappers. So the problem isn’t that there’s a lack of good female MCs, it’s a lot of other things such as male prejudice in the industry. For example, I’ve been told by people that sit in label and DJ record pool meetings that they’ve seen individuals dismiss me because I’m a female rapper before they’ve even heard my music. So it’s definitely an uphill struggle because there are people in positions of power within the industry who just don’t want to hear female rap artists.
But why do you think so many male rap fans seem to have a problem listening to female artists? Do you think it’s because some men feel threatened seeing an independent woman with her shit together, or do you think it perhaps goes even deeper and that maybe there’s something on a psychological level that stops some men from being able to connect with female rappers?
That’s a really good question and I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of reasons to explain it, but the thing I can think of off the top of my head is that, as hip-hop fans, we get used to a certain sound, a certain swagger, a certain movement, a certain tone of voice and lyrical content, all of which can make or break an MC. Those elements also relate directly to the differences between male and female MCs, because female rappers have a different style and sound and a woman might talk about different things. Hip-hop is predominantly a macho music form and there’s not really a lot of room for vulnerability. I do think that some male MCs, like Lil Wayne for example, really know how to emote. But a lot of the time there’s no room for male rappers to be sensitive or show their weaknesses, whereas women are very good at doing that. So in terms of content, voice, flow, I think female MCs naturally bring something different to the game and, unfortunately, that seems to be something that some people aren’t accustomed to.
(Eternia – “Love” – Urbnet / 2005)
Your new project “Where I’m At – The Set Up” has been marketed more as a mix-CD than a full album. Has that been done so you could get new material out quickly whilst avoiding the drama and build-up of an official album release?
Yes (laughs). It’d been two years since my debut album and I needed to get something out to keep the buzz alive. I don’t view it as a mix-CD in terms of the content but I do understand that it is (laughs). It’s somewhere in-between being a mix-CD and a full album. The downside of course is that people are treating it as almost like a promo project so I’m not really getting the same press coverage with this CD as I got on my first album, which is frustrating. But there was no label behind “The Set-Up”; it’s basically me just doing the whole thing as a one-woman show.
You recently posted a blog on your MySpace page in which you spoke openly about how much of a struggle it is as an independent artist and hinted at possibly quitting the rap game. How much of a reality is that for you?
I’ll say this and I don’t care if it sounds girly, but when I think about leaving hip-hop alone as a career I have tears come to my eyes. It really hurts me to think about it because I’ve invested myself in this music for over a decade now. It scares the shit out of me to think about the music thing not working out for me because I’ve never really considered doing anything else. The metaphor that I use to describe the way I feel about my career right now is that I’m bashing my head up against a brick wall, my head’s bleeding profusely, and everyone’s looking at me like ‘Why’s she doing that?’ But at the same time, I’m thinking to myself, ‘They’re gonna open the door. They’re gonna open the door’. But there is no door; it’s just a brick wall in front of me. My discouragement with the game right now doesn’t come from me doubting myself or my fans; it comes from me doubting the place of good rap music. The way music is viewed has changed in recent years and now we’re in a time where labels are doing ringtone deals instead of album deals. Music has become so disposable today and you could be the illest rapper out and still be struggling. Artists today have to do so much more other than concentrate on their music in order to have a career and I think that’s sad. I didn’t get into the game because I want to put out a clothing line or do ads. I got into it because I’m good at rapping.
So is there a Plan B if you do decide to stop pursuing music as a career?
It’s hard to admit it but I gave myself until I’m 30 for the music thing to happen. I told myself that when I turn 30 I’ll go to grad school and call it a day. I think I’ll always make music because that’s a part of who I am, but I don’t know if I’d make it available for public consumption. I’d definitely stop putting energy into Eternia the artist. But if that was to happen, as hard as it would be to make that decision, I’d know that I put everything into trying to make it work and I’d never have to wonder ‘What if?’
There’s been talk of you recording a full-length project with Demigodz member Apathy. What’s the current status of that album?
Apathy’s a really busy guy and it’s hard for is to get together to finish the project, but we’re fifty percent done and I’m dying to get it completed. I’ve never worked with someone so well in the studio before as I do with Ap. Everything I’ve felt before that I’ve had to validate about myself to other producers, I don’t have to do any of that with Apathy. Good music should be made almost effortlessly and that’s how I feel about the music I make with him. I don’t want to hype the project up to the point where people are going to be disappointed by it, but I just know that it’s going to be something special. I mean, it’s public knowledge that Apathy and I were together as a couple before anyone knew who either of us was as an artist. He raised me as an MC, literally. Who Eternia is today as an artist is based on me forming as an MC around him. We have a whole concept behind the album, and it’s going to be called “Eternia By Apathy”. I’m also planning on working with MoSS in the future as well. What I’m really trying to do now, if people will oblige me, is do full projects with just one producer at a time. I don’t really want to put together another mish-mash project. It’s not because I think there’s necessarily anything wrong with having more than one producer on an album, it’s just that I want to start making more thematic albums now that have just one sound. I love Australia’s M-Phazes as a producer as well and would like to do a project with him as I think he brought the best out of me on “The Set-Up”. I don’t know if all those projects will come out or how they’ll be funded, but they’re just some ideas I have right now.
That doesn’t really sound like the words of someone considering putting her microphone down for the last time as you suggested on MySpace…
(Laughs) Talking about music just makes me so excited. It’s the industry that makes me wanna kill myself, but I’ll always be excited about the music.
(Eternia Live At NYC’s Plan B July 2007)