In a crowded venue in Chattanooga, TN, I looked up at the stage as Floami Fly skillfully improvised hip hop lyrics. “I played lacrosse with her!” I shouted to no one in particular amongst the cheers.

This isn’t something you can normally shout at a show.

And that’s why Floami Fly is so unique. Floami, or “Liz,” as I’ve known her since sixth grade, is an up-and-coming emcee from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Currently performing with the Microdahts, she doesn’t quite fit any stereotype. In her own words: “I’m not black enough, I’m not white enough, I’m not straight enough, I’m not gay enough.” Because of this, she has an interesting platform to explore the spaces in between these categories.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that she’s damn talented.

Read on to learn about her musical identity, to witness a schooling on the definition of freestyle, and to hear what’s coming next for Floami Fly.

[divider]The Interview[/divider]

When did you realize you were artistically or musically inclined?

My dad played the trumpet. He was in a band called Viva La Gente when he was a teenager, so it was one of those things that ran in the family. I’ve always been a writer, and in 11th grade, I was dating someone who was an aspiring rapper. We used to freestyle battle on AIM. That’s how it started.

I didn’t realize you could freestyle battle over Instant Messenger.

Well, we did. [Laughs]. We might be the only human beings on the planet who attempted to do that, but we made it work.

I love that. If you started exploring freestyle in 11th grade, what happened in the following years that built on that?

It really was born out of a negative space. Writing was always cathartic for me. I always had journals, but after a tough break up as a junior in college, I started writing every day. I started writing actual songs, and then I joined this group called All Up On Ya (which is now O Records). It was the only recording group at UVA. They had an open-mic night, and I went up there and just a capella rapped for five minutes, and they invited me to be in the group. I auditioned and I got in. I started performing live from there.

You started performing for the first time at UVA, but tell me about what happened when you graduated from college.

I was at a Karaoke bar one night with some friends, and this guy came up and said that he was an aspiring singer out of Atlanta. His brother had a studio [in Chattanooga]. I told him that I rapped, and he was like, “Yeah, right.” So he invited me to come to his brother’s studio, and that’s the first song I ever recorded: “Dead Wrong.”

It almost seems like fate. So many little random events culminated into what I’m doing now. I met this guy named Nelson, who introduced me to the DJ in the Microdahts, B Spaz, and he introduced me to E-Rock. E-Rock invited me to perform, and it just went from there. I started getting shows after that.

Floami Fly with the Microdahts

Floami Fly with the Microdahts

What are you doing now with the Microdahts?

Almost every show they have, I perform with them. My friend Colin and I just formed a group, and I just got my first solo show. I’m performing with Kids From Across the Street and Spoken Nerd, and we’ll be putting out a joint mixtape together. I’m going to be releasing my own LP or EP, and it’s going to be titled Awkward Oreo.

Can you tell me about the name?

Sure. I toyed with a couple different ones. Awkward Oreo is something that I just came up with one day. I was describing myself to someone, and I thought, “This is perfect because I want people to understand where I’m coming from. I’m a black kid from the suburbs who doesn’t necessarily fit into any stereotypical group, you know? I’m not black enough, I’m not white enough, I’m not straight enough, I’m not gay enough.” That’s kind of where the Awkward Oreo came from.

Does that title reflect the content of the performances on that EP or LP?

I guess that’s up for the audiences to decide. I think the whole point is that I don’t fit into a category, so my music can’t fit into a specific category like old school, or backpack, or whatever. I weave in between categories all throughout the mixtape.

Do you talk about your personal experiences, or do you talk about experiences of being an outsider in a general sense?

A lot of the songs are coming from a very personal space. I talk about my college days, I talk about the breakup that inspired this whole thing, I talk about coming out, I talk about every aspect of the human experience. I definitely touch on racial tension and inequalities that still exist, in general, for women, black people, gay people…so it’ll be a very eclectic mix of topics.

Sounds like there’s gonna be a lot of talk about privilege and its different forms.

That’s funny, because…wait, what do you mean, privilege?

Well, privilege or lack of it. I think it’s impossible to talk about personal experiences with social justice issues–racial or sexual— without talking about access. What’s that phrase from The Great Gatsby…“within and without”?

Yeah, I take an outsider’s perspective. I see what you’re saying–I’m immersed in this environment that I’m not completely a part of. It’s called double-consciousness. I think it was W.E.B. DuBois who coined that term. It’s basically about what you said–being part of it, but not being part of it. And you’re still expected to play the roles of whatever group–social or economic–that you’re affiliated with.

How have you formed your musical identity? Have you been particularly influenced by other musicians?

“Nothing is new under the sun except for you,” as my great-grandmother would say. I have a lot of different musical influences. I was introduced to conscious rap, and I started getting into people like Lupe Fiasco and Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Wale, Naas, old Jay-Z. When I started listening to them, I started broadening my horizons in terms of the topics I was rapping about.

When I first started rapping, I was rapping about the generic sex, drugs, violence–stuff that I really had no business talking about. As I evolved, I realized that people who had any legacy in the game–people who have longevity–are people who basically, for lack of a better term, kept it real. They were emotional, they were raw, and they exposed their experiences for the world to see and judge. And that’s where I’m going with the whole Awkward Oreo thing.

So, I’ve seen you perform twice, and when I see you freestyle, I can’t even imagine being able to do that on stage. How do you do that?

I don’t freestyle. I’m working on it–I’m learning how to.

But I’ve seen you improvise, though? That’s different?

That’s different. I improvise. Some people define freestyling as when somebody puts on a beat and you spit a pre-written (like a sixteen or something) and adapt a pre-written verse. That’s the actual definition, but that’s not how most people conceive of it.

Freestyling in today’s world means “a stream of consciousness.” Nothing’s pre-written, and you’re just going “off the top,” as they say. When someone jumps up and grabs the mic, and they’re like, GO, and you start talking, that’s freestyling as we understand it today. But originally it was when you took a pre-written rap and adapted it to an instrumental that you haven’t heard before. And people still cheat and do that.

Basically, there’s a differentiation between “off the dome” and freestyling. I’ve been known to kinda come off the dome and go left sometimes, so that’s when you kinda….

…wait, what’s “off the dome”?

My understanding is that “off the dome” is when you either have a few bars that you’ve already written or you come up with things. It’s not on the spot. Maybe you’re listening to the instrumental a few times and then you start rapping.

Freestyle, as an art form in general, is something that takes complete focus. You’re completely free in that moment. It’s like tapping into a different conscious place… You have to be completely comfortable and in your element. I’m getting colder at it, but I’m not confident enough to do it in front of people.

So, is confidence the key?

It’s multi-faceted. I wouldn’t just pigeonhole it to confidence. You have to tap into the energy and feel the beat. You just become one with the beat and you just…you don’t think about the next word, you just talk. You might start out with a theme, but you don’t want to trap yourself. People have different techniques and methods for how they approach it. For me, it’s just about getting in that zone and letting go. You have to be completely uninhibited. That’s it right there: that’s more important than confidence. You have to be uninhibited. Don’t try to correct yourself, don’t think about it too much–you just go with it.

You’ve talked about how your style evolved from talking about topics more stereotypically associated with rap to a more socially-conscious style. I won’t put this in the interview if you don’t want me to, but was your initial style influenced by mimicking popular rap that we hear on the radio?

That’s a good question. I would like you to put this in there, because I think it’s important. I think it’s just like anything else: when you’re bombarded with the same message or imagery or whatever–over and over–it becomes automatic. That’s one of the things I have to fight against when I start freestyling because it’s so deeply ingrained in our psyches.

I didn’t think about what message I wanted to leave because at first, it was just a hobby–just a release. But then one of the guys I used to work with, Tony, said, “I’d like to see you do more socially-conscious stuff.” I was so opposed to it at first because I thought, “No one listens to them. They don’t get an airplay, and they don’t make any money.”

Then started thinking about taking a more serious approach to it. Once I started listening to Lupe and Wale and all them, I said to myself, “I really like this–why do I like it?” I realized I should start being more true to myself, because it resonates better and people can connect with you.

This is one of my personal mantras: I’m an artist: I’m not a rapper. I’m a writer: I’m not a rapper.

If everyone had the same blank canvas, and they all painted the same picture over and over again, you know?

[Laughter].

It translates over to music. Why is everyone doing the same thing? That’s crazy. What’s your impact? What’s your footprint? What’s your message?

As a female hip hop artist in Tennessee, do you feel like you’re pushing beyond boundaries or expectations with what you’re doing? It seems like your musical environment is pretty male-dominated.

I haven’t met any local people doing what I’m doing in the music scene. I know they’re out there, because I see them on ReverbNation, but I’ve never physically interacted with any female emcees. Yes, I am surrounded by a lot of men.

I feel like there’s a serious dearth of representation for the real emotions that women feel. The way women are portrayed in hip hop, for whatever reason, is very misogynistic. The women who have any real platform to reach people are just talking about cliches. They’re not really flipping anything. They’re talking about the same things men are, but it’s just coming from the mouth of a woman.

For example, “VideoGirl” is a song I do that’s about sex trafficking. I have another song called “Jamaican Cane” that’s about a female prostitute. It really bothers me when men make songs about strippers, and how they pay for her college education because they “threw so many ones” last night. It goes back to men being the vehicle for women’s liberation. It’s very oppressive. There isn’t any discussion about her real feelings or her real emotions. Most of the time it’s just men saying, “oh, she needs me.” “I have all the money, I have the cars, all this other stuff.” I’m like, let’s talk about what’s going on in her head.

And then I also talk about it from the John’s perspective, too. Because no one talks about that. I write music about men and the struggles they’re going through, but it’s told by a female. So in a way I’m reversing what’s normally portrayed.

It’s not usually intentional trailblazing. I just feel like these are things that need to be talked about. I want to tell these stories that I have in my head and that I observe in everyday life. Most importantly, I want to be real. I don’t want to ever go back to what I was doing a couple years ago and just mimic cliches.

Floami Fly with the Microdahts

Floami Fly with the Microdahts

What’s your family’s reaction?

At first, my mom and my grandmother were embarrassed because of the negative connotations associated with hip hop. Most people who aren’t hip hop heads don’t understand the difference between rap and hip hop. “Hip hop is culture,” as they say. It’s grafitti, it’s b-boys, and all that other stuff. Rap is commercialized–it’s what you hear on the radio. So my mom and my grandmother, coming up in different generations, had a limited view of what rap music was. They didn’t really understand it.

When I actually played some of my music for my mom, she said I needed to clean up the lyrics. Go figure. But she liked it! She was like, “Oh wow, you have talent.” I rapped for my grandmother for the first time recently and she said, “Lizzy, you’re actually kinda good! I’ll be darned, I think you could do something with this.” And I said I was trying.

They’re slowly and surely becoming more accepting. When people ask my mom about it, she tells people now. I think they’re on board.

You talk a lot about sensitive and personal topics in your lyrics. What was that like to share with family or close friends?

It was awesome because people are going to get to know what’s going on in my head. People have their different ideas about who you are. When you’re in control of permeating the truth about who you are, it’s such a relief. It’s my personality to be a little outspoken and talk about things that make people cringe.

If I think it’s something that needs to be talked about, I don’t care. Who’s else is going to say it? I might as well.

What’s the game plan for the future?

At this point, it’s gotten so real. I’m 25. As a woman in the industry, unfortunately, there are a lot of obstacles that you have to overcome. There’s a lot of sexism. Age is not your friend. A lot of people, when they come into the game they are usually 17 or 18. Past this age, you don’t see a lot of people coming into the game.

Which is tragic, because at this point, we finally get a better sense of the playing field and know how to navigate it.

I agree completely. I feel like I knew myself always, but you know what people say: you don’t know yourself until you start getting older. When you’re younger, you’re still exploring. You’re still figuring it out. When you get to be this age, you can be more reflective and have an educated opinion.

I’m maybe making a statement by attacking that stereotype as well: that a woman’s worth is tied up in her appearance. It’s gonna be a long road ahead. I’m giving myself two or three years to really get my foot in the door, but if it doesn’t come together by then, I’m going to have to look at some alternative career paths. Right now, of course, I need to get a job, though I would love to transition into doing this full time.

But I’ve admired people like Clive Davis since I was about five years old. I definitely want to have a career in the entertainment industry. I would also like to give women a space to express themselves. That’s the goal: take the music as far as it will go and then ultimately end up in the entertainment industry.

That seems like a pretty good goal.

Yeah, I think so.

Also, you got a master’s degree? That seemed quick to me. I turned around and you had a master’s degree.

I just went straight through. It was quick I guess, but it didn’t seem like it at the time.

I’m eager to keep watching and listening to how it all works out!

It’s coming together. I’ve made connections, and I’ve done a lot of performances over the past year and a half. I think I’ve got my foot in the door just enough that I’ll be able to take this in the direction I want to take it in.

[divider]End of Interview[/divider]

Floami Fly is a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, drawing much of her musical influence from the eclectic culture that characterizes the city. A firm believer in human rights, Floami strives to convey the heart of the people in a way that challenges the patriarchal forces that dominate the industry. Floami has performed in venues across the east coast, stretching from Virginia to Atlanta, Georgia. Floami graduated from the University of Virginia in 2011 and received her Masters in Business Administration at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2013.