At VSOP Studios in West Town, Naomi Graham sits on a black couch humming a song she’s working on called “Tainted Subs.” She has on a black hoodie and leggings and cheetah-print Crocs. She wears her hair in a black bob with a silver stripe across the front. She’s recording material for her debut rap tape, NoSpace Pt. A. The first half of a double release, it’s due Friday, September 9.
Graham, who performs as NaomiG, tells me that the songs she’s recording in this session were inspired by New Jersey rapper and singer Coi Leray, who’s known for her melodic approach. “I’m not trying to sound like anybody else,” she says, “but I know who to take inspiration from.”
“Do yo shit,” she instructs her producer, Jacob Swindell-Sakoor, also known as Yung Savoye. He begins constructing a beat as Graham continues quietly running through lyrics she’s written on her phone. She smokes her lime-green vape and sings: “Rather you be tainted by love, babe, than on them drugs, babe / Shit, rather you be fainting from us, ’cause don’t need them subs, bruh.”
The song touches on substance abuse by a partner—Graham wants to become his drug, instead of seeing him turn to substances. “We all got demons, I ain’t shamin’, but can’t have you out here on some tainted subs,” she raps.
For decades, female rappers have faced obstacles because of the expectations placed on Black women. Clover Hope, author of the 2021 book The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-hop, says Nicki Minaj opened new doors. “The success of Nicki [Minaj] changed the expectation [for female rappers], where before you could have just come out and be part of a crew,” Hope explains. “She created a whole new blueprint for dominating [crossover success].”
In The Motherlode, Hope documents women’s vital place in hip-hop. In the late 70s and into the 80s, artists such as Sparky D and MC Sha-Rock helped lay the foundation for what female rap is today. “Learning about that first [group] of girls . . . I didn’t know about their fight to be remembered,” Hope recalls. Women in rap got overshadowed in history, she says, because men were much more successful and sold more records.
The presence of big-name female rappers has grown tremendously since the early 2000s: in 2022 we have Cardi B, Doja Cat, Flo Milli, Doechii, and many more. As women have jumped onto the hip-hop scene, the formula for success that’s stood out the most is the one that developed in the 2010s. Mainstream media wants to see female hip-hop artists adopt pop personas, complete with big stage shows, elaborate choreography, and major marketing. Recent rap songs such as “Say So” by Doja Cat, “Big Energy” by Latto, “Sweetest Pie” by Megan Thee Stallion with Dua Lipa, and “Closer” by Saweetie all show how an infusion of pop can lead to mainstream success.
This shift toward pop hasn’t just affected the sound of music but also video production and live performance. In 2020, when “Say So” became a hit, its popularity was powered by its use in TikTok dances, rather than by radio—and it became a poster song for female rappers scoring commercial smashes by combining singing, rapping, and dancing. Doja Cat began to perform “Say So” everywhere, but she kept fans on their toes with renditions that might be electric or acoustic—and everything she did created new templates that other female rappers could follow.
NaomiG released this track, which will also appear on NoSpace Pt. A, at the end of June.
Graham, 22, grew up on the south side of Chicago in a musical family: her father was in a mid-2000s rap group called Masked Up Entertainment, and her mother sang professionally. Graham’s granddad bought her a piano when she was 12 years old, and her parents helped shape her approach to rap because they remembered the core reason they made music—to have fun.
“I really started when I was a shorty,” Graham says. In middle school, she joined a rap group called Dope Ass Chicks, who were active on the messaging app Kik. They rapped alongside an all-male group, Savage Boy Mob, using text to message their raps back and forth. That experience sparked her love for the craft of rapping.
Fast-forward past middle school to 2019, when Graham began hanging out with Pivot Gang, a west-side collective of independent Chicago rappers that includes Saba, Joseph Chilliams, MFn Melo, and Frsh Waters. Graham won a grant from the John Walt Foundation, named after Saba’s cousin, an early Pivot Gang member who was killed in 2017. The foundation awarded her $1,000 to further her creative career, and she put it toward refining what she wanted her sound to be and finding what worked. Her breathy, fast-paced flow and her Chicago accent brought fun to her music and caught listeners’ attention.
“Chicago culture is different,” Graham says. “My experience being from Chicago is what makes me an artist. . . . We say shit like ‘G’ and ‘on bro,’ and I can put that in my songs.” The influence of the city is in her blood.
Still, despite the new influx of high-profile women in hip-hop, Graham faced obstacles as she worked to discover her identity as NaomiG—especially from peers skeptical of her seriousness. “I hate when people be like, ‘Oh, you do music for real?’ after I show them my music,” she says. “I do this because I studied this . . . the same way [people] go to school to be a lawyer or doctor . . . I studied this shit.”
When people make Graham prove herself to them, it always annoys her, but she knows it’s part of being a woman in hip-hop.
Graham’s writing process involves creating a structure for each new song—she’ll include an intro, pre-hook, hook, verses, and other parts. She says she’s a perfectionist because she’s a Virgo.
She pulls out her laptop and plays a beat to freestyle to: “Lead it to my next eye, gotta make it better for the holidays / Take a trip to Bali, we could party and all festive ways.” Graham nods to the beat, and she responds to different parts of the instrumental track—she knows just where to give listeners ear candy and a catchy hook. She explains how she thought on her feet and let the words flow first, so the rap wouldn’t feel technical. She’s aware of her ability to make catchy music, and she emphasizes certain foundational aspects of songwriting: repetition of letters, wordplay, metaphors.
“I’m not trying to sound like anybody else,” says NaomiG, “but I know who to take inspiration from.” Credit: Courtesy the artist
Artists such as Lauryn Hill and Nicki Minaj have paved the way for female rappers, so there’s more room for them to experiment with rapping and singing without being put in a box. But this is still a pretty new development, considering the long history of the genre.
“I think this industry hasn’t always favored people who are multi-talented, multi-hyphenates, especially Black women,” says Gabby Bulgarelli, senior producer on NPR podcast Louder Than a Riot, which describes itself as exposing the interconnected rise of hip-hop and mass incarceration. “I feel like [with] Black femmes in hip-hop, it’s a very stay-in-your-lane mentality.”
When Graham was 12, she started out singing R&B. She transitioned into rapping in 2019, at which point she realized that people who’d originally known her as a singer might subconsciously consider her less than a “real” rapper. “You just got to prove people wrong,” she says. “You just got to show them that you can do it and do it correctly.”
As Graham stepped into the Chicago music scene that year, her combination of singing and rapping immediately attracted comparisons to Doja Cat. She realized that Doja had helped make that sound an accepted standard, and she knew that its increasing prevalence in hip-hop and social-media marketing confronted artists with a challenge: to balance authenticity against the need to appeal to Gen Z on platforms such as TikTok.
NaomiG performs for the Music Garage’s live in-studio series earlier this summer.
Virality now plays a significant role in how artists gain traction with their music. According to TikTok, users often have “heard it on TikTok” moments during their day-to-day lives. According to a report published by TikTok in 2021, 72 percent of TikTokers say that they associate certain songs with the platform.
“Virality [is] a huge income stream for artists, especially Black women who get fucked over by record deals by the predatory loan system that is the music industry,” Bulgarelli says. “Having a viral dance or viral social-media [presence] building an online fan base—who will buy tickets, merch, and come to shows—is a lane that a lot of artists, regardless of genre, are turning to.”
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Graham still worries about the business side of her career, whether it’s distribution, marketing, or finding her brand as an artist. For now she’s a one-woman show, but she hopes to put together a team—a manager, a booker, et cetera—so she can focus on her music.
It’s stressful for Graham to feel like she has to promote herself by creating content and challenges on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. She doesn’t have a passion for it, but she understands that it’s how to play the game if you want to get the music out. “I could care less about the business and marketing,” she says. “Having to come up with [multiple] pieces of content just to promote one single . . . that shit is a lot.”
Angelica George, a documentarian and creator of the series The Sound of Milwaukee, thinks artists should avoid leaning too much on social media when promoting their music. “Media rollouts or rollouts for albums are not the same anymore,” she says. “The [social media] challenges [should happen] naturally.”
For Graham, the stakes are especially high surrounding the launch of NoSpace Pt. A, because it’s her official introduction to the city as an MC. “[The project] represents authenticity,” she says. “This is me tapping into all my frequencies that I can give to the world.”
Graham’s 2021 R&B project, Late or Early, focused on emotionally intense stories, but this rap tape is about fun. “All the people supporting me are seeing my transition in real time,” she says. On her Instagram earlier this month, she posted: “My upcoming project ‘NoSpace’ is about embracing my identity and brand through my OWN interpretation of Hiphop.”
NaomiG released a video for her R&B song “Late or Early” in December 2021.
While making NoSpace, Graham gave herself grace—she’d previously struggled to accept her voice and tone, but now she’s fallen in love with them. “I’m like, [my voice is] my superpower, [and] it didn’t take long for me to realize that,” she says.
Graham’s writing process has evolved too, allowing her to pinpoint what kind of energy she wants to release with the wordplay and lyrics in each song. On “Down South,” she says, “I definitely gave bars.” In its second verse, she raps, “I be heavy on the move, heavy pushin’ 200 / Yeah, thick thighs, baby, heavy on some food.”
“If I’m gonna talk about my weight, I’m gonna come back and be like, ‘I’m OK with that shit,’” she says. With the release of NoSpace Pt. A, Graham is taking the space to brag on herself and prove that the work she’s put into the craft of rapping has paid off. Next, she hopes to manifest features on her tracks from her favorite Chicago artists—including Jean Deaux, Saba, and the rest of Pivot Gang—as well as bigger shows and recognition from her community. She wants people to know what she knows: that NaomiG is an artist here to stay.