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The Sorority: the feminist future of hip-hop

By
Andrea Warner

There’s no better origin story for a feminist hip-hop group than meeting at an International Women’s Day Event and throwing down in an all-female cypher that then went viral. Shortly thereafter, the Sorority was established, and if their jaw-dropping debut is any indication, Canadian hip-hop is never going to be the same.

Haviah Mighty, Lex Leosis, pHoenix Pagliacci and Keysha Freshh are the four powerhouse MCs who make up the Toronto-based act. Just last month they dropped their first record, The Pledge, and now they’re on a cross-country tour modelling their vision for the feminist future of hip-hop. The Sorority dropped by the CBC Vancouver office to talk about the radical power of sisterhood, collaboration and putting their activism into action.

It’s a great story when you meet at an International Women’s Day event, but did any of you know each other or know of each other beforehand?

Haviah Mighty: I was aware of pHoenix through Twitter, but I had never met her. I knew she was a Toronto artist, I didn’t even really know she was a rapper. Lex and pHeonix had done a track together but had never met. I was aware of Keysha, but that’s it. We all met each other that day.

What was it about that moment and coming together and identifying with each other?

Lex Leosis: Just the vibe, too. We had a little soundcheck with the mic before and everybody was just supposed to spit four of their bars and then realizing that everybody was dope in that moment. I was, like, "OK, I’m not about to rap on a track with a bunch of wack people! Awesome."

pHoenix Pagliacci: I was not so much surprised as I was excited when they all dropped their bars, because we were all saying different things in similar ways, we still had different perspectives about being a female in the industry. Hearing Haviah attack it with that forgive-or-not vibe, and then Lex came with the straight facts, like, when it comes to females in certain roles, 'Why not?,' and Keysha came with the respect and homage, you know, like, "Look, man, we’ve been doing this so respect us and we’ll just do what we do." And then I just slipped in there and I fit. It was all natural chemistry. All our reactions were genuine. When we heard something we liked, it showed on our faces and I’m just glad we met that day, for real.

You hear from people all the time, "Oh, you’re a woman MC? A woman rapper?" as if you’re a leopard with no spots or something. But obviously there’s a big enough scene in Toronto to encompass each of you and have you never cross paths before two years ago. So what does it mean to come together as a unit and disrupt the gendered nonsense about who makes hip-hop?

pHoenix: I’m a scorpio, I’m so comfortable with disruption. I think that we, as females, struggle with enough things as is, and then as female rappers, we get put into an even smaller box, so it really meant the world for us to come together and say, "Yeah, I’m sick of that, too," and actually put action behind it. For so long hip-hop has been a misogynistic, male-dominated, disrespecting females kind of realm, so we wanted to literally disrupt that. We wanted people to question why it was the way it was, when, if all you have to do is be talented, why are we the exception? We really did decide, as the four of us, we "pledged" to be the difference, to make the difference.

I like the act of taking up space. As a fat woman, I interrupt spaces for people and I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is to disrupt spaces in many different ways. What is it to choose, at this time, to be an activist, which is a huge part of lyrical hip-hop?

Keysha Freshh: I think that it’s important. Hip-hop came from free speech, from people wanting to express themselves, to go against the system and against the grain. It came from a marginalized group of people whose voices were being silenced. That is what hip-hop initially was and truly is down to the core. And not just in MC-ing, but in graffiti and DJing it’s all self-expression. The way that we do it, we provide a voice for women and women of colour and we try to be reminiscent of that time, where it came from, we keep it true to that and that sets us apart. It’s very important that we discuss these things, it’s important that we include them in our songs. pHoenix makes it a point in our verses that it’s body positive, that the conversation happening, creating safe spaces, inclusivity, and making people feel like they’re welcome anywhere that we are. We want people to associate that with the Sorority, and I think we’re just keeping it true to hip-hop, to be frank with you, with what we’re doing.

Lex: I think it’s also just who we are before the Sorority, as individuals. It was cool to connect with people who are like-minded and fighting for the same things.

Haviah: There’s a lot of like-mindedness, but there’s also a lot of learning, just in regular conversations that we’ve had in rehearsals and planning and a lot of that content makes it into our live set. When we were performing for Canada 150, we did a lot of Indigenous education before that show. I learned a lot in that process and it’s the willingness to learn and absorb knowledge.

How collaborative are you in the writing?

Keysha: Definitely it comes in different sizes as far as how we work collaboratively. Writing is difficult to accomplish all together; there’s four of us, we all have busy schedules, we all work, so it’s not always easy to get us in the same place to actually write. Also, two of us might be feeling the need to write and two of us might not be. Writing is such a sacred thing to artists. We throw beats into the Google Drive that we share, and then each one of us listening and saying, OK, I have a vision for that, and then OK, you take the lead on the song and we build from there.

Lex: In the recording process, that’s where we get more collaborative. Someone will jump in the booth and that’s where we’re really honest with each other. We’re kind of truly a family at this point. Like, you could do this better, attack it again or the first half was good but you fell off short at the end. That, in itself, is a collaborative process, because we have someone pushing us to be better. Or, on the other side, like that was amazing, don’t do it again. [They all laugh.]

Haviah: Even writing choruses. Like, I wrote a chorus for "On Me," but I felt like pHoenix would sound better singing it so she executed that. Or, Keysha wrote a hook and she was like, "Haviah, I think you should try it."

I’ve heard this over and over again, "Oh, women working together, must be cat fights."

[Every member of the Sorority laughs and nods in agreement, talking over each other: “We’ve heard that, too.” “If I had a dollar….”]

But my most successful collaborative relationships have been with women and non-binary and gender-nonconforming people. It’s good competition, not bad competition because you want to be better, you want to impress each other. And that feedback loop is so critical. I have it with two writers I’ve come up with, we have a "Yay, team!" thing. So to see it come through in your performance onstage, it’s really nice.

Lex: We have that "Yay, team" mentality for each other, too, even in our solo careers. Someone will perform and in the group chat it’ll be, "pHoenix, kill it tonight!"

pHoenix: Yeah, if we can’t make it out to the show, we always send love.

This is your first tour in support of your first record, which just came out last month. How do you feel?

[A variety of squeals and shouts.]

pHoenix: How do you put that sound into one word?

I believe it’s six Hs and seven exclamation points.

Keysha: We played in Victoria last night and after the show, people came up and they gave us flowers. That was a very emotional moment. We’ve never been to Victoria, none of us have even performed solo, so to have that type of love. Like, people went to the store, bought flowers, wrote a card — that thought means that we have people who really listen to us, that we inspire people, and that we touch people so much they want to buy us flowers. For the tour and this album coming out, people are literally taking the pledge to stand with us in our sisterhood and stand with us in our mission to promote safe spaces, unity and feminism. That makes everything worth it. It makes me very emotional and confident, and just proud of Lex, Haviah and pHoenix, and our DJ for taking this journey with me and allowing me to do this and pursue my goal and meet all these great people. Even being here at CBC, this is a dream come true.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

Related:

First Play Live: The Sorority, Pledge

First Play: The Sorority, The Pledge

MILCK: a candid Q&A about trauma, silence, activism and the power of sisterhood