Far too often, the rap community doesn’t embrace the full scope of literature the way we should. Artists might champion books of advice on ascending through capitalism, but we too rarely reference probing, disruptive writers like the great Toni Morrison, who asked questions of us that we’re too afraid to face. McKinley Dixon isn’t. He titled his new album — Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, due June 2 on City Slang Records — as a direct homage to three novels by Morrison, whom he calls “the greatest rapper of all time.”
His first exposure to Morrison came from his mother’s book collection. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, Beloved? What even is this? She’s writing. It’s so scary, but it’s not scary at all. It’s beautiful,’” Dixon, 27, raves over Zoom from his home in Chicago. “There’s so much in all of these books that I feel like, because she’s a Black woman, we still are getting to, and I still am getting to myself.”
Dixon grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, where his Bronx-born mother opted to raise him and his sister. He spent his school years in Annapolis, but his summers in Queens, where he says his grandmother was “the matriarch” of their Cambria Heights neighborhood. In New York, he says, he “knew everyone” in his community, but he felt like more of a pariah in Annapolis, where he would try to relate to classmates through their shared interest in rock bands and often get rebuffed.
“I really never had friends in Annapolis because of just the complexities of race and class and things like that,” he says. “It’s a beautiful place, but it seems like settlers went there just to have their own place on the water and not let any others in. There’s places that don’t allow a creative person of color to grow and bloom; Annapolis is one of those places that then tries to stomp it out.”
He says he had a couple Black friends in Annapolis who understood his struggle, “but then I would get to New York and being around people that look like me, sound like me, feel me — it was the greatest times of my life. It was moments that I’ll remember forever, which made me now be really good at describing longing. I think that’s the biggest thing that came out of it from a music standpoint: I’m good at describing a feeling of missing something or looking for something.” He adds that his dual experience “told me to not stay in one box. While not having a community was definitely complicated and hard, not being confined to one space that I had to prove myself to was good.”
He first started making music as a teen in 2011, when he got a laptop, a mic that he uses to this day, and digital workstation Audacity, where he’d work 120 minutes at a time. “I would get home 3:30,” he recalls. “[My mother] would get home 5:30. That means I got two hours to make a hit. I would try my damnedest to make a hit before she got home.”
His mom eventually found out about his pastime, but he says she initially wasn’t a fan of him pursuing music (or his other passion, drawing) professionally. “I grew up with the idea that to get out of this community, you got to go through the government,” he says. “Growing up, my mom was like, ‘You’re going to work in D.C.’…I was just like, ‘Well, we’re going to see how that goes, because I like drawing, Mama, and I like rapping.’”
His creativity expanded after he moved to Richmond and enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he says his musical ambitions “took over.” “I made my records just by going to people’s houses and being like, ‘Yo, can you play on this? If you can record right now today, we can make something happen,’” he recalls. In 2014, still in college, he released a cheerful ode to the power of music called “We Lovin That Jazz,” and paired it with a video that trended on Reddit. He remembers his first brush of virality as a “big deal” that motivated him to keep pushing.
He acknowledges that Richmond, like Annapolis, was plagued by racial disparities. But unlike in his younger years, he found community there. “I would be nowhere without my Black and brown trans queer folk,” he says. He enveloped himself in a flourishing DIY scene, honing his craft at shows put on by his peers and collaborating with the instrumentalists he met.
Dixon graduated around 2017, and recalls his time in Richmond as a period of personal discovery, where he refined his communication skills, learned more about the Black experience, and thought more about what the trans people he knew were going through. He compares his newfound understanding of the Black trans community’s struggles with his previous knowledge of plights that were more familiar to him.
“It’s like, of course I know the issues that my mom was going through as a Black person,” he says. “I may even be aware of the issues my mom was going through as a Black woman because we’re in such close proximity… But you really don’t understand [trans people’s oppression] until you’re like, ‘Oh wait, the death rate for Black trans folk is more than that for Black folk in general.’” He says being in Richmond radicalized him, and that newfound awareness radiates on two projects he released around this time.
On “Announcing Humanity,” from The Importance Of Self Belief, released in May 2018, he rhymes: “Hold us accountable for our actions/Be aware that it’s a fair chain reaction.” The line acknowledges our responsibility to be the best person we can be, while duly challenging the establishment for the oppressive conditions that create societal harm. It’s a good example of how Dixon likes to illuminate social ills and their effect on him and those around him, a quality which he also displayed on January 2016’s Who Taught You To Hate Yourself. Both projects are full of introspective, incisive lyrics over jazzy, buoyant instrumentation crafted by Dixon and a crop of Richmond musicians who he would collaborate with through Facebook.
His communal process paved the way for an even bigger endeavor with his debut album, 2021’s For My Mama And Anyone Who Looks Like Her, which Dixon recorded over several years in his home studio as well as other people’s houses. The result is a sprawling 11-track album full of lush, crescendoing tracks like “make a poet Black.” On the five-minute song, Dixon delves into rapidfire excavation of a scribe’s qualms over mysterious harp play and a refrain of doubt: “You not the realest, you know that right?/They not gon’ feel this, you know that right?” The track steadily builds as his thoughts intensify, for soaring strings and frantic piano play that mirror the internal commotion of his lyrics — “Joyful hymnals packed with subliminals/To distract from the fact that I’m without my kinfolk.”.
Dixon recalls that the project received his most press ever and made him feel like he had arrived. “To your average hip-hop listener, you would not know McKinley Dixon, but to your average rate-your-music annoying-ass reviewer, you would know McKinley Dixon,” he quips. “I think it became a validation when the blogs that I frequented were posting me. I came up just refreshing 2DopeBoyz.com. Now, it’s this thing where it’s like, ‘Oh, I can quantize my popularity based on when I was on that website.’” The project also solidified one life-long fan: his mom. “Now she’s cool with [my career] because whenever you name a record For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her, then Mama going to be fine.”
Dixon is vying to build on that momentum with Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, a project which he says “is the first record of mine where everything went exactly how I wanted it to go.” He adds that it’s a more condensed affair. “For My Mama… has a bunch of songs that are six-minute long, harp, flute, children singing ballads. I love making all that shit. That shit is so fun to make,” he says. “Obviously, sounds so good. But with this record, I was like, ‘Well, if I want to learn and keep it pushing, I got to find a way to make these super, super dense songs into two and a half minutes.’ I have the great music, I got the great sound, I got the band, what am I missing?”
One result of that search is “Tyler, Forever,” his ode to a friend from Queens who passed away. The track subverts the typical dolefulness of tribute songs with triumphant horns and an uptempo pace. Dixon says the approach was purposeful as a way of remembering their good times together. “He becomes this thing where it’s like, ‘Well, my grandma and grandpa weren’t there, so it was just me and this cat,’” he says. “Now that he’s gone, are these memories even real?’ You second-guess what really happened in your life a lot when you don’t have somebody to be like, ‘I remember those times as well.’…’Tyler, Forever’ is about the memories that you do have that you know regardless cannot really change.”
Dixon uploaded the track in February as a part of his Kitchen Table Sessions series on YouTube. The name is a tribute to photographer Carrie Mae Weems’ seminal Kitchen Table Series, which inspired the brevity and visual approach of Dixon’s dark, intimate clips. Weems’ series “is probably the best at giving a glimpse of at least her life without directly saying anything,” Dixon says. “It was just so brilliant how it’s the same shot every single time, but you captured so many moments that don’t need words because you can hear them. It jump-started me to look at things from a different lens and really be like, How could a moment be described with just eyes?’”
He’s also focused on visuals in his work as a 2D animator, showing me frames of a cartoon he’s been working on for over two years. “There are books that a lot of people within my artist community don’t know about,” he says. “I’m going to try to bring them into my art. There’s a lot of art that a lot of this literary community doesn’t know about. Then I’m going to try to be the bridge. I love seeing beautifully animated films…Cartoons are how you last forever.” That, and music discographies like his, full of soul-baring eternalization of an artist’s life and times.
Produced by Joe Rodriguez. Photography Assistance by Cindy Hernandez. Styling by Mia.