Aja is a triple threat, but not by typical definition of the word. Aja is by no means ‘typical.’ She is a drag artist and entertainer from Brooklyn, New York and was a contestant on season 9 of hit Emmy-award winning TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. She was brought back to compete again on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3, which aired this year. But that was just the start. Aja’s debut EP “In My Feelings” establishes her as not just a performer or dancer, but as a musician and rapper too. I spoke with her about her creative process, her love of a good cultural reference and how she maintains her confidence.
When did you decide to do an EP and start creating your own music?
Aja: Doing music was something I originally always wanted to do even before I dabbled in the art of drag. I find this embarrassing to say, it’s really funny, but I used to make these terrible raps and post them on Tumblr when I was like 13 or 14. They were really bad. I just really wanted to do rap.
When I started doing drag my attention to that diverged because I felt like I needed to hone in on my drag. I didn’t realize I could do both. Now, I find myself more on a journey. I’m not getting away from drag but I’m in the process of blurring the idea of drag and gender completely from my music. I don’t want people to look at my music and say, ‘oh, you’re just a drag artist who’s pursuing music.’ I want to be recognized as a musician who happens to do drag. I just really want to put the focus onto the music.
What was the creative process like for the EP?
I started working on the EP in February, so this was a quick one. I was touring the whole time and every day I had off was almost spent doing an entire other full time job. My days were spent in the studio, or writing on plane rides, or just getting the music together and going back and forth with producers. I can’t believe it’s done, honestly.
What inspires you when you’re creating music?
A lot of different things inspire me. I love referential music. I use a lot of references in my music. I love really intelligent rap, which is why people like Nicki Minaj really inspire me. Some people like her music because it’s poppin’ or it’s a club jam, but some of us are at home thinking about how smart she is. I want people to be able to listen to my music and be like, ‘Oh, that’s a good reference.’
In one of my tracks, “Art God,” I reference a lot of different paintings and classical artists. I compare myself to DaVinci and [Wassily] Kandinsky, who is an abstract artist. I also reference Salvador Dalí, [Edmund Thomas] Clint and Frida Kahlo. I love getting those references out there. When you have a theme to a song it’s good to go in and take advantage of everything you can say.
Can you explain why you choose to make the title ‘In My Feelings’ and what that phrase means to you?
When I wrote the EP, for every song I felt like I had to dig into my feelings and really conjure up past emotions to get inspiration. I felt like it sounded so basic, but it was so to the point. It was in my feelings. When I wrote all of the songs I was referencing specific feelings, not just bad ones, but good ones too.
There was a lot of fun that went into it, a lot of happiness, a lot of excitement. But then there were also times when I wrote about things that I felt were sad or aggressive. I think the real theme in the EP is dichotomy, because it’s not just being in my feelings, but the mixture of feelings that went into it.
Can you talk a little bit about your newest single Brujería?
The track is heavily based on Afro-Caribbean practices such as Santería. The song plays on the seriousness of the practices but is mixed with a lot of campy witchy references. The shows we grew up with like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Witches of Eastwick,” “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” But also mixing with more iconic witch icons like Marie Laveau, who was a real person. I wanted to have fun with the track. It’s very fun, it’s tribal, it’s dance-y.
Wow, I almost said ‘it sacrifices,’ but I meant to say ‘it samples.’ I was getting too into the spirit of the song! It samples a 1940s Santería chant that I used to listen to. They have these little stores called Botanicas where people get spiritual items like candles and herbs, especially in big black and latin communities. I would hear these chants all the time. That really inspired me when I made the song, and I wanted to put those chants in it and make it more current.
The music video has a lot of fashion and iconography in it. But at the same time, there’s a big lesson in the video. In the beginning of the video, I’m dressed as the devil. One of the biggest misconceptions of these practices is that the media portrays them in a way that parodies the practice. People in the world tend to only see these practices as if they were like satanic worship, which is ironic because a lot of these practices really just preach peace and happiness.
Later in the video, there’s another scene where I’m wearing all white, and it looks very pure. I take the devil horns off my head and throw them on the ground. By doing that, I’m dispelling all of the misrepresentation of these practices. I really want people to see the beauty behind the religion.
What are you most excited about on this EP?
I’m interested and excited to see people’s reactions. This is my first time releasing a larger work of music with more diversity and more of a selection. Some of my tracks are told from a more feminine point of view, and some are told from a more masculine side. I think there’s a song on my EP for everyone. I can’t wait to see what is the track everyone loves or if everyone loves or hates it. I’m a sucker for reaction.
You’re known as a great live performer, can you talk a bit about the process of planning a live show?
A live performance has different parts, part of it is visual and part is energy and presence. Different performances call for different energies and presences. I’m very into a gag factor. I love it when the crowd is stimulated. I love performances that stimulate emotion. If it’s not a Friday night, like a Tuesday or a Wednesday, I will pull out something way more emotional, trying to pull on that string. My favorite types of performances to do are burlesque.They’re my favorite because of how much precision goes into the costuming, but also how much fun you can have with it.
Does planning to perform your own music differ from planning a typical drag show?
I’m still debating whether or not I’ll be performing my live music fully in drag or what that will be like. But I know for a fact that it’ll be less concentrated on glamour because I feel like my drag is very concentrated on like wearing millions of rhinestones and having this electric stage presence.
For performing live I want to be comfortable because I’m actually rapping live. I’m not going to want to wear corsets and hip pads. I really want to tap more into my sex appeal and my natural beauty. If I do end up performing live when I start touring my music, I may want to paint my makeup way lighter. I’m not going to want to wear big style coiffed wigs. I just want to wear something easy.
I want the focus to be the interactions with the crowd and the swag. I want people to vibe with it. If I were to get up there dressed as Marie Antionette and deliver a hardcore trap track, it would be funny but it wouldn’t be capturing the essence of it.
Are you always going to be releasing music under ‘Aja’ or would you ever consider using another name?
Aja is my brand. Aja is not necessarily just the drag queen, I feel like I am Aja. Also, ‘Aja’ is not even really a name, it’s a noun in Hindi. It means ‘come here.’ Maybe I’ll start referring to Aja as more of a stage name than just a drag name. Also, I get called Aja every day on a daily basis by everyone in my life. At this point it might as well just be my real name.
Drag Race fans are not always the nicest people, to say the least. How do you push past hate to keep doing your thing?
All I really have to say about hate from fandoms is what other people say about you is not your truth. Only you can live your truth. You can’t really get affected by what other people have to say about you. Sometimes it sucks, people say really terrible stuff online. People make fun of my skin and my appearance.
People have said that my work is not original. But then I think about it, and who else is doing what I’m doing? I know my skin is not that bad. I know I’m not ugly. Why am I going to listen to these people? I think the best thing to do is to approach these situations with a level head and positivity. I don’t encourage going back and fighting with people.
But if you feel like you’re having a hard day and somebody comes at you, or somebody says something incorrect that makes you look bad, you have a right to correct them. Do it in an educated and diligent way so they don’t have the upper hand. At the end of the day I think, would Beyoncé react to this? Absolutely not. Would skinny legend Mariah Carey respond to this? No. Be sure of yourself.
Thank you for allowing me to include ‘skinny legend Mariah Carey’ in this interview.
[laughs] That’s the selling ticket right there. I’m going to come out with a single called, ‘skinny legend Mariah Carey.’ Watch.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on more music videos, a mixtape and hopefully doing an album. I’m planning tours for my drag house next year. Plus, I’m doing my own solo touring. I’m going to be all over Europe this summer. I’m trying to get signed onto a record label. I’m aiming for the highest I can possibly aim. It doesn’t need to stop here. Even when I feel like I’ve gotten as high as I can, I’m going to keep aiming higher.
“In My Feelings” will be released on May 11. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Also published on Medium.