One Joint With BIA
Pay attention to Boston-born rapper BIA; along with her style and apparent beauty, she brings an assertiveness and empowered, sisterly confidence to her music—Pharrell Williams sees it too. In 2012, he signed BIA to his own label, i am OTHER. “That which makes you different makes you special,” its website reads, and different has certainly been true for BIA, who embraces her latin roots, MC sensibilities, and an inherent trap vibe. Discovered by rapper and now manager Famlay via YouTube, BIA went the reality TV route to score exposure, starring on the first two seasons of Oxygen’s “Sisterhood of Hip Hop,” before contributing a verse to Colombian reggaeton star J. Balvin’s “Safari” in 2016, touring with pop star Ariana Grande (who features on BIA's "Esta Noche") in 2017, and appearing on Kali Uchis’ track “Miami” off the 2018 album Isolation. BIA recently finished recording a forthcoming EP—no exact dates just yet, but BIA says we can expect it this August.
BIA: You can light it, I’ll hit it when it comes around.
Alyssa Shapiro: Tell me about the first time you smoked weed.
BIA: It’s a really funny story. You really wanna know? The first time I got high…Hold on [BIA pulls out a mirror and lipgloss], my lips are so black, I smoke a lot.
AS: Is that a thing?
BIA: If you smoke blunts, hell yeah. Or Fonta leaf, I smoke Fonta leaf sometimes. It’s this leaf that comes off a tree, it’s almost like a backwood. You peel pieces off. It’s some Jamaican shit.
The first time I smoked, I was 12. I was in the neighborhood, my older cousin’s neighborhood. It was New York, somewhere randomly in the Bronx. She was way older than me, like 17, and it was all her friends. We all sat down one summer day, and they were passing the joint around, and somebody passed it to me. I didn’t want to look like the loser, the kid that didn’t smoke. So I was like, let me try, let me smoke today. I put it in my mouth and I just inhaled it really quick and blew it out right away, a fake inhale. They were like ha ha ha, making fun of me. Talking about Bill Clinton. They said something like, “She just did a Bill Clinton! ‘I did not inhale!’” That’s the only thing I remember.
AS: What’s your relationship to weed now?
BIA: I love weed. I love cannabis. I’m an advocate for weed. When I was growing up, I heard a lot of ‘Weed makes you lazy,’ or ‘Weed’s a gateway drug,’ or ‘Weed makes you like this,’ and that’s a mental thing. If you’re a lazy person, you’re a lazy person. If you want to do other drugs, you’re going to do other drugs. Weed is not going to be the one thing that’ll make you go over the edge. I treat weed as normal as it should be. If you’re a woman, smoking is looked at as unladylike. I like to shit on the stigma and stereotypes and show how much better it makes me in some cases, and how much it helps other people. There’s a ton of people that smoke weed for anxiety and cancer and things like that.
AS: You have experience in your past with other drugs on some level, you’re the self proclaimed Perico Princess.
BIA: I was around a lot of drugs. Especially when I was 18, 19, 20. I’m not a drug user. When it comes to doing cocaine—there are some things I don’t do. But I don’t look down on it either.
AS: So maybe they’re totally different businesses, but with legalization, has that affected the lives of anyone you’ve been around who’s been selling illegally?
BIA: Absolutely. I have friends that were running dispensaries, you know online, when it was illegal, on Leafly. It always would fuck me up how millionaires can get into the weed business and it be legal. But somebody who lives down the street from me that sells way less weed, literally just selling weed to his friends, will go to jail for it. So you can [legally] be a drug dealer if you’re a millionaire, but you can’t be a drug dealer if you’re a regular person. And that always throws me off.
I like to see weed being legalized, like it’s legitimizing people’s lives and their careers. It’s hard though because there’s a lot of people that have charges for weed and they can never go legit, even though weed is legal.
AS: There are farms and companies who hire ex-cons, those who’ve been pardoned for cannabis-based offenses. It’s different from ownership of a company…
BIA: They might employ people that were arrested for drugs, but those people will never be able to run the farms. That’s what’s unfortunate. Just because they didn’t have the right permits, now they’ll never be able to go legal. That’s somebody’s life! What makes that person different from someone who is able to buy that three million dollar license, you know?
AS: It’s so crazy how much they cost.
BIA: It’s like a liquor license on steroids. So how’s the random Joe up the street that’s been selling weed his whole life going to afford that? And he probably knows more about weed than the people with six million dollars to buy a retail license…
AS: We still have a long way to go with legalization. Switching gears a bit. Are you recording right now?
BIA: I’m always recording. When you’re an artist, you have to always record, or you lose it a little bit. My album’s done. It’s like a pre-album, it’s more like an EP. I’m looking to drop it sometime in August. I just want to give it to the people and let them decide how they feel about it. It’s a mix up. The music industry tries to make you pick a Thing. And I felt like I didn’t fit into one Thing. I’ve learned so much, I’ve worked with so many people. I’ve worked with Latin artists like J. Balvin, I’ve worked with pop stars like my friend Ariana Grande. I’ve worked with Pharrell who is a musical genius all around in every genre. So of course I’m not going to do one genre! I don’t have fans just in one genre. It took me a while to figure out how to do that. How to make different songs and let people know I’m one person.
AS: What do you want from your career moving forward?
BIA: I really want to reach people and make them feel something. Something serious though. I feel so passionate. I always felt like, damn, why don’t people feel what I feel? Why don’t they care how I care? Why aren’t they crying about that? I’m a Leo! I want everybody to be as passionate about something as I am.
AS: On Twitter a while ago you created the hashtag #TheNewWomen, and you asked your followers to tweet at you for advice. Who are the New Women?
BIA: When I first got into the music industry and my makeup looked a mess, girls weren’t hitting me up, like, you need a makeup artist that’s really good? Here, take this one! You need a girl that does wigs and hair really well? Take a look at her! You need a stylist? Here’s a great one! No one was sharing resources with me. Nobody other than men. I had a lot of guys like, yo, you need a producer? Meet this producer. Or like, oh, this is a great engineer. But there were very very few women—I can count on three fingers, women who were like oh I like you, I want to help you, who didn’t look at me like competition, but who wanted to embrace me and were like, we can win together.
I was noticing that a lot more women are like girl power, girl power, girl power! But only a few of them are really doing it. I wanted to shine on those women who are really doing it, who are showing the girl power and who aren’t the jealous type of girls. I wanted to let other girls know, I’m one of those women too. So you want to ask a question? What do you need to know? I’ll answer as honest as I can.
Something somebody told me was, If they don’t know, don’t tell them. It’s not your job to tell people what it took you so long to learn. I do understand where people come from with that, but at the same time, if somebody would have told me a lot more earlier, it could have saved me some time.
AS: Well, it shows you the path, right, when someone tells you something you didn’t know. But it doesn’t mean you’ll take it, or that you’ve learned. It just shows you what you’re looking for. You still have to do the work.
BIA: Yeah, they’ll have to take what you tell them and apply it, and that’s all on them. But what’s the harm in telling them? Why—they’re going to do well? Why don’t you want somebody else to do well? What does that have to do with you? Are you not going to be able to do well too? I want to break that insecurity out of women. I want to help reprogram us.
AS: Did someone do that for you?
BIA: I did that for me, I think. Meeting cool girls along the way really helped. Maybe a lot of us learn that later on in life. But you know how much money we could have made together if we did this when we were like 16, versus in our early 20s? We could have done so much more a long time ago! And then got other girls to do it, too.
AS: What are your feelings on reality TV? Do you think you’d be where you are now without it?
BIA: That’s such a good question. Reality TV can be so beneficial. I just think reality TV at the moment sucks. Reality TV can help catapult a lot of people, it gives you exposure. But to be honest, the people that are in charge of TV and editing, they’re not so great all the time. It’s a lot of drama. The world, we love drama! To try to give good TV with no drama is really hard.
AS: So how do you see that reality TV could improve to a point where it’d be good for us, societally?
BIA: I think Vice captures really good shit. It’s the only network that captures reality in a tasteful, brilliant way. It’s out there but you gotta really find those producers. And unfortunately networks like Oxygen and VH1 and MTV, they don’t always find those producers, they just get good drama TV. They don’t get tasteful TV. It’s good for exposure. So if you go on with a plan, you’ll probably do well.
AS: Did you go on with a plan?
BIA: No. [Laughs] Absolutely not. My problem was, I went on reality TV being real. You can’t go on reality TV being real!
AS: Would you do it differently now? Would you ever go back on again?
BIA: No. Absolutely not. Unless I had full creative control over it, if I’m producing, if I’m directing it in some sense. Maybe. This is the day in the life of BIA… come on! If it’s my shit. But hell no, a reality TV show? Hell to the no. I left after the second season, like I’m never going back. They definitely didn’t want me back, but I wasn’t going to go back.
AS: How was your experience growing up, being both Italian and Puerto Rican, in America, in Boston? How has your experience changed since you’ve grown up?
BIA: When you grow up mixed, it’s like a puzzle piece that’s a little bit off. It fits if you force it to fit, but that’s not its full place. If I was still in the same city that I grew up in, around the same people, only around one side of my family, I’d feel that way still. But I’ve traveled so much, I’ve been all around the world and met so many people, seen so many different walks of life, that now I don’t think anybody feels 100% acceptance. Especially in America.
AS: Best advice Pharrell has ever given you?
BIA: Pharrell has given me a lot of advice. Some really good advice he’s given me: Stay loyal to the pen. When newer artists ask me for advice, I give them the same advice: Write a lot. You got all this because of writing, so keep writing! Keep putting your feelings out on paper.
AS: Who are some of the women you admire, and what about them do you hope to incorporate into how you live and who you are?
BIA: My grandmother because she’s so classy and she’s so loving. I want to have that much love. My mom. She’s strong as hell. My aunts. First I admire my family because those are the women I’ve seen my entire life. I admire Beyoncé because of her work ethic; Beyoncé works so crazy. I really, really, really admire Rihanna, probably more than anyone. She sets the bar.
AS: She is The Empowered Woman.
AS: How do you think the societal packaging of an “empowered woman” has changed since you were growing up?
BIA: The empowered woman looks so different. Especially with a President like Donald Trump. Women are crawling out of the woodworks, all different kinds of women, and they’re like no, no. We didn’t come this far and we didn’t work this hard to not feel empowered! Women are pushing other women to be empowered. Even women in other countries! When you hear about women who are walking around without their hijab in countries where they’d get killed for that? That’s an empowered woman. Whoah! I couldn’t imagine walking outside without being able to do what I want to do. And for that, be killed? They’re risking that to show other women that we didn’t come this far, or go through all that for no reason. Seeing that makes me feel so powerful.
Women send me emails saying “Your captions, are getting me through life right now,” just a caption on Instagram can make another woman feel so empowered. “You put a battery in my back,” an email said. And that makes me feel empowered. That makes me feel like I gotta keep giving you that energy so you can keep going.