It's interesting that you appropriate symbols of male power – “King” avriel, for example.
I think you have to work within the system and subversively tear it down. Not everyone agrees, and that’s one reason I gel with (Pedagogy of the Oppressed author) Paulo Freire. It's about how the oppressed group has a responsibility to liberate the oppressor at the same time as themselves.
In interviews and your blogs, you come across as quite literate and well-read. Were you always a bookworm?
Yeah! That's one of the reasons I had to stop modelling. School was always the place where I could shine. Up to high school I was always the ugly kid, the follower of one of the lead mean girls. And the one place I could always dominate was being the smartest kid in class.
What was your day to day as a teenager?
From 17-19 it was really bad. I was doing a lot of drugs – a lot – and I was living out of my car, sleeping at random people's houses. I’d stopped modelling and had nothing else going on. I was in the studio but without an end goal. I was floating. That was the darkest time. I got addicted to pills. I started cutting. I was really, really depressed. I was in a terrible abusive relationship, on multiple levels. But I mean, everything is my own doing. I make choices to react to things.
I don’t think that’s true. Sometimes people create bad situations for you.
That's true. And I'm sure I've done that to other people. But I think what triggered that was getting raped, getting pregnant, getting an abortion and all of that. I didn't tell anybody. I was like, ‘I'm gonna move forward from this by myself.’ And I wasn't equipped to handle it. That's the story of “180”, actually.
You seem regretful – weren’t these situations out of your control?
I don't think I'm hard on myself; I'm actually grateful for it. Going through that forced me to get serious about school. Then I found LA, this community, and all this information about how I can translate that experience into something meaningful. But I mean, sometimes I get resentful. I think, Why the fuck did I have to go through that?
Where does the song “Follow Me” fit in?
In this project, I work my way out in institutions. So the first song deals with my relationship with my dad and how that affected my relationships with men. And then (on “Follow Me”) I move out to the family. How my dad’s role-modelling affected my own role-modelling for my sister - that never-ending cycle. For a long time I didn't set her a positive example. One night she almost got arrested for drinking and attempting to drive. And I went off on her, like ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ It made me really emotional, because my siblings were like, ‘It's okay! People mess up when they're 16!’ And I'm like, ‘You guys don't understand. My little sister's really beautiful. She's gorgeous. Everybody who sees her thinks she's at least 10 years older than she is.’ I had to say to her, ‘One of the big reasons I was raped is because I was naive about my position as a woman. Especially one who was taller and developed. I didn’t really understand how that affects the way people approach me.’
With your music, you’ve talked about applying a new approach to R&B. What’s it lacking?
There are so many kickass female artists, but there’s still a lack of female diversity. Of all the female artists - SZA, Kelela, FKA Twigs, maybe Janelle and Tink - a lot of us are doing very similar things. However, there has started to be more male diversity. Frank (Ocean) started talking about different things; Drake... at least had a different perspective on the same things. Even The Weeknd. But one thing they have in common is that they pathologise their female characters, portray them as broken women. Which is fine - people have issues, I'm one of them (laughs) – but I was like, Well, I’m gonna flip the mirror on you guys. At this point I feel like I'm the only girl looking at the male psyche that way.
Does the fact that this new vulnerability sells so many records suggest attitudes are shifting?
Oh, definitely. I think that, because of social media, we’re a generation of over-sharers. But now we realise, like, sharing what you had for breakfast is really superficial, we need a more intimate understanding. That's definitely a driver for me: I want people to understand where I've come from. And that's maybe selfish or egotistical, but that's our generation.
How will it be in five years? What’s your vision for music?
I feel like Western civilisation is on the brink of completely breaking down. Something I'm really interested in is ancient world history, and I see these similarities... history definitely repeats itself. I feel like the virile American Empire is just not working for people anymore, around the world. And hopefully the African-American experience is gonna change, because it's so unfortunate that we're still perceived as second class citizens around the world. I hope there isn't that need to prove we're more than just gangsters and thugs and strippers and hoes. (laughs) And hopefully music will have a part in that.
Do you believe that will happen?
Yeah! I mean, if I have anything to with it it will. I just need Beyoncé to let me write her next album and then the world would be saved.