Xhosa, Honey on a Dark Day

By Whitney Mallett

Xhosa is a shapeshifter. Her voice can morph from singing in a sugary soprano to spitting rhymes with bouncy old school flow while her production takes its cues from R&B, hip-hop, dancehall, EDM, and Y2K pop. The artist’s looks too span punk priestess, downtown diva, Afrofuturist flygirl, and 90s ingenue. “I just want to do my own thing. I don’t really care about appeasing people’s idea of me,” says the New York native before adding, “Anymore.”

Getting to that place has been a journey. “For a long time, I wanted to be everything to everybody,” she says. Maybe that urge explains some of her mastery of so many different sounds and styles. But internalizing other people’s expectations has also been a source of anxiety. “There was a time when I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and once I removed myself from relationships with people who were adding to that pressure, I just looked back on all the things I had accomplished, and I was like, ‘You know what? I got this.’”

The glow up has been hard to ignore. With self-produced tracks on soundcloud getting up to 30K plays, a string of dreamy visual collaborations with artists like Lula Hyers and Pamela Tietze, an incessant performance schedule, and press from major outlets like Vogue and The Fader, over the past few years, Xhosa has become an indisputable mainstay of New York’s underground music scene.

Her latest Hyers-directed music video for the single “Honey on a Dark Day” is a blushing tone poem that matches the song’s shimming sonics with gilded textures, offbeat composition, and a live snake courtesy of @ewokgia. “We wanted the idea of honey to come through in the visuals,” says Xhosa. “I just wanted to transmit the essence of confidence combined with emotional vulnerability.”

To be bold yet soft, confident yet vulnerable is the eternal conflict driving Xhosa’s work. It’s a state of contradiction she captures effortlessly in another recent single “Magic.” To a cacophonous brassy beat she sings, “So if you don’t have the time / to explore a soul like mine / then I don’t want you, baby / you don’t want me.” Sandwiching the address “baby” in between two statements of refusal, she flips the pop trope on its head, conveying self-reliance with a seductive grind. The result is an empowerment anthem that sounds like a come-hither slow jam, the unexpected intimate appeal to independence matched by the song’s restless sound.

“Magic” is produced by Memphis-based Cities Aviv. While Xhosa produces most of her music she also collaborates with other producers — X-Coast and Ariel Zetina have both made remixes. It can be a position of vulnerability for a femme artist whose image and vocals are at the forefront of their musical project to collaborate with other producers, especially male producers because there’s already a bias toward reinforcing the stereotype of the female vocalist and male producer.

“I understand that urge to do everything myself to prove to people that I’m doing it, but my sound would probably be really different if I was just stuck in my own head and was not willing to collaborate. So much comes from people I’m chilling with and being like ‘Woah I wanna try this,’” she says. “It’s definitely hard knowing that people might have a limited idea of me based off of how I look. I’m not going to pretend that doesn’t affect me, but I also know what I’m capable of and no one can take that away from me.”

Xhosa, born Amhara Xhosa Rein-Burrowes, was writing songs by the time she was 9 years old. She grew up immersed in a lot of culture. Her dad founded the cult streetwear label RockersNYC. Her paternal grandmother is a playwright, poet, and leader in the Rastafarian movement. Her mother worked as a celebrity stylist and her stepdad an engineer for Murder Inc. And while she was raised in New York, she also spent a lot of time at her maternal grandparents in Philadelphia playing piano at their house. “Carole King and Alicia Keys were my big influences back then,” she notes.

Later she discovered electronic music and started experimenting with layering samples and synths. “It got to the point where I was frustrated writing songs on the piano, so production became a way I could realize what I was hearing in my head.” Her first electronic project was a gritty punk-rap EP full of psychedelic samples which she then followed up with one that was centered around very clean futuristic R&B. “I think I confused a lot of people.”

Her dad, however, gets it. “My dad is the kind of guy who catalogs everything and knows everything about every genre. It’s a big part of his identity which he obviously transferred onto his daughter. It’s been really helpful because he understands what I’m trying to do blending these different things. Having a mentor to work through it has been helpful for sure.”

Beyond exploring different genres, Xhosa’s also experimented with new and different mediums. Venus, Gazing, which premiered at Powrplnt in 2015, was a live interactive performance video she coded using MAX/Msp. “I built a program so that every time I sang different notes it changed the colors in this RGB wave video,” she explains. Performing in front of a video designed by artist Hattie Ball, different notes Xhosa sang triggered the video to change colors. “The sound ranges were correlated with the visual color ranges.”

Right now Xhosa is (mostly) taking a hiatus from being on stage. “I love to perform I’m just learning how to navigate it differently. On average I’ve played twice a month for the past five years,” she says. “I feel like I’ve grown so much as an artist but then I come home and I’m still working this part-time job. I just want the Hannah Montana effect to end. I feel like I’m living two different lives and I just want to be the one artist individual.” To take her project to the next level, Xhosa feels she needs a phase to reflect and rehearse. “I want to try something different and challenge myself.”

Xhosa is naturally both a perfectionist and an altruist, and while her generosity is a strength of her work — and something palpable in her performances — she’s disciplining herself to protect it. “Love is such an abundant resource to me that I’m like, ‘everyone deserves this feeling.’ I want to give it to everyone because I feel it, but it’s easy to run yourself thin.” She adds, “I’m learning what is worth the time and the energy. I’m still very early in this journey.”

Photography: Lyndsy Welgos
Feature Styling: Paris Roman
Polaroids: Lula Hyers
Video Directed by: Lula Hyers
Song Mixing and Co-production: 5th Planet