Chicago-based rapper KC Ortiz explores her religious roots, insecurities, and struggles as a black transgender woman on track “Shut Up” off her mixtape Church Tapes, released last year. The new video premiering today is directed and produced by VAM Studio, a Chicago-based creative team dedicated to showcasing diverse and emerging talent. This collaboration between VAM and KC highlights the music and arts scene in Chicago by utilizing local talent, locations, and styling, creating powerful imagery for KC’s already striking track.
Check out the video above and our interview with both KC and VAM below:
In conversation with KC Ortiz
“Shut Up” is off of your second mixtape, “Church Tapes,” which explores, among other themes, your religious beliefs. How has religion influenced your music and career?
Church was my first experience with music. When I was a kid I went to Truevine Missionary Baptist Church in Mobile Alabama, and there I was in a children’s choir called The Buds of Promise. One of my teachers, Ms. Oliver, and my grandma were the directors. I remember that Ms. Oliver would always pick me to do all the solos. I used to tell my grandma “I don’t want to always be in the front…why can’t I just be like the other kids?” and I remember her yelling at me, saying, “You better be grateful for the gifts God gave you, before he take them away!” And now when I am creating music, so much of the things I do are inspired by what my grandma and Ms. Oliver taught me. My best childhood memories come from being in that choir. I always wanted to sing and perform, and I always wanted to go to church to sing. Even at home, my cousin and I would play “choir” and sing songs we learned at church.
Can you speak to your progression as an artist from “Beach Street” to “Church Tapes”?
Some of the songs on “Beach Street” like “How She Doin” and “Queen of Hearts” were some of my very FIRST recordings. “Beach Street” was basically a bunch of songs that I had recorded over the years. I was (and still am) finding myself as an artist. When I listen to my older songs there are so many things I said that I would not say now — even talking about drugs that I never even did — I was just trying to sound cool and be like what I was hearing everyone else do. But when I started writing about my life experiences and using my journey to inspire my music, I started to feel more accomplished. My older songs where I’m just talking shit and being catchy…any rapper can do that, but no one else can tell my story. When I was a kid I would make up songs about any and everything, I would take my cousin’s talkboy and record songs about anything from E. Honda on Street Fighter, to my aunt’s friend having a two-way radio in her car. I would sing over the wrestlers theme songs on Nintendo WrestleMania. I would ask myself, “you have been making up all these wacky songs your whole life, why would you trade that in to be like everyone else?”
The music video for “Shut Up” is produced by VAM Studio and highlights the music and arts scene of Chicago. What was that collaboration like and what role has Chicago played in your work?
I first saw VAM’s work when they did Shea Couleé’s videos, and I remember sitting there wishing I had something that looked that cool. My friend encouraged me to reach out to them, and boom it happened! I will never forget the day Vincent responded back to me on Facebook saying that he heard my mixtape and wanted to work with me. My heart stopped. One of the main things I remember telling them is that I wanted to finally see the KC I see in my head, because the KC I am now is not the super glamorous one I see in my dreams. It was so amazing — I felt like I was on MTV or something. As far as Chicago goes, I never even knew I would live here. In High School my goal was just to get to Atlanta, but you never know what God has up his sleeve. Living here has definitely affected my craft, especially the other artists and culture I’ve experienced here. Kanye West is one of my main rap idols and he is from Chicago. Even some of my favorite gospel acts are from Chicago: Albertina Walker, The Barrett Sisters, and Inez Andrews. I always try to learn more and absorb from my environment.
In previous interviews you’ve spoken about your work with trans girls and your desire for your music to have a purpose and help people. How do these two types of work — your work with trans girls and your work as an artist — connect and what possibilities do you see as your platform grows in terms of using it to help and uplift other people?
A lot of times we show more passion when we see someone suffering with something we defeated. A lot of times we gotta go through stuff for the team, to have that under our belt because we’re going to have to use that experience to pull someone else through that same situation. I’m at the point where I’m realizing a lot of my struggles were for me to be able to help someone else through it. When I’m writing, I always think of songs that help motivate and inspire me. Then I think from that point of view, like what did I want to hear…what would have helped me? I always tell my grandma I’m not just doing this for me. I know all these things weren’t for no reason. Somebody out there needs to hear it.
Vincent Martell of VAM STUDIO (left) and KC Ortiz (right)
In conversation with Vincent Martell, Founder of VAM STUDIO and Director/Editor of “Shut Up”
What do you see as your role within the Chicago music and arts scene and how does producing KC’s video for “Shut Up” relate to that role?
Our role at VAM is to create work that pushes boundaries with artists we believe in. We’re also looking for content that speaks to the times and KC’s music does just that. We’re all about creating work that’s unapologetic and fearless so it seemed like VAM and KC was a perfect marriage. The art scene in Chicago is on a different level right now and it’s happening in a very unique way. Trends aren’t usually a priority to us since we’re not based on the coast, so the work within the music, film, and general art scene feels fresh and untainted.
How did you come to work with KC and how did the concept for “Shut Up” manifest?
We first worked with KC on our production for “Ride” with drag superstar, Shea Couleé. KC’s been on our radar in the underground scene for sometime, but we usually wait for the artist to approach us first. Apparently, KC’s best friend is a huge fan of VAM’s and told her to reach out. KC’s aesthetic is influenced by her religious upbringing and that’s something we wanted to really expand on. As a black queer-identifying filmmaker, I’m always attempting to infuse my culture into VAM’s productions. When listening to KC’s track “Shut Up,” I was hit with old memories of the times my family went to church on Sunday. In one hand, the black church carries a sense of energy and comfort that you would be pressed to find anywhere else. In the other hand, it can be a symbol of fear, as the teachings of the black church often countered my very existence as a gay child. It was quite the paradox and we wanted to show those contradictions throughout these visuals. In this production, I wanted to merge KC’s spiritual sensibility with her more affluent underground rap persona. From the outside, KC Ortiz (a trans woman kicked out of the Air Force) would be a significant contradiction to the church, but we wanted this to feel like an ode to the energy within that institution.
You’ve worked with High School students in the past, opening your video sets to their creative voices, providing them with a learning environment and a step up into the industry. Do you have any advice for young people trying to break into the music and arts scene, especially those who lack opportunities and resources?
I think it’s important to find a diverse community that will nurture your talents. We pride ourselves on hiring women, trans, and POC filmmakers, and I think that sets us apart in the industry in a major way. There are so many great perspectives that we touch on in every production. I’m a very new director but I have a unique voice and that has helped me (and VAM) to stand out from the crowd. Take the time to cultivate your voice and pull from what you know.
What’s in store for VAM in the future?
We’re growing faster than we ever could have imagined. In the past few months, we’ve started productions in LA, NY, and New Orleans. People are genuinely interested in working with diverse productions crews and luckily for us we’re one of the few crews that aren’t dominated by straight/white/cis/men. This year we’re stepping outside of Chicago and looking for unique voices from across the country that can amplify our vision.
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