Noname introduced herself to the world with her soul-baring verse on “Lost,” a track off fellow Chicago artist Chance the Rapper’s independently released 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap. Almost six years to the day since that song dropped, Noname, 27, has emerged from the first phase of her career battle-scarred, ready and willing to confront whatever comes her way and fight for what she believes in.
“I sell pain for profit,” she sing-speaks matter-of-factly on “Song 31,” a rare one-off she shared in January. She’s not bragging so much as laying out the truths that she has come to accept and that she has earned: “Ain’t no labels backing me/But my tickets still selling out and I’m steady raising my fee.”
Born Fatimah Warner, the soft-spoken, poetic MC blends jazz flourishes with a delivery that has grown simultaneously more incisive and more freewheeling on her two official releases, 2016’s Telefone and 2018’s Room 25, which she released using Stem, an online payment platform for distribution (Frank Ocean used it for Blonde). In April she dropped another “loosie” titled “Song 32.” She has no plans to put the track on an album — mostly because there’s no one telling her she must. (Her team consists of a manager, agent, lawyer and publicity firm.)
“I’ve been stuck on this idea of only wanting my work to exist within the world of the album,” she says. But now, inspired by up-and-coming artists who are “free with their expression and able to expand people’s perception by putting out more material that’s varied in its sound and its style,” Noname wants to do the same. “I don’t think the hip-hop world has really embraced me. I’m showing more sides of myself, giving people more options.”
Speaking from Hamburg, Germany, on an off day during her first European headlining tour, Noname reflects on her rise as an independent artist, the freedom she has gained in her career and the confidence she has found in her art. “I want to encourage more artists to leverage their power without a label if they can,” she says. “It’s difficult. It’s hard. But it is worth it if you’re willing.”
What does being independent mean to you?
It means being the No. 1 decision-maker in every regard when it comes to anything that I were to release artistically, brand-wise. I want to have sole ownership over all of my work. Right now I’m not in the space of wanting any investors — I’ve been able to build up my business to the point of being self-sustainable without any large outside lumps of money. As I get older, I’m realizing that it is harder to just keep saying “no.” I’m trying to find the balance between feeling 100% free and independent and also making smart business decisions, which doesn’t always involve reinvesting all of my money back into my brand.
How important is independence to your creative process?
Very important, because it allows me to feel free, and that’s what I want my art to reflect and to represent — freedom. Specifically, as a black artist, I mean freedom in the larger sense than just being able to talk about whatever I want to on my songs. I want freedom away from a structure, a musical structure, a system that has been put in place that historically has not really honored black artists the way they should be.
At the beginning of your career, did you consider signing with a label?
Yeah, of course. How could you not think about it if someone is dangling millions of dollars in front of you? Sometimes I think I’m crazy to not [do it]; sometimes I think I’m being unnecessarily stubborn and I can take this money and help people with it.
How difficult is it to balance the creative and business sides?
I can’t do both at the same time, which is sometimes frustrating because my first love is not business, my first love is art. But because I’m running a company, my mental has to be on that 24-7, regardless. Whereas art, I can kind of step away from it. Sometimes I feel like I’m on the outside looking in on the way other artists can be so carefree in a way that I think I am not and probably won’t ever be, [unless] my business is so successful where I don’t have to be as hands-on.
It’s kind of like being the little kid who has to stay home and do homework while you watch all your friends get to go to the party. That’s the best way I can describe it. I’m a rapper, and sometimes I want to fold into the stereotypes of a rapper — go out late and buy expensive, fire-ass clothing — but I can’t just throw my money away on something that is not going to be lucrative and bring back more money.
What are some of the rewards of independence?
One is feeling this incredible sense of pride and self-worth to know that I was strong enough to push myself to do something extremely difficult and be successful. I’ve met a lot of the goals that I’ve wanted to meet, and I’ve been able to financially take care of people around me. I wish there was a different narrative of what rappers can be. We’re only pitched to aspire to be almost unnecessarily wealthy. But I have a middle-class, comfy lifestyle right now, based off just being independent and having an incredible touring history. It’s not as glamorous as other people’s careers, but at the same time, I put out content that people are excited about. So that helps me in the moments where I think I’m not fit. Like, “You are worthy! Look what you did!”
And yet, it’s tough to juggle all the responsibilities…
Yeah, it is. For me, it’s deeper than just the independence of it. Being black, I feel like my independence is also a part of a bigger legacy. And that’s what I want. I was lucky in that I got to hop on one of Chance’s songs, and that was what opened up the world to knowing about me. A lot of indie artists don’t have those kinds of opportunities. They’re starting from literally scratch, from nothing, and trying to build up.
DIY Touring Tip
”It’s really important to make sure that your live show is better than what you even sound like on record, because ultimately that’s going to be your bread and butter. As an indie artist, you’re not going to be able to sustain yourself on streams alone, because most likely you’re unknown, so no one is streaming your music. I don’t do the kinds of streams that other artists who have bigger fan bases do, but I’m able to pack out rooms that other people are not able to sell out. And I think that’s just a testament to how much I’ve focused on building out my show and really connecting one-on-one with my fans.”
This article originally appeared in the April 27 issue of Billboard.