You can’t box in North Carolina rapper Rapsody. ‘As black women, we are a spectrum.’

Jessica Banov

When it came time for Rapsody to create a vibe for her tour, she wanted it to be introspective, spiritual and emotional. Or as one reviewer wrote, a concert that’s “a sermon, a lecture, a party and a late-night heart-to-heart with close friends.”

“I like to talk directly to people,” Rapsody said in a phone interview with The News & Observer. “I like to touch people. I bring people on stage, because I want people to feel a part of it. It’s for all of us to connect with each other through music.”

At the end of the day, she said, “It’s just full of love and joy.”

Rapsody, 37, draws from her upbringing in Snow Hill in creating this atmosphere. Snow Hill, a town of less than 2,000 people in Eastern North Carolina, is a place where everyone knows everybody. It’s where residents’ support can help lift up a girl named Marlanna Evans and catapult her into becoming a Grammy-nominated trailblazer.

“I learned early on the beauty of community and what that meant to me,” she said. “I wanted my music to feel like how I grew up and the love that I received.”

That influence can be heard in her latest album, “Eve,” released in August, the followup to her Grammy-nominated album, “Laila’s Wisdom.” Rolling Stone called it “a masterpiece of hip-hop feminism,” though it was snubbed by the Grammys this year.

It’s a concept album, where every track is named for a prominent African-American woman who has inspired Rapsody. Many of the women only need to be called by their first names to be recognized, and that’s how they’re labeled as music tracks.

The album starts with Nina Simone, which leads to Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Serena Williams, Tyra Banks, Maya Angelou and Michelle Obama, ending with Afeni Shakur, mother of the late rapper Tupac Shakur.

She has collaborated for years with North Carolina producer 9th Wonder and the Jamla Records label. “Eve” is the second album she has released since she was signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation label.

Rapsody spoke to The N&O last week before heading to Portland, Oregon, as part of her “A Black Woman Created This” Tour and before performing in Charlotte during the CIAA halftime show. The Raleigh resident will return home to North Carolina for the final two tour dates — Charlotte on March 12 and Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre on March 13.

Here are excerpts of our conversation.

Q: What is life like on the tour?

A: It’s been amazing, a really beautiful tour. An intimate show. Shows have been all ages, all races. I ask people for feedback, and they say it’s been inspiring, it’s powerful.

Q: Was that the kind of tone you wanted to have with these shows?

A: Yeah, definitely. All my shows I like to do that. ... That’s what I love about hip-hop. It brings us together.

Q: Can you talk about how “Eve” came about and how you decided to do the kind of concept album that you did? The timing seems really appropriate with the kind of mood our country is in right now, with lifting women up. Was that intentional or coincidental?

A: Coincidental. I’ve always talked about women in my music. This was the first time I did it where it was the whole project and it was themed. It was directly very intentional that way.

I was doing an interview with another publication called Oxford American. We were talking about the genealogy of North Carolina musicians, and (the writer) was emphasizing, “You’re a direct descendant of the Nina Simone and Roberta Flack family tree of music in North Carolina.” I was like, “Wow.” I was so inspired by that conversation.

I went back and I thought, “I am, but there are so many other women that have inspired me.” I am inspired by that lineage. I am inspired by Phylicia Rashad and Cicely Tyson and Lauryn Hill. I look at all these women and how they played an integral part of me, and they all make up little parts of me. From Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni’s poetry and love of words to Afeni Shakur and her activism. To Nina Simone as an artist and being true to her music and being unwavering and uncompromising in her art, to Aaliyah and the way she dressed and her style.

As women, as black women, we are a spectrum. We can’t be boxed in, you can’t put a ceiling on us.

Q: Which came first? The women’s names or the songs? How did you choose the women?

A: It was a mixture of both. Most of them, I have the names on hand. I knew what I loved about those women and what I wanted to highlight about them and who they were, their particular journey, their career, their legacy.

Then there were some days I would just get up and write. The music and how I felt would lead the way. I’d sit back and be like, “Who is this?” It would always be easy. Like, “OK, this is Maya Angelou, this is Afeni Shakur.” I just woke up every day and wrote.

Q: It seems like “Nina” and “Afeni,” the opening and closing tracks, might be the most personal tracks. You mention Snow Hill and the South. How have they influenced your work?

A: I think what I love about being from North Carolina, and particularly in a small town like Snow Hill, growing up in that area grounded me. It gave me a certain type of work ethic. I put that into the music. I brought those same values. I wanted to be part of a music community. Even with my fans, I wanted to be that girl-next-door, or that home girl that everybody loves.

The fact I was able to begin the album with Nina Simone and end it with Afeni, who are two women who are born in North Carolina, I was able to bring that home with me, book end it.

Q: Have you heard any response from the women you named the songs for?

A: Some of them, not all. Tyra Banks reached out to me. We ended up meeting each other in New York one day. We’ve been talking about some creative ideas.

Whoopi Goldberg sent me chocolates and a thank-you note. Amazing. Yep, they were some nice chocolates, too.

The Afeni Shakur estate. Afeni is no longer here with us. They sent a note.

(Olympic medal fencer and Duke graduate) Ibitihaj Muhammad. She reached out and thanked us for the love.

I’m happy that they’re happy.

Q: So we’re still waiting on Michelle Obama and Oprah?

A: Yeah those are the two we’re waiting on, for sure. And Serena too.

Q: What has been the response from fans? Did it start any kind of a conversation?

A: Being on the road, I get to talk to so many people. And what I love is the inspiration. It inspired them to go get a promotion at their job that they might not have wanted to go after. I’ve also met white guys who say, “I’ve got a black girlfriend. Thank you for the album. It allows me to understand my girlfriend more and understand who she is and what she goes through.” And I thought that was beautiful.

I hear from women who say, “Thank you for speaking up for us, for giving me a soundtrack to my every day.”

There are a lot of different conversations from all different people — in different ages, races. It feels good to know that your music can touch people.

Q: What did you learn about yourself in the process, once you had channeled all of these amazing women into your work?

A: It was just confirmation that the music I was making was true and authentic to me. It reminded me of who I am and who I came from — my culture, the women that inspired me ... When we talk about music in this world, and who I want to inspire, stories I want to tell and how important they are.

Knowing you don’t have to compromise, you don’t have to change who you are. All these women that inspired you and you’re writing about, none of them were unwavering in anything they did. They had a goal, and they always showed up true to themselves. They were never trying to be anything other than what they were. Never trying to copy, never trying to fit a trend.

This is who I am, this is what I want to do. This is the story I want to tell and the way I want to represent myself. Being more confident and being on the right path, and keep doing what you’re doing.


Who: Rapsody’s A Black Woman Created This Tour, with Saroc and Heather

When: March 13, 9 p.m.

Tickets: Starting at $22.50