Miss Lopez Media

By the looks of her web presence and colorful music videos, 22-year-old Portland rapper KayelaJ (AKA Makayela Johnson) is the real deal. But the young MC doesn’t have a big team behind her—since April, she’s just chosen to invest in herself and take music seriously. It’s a lesson many artists could benefit from: looking legit online attracts opportunities.

Johnson, a Northeast Portland native, has been rapping since she was seven years old, and performed at PDX Pop Now! for the first time when she was just 15. Now using the KayelaJ moniker, she’s been making appearances on outlets like KGW, giving interviews to KBOO community radio, playing shows at Holocene, and headlining the Thesis at Kelly’s Olympian—and that’s just in the last month.

After her breakout PDX Pop Now! performance in 2012, Johnson says she started getting more attention from fans and the media, but at that time she simply wasn’t ready for alladat. “I was starting to get the emails of people wanting to interview me, and starting to get a little bit of buzz, but at the time I couldn’t handle it because I was going through so many growing pains in high school and just going through a lot with my family, and it all just kind of overwhelmed me,” she explains over coffee, wearing a T-shirt that says “Queer and Black Is Beautiful.”

Now Johnson’s back to doing music full force, making waves for the first time in nearly five years. “I always say that 2016 was a life-changing moment for me. I started working out. My mental health was a lot better. I was figuring out my identity and came out to all my friends and family as a lesbian. And I just was a happier person, you know? I guess I felt like, ‘All right, now I kind of know myself and I know if I was to do music, I know exactly what kind of person I want to be and what kind of messages that I want to put out there.’”

Inspired by local female DJ/rap duo Karma Rivera and DJ Lopez, Johnson teamed up with elementary school classmate DJ Bkaye, who learned DJing skills and is also her stylist. Their super-lit set at the Thesis proved they’re a dynamic duo with impressive crowd control.

Johnson has already dropped three fire singles that’ll be on her forthcoming debut LP: the catchy and bouncy “Check x3,” “Heat Gentlemans Club,” produced by Sir Nai, and the C Los- and I’m Broke-produced “Kayela to the Muthafuckin J.” But first, she’s about to release a massive 25-track mixtape called Homage (Thank You) on September 28 that samples the women of color MCs who paved the way for her.

“It does have 25 tracks, but they’re just verses. So I’m not making a full-length song,” she explains. “And it’s very nostalgic, ’cause it’s in chronological order. The basis of it is Roxanne Shanté, because I’m kinda saying, ‘Oh, Roxanne Shanté set off this reaction of all these dope strong female artists.’ So I start with ‘Roxanne’s Revenge’ and then I go into Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, and it kind of just spirals all the way down to the present day with Trina, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B.”

Johnson was all set up to begin a grad school program (studying counseling psychology), but she says it’s not what she wants to do anymore. “I didn’t expect to get this much attention so soon for doing my music,” she says. “I thought it was going to be something like, ‘just go to class and do it on the side’ type thing.”

Instead, she now wisely plans to pursue music full-time. Johnson raps in a style all her own and switches up her flow to rap about whatever she wants—including being gay, drowning in pussy, and being able to “hit it better than your hubby can.”

“Before I knew myself, I couldn’t make the content I wanted to create,” Johnson says. “’Cause I was sitting here rapping about guys, about all this stuff that I wasn’t into but that I thought sounded cool, or sounded like it was hip-hop. And I just feel like all of that was just fake, it was just hindering me from what I’m doing now. It wasn’t authentic. I know my content, I know myself, I know what kind of music I want to make. I know who I’m speaking to and who my music is for.”