An interview taken from our latest print issue IN CONVERSATION WITH 2! Aja might be known to most people as one of the faces of RuPauls Drag Race, but has completely come into their own as a nonbinary queer artist in the last two years. Aja is bringing the art of drag into the masc-dominated world of hip-hop. In May 2018 their debut EP, In My Feelings was released, followed by their breakout album „Box Office“ which was beloved by critics and new and old fans alike, but also sparked debates among Drag Race fans.
Born and raised in the heart of Brooklyn, Aja’s genuine connection with their fans and their personal struggles with race, gender identity, class, and sexuality, has become largely impactful to the LGBTQ+ community around the world. We met one of our favourite performers to talk music, beauty and life lessons. @ajathekween // iTunes / twitter.com/ajaqueen // ajakween.com
Bowie got in drag, Beyoncé gets in drag, Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga get in drag before they hit the stage. For me it‘s the same shit!
What have you learned about yourself during the last year? Patience, with me and others. While making, promoting and touring with „Box Office“ I learned how different the two industries, TV and music, are, that I’ve been working in, how different fans react to me and certain parts of my work and how to deal with that myself. You sort of have to tread the system like a child. That maybe sounds terrible but what I mean is this: You can’t scream at a child, you can’t hit it, you just have to love it, be patient and realize, that a lot of the time children just need time to learn things at their own pace to be able to understand them. So, not everybody will understand every single thing I do, but that’s fine. I’m trying to find ways to do new things in a familiar format, so people can get kind of „lubed up“ to the idea behind it. I don’t want to shock people, but sometimes that is just bound to happen and I can’t control it.
That sounds like you were surprised by the reaction of some fans to the album, but have made your peace with it. I was. And I have, yes. But mostly people reacted really, really positive. The album did and is doing way better than my EP „In My feelings“, which came out just last year. And for where I am in my work and in my life, I’m very happy with the turnout. I’m all about my artistic integrity. And when you’re being true to yourself artistically, you will always be stuck in the middle. There will be people who hate what you do, and people who love what you do. And I’m learning, that that’s just fine. Also, I don’t need people to cuddle me all the time and tell me I’m amazing because I know I’m amazing and really love what I do. At the same time I’m my biggest critic. Nobody can out criticise me. I know where all the actual flaws are in my work.
Music critics don’t seem to find too many of those. They loved „Box Office“. Was that also a surprise? That was almost unreal for me. That people who could be really, fundamentally critical of my work gave me so much praise and are comparing me to big mainstream names in music. That was really generous of them and wonderful for me because „Box Office“ of course is just the beginning for me, it’s not the extent of what I’m capable of. I can push myself to do more and work harder.
You know, it’s funny that people who don’t actually listen to the kind of music that I make and simply don’t like it, are so critical. I don’t like a lot of pop music. And if you show me Ariana Grande or something like that, I’m gonna say it’s bad. Just because I’m not into pop. That’s all. It’s taste, not a judgement of ability. But to clear that right up: I like Ariana Grande (laughs).
Why do you think some Drag Race fans think they could react so negatively? A portion of the Drag Race-fanbase has become extremely spoiled. Many people who go on that show and use that platform now, do everything they do for the fanbase. And that’s a beautiful thing. But I, as an artist and a person, am just not like that. I don’t make art for other people, I make art to express myself. I make art to make people who have been in my shoes before happy and to stimulate emotions. That can be happiness but also anger or sadness. So, if you’re mad at my music, you’re doing exactly what I want you to do. If you’re happy with my music, you’re doing exactly what I want you to do. In the end I feel I always win, because I got to stimulate a lot of emotions, whether those are positive or negative emotions.
So the reaction of the public to your work doesn’t matter to you as an artist? Not whether it’s financially successful, no. But „Box Office“ achieved both. It was a commercial success, at least in my world, and I stimulated a lot of emotions with it, which was exactly what I had hoped for. Some members of the public will always think they get to dictate an artists sense of success, but they just don’t. It’s like that Lady Gaga quote I have always loved her for: „That’s why I’m the artist and you’re the public.“ Which is just very true. You can judge but you can never take away my success, or my experiences and everything I worked hard for on my own. Because they belong to me, my name is written on them.
Is what you’re doing now more of an artistic expression of your actual self than what you did on Drag Race? I was in a different place in my life back then, not as comfortable with myself as I am now. I wanted to be liked by these people and by this fandom. I grew up in a spot where I really had to work hard, to be heard and I feel Drag Race was another one of those times where I had to work really hard to be heard. Afterwards I learned that I had my own voice and that I don’t need to pander to the system. It is true, the moment I really started to be myself, a lot of people distanced themselves from me. But many people also started to gravitate closer. I gained a lot of fans who were actually interested in me as a person, not the superficial tease of a TV-personality. It became a lot less about „I love your looks“ and „You’re so funny“ and a lot more about „I want to know more of your story because i’m interested in you for you.“ And for me that’s more meaningful. Everybody is different and some people love the other stuff more, but I don’t. I always wanted a voice and to be able to be myself has given me more of that voice.
Last year you gave an interview in which you distanced yourself somewhat from drag and said you are not a drag performer but a queer artist. Was that the start of the trajectory you’re on now? I never really had a drag persona. After my second round in drag race I had a weird kind of identity crisis in which I couldn’t tell who I was for a second. I started to really struggle with the idea of gender and personality. I then realised; I always thought I had this drag character but
I really didn’t, that’s just me. Aja has never been a drag personality or performance. It’s just a stage name for who I am 24/7. My friends and my partner call me Aja. And I sort of prefer it to my birth given name. It is simply who I am.
What does your mom call you? My mom calls me by my birth name. And I let her. Because she raised me and I give her respect. She did not birth me but she made me. She taught me everything I know about life and can call me anything she likes.
But does your mom understand who Aja is, and that you’re Aja? She understands who Aja is, yes. And she gets me. But still calls me by my childhood nicknames. Which is fine. Because I’m sure, if I sat her down and were like: „Look, I need you to call me by this or that name.“, she would do so. But, honestly, I really don’t care. Because names and labels are just another part of materialism trying to separate and categorise things. Which is bullshit. Even the „drag“- label, or even the „queer artist“-label, in all honesty, I really don’t care about that. I’m just a musician, an artist, just somebody who creates content.
Was your view on art always that wide? I couldn’t really tell you. It all just sort of happened. I started writing music when I was really young, about ten or eleven years ago. And then I discovered drag as another way to express certain things. I was sixteen and performing in competitions around New York and then it skyrocketed and I realised that I could financially support myself doing it. Even as a local artist in New York, if you pull your strings right, you’ll be fine. And listen, bitch,
I’m a Capricorn, I like stability. So I’m good at talking to people to get what I need. Even before I was 21, which is the legal age where you can start performing, I had three or four weekly gigs and was traveling to perform in other places. I was doing okay but I was not doing the best. So I decided to aim for a higher platform. And that was when I decided to try to do Drag Race. But I also walked onto that set, knowing that it’s not a real competition, it’s a reality television show. And I knew that you can’t prepare yourself for reality television. It’s always gonna be a mindfuck.
Have you healed from that yet? Yes. I feel like this year is sort of, when I hit rock bottom, but then wrote about it and realised, it’s over, I don’t have to deal with it any more. Part of that process was learning that my views as an artist did not align with that anymore. I actually really respect everyone who does Drag Race, all the other artists, and everybody who works on the show. And I’m incredibly thankful for the platform that was given to me by the show. I don’t think less of the program and really appreciate it, but I also am ready to do something else now. Beyonce didn’t stay in Destinys Child forever, just because she started there. And I don’t mean to say that I’m some leader of the pack or something like that. I just think, just because you’re known for being part of some collective, you have to remain a part of that collective forever. A lot of the girls in Drag Race should branch out and do what they want to do and stop trying to feed the system. Because the drag race fandom is not for everybody. It certainly isn’t for black people who have opinions. Because every time a black person says something the Drag Race fans don’t agree with, they get pushed aside, they get unfollowed and then they get trash-talked.
Why do you think that is when the most famous person in the show and the person who the show is named after, is a person of colour? RuPaul has created themself as a drag icon, and that is what Ru is known for. Everybody who knows RuPaul respects him. I mean, Ru was mentioned by fuckin’ Biggy in his rap. And I don’t really want to dig deeper into the race issue, but RuPaul as a mother is a stereotype of black women being this matriarchal figure, which is also why people respect queens like Latrice. Because they come across nice and motherly. Maybe they are not like that all the time, but it’s a comfortable image for an audience that has people with micro-aggressive racial tendencies within it.
But when performers like Vixen who are younger and more opinionated say something, all hell breaks loose.
Is moving away from drag, and the armour and disguise that drag can also be seen as, part of that? I never really viewed drag as an armour or disguise. For me drag is just clothing. It‘s just something you put on before you go on stage. I feel like everyone gets in drag. Bowie got in drag, Beyonce gets in drag, Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga get in drag before they hit the stage. For me it‘s the same shit.
Is there a difference for you, when you perform in drag or not in drag? It‘s the same thing. I mean, the European tour that I did for „Box Office“ and the shoot that I did for KALTBLUT, half of it was in boy drag. It was masculine presenting drag. I did not wear lashes or presented as female, but it was still drag.
Is boy drag just as much as drag as female drag? Of course, why wouldn‘t it be? Is that because masculinity is just as much a performance as femininity is? Of course. Gender itself is a performance. For me gender doesn‘t even exist. Gender is just this idea, a stupid construct, that was placed on us, because we have a penis or vagina or something. Because of an X or a Y chromosome. Because one person has menstrual cycles and the next person doesn‘t. It‘s that stupid. Gender is an idea that was placed on us, like every other label, to enforce patriarchy.