The making of Doechii, rap’s new secret weapon
Having inked a deal with Top Dawg Entertainment – the label that’s released Kendrick Lamar’s albums – and scored co-signs from SZA and Obama, the Florida rapper is demanding attention with her shake-ass-and-cry anthems.
Doechii remembers the first time she was called a “Black bitch” like it was yesterday. She was a shy kid in third grade (that’s year four to us Brits), having recently moved from a predominantly white private school to a more diverse public school. She’d experienced bullying and racism before, but not like this. “Being dark-skinned was just brutal,” recalls the 23-year-old rapper. “I got bullied a lot for being Black, from my Black peers.”
One day, while the artist born Jaylah Hickman was sat on the bleachers by the sports field, “this guy in my class who would always fuck with me” pushed her off, spat in her face and said those two words that would follow her around for the rest of her life. “Something about that experience traumatised me, because he was the same colour as me and said that,” she says. “It took me years to unpack the self-hate that he had at that time.”
But with that unpacking came a realisation: an affirmation of her own strength. “Every time after that, when I would hear ‘Black bitch’, or when anybody pointed out my skin [colour] and me being a bitch at the same time, it was always in a moment where I genuinely felt most powerful,” she says. Before the incident on the bleachers, for instance, Hickman had just nailed a flute lesson.
“Every time I felt like I was doing really good, some person would try to tear me down and oppress me by calling me a Black bitch. I realised that I was in a state of power that made other people afraid. Nobody’s ever called me a Black bitch when I was depressed or sad.”
This epiphany underpins Doechii’s new EP, she /her /black bitch. It follows a whirlwind run that’s seen her achieve TikTok virality with her 2020 single Yucky Blucky Fruitcake, amass 3.5 million Spotify listeners, sign to Top Dawg Entertainment, appear on stage at Coachella, perform on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and the BET Awards’ mainstage, and (breathe!) get a shout on Obama’s yearly playlist.
“I thought it could be really interesting to break down the archetype and characteristics of a Black bitch, and what that means and feels like from a Black woman’s perspective,” she explains, Zooming in from her hotel room in Miami, Florida, where she’s currently enjoying some downtime before heading to her hometown, Tampa, to continue her press run. On the Rico Nasty assisted track Swamp Bitches, that manifests as a snarling shot of bravado that lets “the Black villain win”. Meanwhile, comparatively relaxed tracks like This Bitch Matters and Bitches Be reveal introspection behind the swagger with sensitive lyricism, simultaneously showcasing Doechii’s versatility and vulnerability, as her bars wrap around boom-bap beats and soothing melodies. As she puts it, “it’s all the same power, just expressed in different ways.”
As a child, Jaylah quickly realised that performing was her destiny. One Christmas, her grandparents bought her a “little superstar kit”, complete with a mic, a stage outfit and DVD with a “little white girl who teaches you songs and choreography”. By the end of the day, she’d mastered her first routine and performed it for her family. “I was really good. I loved it,” she says, laughing. “That was when I realised I really liked the attention.”
Raised by a young single mother, artists like Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Lil Wayne and raunchy Florida legends like Trina, 2 Live Crew and Trick Daddy soundtracked Hickman’s early years, as her small family moved around the state. But then, her musical education pivoted towards the teachings of Christianity. “I think [my mother] wanted to turn her life around and make sure that her kids were built on really good morals,” says Doechii. She started spending six days a week in church, performing as a dancerette in a Christian marching band and singing gospel music. “All of my artistic values and training came out of my church.”
Somewhere in the middle of all that, Jaylah Hickman became Doechii – the summer between elementary school and middle school, to be precise. As the kids in her class approached pre-teenhood, their insults had grown increasingly vicious. It became too much to bear and, around the age of 10 or 11, Hickman attempted suicide. Now, she looks back at that time as a “blessing in disguise”.
“After I tried to kill myself and it didn’t work, I realised what the fuck life was really about. I had to find a reason to live. I got really bullied, really fucking bad, but it pushed me into living,” she says. “I actually am grateful that it happened, because now I know why I’m here and I’ve never lost that.”
That summer, Jaylah had a rebirth, christening herself once more as Doechii. “I realised really young, like damn, I’m gonna die one day and I’m gonna be in that casket by myself. Not even my family is going to be with me,” she explains. “And I realised that when I die, I want to be happy. I want to know that I did everything I could. I realised I didn’t hate myself. I didn’t believe what everybody else believed about me, so why did I take it so personally?
“When I had that realisation, it freed me. I named that state of mind and those beliefs ‘Doechii’. It’s really my core, it’s not an alter ego or anything.”
More than a decade later, the Doechii state of mind remains strong. There were multiple offers from major labels after Yucky Blucky Fruitcake blew up, but it wasn’t until Top Dawg Entertainment came knocking earlier this year that she was persuaded to sign a deal. “A lot of labels didn’t really impress me with their lack of integrity,” she says. “They all came to me with a prepared plan on how they thought my career would go, but TDE was the first label that sat me down and asked me what my plan was.”
With a back catalogue that includes Isaiah Rashad, ScHoolboy Q, SZA’s Ctrl and every album Kendrick Lamar has released so far, TDE’s legacy speaks for itself. But as the label’s second female signing after alumni SZA (who, by the way, hopped on a rework of Doechii’s house-infused, Obama-approved single Persuasive) and first-ever female rapper on the roster, she’s also keenly aware of the potential for others to follow her path. “At first, it kind of scared me, but then I realised that there was so much opportunity and responsibility there, and how many doors I could open up for the next female rapper,” she says. “I feel worthy enough to continue the legacy of TDE. And that’s the point: it’s a Black legacy. That’s something I want to carry on.”
Doechii’s now working on her debut album at her newly-built home studio, after she realised that being holed up in TDE’s windowless studio wasn’t quite feeding her creativity. “I like to write in parks, go to different restaurants and get inspiration, or visit a museum. I come home and write on my couch, or drink a glass of wine at night and cry, and record by myself when nobody’s around,” she explains. “People in the studios are smoking weed and shit, there’s a bunch of lights, there’s just this pressure to be a rapper. But when I’m home, I feel like I’m Jaylah. I’m in a clear mind with no judgement and I don’t feel pressure to perform.”
What results can we expect from her late night wine-and-cry sessions? An “alternative hip-hop album” that incorporates dance music. “I want the shit to feel like rap, but still be fun, but tell a real story and have a very clear message,” she says. “I want people to shake their asses but also cry a little bit.”
Good timing, particularly as Beyoncé’s Renaissance: Act 1 and Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind have created a huge commercial crossover moment for club music. “I guess everybody’s on the same shit now,” she shrugs. “I have no clue where it came from, but I’ve been in house and dance music for a long time, so it feels good to see it go quote-unquote mainstream. But I feel like it’s always been mainstream, personally.”
In any case, unless she’s meticulously studying Bey’s performances for fun in her free time (“Beyoncé, if you need an understudy, girl!”), Doechii doesn’t need to concern herself with what others are doing too much. Her dexterous musicality, nimble flow and distinctive point of view have already set her apart from the crowd. Becoming Doechii hasn’t been easy, but it sure as hell has made one of the fiercest emerging talents in music.
If she could go back to whisper hope into the ears of a young Jaylah Hickman, what would she say? “I wouldn’t, because I know she’s sensitive and wouldn’t be able to take it or believe me,” she says, plainly. “But I would beat the shit out of that little boy who spit in her face.”