Psalm One is not just a brilliant rapper, she’s also a teacher and a mentor to countless kids in and around Chicago. Since 2007 she’s been running Charm Lab, a music mentoring organization. She also teaches music through RhymeSchool, an after-school program that’s about to go international—Psalm is going to Haiti later this month to mentor up-and-coming artists there.
First, though, Psalm’s alter ego Hologram Kizzle is dropping Hug Life (out tomorrow), which is both a declaration of her own independence as a woman and just a really fun party album. While she’s still the only female emcee on the Minneapolis hip-hop label Rhymesayers, she decided to release this album on the Chicago independent label Bonafyde Media.
We are so excited to premiere the video for the single “A New Phaze,” and Kizzie, aka Psalm, aka Cristalle Bowen (her given name), spoke with us about her nerdiness, her music, and what a “new phase” means to her.
BRITTANY: Who is Hologram Kizzie?
PSALM ONE: Hologram Kizzie is just the less fearful, less calculating, more comfortable with her sexuality person that I always was. One of my first rap names was Kizzie Tangents. Kizzie actually is, in pop culture, the daughter of Kunta Kinte from Alex Haley’s Roots. So if you kind of put those together, Hologram Kizzie is kind of like the futuristic daughter of a slave. The enslaved part of me was the part of me not really understanding what my role was as the first lady of Rhymesayers. Hologram Kizzie is more like, “I know that I’m the first lady of Rhymesayers, and if I want to put out this album, I’ll put out this album. I believe in what this is.” I love Psalm more than anything, but it’s time to not be scared to put out some of this music.
What made you want to release a whole album under a different name?
It’s fun for me. It means not being bound to what people say you should be doing. I’m not trying to confuse people or even start over. It’s just a bridge. There are people who knew me from college who still call me Kizzie, because that was my rap name. [I was using] Psalm One when I first started getting press—they would put my name as Psalm One. I didn’t want to be confusing people. Also, I’ve been doing so much great work with kids that I kind of want to separate the more raunchier stuff I do, and Hologram Kizzie allows me to do that.
In the song “Sex Is a Weapon,” you say, “I make music for weirdos and the sexiest nerds.” You also have a song called “NerdLife.” How do you define nerd, and what’s the nerdiest thing about you?
I define nerd as anybody who has an almost calculating obsession with things. Sex, drugs, rock & roll, clothing—you can be a nerd with those things. [It’s] somebody who has a love of education, a love of learning. It doesn’t necessarily mean you look a certain way. For me, I am a science nerd. I love science, I love chemistry, and that’s kind of nerdy! I have a tattoo of Walter White on my arm. I have a whole arm that is dedicated to science! But the nerdiest thing about me? I quit the basketball team to pursue advanced-placement chemistry in high school.
You are kind of living my nerd dream, where both artistic but great at math and science. I know you studied chemistry at the University of Illinois—how were you able to do that while pursuing your rap career?
I never really pursued both simultaneously and seriously. As far as the chemistry was concerned, I didn’t have a choice with [my family] after I expressed interest. It was my passion then. In high school [rapping] was just kind of like a hobby—a way to meet friends, stuff like that. In college it got a little more serious, because I realized people were being moved by my work. It’s cool to do both, you know? But it’s hard in the real world to do both. In college, I would go to class, I would go to lab, then I would walk across the campus, hang out with my friends and make music. When you’re paying bills and you’re in a big city and you have to travel hours to record and stuff and live and sleep…and being late for work.
Can you tell me about your work with RhymeSchool?
Rhymeschool is basically an operation between myself, Fluffy, and the Intonation Music Workshop in Chicago where they [teach] rock and pop music to the kids there. What I do is I bring the hip-hop. We’ve been able to collaborate with Intonation on RhymeSchool for about three years now, and we’ve been at four different schools. Right now I’m at Beethoven Elementary in Bronzeville, on the South Side. It’s super cool because what we do is we go into the schools, and we have six or ten weeks to complete a project with these kids. We [also] provide life lessons about being responsible, being reliable, completing projects, being focused, and being a team player. And we do all this with a fun hip-hop backdrop. We make sure kids know that if [they’re] not coming to class, [they] don’t get to hop on the song. We’re teaching kids that even in rap, there’s a lot of work involved in order to get to the point where we’re at.
And you’ll be going to Haiti soon?
Yes! I’ll be going to Haiti at the end of this month. We’re going to basically take the RhymeSchool program to Haiti and work with local Haitian artists.
What has working with kids taught you?
Just to be way more open with my content and not take myself so seriously. And how to do more music without cursing. On Free Hugs, the EP I put out last year, which is basically the precursor to Hug Life, there is no foul language. I don’t curse once. But I’m not really talking about kid stuff, I’m talking about adult things. I think that that really taught me how to get my points across. I mean, really, if you’re going to use the word fuck, it better mean something! Make it mean something more than just rhyming with luck. They just really taught me how to be really aware of what’s coming out of my mouth. These kids are really interesting. I actually want to be acceptable in the car with both kids and the parents. That’s kind of where I’m at.
Can you tell me a bit about your personal Chicago and the difference between that and the public perception of Chicago?
The crazy thing about Chicago is that it’s so dangerous in some places that people can’t wait to leave, and it’s so nice in some places that people can’t even imagine ever leaving. The crazy part about it is that those paths, they never cross. I know people in Chicago who have never been down south. Never been off their block. I’ll ask kids “have you ever been to Water Tower [in downtown Chicago]?” They’re like, “What’s that?” They don’t even know! It’s crazy!
I went to private school for some time and went to school in Hyde Park so I have friends from different backgrounds. I have some white friends and some rich friends whose parents used to tell them don’t go south of Kaminsky Park. Don’t go south of downtown. It’s really that segregation that really fucks things up, especially the perception of what’s going on here. I love Chicago. It’s my favorite place in the world, so I’m torn. For me, I just feel like I have so much work to do here.
Finally, do you have any advice for our readers who may feel overwhelmed with choices or options right now?
I think it would be the same thing someone once told me: that sometimes you’ve got to look at the clouds before the sky because the sky can look too big sometimes. The clouds can put it in a perspective where you can take it bit by bit, and you’ll be OK. I feel overwhelmed sometimes when I think of all the things I have to accomplish, but I know if I just calm down, take a couple deep breaths, and just get it done piece by piece, I will get it done. If you acknowledge that if you are doing good work, you won’t feel so overwhelmed. You’ll just understand that you gotta keep working. Period. If you’re doing something super important, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, that just means you’re feeling the sheer magnitude of what you are doing. ♦