From ‘Drag Race’ To Overlooked Rapper: Why Aja Is Struggling To Find Their Flow

Aja finds themselves stuck between a drag persona they want to leave behind, and a rap career they can't seem to get started.

Aja Drag Queen rap career photo

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Best known internationally as the fiery and iconically memeable RuPaul’s Drag Race and All Stars contestant — who famously called out Valentina on Untucked for “Looking like Linda Evangelista” — Brooklyn’s Aja has cultivated one of the most unique brands to come out of the show.

Since All Stars 3 aired last year, they’ve eschewed the drag stardom they initially chased and instead have pursued a rap career, releasing trap banger after trap banger that, to quote one of their songs, “levelled their pussy up.”

But for some reason, no one seems to be listening, and Aja now finds themselves stuck between a drag persona they want to leave behind, and a rap career they can’t seem to get started.

Queer Artist First, Drag Queen Second

As Aja told a small crowd at their solo show in Sydney a few weeks ago, competing on RuPaul’s Drag Race is a double-edged sword. Sure, it introduced them to a global audience, but it has also made it very difficult for them to do anything else but drag.

In July 2018, Aja announced to their fans that they would no longer be identified as a drag queen. As they explained, being called a drag queen made them feel like they were being put in a box — particularly as the mainstream Drag Race community sees drag queens simply as cheap entertainment.

As they began their music career, they started feeling uncomfortable with being identified as “just a drag queen.” Sure, queens like Trixie Mattel and the AAA Girls — Alaska, Courtney Act and Willam — use drag as a medium to perform their music, but Aja’s passion for hip-hop and rap transcends drag culture. They didn’t want to be associated with the mainstream image of drag queens as  TV personas, they wanted to be a live performer.

“I consider myself a queer performer and artist because [identifying as that] makes me put less of a boundary on myself,” they explained in an Instagram livestream. “It makes me feel like society is putting less of myself in a box.”

“Yes, I do drag but I do other things as well,” they continued. “My burlesque comes from my female presenting gender and my music mostly comes from my male presenting side. My drag is more a genderqueer expression.”

Going forward, this meant that instead of lip-syncing at shows and performing traditional drag routines, Aja would be performing their own music, singing and rapping live. More controversially, however, they wouldn’t always dress in the drag queen aesthetic that fans had come to know. In the spirit of the masculine part of their music identity, they would sometimes perform in boy drag. Unfortunately, this was not what fans wanted.

Fans saw this news as an attempt to discount drag and the success of the show, and Aja’s announcement was cheapened by previous self-jabs on Twitter that they were robbed on All Stars 3. To summarise the colourful responses in a recent Reddit post about a tweet Aja made that they’d “never lip-sync again”, fans saw it as Aja having a tantrum.

“Looks like I’m never going to an Aja show,” said one fan.

“Does she think she’s talented enough for that,” admitted another.

“Aja is a conundrum to me,” candidly explained a Drag Race expert. “She really is, to me, the epitome of a young artist who is a little lost. And she might want to take a note and stay off the internet while she does so.”

This backlash begged the question: Do people pay to see them in drag, or listen to their music? As Aja asked fans how they should dress for a London show, one person told them that they should go as they want to, but that fans expect them to dress in drag. This contradiction echoes the overarching issue Aja’s had with breaking out: They’re too Drag Race for mainstream hip-hop fans, yet too mainstream for Drag Race fans.

When promoters advertise their gigs with a photo of them in drag and branded as a Drag Race alumni, it isn’t hard to see why some fans would quickly feel ripped off by Aja’s sudden decision to perform differently, but it also completely misses what makes Aja so unique in the Drag Race cast.

A Not-So Sold Out Box Office Tour

I first met Aja last year at an In The Dark event during Mardi Gras weekend last year, with Willam and T.S. Maddison. I paid $80 for a Meet and Greet ticket and waited in line for 30 minutes to meet them; I brought a manga I wanted them to read as a gift.

The meeting didn’t quite match my expectations: I walked up, hugged them and the other guests, took a staged photo with them all, and handed them the book before I was ushered downstairs to watch them perform two lip-syncs. After then, I went home. It all went by in no less than a few minutes, and it didn’t feel like I got to experience them as they intended. Events like those force queens in the very box that Aja is trying to avoid, not allowing them to explore their brand and connect with their audience.

Aja’s Box Office tour in Sydney a few weeks ago, however, was a personal and intimate moment with the Brooklyn-based performer. Over a 75-minute show, they played with the crowd, rapping, dancing and singing to anime clips from Sailor Moon, Pokémon, Tokyo Ghoul and the butt and breast wrestling anime, Keijo (yep, it’s a thing and don’t look it up at work).

It was full of energy and stupid buffoonery humour, and it was great. It felt as if we were discovering an underground artist in a queer live venue.

The only downside was the criminally small turnout, just short of 100 people. The afternoon before the gig, I won a meet and greet and wrote a letter for them, before soon realising that Aja gave away most of the M&G tickets because they weren’t selling. Everyone at the M&G won one in a competition, which begged the question: how many people actually paid to see Aja perform?

Advertising their show at ARQ signal blasted it as a drag show first, live gig second, and Aja unfortunately paid the price for it.

It was pretty clear from the ticket sales and the choice of venue — Oxford Street queer club ARQ — that the promoter didn’t understand Aja. As they jumped off the stage and danced alongside us, demoed mixes to Doja Cat’s ‘Tia Tamera’ and Nicky Minaj’s ‘Good Form’, it was obvious that this was a show meant for an Oxford Art Factory crowd, not a club on Oxford Street. Advertising their show at ARQ signal blasted it as a drag show first, live gig second, and Aja unfortunately paid the price for it.

But, as they told fans on Twitter, they don’t care that their Australian tour has been flopping — they’ve enjoyed their shows and know that the people attending are fans that are there for them, their music and energy, and not just the person they saw on TV.

And The Thing Is…These Beats Are Good

With that in mind, it’s baffling that not many queer geeks listen to Aja. Their music is unapologetically tied to their identity as an anime-inspired POC queer performer. Their debut EP, In My Feelings, is as they put it, “if an art student became a rapper.” It visualises their experience competing on a reality show, blends their kawaii Harajuku punk aesthetics and beloved ratchet personality, and tells inspiring tales of female icons, self-acceptance and self-worth.

Box Office is their debut full-feature album. It features the likes of CupcakKe, Shea Coulee and Rico Nasty and references pop culture icons including Kill Bill, Willy Wonka and Pokémon’s Safari Zone.

The first song on the album “Tutankhamun” incorporates classic rap vibes and sounds with the mystic hissings and instruments of Arabic music. The chorus is an Arabic translation of “I am the prince or the princess,” celebrating queer-Arab excellence and their non-binary identity. “Ghost” is an emotional ballad and love letter to all us gays who’ve been ghosted on Grindr and learning to put all that shit behind us. “Slytherin” warns of the people in their life that have tried to use them and how the singer isn’t afraid to bite back.

Traditionally, Drag Race alumni music is much like RuPaul’s own: a mixture of club, house and generic pop, quite lyrically simple and repetitive. Aja’s songs, however, are feisty, ripe with pop culture, and have sophisticated lyrical structure and non-white influences. While the artist admits they’re open to one day returning to Drag Race as a non-binary performer, their music will always come first and even while filming the show, it was what they’d always been working towards.

So, it’s almost shocking that out of 100 artists Aja reached out to collaborate with, only the seven featured on the album actually got back to them. Instead of looking at their poetic rap career, fellow artists and talent agencies were looking at the memes of them from reality TV. They knew the character, not the person making the music.

“People weren’t even willing to listen to my music,” they said. “They knew my face or who I was on the show and ignored it, and that made it really hard to make myself as an artist.”

You’d think that with the Drag Race and hip-hop communities both acting against them, that Aja would be questioning their future in music, but Aja isn’t letting this struggle define their career. Following the end of their current tour, the rapper is again seeking queer and POC hip-hop artists of all degrees of success to collaborate with, reaching out to fans on Twitter for help. As they told Music Junkee during the M&G prior to the show, they once dreamed that Doja Cat, the LA-based artist famous for her viral euphemistic tongue-in-cheek track about being a cow, sent them a remix of their song ‘Clowns’ in an audio recording on Grindr.

While some Drag Race fans have come around, most members of the subreddit are still disheartened by Aja’s new performer vibe. Aja is still addressing these concerns nearly a year after they came out as a queer artist, and still plans to make music and perform their way regardless of what others think.

And at the end of the day, that perseverance, coming from the bottom and making something of yourself through your music, is what made hip-hop and rap culture so beloved.

Julian is a friendly neighbourhood queer freelance writer reporting on pop culture. He’s a fan of underground rap and anime, and hopes to one day become a real life magical girl. He tweets at @Retawes.