Rapper Megz Kelli Says Music Is Inside Of Her

This profile is part of the Est. Summer Arts Series, featuring female creators hailing from Austin, Texas, who are using their work to explore gender, race, reproductive rights, and sexuality — in other words, to fight the good fight.

Megz Kelli talks about music the way people talk about blood; it’s in her veins and vital to her being.

“I was raised in New Orleans,” Kelli says. “You’re totally submersed in music all the time — 24/7. From a very young age, music is drilled into your head. You’re riding down the street, the windows low — there’s just music around all the time. In New Orleans, it’s all about being in the band. The next thing you know, you’re writing and you’re on the porch taping over your grandmother’s tapes, writing wack lyrics,” she laughs. “One of my first times rapping was definitely in a little church rap group — we were called ‘Ice and Dice’ and just rapping about Jesus, which was interesting!”

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Magna Carda/Photo by Michael Thad Carter

Kelli, a queer, black, female rapper — a self-described “triple whammy” — serves as the swaggering crooner of the hip hop group Magna Carda. What began as a duo with producer Dougie Do while studying at Austin’s St. Edward’s University in 2012 has evolved into a quintet — featuring Eric “The Greek” Nikolaides, bassist Derek Van Wagner, and drummer Michael “Brotha Mike” Gonzales — that is as eclectic as the band members themselves. Magna Carda is an uncanny blend of jazz, R&B, rap, and electronica. Every member brings their own signature stew to the feast, coupling driving beats with lilting melodies, haunting lyrics, and a backbone of bass-driven boogie.

Kelli says the creative process — like music itself — is part and parcel of her life; she lives notebook in hand, compulsively writing and listening.

“The creative process, for me, it never ends,” she says. “I’m always listening to music with some kind of objective — to hear something new in the beat, to catch an ad-lib that maybe I didn’t hear the first time. I say I’m constantly working — it’s a gift and a curse ’cause you wanna shut it off sometimes and watch TV without thinking, ‘oh I can do a song like that!’ while listening to the soundtrack in the background — so sometimes I wish I had a little off switch.”

While not all of Magna Carda’s music is explicitly political — confronting race, sexuality, or gender — Kelli says she keeps a keen eye on everything going on around her and is palpably aware of the intricate dynamics at play as her creation of music and identity intersect. Kelli believes that in many ways, the act of creating is in and of itself political.

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Photo by Jake Navarro

“I feel like your art is always a reflection of who you are,” she says. “[Mine] is definitely feminine, it’s definitely black, it’s definitely LGBT — it’s pieces of me. When women creatively express themselves, they are putting themselves on the frontline, making themselves a voice for the underserved. Sometimes you have to put yourself in the position to be the voice, or make the move, even though it may be uncomfortable.”

Kelli says that while she is deeply thankful for “hubs like Austin” and its progressiveness, the world writ large remains parochial and unjust. But she harbors unflappable hope; she believes art and music can serve as the potential connective tissue between humans otherwise staring like strangers across a chasm of mutual contempt.

“My grandmother has lived it, my parents have lived it, and I too have seen the ugly faces of racism — and I didn’t think I would have to go through that. It sounds so corny and so elementary, but it’s so real; you just have to be on the same wavelength so we can live in some type of harmony. [Magna Carda] gets to be a part of that, and we get to hopefully make the change . . . I think that’s something that all artists think about at some point in their career. Am I doing this for me anymore, or am I doing this because I see that I’m a part of something bigger than me?”

Kelli is not without her cautionary thorns, however; she is not naively skipping along to the sound of strings. She’s felt the weight of her own identities and been forced to navigate the shoals of bigotry.

“Often you have to be a certain way or act a certain way, do certain things. So if I’m like interviewing for a job, I hate to say it, but my sexuality and my blackness have always been things where I had to tone it down in some situations. And I hated doing that, and I still hate doing that. So I’m really trying to get to the point where I’m so strong in myself that you’re just gonna have to deal with it . . . but it’s definitely a process for people.
“It’s such a struggle to have to do that, to have to live like that, to have to go from one safe place, one community, and then switch to another, and then you’re in the LGBT community and you see no black faces, or you’re like chilling at a jam session, and there’s no women there, or you know, you’re at a black church, but if you’re LGBT you can’t come in, or they’re gonna talk about you during the ceremony and it’ll feel really uncomfortable.
“Being the triple whammy, you know, it’s even harder, but I wouldn’t not be any of them — I wouldn’t change it at all. I’m very proud of who I am and proud of what everyone in each of those three communities have done to advance themselves — they all need a little work, but we’ll get there.”

Magna Carda just dropped their fifth album — CIRQLATION.

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