A$AP. Three 6 Mafia. Raider Klan. Wu-Tang. OFWGKTA. Some of these groups are defunct now, but the mark they left and influence they had is timeless and unforgettable. These groups have a specific identity, and when most fans know exactly who each member is, what they stand for and what their image is. Outside of the groups, each artist still has their own separate identities. For some artists — Frank Ocean, for example — the identity of the group and the artist rarely merge. For others, one may be completely centered around the other, or not related at all. How would Destiny’s Child have looked centered around Kelly Rowland? Would their legacy be the same with or without the change to 3 members with Michelle Williams?
An artist’s identity is built around the persona they have created for themselves as an artist. For some people, this identity is actually the total opposite of how they are in reality and this can be good or bad. This is often framed as an artist just being fake or telling lies they aren’t living. Really, it can be viewed as the person becoming the character that their artist persona is — almost like a form of acting. When Tyler, the Creator was handed a 5-year ban from the United Kingdom in 2015 allegedly due to lyrics from his 2009 mixtape Bastard, he told The Guardian that “ the UK clearly states that these songs were written from [the perspective of] an alter ego … So the argument is right there! This song is written from an alter ego — I’m not like this! You could watch any interview and see my personality, see the guy I am. I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“I’ve had lots of aliases and nicknames over the years but, after I went through a lot of things and grew a lot as a person, I decided there’s no one better to be than myself” . — Mildred
The name of an artist — outside of the music — is perhaps the most important part of their identity. The name that those unfamiliar with them hear first when being put on to them; that will be attached to any and everything they do; that will stick with people beyond all else. Ideally, it should be catchy, have a certain ring to it and just work. The average musician goes for some form of pseudonym: Bun B, Jay-Z, Flo Rida, André 3000, Bruno Mars. Sometimes an artist will opt to just use their real name: Michael Jackson, Kanye West, Paul McCartney, Diana Ross and Mariah Carey. We know now what prestige comes with those names, but the stage name can make or break someone’s career.
Situations that happen in an artist’s personal life often spill over into their music life. Sometimes the effect can be so strong it causes the artist to change their stage name completely. Such was the case with R&B artist Bernell, who this past spring released her sophomore EP, Flamingo Frequencies Vol. 2. Bernell used to go by “Brandy B.”, her middle name followed by my first name initial. She came up with Brandy B. in high school “to actually mask who I really was, because at the time nobody knew that I did music & I wasn’t confident with using my first name quite yet & I didn’t want anybody to know that it was me if they ever came across my music.” This connects back to the aforementioned separation between artist’s personas and their true self; but sometimes this persona is so far removed from the artist’s true self, the genuineness gets completely lost.
“...The name change is kinda symbolic to me,” Bernell accentuates, “because it’s like I’m stepping out of that shell [of Brandy B.] and just fully being myself.”
Rapper and R&B artist Mildred has also gone through a name change — she was previously known as “Auntie Slay”, under which she released her EP S7ven. Mildred says this name “derived from a nickname ‘Slay’ that my bro Burnkas gave to me. People kept saying I just slay everything from makeup looks to music, [so] when he called me that other people heard it and it just stuck and I liked it. Then, I added ‘Auntie’ to it ’cause I just felt like it was fitting simply because I’ve been an auntie since I was born into my blended fam, literally since I was born…and all my friends low key look at me like that cool ass auntie who always has the right advice.” This is a stark contrast to Bernell’s former name which was rooted in hiding from her peers, while Mildred’s was literally built from her interactions with her peers.
However, their reasons for changing were quite similar. “…This is a time in my life where I’ve really come to understand who I am as a person & my value,” Mildred explains. “I’ve had lots of aliases and nicknames over the years but, after I went through a lot of things and grew a lot as a person, I decided there’s no one better to be than myself. I looked to my middle name which I used to hate before.. and I finally realized how lovely of a name it is & stuck with it.” She then reveals the duality of her name as an acronym as well: “Mildred — ‘Myself, Indefinitely Loved (by me), Da Real, Extraordinary Deal’.”
When an artist chooses to use their real name, it’s almost like they are making themselves more vulnerable. They want the world to see them for them. They appear to have no persona to hide behind in this aspect and have a similar personality both on and off the stage or inside or outside the recording booth. By using a pseudonym, artists are implying a larger separation between their true self and the stage.
Either way, there’s a barrier between the public image and the personal life, no matter how thin it is. We must remember: Artists are still human. No matter how many interviews you watch or lyrics you analyze, you can never know an artist better than they know themselves. In a profession where they have themselves on full display at all times, their presentation is the most important aspect. An artist must know themselves before we can try to get to know them. What did Rosie Watson say? “Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself and know that’s good enough. Don’t try to be someone else. Don’t try to be like someone else, don’t try to act like someone else, be yourself.”
Here’s some other artists with notable changes or stories behind their name:
- Stevie Wonder (christened Little Stevie Wonder at age 11 by Motown’s Clarence Paul) may have had a harder time selling over 100 million records using his birth name, Stevland Hardaway Judkins. His talent definitely did most of the work, but still.
- Rob Fusari was originally going to name Stefani Germanotta “Radio Ga Ga” after the 1984 Queen song, but claimed that the name “Lady” instead was sent due to autocorrect, according to a lawsuit the ex-manager filed against his former talent and girlfriend. Lady Gaga has asserted since at least 2010 that Fusari would call her GaGa, but that she added the Lady to it.
- Most of already knew Aubrey Graham from his 4 seasons as a starring cast member of Degrassi: The Next Generation from 2001–2005. However, by the time he released his first mixtape Room for Improvement in 2006, he had taken on the name Drake.
- No one’s had a more drastic change in their name than Prince did in 1993. Born Prince Rogers Nelson, the Purple Rain star had went with his first name for the majority of his career, also inserting some creative personas such as Camille, Jamie Starr, among others. Because Warner Bros. Records owned music rights over his given name, Prince chose to become known as his own “unpronounceable” love symbol after he began feuding with the label. The name change even came with the creation of its own Unicode inclusion and font sent to radio stations, which is still available today. Prince insisted on only being referred to by the Symbol, musically and in writing, and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (TAFKAP) informally. He reverted back to Prince after Warner Bros.’ rights over the name expired in 2001.
- We’ve known Shawn Carter as a form of Jay-Z for most of his career, but he’s actually gone through numerous name changes. Growing up as ‘Jazzy’, he chose his current name as a homage to Jaz-O, and also as a phonetic spelling of the J and Z train service that operates near his native Marcy Houses in Brooklyn. His debut album Reasonable Doubt was released with his name as Jaÿ-Z, including an umlaut. This was dropped by 1997, and he started officially removing the hyphen too with 2011’s Watch The Throne. In 2013 he officially began stylizing his name as JAY Z with the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail, and in 2017 bought back the hyphen, officially settling on JAY-Z for now. He’s also gone as Jay-Hova, Hov, JAY:Z, and The Carter Administration, among other pseudonyms.