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Flying Away with McKinley Dixon

McKinley Dixon, in a black T-shirt, jeans, and Vans poses to the left at a pink piano in an all-pink room.
Jimmy Fontaine
McKinley Dixon

The rapper and longtime Richmond resident's new album — Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?! — is available now.

McKinley Dixon wants listeners to look for the love on his new album, Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?!. The longtime Richmond resident's latest offering is all about community, combining influences from jazz-rap, animation and seminal authors. It features cameos from a range of artists and friends, including poet and writer Hanif Abdurraqib and local neo-soul musician Ms. Jaylin Brown.

On a call to his newfound home in Chicago, I caught up with Dixon to learn more.

Note: the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Parnell: The new album takes its name from Toni Morrison's Beloved trilogy, and it opens with Hanif Abdurraqib reading an excerpt from her novel, Jazz. I'd love to start by talking about her influence on your work.

McKinley Dixon: Toni Morrison is crazy with it, because Toni Morrison does such a beautiful job capturing the human experience and the complexities of existing not only as a Black person — specifically as a Black person — but also just a person in general. I think that a lot of the time, while her characters are Black, they do have interactions with people of other colors. Sometimes they are horrible, horrible people in their own right, but also that they themselves are going through it continuously.

You know, there's love, there's horror — oh, there's a lot of different things that make you as a human. And I think she does that so beautifully. That's just something that I wanted to try to capture with this record.

What else inspired the album?

My mom, a little bit. A lot of moments with friends that I sort of took and internalized for later. Moments where I would look around and I would be like, “This is a really beautiful thing that's happening that only we are sharing right now.”
Like “Dedicated to Tar Feather.” That one, I was at my Black trans friend’s house, Jada, and she made me and my partner dinner. You know, that was awesome. But then she’s cleaning up and she refuses to let us help. And I'm like, “Well, that's fine.” But then she does this thing — she made some sort of bread, and then she brushes it into her hand. And you could just see how beautiful it was: Brushing these crumbs into her hand after working so hard, and also existing how she does.

From “Dedicated to Tar Feather,” it's like, “a shaky hand sweeps the table of the crumbs, while a lil boy hopes someday he’ll get closer to the ones, that set off explosive tongues, saw one get killed last summer, he lift his head, and butterflies escaped his mouth, from out his lungs.” I'll see a moment and I'll be like, “This is something I really want to capture.”
Your last release was the album For My Mama and Anyone who Look Like Her, which came out in 2021. How would you say Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? connects with that record?

The connection between the two is mainly that they are both to document my progress existing. The stories are all of my life and the people around me, but really, the two don't share that much in common. Besides sonically, they're a little bit jazzier, but even that was done way different styles, and way over a short amount of time. It's just a public documentation for me and everyone else of my progress.

I want to also spend a little time talking about this thread of imaginative possibilities. “Live from the Kitchen Table” depicts this alternate, pain-free timeline, and “Sun I Rise” is [about] finding different suns and different planes of existence. I don't know if you want to touch on that at all?

So I'm also a fan of Octavia Butler, the legendary Black science fiction author — incredible, incredible stuff. But she continuously was like, “If you know everything under the sun, then it's time to find other suns.”

I think that line just stuck out to me so much that it was like, “What if I took that ideology and examined it through a Black critical lens that isn't a writer writing sci-fi?”

Then, it doesn't become, “I am trying to document these ideas,” it becomes “now I'm dreaming.” You can't physically do a lot of these things, especially for a lot of people in the situation that I came from; dreams are an escape for a lot of folks. Thinking about where other suns are and how we view it from other places is me flirting with flying away without actually flying away — especially when it comes to people that are alongside me, who might not have the same idea about flying or dreams or this or that.

Other worlds and other suns are this way for me to connect the thought that one day, we will all be in different places, regardless of what that is.

You studied animation at VCU. Do you find that animation also offers the same imaginative elements?

I think the reason I make music how I do is because of animation. I actually have another interview today with Josh Terry, and it's a short one, but he does this thing where he's like, “Talk about three things that inspired you then and now.” One of them was this movie Paprika, by this incredible artist Satoshi Kon, a Japanese animator. He originally did film, and he said, “The camera moves too slow for my eyes, so I switched to animation.” He made Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers — these movies that are so vast with how they juxtapose dreams and what the eye can catch to real life.

Animation also, when I was younger, provided me a place that wasn't the six Black sitcoms that were allotted for me, or the thousands of white sitcoms that exist. Sort of an in-between, where it's like, “All my friends don't have to be one race and we don't have to be against that other one race.” It could be this diverse narrative where we all not only are different races and ethnicities and things like that, but we also got magic powers. Why would I not want to think about that!

The new album also has this great roster of collaborators attached to it, including Richmond's Trey Pollard and Ms. Jaylin Brown. What was it like bringing everyone into the studio to work on it?

Family affair. Trey was on my last record. Everyone who was on this record was on my last record, except for Ghais — I guess that's another similarity. A lot of the people are reoccurring characters within my universe. There’s really no need for me to go outside of it. If the greatest rapper to me is Alfred., Teller Bank$, Ghais [Guevara], Seline Hayes, the greatest singer’s Jaylin Brown, the greatest string arranger’s Trey, I don't really need to look for other people to fill that role.
All of these people have sort of seen me grow very closely over time. For My Mama was not recorded the studio, but this album was all recorded in studio, so all of these people came together. This is the culmination of a child raised by the block, so it was really, really cool to see all that.

I like that phrase, "a family affair."

We are now all moving up, stepping up in this together. it's not just “McKinley is now moving up.” It's like no, McKinley is moving up, and that also means more looks for Teller. More looks for Alfred., who is one of the best rappers ever and doesn't release anything anymore. Jaylin Brown, who’s just getting started; Ghais, who's just getting started — all these people are people that I've seen grow, and have watched me grow.

That reminds me of what you were saying earlier about the desire to fly away, but thinking about the people who you want to bring with you.

I love all my friends is what I'm saying.

We talked a little bit about VCU and your time there. How has Richmond in general left its mark on your work?

When figuring out my identity post coming from a government-raised family, and then also splitting my time between Maryland and New York, I sort of had this ideology of longing, what longing was, and that was sort of my identity. I didn't really have a community in Maryland, and I didn't really have a standard community in New York. I was longing a lot.

But then you come to Richmond, and you're like, “There's a bunch of other people that are also longing for this!” And thus, we all make something that has not existed before.

Richmond now is way different. There was no Black queer dance parties until Angel made Ice Cream Support Group. Me and Mutant and definitely Alfred. were sort of the first rappers that were doing this. I went to school with Lucy [Dacus] — me and Lucy have known each other for a decade and change, all sort of coming into our own. But Richmond’s Black and brown, queer and trans community really were the ones that were like, “This is how you figure yourself out, as I also figured myself out.”

They held space for that. And that’s all you could ask for when choosing a family like that.

More community-making — that’s sort of the theme we keep returning to.

I mean, honestly, that's all it is! People are like, “How does your music sound like this?” Really, you just learn how to talk to people. You really just learn everybody’s pronouns, everybody's names. You introduce yourself, you say their names when you talk to them. I gave people the time of day, you know? Anyone can be in your position, and you can be in anyone else's position.

McKinley Dixon’s new album, Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?!, is available now. He’ll be performing in Richmond on Sept. 15 at Gallery 5.

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