new york city
Divinity Roxx is a double-threat musician, combining bass and rap into a sound all her own. Over her career, she’s gone from being the only “girl” in the band, to being a part of Beyonce’s all-female touring band. After talking with her, it’s pretty clear why she named her 2016 solo album, I’m Possible.
What led you to play the bass?
Music has always been in my life. I played the clarinet when I was a little girl in the school orchestra. That’s how I learned to read music. I was initially introduced to music through my mom; she was always playing music in the house.
Was she a musician?
No, she just loves music, a lot of R&B, funk and soul music. She gets obsessed with a song and plays it over and over and over again. That’s how I fell in love with music. We would also go to church and I loved the music there. That was actually the only part I liked! [Laughs]
Everything else was like, “Oh my God, kill me now.” But the music was amazing and it would move me to tears. Even when I was a little kid, a song would just take over my emotions.
I didn’t start playing the bass until I was at university. Before that, the only thing I ever played was the clarinet. I played the drums really briefly, though. When I was in middle school, the high school down the street didn’t have enough students in the marching band, so they came to the middle school to see if they could get some of us to come and play. The first year I had to play clarinet in the band, but I was like, “Listen, I wanna play drums.” The band director said I couldn’t play drums that year. Drums are so hard. The drum line was hardcore; they would make you do pushups and stuff. So I said, “I will play the clarinet the first year, but if I come back next year, I’m playing the drums.” So, I came back the next year.
You’d done your time.
Exactly, I did my time. I came back and he’s asked where my clarinet was. I said I left it at school because I’m playing drums. He was like, “Aw man, alright.” So I joined the drum line, which was so much fun. Then, I also started rapping in high school.
What did you rap about?
I was rapping mostly about why girls are so stupid when it came to boys. My first rap was about respecting yourself.
That’s very evolved for a teenager!
I had a lot of guy friends and they would just tell me about all this craziness with girls. So I wrote my very first rap song called “Respect Yourself.” I had a rap group called DATBU and we would perform in talent shows. It actually got pretty serious. We used to practice all the time after school. We hooked up with some producers who made techno, so our music was like techno hip-hop. It was weird, but we were so into it. But then I went to college... because you have to go to college.
Why did you feel like you had to?
I just felt like you were supposed to go. I mean, I was a good student. I made good grades, and I enjoyed school. My dad had a degree and was an electrical engineer and my mom was always about education. I got accepted into UC Berkeley.
What did you study?
My focus was journalism, because I love to write. So yeah, that’s what I did. I almost became a political science major, but that’s another story.
I met a whole bunch of likeminded people, musicians and rappers. I was like “Oh my gosh, you guys are making music. I wanna come—I’m a rapper!” We were having these freestyle ciphers and the next thing you know, we were having parties at my house.
What’s a cipher?
A cipher is when a group of MCs are all around in a circle and everybody starts rhyming.
So we freestyled—you know, that’s what it was about, being able to freestyle. Off the top of your head, saying something witty.
That’s a gift to be able to do that.
Yeah man, and some people are so good at it. Like Black Thought from The Roots—he’s so good at it, he’s one of my favorites.
So we would be having these parties at my house, and there was a drummer and an upright bass player who would improvise with us. The bass player and I became really good friends. I said to him one day, “I wanna play something. I used to play clarinet when I was in high school but I want to play the guitar.” And he said, “Nah man, you should get a bass.” And that’s how it started. I went and got a bass.
Did it come naturally to you?
The first time I tried to play, I sucked.
As you get older, it’s so hard to pick up new things.
That’s what I always tell people. You have to fight through that hard part. You know, I really don’t know what it was or why I kept doing it. Looking back on those memories, it’s fuzzy. I can’t pinpoint what it was that made me love it.
I bought this sparkly red bass—it was red and had glitter all over it and I was like, “Yes, that’s it!” I would come home from school and I would turn on the records that I loved, Goodie Mob and Outkast, and just try to play those bass lines.
So you didn’t take lessons at all?
I just started teaching myself. I bought a book, because I knew how to read music. I had that foundation. I took one lesson at Berkeley but I didn’t like the lady who was teaching it. If I would have kept going to those lessons, I probably would have quit. My friend who was playing bass taught me a few things.
How long did it take you to confidently play bass?
It took some years; I was really shy about it. I was a confident rapper, and I could get the attention of the crowd. I have a personality when I’m rapping, but the bass was different. I was really scared and introverted. It was so personal. It wasn’t something that I shared with the public for years.
My very first gig came about when I moved back to Atlanta and I saw a performance of a really amazing bass player. I had my confident MC personality on and was like, “Yo, I play bass, too!” He was jamming, so he invited me to a jam session with his brothers. He would show me the bass line, then I would pick it up and he would solo over it. He ended up putting me in his band.
That’s amazing! How long did you play in his band for?
Maybe about a year or two. We would do poetry readings and improvise over the poets. So, poets would come up onstage, then we would start playing and they would spit their poem over whatever groove we came up with.
He taught me about being in the moment, about improvisation. And he would just show me the bass line onstage, in front of everybody, and I would turn my back to the audience and play it. He would say, “Why are you turning your back? You’re so confident when you’re rapping. How come that person isn’t the person playing the bass?” I was like, “Because the person playing the bass hasn’t gotten to that point yet.”
You wanted to be at a certain point to perform publicly. Did you end up finishing university?
No. It was definitely a huge decision. It’s something that still haunts me a little bit, because I always wanted my degree from UC Berkeley. It’s such a great school and I still love to write. I think it’s something in the back of my mind that I would like to finish.
I suppose you have to take musical opportunities as they come at you. What was the first major turning point for you as a bassist?
Going to Victor Wooten’s bass camp to become better. He ended up asking me to go on tour with him. I had this one song that I wrote and he liked it. He’d never seen anybody rap and play bass. Plus, I was a girl who was rapping and playing bass, so he was like, “Yo, this is crazy.”
At camp, were most of the people men?
Oh yeah. It’s very male dominated. I think there were only three women at the whole camp.
So by that point, you felt confident in what you were doing?
I certainly was confident that I could do what I was doing, with the rap and the bass, bringing them together. I had two separate personalities and I needed to bring them together. I made a conscious decision to bring them together as one.
How long did you play in Victor’s band?
I toured with Victor for five years, but it took me three years to realize I was in his band! [Laughs]
What did you think you were doing?
I don’t know. I remember having a conversation with one of the other people in the band and he was like, “You know we’re going back on tour in the next three months.” And I was like, “Am I going with you guys?” He was like, “Yeah, you’re in the band!” I was like, “I’m in the band? Nobody ever said ‘Hey, you’re in the band.’ I thought I was just an extra person that you guys liked hanging out with.”
It’s so funny when I think back about it. But I just wasn’t confident.
So how many years have you been playing bass now?
I’m not gonna tell you how long, but it’s been a long time. But I still feel like I have so much to learn. I think I’m always going to feel this way.
So… Beyonce. I know everyone must ask you about touring with her.
It’s okay because it’s an incredible part of my story. It was also an interesting time because I was one person in a huge production. Before that I was always the band leader, the person on the microphone who was also playing the bass. But with Beyonce I was “the bass player,” and she was the artist. In a way it was liberating, because I could just focus on playing. It helped me learn what the role of a bass player is in a band. Now I know how to play that role.
Then my role grew and I became the musical director. It kind of came about because I think I’m a natural leader. If something was not sounding right, I would voice my opinion. I think people sort of picked up on that. So it was like, “Oh well, you’re doing musical director duties so you’re the musical director.” The tour is a corporate structure; it’s still very creative but in corporations everybody has a title. You’re working within this structure.
I really didn’t know what having that title meant until I left Beyonce’s band. It makes me sound pretty important. [Laughs]
It seriously does. It’s amazing what a title can do under your name.
What does that mean, though? The title doesn’t mean that I’m being creative.
You’re being “officially creative.” How long were you with Beyonce?
And now you’re an independent artist?
The crazy thing was that I was independent before the Beyonce gig. I was working on an album. I had just done this TV show called Crossroads. It was about independent artists who were playing alternative types of music. It aired on PBS. It was so funny because Tony Royster Jr. was playing the drums and he ended up playing drums for Jay-Z. The guitar player, it was Kellis, a really good friend of mine, Kelindo, he’s on tour with Janelle Monae which is so funny. So we were all in this circle, being creative independents. After the TV show, I heard Beyonce was having auditions for an all-female band, so I kind of put aside my thing and did that with her.
Was there something special about being in an all-female band?
Absolutely. We had all been the only girl in the band before. The majority of us had never been in that situation. All of us are type-A personalities, and we’re all really good at what we do and we’re all super-confident. I remember the first time we played at Madison Square Garden….
Did your mind just explode?
Yes. I was like, “Do you guys understand this is the Madison Square Garden? Like, do you realize what this means?” After the show I remember we were so hyped. We ran off the stage like a football team. We were jumping up and down. I remember Jay-Z was sitting on one of the travel cases, just sitting there looking at us and laughing like, "You guys are crazy!"
We became sisters. You know, there were things that weren’t amazing, but we pushed through it together and we’re all still really good friends. You do some crazy things on the road that you probably want to forget but they will never let you forget it.
How does it feel now to be living in New York and releasing your own album?
It can be hard. It’s almost like starting from the bottom. The cool thing is that Beyonce gave us all a platform that we could either spring from or not. During the very first tour, she gave us all solos, which was amazing because she featured everyone of us and it lives forever as a DVD. That’s been a great thing because people want to know me because of that. But sometimes it’s a little bit frustrating. I think I tweeted the other day, “One day you’re not going to have to know that I played bass with Beyonce to care that I make good music.”
This album, it’s so good. It’s called ImPossible [pronounced “I’m Possible”]. It’s really personal. It’s really musical. It is the body of work that I am the most proud of. It’s everything in me. It’s so liberating. I want people to hear it because I think the music is so good.
It’s hard, though, to promote yourself and get out there and do your thing. I’m not signed to a record label. A lot of labels have said,”We don’t know what she is. We don’t know what to do with her. How do we market her? How do we promote her? It doesn’t fit into a box.”
The other stress is all the business stuff that you have to do to make the creative stuff possible. I love being onstage and being able to play, but that can’t be what I do all the time.
You just moved to New York from LA. How are you finding it?
I always like the energy of New York, but I don’t like that there’s not enough nature. There’s not enough trees. I grew up in Atlanta. It’s like a city in a forest. But here it's just this concrete jungle and the city is always beating down on you. Transportation is crazy because I’m used to driving. But now I take the subway everywhere, which is faster than driving and cheaper.
A lot of the musicians that I work with live here. I recorded my album here. The thing about this city is that there are so many creative people here and so much creativity.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
My mom always says two things: don’t give up and always expect a miracle, because who couldn’t use one, you know?
What does New York mean to you?