WireTap

Katastrophe: Hip Hop Against the Grain

In this original interview, the transgender emo-hopper takes on Eminem, heterosexism in the hip hop community and the point at which art and activism intersect.
If you haven’t heard Katastrophe's name yet, you will. With an LP in the works and a European tour under his belt, this 25-year-old FTM (Female to Male) emo-hop (that’s hip hop with emotion) artist is on the verge of making it big. Or, that’s the word on the streets.

Katastrophe, also knows as Rocco Kayiatos, sat down to talk to WireTap after a recent performance at Genderblast, an event sponsored by San Francisco's Youth Gender Project. Here, the artist discusses his music, his role in the queer community and the future of transgender youth in the public sphere.

WT: What got you into Hip Hop?

Katastrophe: I started doing spoken word and slam poetry and it sort of evolved into hip hop. I felt like it was a natural progression; I was already writing rhyme-y spoken word stuff, so then I just learned how to make beats, and started making hip hop. Plus, I'm 25. Hip hop is older than I am, so it's been part of my life, always.

WT: What is the hip hop scene like from the perspective of someone who is gender queer, given how hip hop is generally seen as a very heterosexist music genre with very rigid gender definitions?

K: If you don't listen to hip hop, you don't understand. It's like rock n' roll or anything. Everything is homophobic. This is a world that really doesn't want [queers] to be part of the mainstream, in any powerful positions, or to have any effect on the media – so of course it's homophobic.

And then being an out, trans person who has a hard time keeping it to himself, performing for a straight hip hop audience, I’ve found that [most of that audience] doesn't want to really have anything to do with queers, especially a young trans guy.

I did a battle once, and once was enough. It was nothing but, "fag" this, "you're a little bitch," that, and "look at you, you're like a girl." This is what a guy is saying to me, and I'm thinking it's not that effective, because I'm aware of all these things. It maybe would work for some other straight dude who is homophobic and scared, but I don't care if you say I'm a girl, I'm just going to come back and tell you that I used to be one, but then I'm going to hope no one beats my ass in the parking lot.

WT: Why hip hop? (over spoken word or traditional nonfiction writing, for example).

K: I think that it widens my audience because with spoken word, you can only go so far. The people who listen to spoken word or poetry are a smaller audience than the people who listen to music. When you have a beat behind you, you get to sneak in all these messages – heavy-handed political messages, but you're singing them and dancing, so people are listening and absorbing.

WT: Do you think that using hip hop as a means to express yourself and your experience makes it easier to connect better to youth who identify with other young FTMs? What about those outside the FTM community?

K: No, I think acoustic music or rock would be easier to connect with the queer community. There's a "huge queer hip hop scene" in the Bay Area, and that means there are like six of us who really like to support each other. But overall, like whenever I get off a stage, at least one person's like, "I hate hip hop, but I loved that," or I'll perform for a 65-year-old trans woman, and she's like, "I could never listen to rap, but I love what you're doing."

I'm just going to do what I do. I have a few songs specifically about the FTM experience, and people can connect to that.

WT: Do you see yourself as an activist for queer rights movements or more as a commentator and an observer?

K: I don't like to claim that I'm an activist because if I'm doing anything for the greater good of this community, it's indirectly. I'm expressing myself and if people can connect with that, then that's great. What I hope is that I connect with people and maybe build community. I feel like you can be an artist and indirectly affect change. I think it's pompous when people are like, "I'm an activist through my art." It's not that easy; you have to be volunteering your time, going to rallies, organizing, actually doing something beyond having a self-serving career that may impact the lives around you. Take Le Tigre – Kathleen Hanna’s absolutely a feminist, her music is feminist, but is it activist? That's really arguable. When was the last time that Kathleen Hanna or any of those guys volunteered for any organization? But I [ask myself those questions] too. I'm not letting myself off the hook.

WT: How long do you think it'll be before there are more FTMs in the public/pop culture sphere?

K: Before someone gets recognition in the mainstream and it's not like a Jerry-Springer-kind of joke? I don't know. It's weird, maybe it's because I'm [in the Bay Area], I feel like I get a skewed perception of the world. My life is so focused around being queer, and what a luxury that is in San Francisco. But in terms of mainstream acceptance, it's hard to say.

I feel the change is almost palatable to me, I feel like it's in the air. It could be a week, it could be ten years, or maybe it won't be in my lifetime. It's like gay people are finally starting to be taken seriously — and how is that? It's through stereotypes like "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and shit like that. They haven’t let a butch woman on TV yet – so when will they let a trans person?

And in terms of somebody being a pop icon? I hope that I'm the first. Can you f*ckin' even imagine what would happen? I have already done lectures at straight colleges, for sorority girls, and they freak out. First they'll think I'm cute and then I'll tell that I'm trans and then they're f*cked because they're like, "But you're still cute! What does that make me?!" And they don't know how to reference themselves in their attraction to me. So I think it would flip shit upside-down if a trans person had any kind of mainstream success. I hope I can be it or see it.

WT: Near the end of "Written in Flames," you call out Eminem, criticizing the homophobic, misogynist and violent images that appear throughout a large part of his work. We talked about your role, musically, inside and outside the queer community, do you consider yourself someone who goes against the grain within the hip hop community?

K: I feel like a queer person making hip hop, you're already going against hip hop. I think about it so much that it's subconscious. Like when I'm writing, I'm not thinking, "I'm going to call Eminem out." That song is mostly about my frustration with the lack of intelligence or social consciousness or any kind of meaning [in our culture]. I feel like it's all just commercial. Like it actually is just a commercial. Like a catchy jingle, "Pass the Courvoisier / Does it make my people want to jump when we pass the Courvoisier" or "How many pairs of Nikes are you wearing?/Gimme two pair, I want two pair."

When it comes to Eminem: either he's talking about nothing or he's talking about hating on my community. But if you’re really going to be a part of hip hop, you have to listen through the crap that's horrifying. Then there's something I get out of it, maybe it fuels my anger. But [Em]'s also a talented emcee. It's difficult because you see someone who's maybe really smart, or on some level, is intelligent and kind of aware of what he's doing, but on this whole other level, he doesn't accept any responsibility for it. He washes his hands of it, and he's like, "what I say of music isn't true in my life." I just think that's a huge cop-out – you can't say that. If you're a musician or an artist, it IS about your life, there's no way around that, you can’t rap about anyone else's experiences. In a way, inadvertently, I feel like Eminem is sort of opening the door for a huge backlash of response from queers that are making hip hop. I'm not the only queer that's rapping about him, it's infuriating.

Look out for Katastrophe’s soon-to-be-released LP, "Let's F*ck, Then Talk About My Problems." Or, if you can’t wait, check out one of his tracks, here.
Mac Baretto is a senior at Acalanes High in Lafayette, Calif.
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