Getting in touch with local rapper McKinley Dixon proved to be a great challenge, and rightfully so. Between preparing for a final tour for his first mixtape, Who Taught You To Hate Yourself?, finalizing the recording of his second mixtape The Importance Of Self Belief, creating content for a third unnamed mixtape, and working a full-time retail job, this 22-year-old has been busy, to say the least.
Originally printed in RVA #30 FALL 2017, you can check out the issue HERE or pick it up around Richmond now.
Although Who Taught You To Hate Yourself? was released last March, Dixon said many fans have just started to catch wind of it recently. While he is always happy to pick up fans at any point, Dixon said he is working on finishing that musical chapter and moving on. “[It] was created and started and released in a very pivotal time in my, like, recent years, but it was released last year,” Dixon described. “To me, it’s like, there’s a lot of different changes that have been made in my life since that tape has been created. It was like an accumulation of a lot of different feelings that I don’t feel now, thoughts that I don’t have now, and expressions that I express more now.”
Born in a majority white neighborhood in Annapolis, Maryland, Dixon said he didn’t feel like he could fully open up and be himself. It wasn’t until he came to Virginia Commonwealth University to study Kinetic Imaging that he was exposed to diverse communities that allowed him to realize his own creative potential. “I started learning more and blossoming more once I came to a place where it was just as diverse as my thinking,” he explained.
Dixon said he drew a lot of inspiration for Who Taught You from learning more about African American studies while in school. This is evident in the title itself, which is a reference to a Malcolm X speech made in 1962. In the speech, Malcolm X talks to a crowd of majority black women, urging them to recognize their worth despite outside voices condemning their very being. “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair?” Malcolm questions. “Who taught you to hate the color of your skin to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?”
Malcolm X’s inquiry of the importance of black identity and blunt criticisms about the struggles of black folk during the Civil Rights Era is a theme that parallels with Dixon’s commentary on the struggles of the modern black American, with issues such as racism and police brutality making the title extremely appropriate on several levels. These ideologies paired with Dixon’s naturally introspective and self-critical personality help create a truly observant and self-aware piece of work. “I guess I was, like, coming up in college and realizing [the] problematic nature of a lot of different things,” Dixon reasoned. “From where I extend from, from where I came from, people who I grew up with, from people I know now.”
The album takes place in a fictional world called “God’s Land” that focuses on the black subject primarily from a male perspective. Dixon said he wanted to be able to tell these stories in an imaginative space in order to have more creative freedom with recurring characters and stories that illustrate a picture much bigger than himself.
Now, Dixon is focusing on pushing the narrative even further, but wants to be able to completely put Who Taught You to rest. To complete this chapter, Dixon said he is planning on going on a final Who Taught You How to Hate Yourself? tour that will encompass multiple cities and states. This is a big change from his last tour, which only included four dates from Richmond to Baltimore. With a bigger team now, Dixon said he is excited to see how this upcoming tour pans out. “I have a solid group of friends that all have certain ideas to make this [tour] the best it can be,” he remarked. “It’s all coming together, which is really nice.”
While Dixon does have the tour dates in mind, he has chosen to not make them public at this time. As I talk to him more, it becomes clear that Dixon doesn’t give out any information about his work hastily, and that timing is important in his creative process.
Since the release of his first mixtape, Dixon said he realized that he was still missing out on stories from other perspectives within the black subject, such as black women, femme people, and trans people. This progression in ideology birthed the concept for his second mixtape, The Importance Of Self Belief, which does not have an official release date as of yet.
“I think that’s where The Importance Of Self Belief came from,” Dixon said. “That kind of switch in ideology of talking more about my maternal figures in my life. But not in the sense of kind of being a savior aspect; more in the sense of, like, trying to… talk in the eyes of somebody.”
To elaborate, Dixon said that he equates the perspective of the second album to the boy on the album cover looking up to these queer and feminine figures. However, he doesn’t plan on telling these stories alone. Some of the collaborations on the next album include rapper Babe Simpson, singer Ali Thibodeau, poet/writer Maiya Pittman, and even his young niece, who is a toddler now.
For Dixon, the incorporation of feminine voices not only allowed femme subjects to tell stories from their own perspective, but also created a larger thematic message of what he thinks is the true core of the black subject. Dixon said when he took a step back and thought about his ideas of what black identity is, he always circled back to one thing: black women. “There’s no monolith idea of blackness,” he explained. “But at the core of everything is black women.”
In regards to his music, Dixon said that having femme voices at climactic points in his songs allowed for him to illustrate this point musically. “There’s a lot of moments and endings of the songs that kind of resonate where Ali [Thibodeau] sings,” he detailed. “It’s supposed to [show] like, how all these different stories are going on [and] all these different battles are being fought by different men, [but] there’s still, like, the real people affected, and at the core of all these things are femme, black trans, black women.”
When reflecting on this ideological progression, Dixon admitted that it was a long road before getting to this point. “I was learning a lot of different things about my behavior and how, like, even though certain things didn’t mean what I wanted them to… it was still there, and how that affects people on a level that a majority of masculine people don’t really think about,” Dixon said.
Dixon credits a lot of his enlightenment to the friends that he has made while in Richmond, who have continuously pushed him to think differently. In fact, Dixon goes as far as to say that he would not have realized his full creative potential had it not been for the strong and supportive community of queer people and people of color that he met in this city.
Among the friends that Dixon works closely with is his band, who will be featured on the upcoming album as well. This is another major change from Who Taught Yourself, which was mostly comprised of songs with beats. In regards to the creation and growth of his band, Dixon said that having a full band has always been his intention.
Dixon’s partnership with the band began when he first came to VCU. He recounted making a song about the importance of music and bands which he showed to some of his current band members when they were all freshmen. That simple exchange sparked a relationship that is still growing today. When talking about the creative relationship between him and his band, Dixon said that he has little to do with how they play what he says.
The trust and collaboration between Dixon and his bandmates, who often perform together as “McKinley Dixon and Friends”, is even more electric on stage, where the band often improvises their solos during live performances. “I kind of just will tell them a very bare concept and then they will play whatever they feel,” he expounded. “I think people [musicians] like that and respect that so they tell other people. You always need instruments. You always need homies.”
Because his bandmates have so much creative freedom, Dixon has more time to focus on the concepts and details for his albums. Before he finished recording The Importance Of Self Belief, Dixon said he already finished the concept for his third mixtape, which is set to be the last installment of the trilogy.
To Dixon, creating content this quickly is nothing to him. When reflecting on his creative process, Dixon said he normally starts with a loose concept, has a rough draft within two weeks, sends it off to local producers like Onirologia, who recently relocated to Florida, and then has a finished product a week after that. Easy, right?
Dixon explained that shift in hip-hop culture to be more D.I.Y also has an impact on his ability to put out music so quickly. If he needs to have big band arrangements, he records them in his friends’ living room, not a studio. And when he’s done, he can just upload any content to a free-streaming platform like SoundCloud or Bandcamp, where anyone can access it.
To Dixon, this freedom and accessibility also allows different styles of rap to emerge, which, in turn, lead to more perspectives emerging about alternative black identities. “Every style that comes from those rooms is valid and important because it’s all just black kids being black kids,” Dixon said. “None of the stories they’re telling is bad and none of the music they’re making is bad because now they’re able to make it on a platform that doesn’t require you to be dictated by a certain audience.”
As far as Dixon’s plans for the future go, everything seems up in the air. While Richmond has greatly shaped his music, Dixon also noted the monopoly of sound that seems to dominate the music scene. “It’s very monolithic when it comes to making music,” he said in regards to the Richmond music scene. “Large groups of people make the same types of stuff.”
Because of this, Dixon said that he often finds that many musicians have the same sound. Despite this, Dixon said he still finds it possible to thrive in Richmond and attributes a lot of that success to his band. “It’s incredible what people will do if you put a band behind you,” he remarked.
Even with his local success, Dixon said he doesn’t think it is good to be stuck in one place in general, and knows that he will eventually make a home somewhere else. Where that community might be, is completely open to him. Outside of Richmond, Dixon said that he has a surprising international fanbase, with listeners concentrated in places like Germany, Korea, China, and Japan. While an international tour has been in talks, nothing has been solidified.
Even though Dixon has a lot of promise for a long-lasting and successful career, he said he isn’t thinking that far ahead. To him, as long as he is creative and in control, whatever else happens will happen. As of right now, he can’t see himself doing anything else.
“I don’t know what else I’d be rapping about,” he admitted. “This is everyday life for me. This is everyday life for my homies. This is everyday life for my family. This is everyday life for my friends. I wouldn’t be able to write about anything else.”
Article by: Taylor Peterson