On stage, Jwl B moves less with the grace of a cheetah roaming the Serengeti and more with the ferocity of an Ultimate Fighter battling inside The Octagon. Her more than 200-pound frame, not quite on beat, gyrates uncontrollably with random, indiscriminate air punches and bellows from some hidden place in her soul.
Jwl—one half of the hip-hop/electro duo Yo Majesty—sometimes gets impatient when people aren't feeling it. She doesn't lose her mind over such indifferent affronts, but she's known to lose her shirt. And a topless, plus-size woman will certainly shut folks up at the bar, if not get stoic hipsters to loosen up a bit.
“I got stretch marks and I'm fat and I'm wildin'” Jwl recently told The New York Times. “But your boy 50 Cent does his show with his shirt off. Why can't I? God made me who I am, and I'm comfortable in it.”
Jwl may be at ease, but the idea of a black, lesbian, hyper-sexual rap duo from Florida is outside a lot of comfort zones. Even if it weren't, Majesty's type of booty-shaking hip-hop has historically been reserved for sexually aggressive, often misogynist men. But talking to the exceedingly confident Shunda K (the duo's other half), you might start believing the group really will change the game. To make a literary analogy, if 50 Cent is the Marquis de Sade, then Yo Majesty is Erica Jong.
“When it comes to being a lyricist, can't nobody fuck with me—man or woman,” Shunda tells CityBeat from her home in Tampa. “When Yo Majesty is exposed, everybody gonna be hollerin' at me like they do T-Pain, but I'm gonna be keepin' it real.”
Along with artists like Kid Sister, Lil' Mama, Santogold and M.I.A., Yo Majesty is on a select list of emerging female hip-hoppers ditching the whole “ghetto bitch” pathos for an organic, free-wheeling approach to a male-dominated scene. What helps (and hurts) Yo Majesty is their anomalous place within the genre.
The duo's unique take on electro-infused, hardcore hip-hop has little competition, but being aggressively opinionated minorities within a minority within another minority group might not help them reach new audiences (as if songs like “Kryptonite Pussy” and “Fucked Up” weren't enough).
Hell, they even scare their peers. A backstage YouTube video of Lady Sovereign shows the pint-sized English rapper practically recoiling in terror as the much larger Jwl B tries to show her love. But the ladies take it all in stride because they understand that Yo Majesty is, indeed, different.
“That's what's gonna get everybody's attention—two gay girls from Tampa,” Shunda says. “I know that's what's intriguing to people to wanna come out to the show.”
But if Yo Majesty is indeed poised to blow up as big as Shunda claims, it's been an arduous path. Their genesis goes back seven years when LaShunda Flowers (Shunda K) met Jewel Baynham (Jwl B) in a Tampa gay club.
Along with another local MC, Shon Burt (who recently left the group), the trio became underground stars with their raucous live shows (Jwl once almost knocked a guy out in Texas for getting a little too familiar with her breasts) and for what Shunda describes as “real gay music.”
The group broke up in 2003, after which Shunda renounced her homosexuality, found God and married a missionary. But after two years of speaking in tongues and walking the righteous path, she divorced, reclaimed her lesbianism and reunited Yo Majesty.
During the group's hiatus, “Club Action” (one of the first tracks they ever recorded) began garnering attention on MySpace and in hipster clubs the world over. Soon after reuniting, Yo Majesty was being flown to Europe to open for bands like CSS and The Gossip in front of surprisingly receptive audiences.
“Our shit, you can play it anywhere,” Shunda says. “We can go and rock out a rock concert with some hip-hop.”
Their live shows, with or without the nudity, became a thing of legend—perhaps on par with Public Enemy's early '80s shows in Europe, with Jwl B playing the Flava Flav to Shunda K's Chuck D. The dynamic served them well, with Shunda rhyming over an electro-influenced beat and Jwl's gospel-influenced wail serving as the hook. The attention got them signed to Domino Records (perhaps best known for avant indie artists like Clinic and Artic Monkeys), which will release their debut later this year.
How the album will be received is uncertain, but, then again, the odds don't really mean shit to them. They've already gone through enough drama, as individuals and as a group, that whatever people think of them—whether they sell 1 million records or 100—Yo Majesty will be in your face no matter what.
Yo Majesty! performs at 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 30, with Does It Offend You, Yeah? and White Apple Tree at The Casbah. 619-232-HELL. www.yomajesty.com.
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