For a moment last March, I could have sworn every person inside of the Sinclair remembered what it’s like to be in love with the world. Not an idealistic world, but the real world, a place checkered with depressive lows, self-doubt, death, hate crimes, and individualized struggles that return throughout life. Everyone remembered what it was like to love a world that doesn’t always love you back, because a positive outlook is the only thing that can help you make it through, no matter how hard making it through may be. It was all thanks to one woman, too.
Following a slam poetry performance by Melissa Lozada-Oliva and before local indie rock favorite Palehound closed out the show, a little rapper by the name of Oompa took the stage. Most audience members hadn’t heard of her before. Armed with a jazzy backing band and a whole lot of love, she barreled through a massive set, both in number of songs and in emotional strength. She encouraged people to sing along to songs they had never heard of before. She cleared a path for fellow black girls to take over the front row of the stage. She reminded everyone in the audience what it’s like to be happy, to be aware, and to be grateful you are here. She did it with ease which makes sense when you remember this is Oompa we’re talking about.
The 27-year-old Roxbury poet and rapper has been a subtle force in Boston’s music scene for a while now. Her album November 3rd landed her on our Best Local Albums of 2016 list. She’s been performing with fellow tastemakers in the city. And if you’ve had your ear to the ground, you’ve heard her poems free of music, the type of words that make you think long after the conversation stops.
When we meet at Dudley Cafe, it’s no surprise Oompa has a lot to say—she’s juggling multiple conversations at once. Several people walk over to her to say hello or continue a discussion they left off days ago. Even the owner of the cafe waltzes over to check in on her as she waits in line to order food. Nestled under Oompa’s arm is a stack of flyers for her upcoming headlining show at Great Scott this Friday. In the center of her eyes is a friendly glow matching the one in her smile. Every part of her body language is inviting and warm, but never once is it jarring. At some point during every side conversation, Oompa introduces both parties to one another. She’s humble throughout it all. Oompa is the type of person who laughs loudly in an infectious manner but listens quietly, making sure that when she does speak it’s to further a conversation or to better understand. Watching her talk, it makes sense Oompa is such a central figure in the scene, especially in Roxbury as it’s where she grew up, but it feels surprising she isn’t a household name yet in music. Give it time, though. Her aura alone will take over soon enough, given the ambition and drive she’s hiding.
Her story begins in a house of women. Being surrounded by them while growing up shaped her, as it would for most people, but in a very distinct way. She was adopted to a single-parent household along with her two biological sisters. She was swooped out of foster care because her biological mother, her mother’s mother, and everyone in between seemed to get swept up in the cycle of never-ending, intergenerational trauma. In her new Roxbury home, bodies were changing around the same time. Each person walked through the house with an understanding of and sensitivity towards one another. At school, Oompa learned to hang out with guys and follow in their footsteps to stay safe, becoming the self-described tomboy of the family. Living in a city asks you to develop a hard shell anyway, but learning masculinity through men directly adds to that. Every year seemed to bring a new reason to toughen up. Her mother was overprotective and overbearing, but eventually she couldn’t afford to be overbearing because everyone had to chip in to the family’s well-being. The sitcom dream was dropped.
“We had to learn to ask for things, to try to get things, to work for things,” says Oompa. “It’s interesting when people say they grew up poor in Boston, because that’s a very different experience than doing so in the Midwest or the South. But there were times where we didn’t have enough of things, be it food or money to pay bills. For a long time growing up, I didn’t know my mother was doing side-hustles or asking for money. But we did know how things worked. If Rent-a-Center came knocking on our door because she didn’t pay the bills, we all knew to lay down, don’t say a word. A big meal she made of weird foods together would have to last us a week, which meant no seconds or that my mother would forgo a meal that night.”
Music was a crucial part of family life and source of joy. Throughout the apartment, cardboard moving boxes were stacked tall, each full of Motown vinyl records and 7” singles that her mother would play for them to hear. She and her sisters practiced singing in front of the mirror and rehearsed group dances to Disney hits and *NSync numbers. Eventually, Oompa heard her first hip-hop song, “Everyday People” by Arrested Development. She began seeing herself in the female rappers of the ’90s like Queen Latifah, Eve, and Left Eye. “I thought, ‘If I could be anybody, it would be them,’” she says. That influence sprouted into fascination. After school, Oompa spent her time writing their lyrics in a journal and reciting the lines until she knew them as if she penned them herself. That’s when Oompa realized she could substitute her own sentences into a verse but keep their ending rhymes. It was a written game with herself, and one that eventually led to her battling verses with a friend during middle school lunches. But by the time high school arrived, she put music behind her.
It wasn’t until Oompa discovered poetry that rap re-entered her life as a personal outlet. Though she pegged rap as a childish habit, deep down she knew the reason for abandoning it was because it wasn’t logical career path. High school sought to fix that. She befriended two older girls who were into performance poetry. Meeting them was an escape from the stereotypically masculine path she started ambling down in high school. Instead, they dragged her out to underground arts events and readings—a world she thought she was too cool for. Watching one of the friends read poetry, Oompa began seeing the art form as a “cool” outlet instead of an after-school journaling game.
“The confidence they gave me for writing my own poems, and the exposure they showed me, was so, so important,” she says. “What poetry validated for me was that you have to be observant, you have to watch different systems at play, in order to connect the dots and speak to a larger lesson that binds them. I love thinking about what a small moment means to the world, and poetry allowed me to turn that—what I thought was a cool brain puzzle—into something bigger that even gets me to question my position in the world.”
Right when Oompa fell on track to push herself to new literary feats, her life began to spiral. She moved out to Pennsylvania for college where she switched from chemistry to focus on math. It was her first real exposure to life outside of Boston, and the collegiate lifestyle came as an unexpectedly powerful hindrance. She hid her class status from students. She felt too black for the queer community. Worst of all, she didn’t fit the stereotypical bill, both at the college and when she returned back home to Roxbury for a break. “People kept thinking of ‘college’ as a compliment or a way for me to separate myself from the hood, but it wasn’t either of those things,” she says. “Could I look at the world from a different place? Yeah, but I felt like I wasn’t in the world either. I couldn’t win on either end. I became a permanent liminal figure.”
Then, in the fall of 2009, her mother died. The college’s inability to give her grieving time left Oompa slammed with homework and end-of-semester grades while trying to pay her respects to her mother. With a scholarship on the line, she decided to change majors from math to English in order to keep her grades up, as the prior became too taxing to teach herself while away from class. While all of this was happening, Oompa watched as hardships piled up on her plate—far more than any kid should receive in their lifetime. Feeling betrayed, Oompa’s siblings kicked her out of the home and she lost all of her belongings: childhood furniture, photo albums, her mother’s favorite records. The following summer, Oompa was homeless. She began bouncing between cities and friends’ couches, trying desperately to hold on to the education scholarship she earned without straining herself too thin. “I was putting Band-Aids on my home life,” she says. “It was the wrong call.”
That’s when she discovered the one thing her college could offer that didn’t isolate her: the computer lab. Lined with Apple computers, the college’s library became a place to learn how to record music more professionally. “I straight-up locked myself in the library computer labs and wrote tons, like 24 bars in a song,” says Oompa. “Eventually, I showed my friend Omar. He kept pushing me to do it, and I started to get in the rhythm.” He hyped her up with each GarageBand trick she learned. Two of her friends living in Texas played her music on their radio show. Slowly, the people around Oompa began championing her efforts as she transitioned from straightforward poetry into self-aware hip-hop. As her interests began intersecting, she began remembering what she had to offer and how that outlet could help others in return.
By far the biggest defining characteristic of Oompa’s music is the extra level she holds herself to. As she writes, she edits herself, like a constant stream of creation and revision. Instead of addressing a topic, she pushes herself to unpack it as well. One question comes after the next: How many times has this story been told? How much energy does it take to go deeper? What’s stopping her from doing such? The mindset is stressful and certainly adds a level of pressure to the songwriting process that Oompa could gloss by without, but what it adds is invaluable. It elevates her writing from emotional slam poetry to the type of hip-hop that evokes emotion, points fingers, and attempts to offer solutions—all without the slightest hint of ego. Oompa is experiencing these problems firsthand, and she wants you to know she’s right there in it with you.
“When I write now, I have an accountability to a community of people, including people I don’t know, to be a representative. I have to watch what I say,” she says. “I’m interested in the nuances that make us up, the ways in which we cross, and the perspectives that go untold. My entire life, I didn’t have a distinct role model. I’ve had help from people older than me, but I’ve never had that moment of, ‘Wow! You look like me, you’re queer like me, you like what I like’— none of that. For the longest time, the closest thing I’ve had to that was Lena Waithe. Before that, it was Queen Latifah—and she’s so far from what I am. I had to accept who I could get. I never saw these chubby-bodied, natural-haired, STS-majoring, low-income black women. I want to be that for others because I can be that. My story lends itself to that. Even if I want to write about certain subjects, I can’t write about them because I’m holding myself to this higher standard. Sometimes I want to write a fun, upbeat song about misogyny. It’s easy to do that. But I’ll be damned if I write that, because there are ways to explore the concept without objectifying a person or contributing to an ideology that contributes to something else. It’s about being better because you can.”
It’s impossible to miss this on November 3rd. The record has its fair share of bright instrumentals, searing lines, and heartfelt moments. Listening to it, it’s hard to realize just how much work went into turning songs that were pretty statements into actual material worth discussing. A song like “Dear Mama” took shape when Oompa struggled to accept the feelings of loss and regret in her life after her mother’s passing. It began in the form of a letter, a list of things she wanted to tell her mother now that she’s gone, but Oompa decided to take it a step farther. She locked herself in a bathroom for two hours until she binged every emotion and thought about unsaid conversations and lost moments with her mother.
Other songs took more work. “Catch 22” began as a straightforward “college sucks” anthem for undergrads to relate to. Instead of leaving it be, she examined how she arrived at this mindset when college originally seemed like a field of optimistic possibilities. She was tired of hustling and somebody told her college was the path to break that cycle. Disillusioned and doubtful—which she notes is a privileged standpoint in its own right—upon learning it wasn’t, she felt extra frustrated. So she broke down the complexities of such. “It’s about the literal catch-22 of being black in college but still struggling,” Oompa explains. “Upward mobility is synonymous with being less black in a world that hates black people, but you’re still discriminated against anyway. It makes you want to give up. But the best thing you can do is make it home, whether that’s where you grew up, in the streets, or somewhere new.”
This year Oompa will go bigger than ever, and she may go home mentally, too. She quit her day jobs to commit to music full time. What she’s finding is that with more space to create, there’s more she can dig through—and deeper lengths to reach for. The record revolves somewhat loosely around the concept of chasing joy while staying far away from the cheesy opuses of someone like Logic or even Outkast. There are complicated matters like the nuances of trying to love a curvy body or how low points make accomplishments feel even higher. After initially predicting the new album would pour out of her in under two months, Oompa finds herself reaching farther, unfolding her stories wider, and editing angles to scale new heights. At the end of the day, she’s feeling scared, which is a clear sign that she cares deeply enough about the material to want to do it justice—and then some.
“Right now, I’m sitting in the mouth of life, right in the teeth of it, and learning how to straddle who I am, where I come from, and what I can offer,” she says. “Joy is hard because we have so many moments of neutrality and disappointment before joy comes. Joy tends to be an emotion we treat like everyone experiences [it] the same way, but that’s not true. I can tell you about all the misfortune I had along the way—and all of it was crucial in making that joy as happy or impactful as it was.”
The easiest source to tap into for inspiration is the very place she finds herself: Boston’s music scene. When she realized she felt her most alive not when teaching kids math or working at a nonprofit, but rather performing onstage, Oompa realized the way she priorities honesty and creativity lines up with a large chunk of the city’s scene. Boston is a community ripe with talent and subgenres. The way it’s allowed her to be born, bred, and thrive here is proof that it has plenty to lift up.
“Boston has a reputation for not supporting its artists, but we do,” says Oompa. “We share, support, and offer critical feedback. That’s what makes the Boston scene poppin’. The collaboration is real. This generation of artists has a new scene. All that we need is for artists who have other platforms to then bring the rest of the group up with them.”
True to her personality, Oompa is walking the walk by throwing a hometown show at Great Scott this Friday. Don’t be surprised if the doors shake from deafening audience cheers. Oompa headlines alongside Kyle Bent and Rex Mac, both fellow rappers from the area. If the show sells out, it will prove Oompa’s positivity in the face of adversity, and the deep-seated belief that community can introduce anyone to their life path, is the truth after all. Not that there’s reason to doubt she spews anything but the truth. We’re just holding out for her to become a prophecy figure at 27. Oompa’s words are realistic positivity in a world increasingly drained of such. If she keeps it up, the rest of the country, not just Boston’s music scene, will be pushing itself to be more authentic in its optimism while supporting others as it goes.
“Artists sometimes view fans as supporters and only supporters,” she says. “But how many events for other artists do you go to that are organized by the same promoters? How much organizing are you doing with this community? How much do you actually know this community that’s putting you on? What goes overlooked are the communities behind the artist and how we need to do more to support them. It’s like 10 of us artists and 2,000 of them. That means there’s 2,000 people that need your love back. So send them that love.”
OOMPA, KYLE BENT, REX MAC. FRI 4.27. GREAT SCOTT, 1222 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. 10PM/21+/$10. GREATSCOTTBOSTON.COM