McKinley Dixon, a rising musician in the rap and jazz scenes, performed on April 8 at Gabe’s for the Mission Creek Festival. Raised in Richmond, Virginia, Dixon went to college in the early 2010s while working on his first album, “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?” He followed his debut with “The Importance of Self Belief”.
His third album, “For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her”, earned critical acclaim. Conor Lochrie from Beats Per Minute said of the album, “…where Black art often seems like it has to have a greater point, a higher purpose–indulging in traumatic images of violence in racial horror, as in the above case–white people, contrastingly, get to make whatever art they wish.” McKinley has a talent for addressing issues like the one mentioned above, and discussed the struggle of establishing a place in the music industry. Having faced both under-appreciation for the rap and jazz genres and trying to mix the two together into something beautiful for his upcoming album “Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?!”, both issues, and more, are explained below.
When you first became a musician, did you originally know that you wanted to be both a rap and jazz artist, or did one appeal to you more than the other?
I’ve always sort of wanted to be a storyteller; I think that’s really where it started, I wanted to tell stories through music. From there, I knew that instruments moved fast enough in my mind for me when compared to just beats. I can manipulate instruments easier than I can beats because I can just tell someone to change up what they’re playing. But I never really had the intention to do jazz; I just had the intention of making stories, and jazz kind of came out of that.
Would you say that you only want to tell stories through music, or would you do it through writing or another medium as well?
People always try to get me to write long-form essays and honestly, I could. It’s just that, do I want to, you know? I really enjoy animating, so I also like to tell stories through cartoons. So I think for me, an alternative to making music is animation, you know? A series or movie or something like that.
That’s really cool, I really enjoy animation too. So, I know this is kind of a generic question, but I am just kind of curious about what inspired you specifically to become a musician? Was it friends, family, other musicians?
I think it kind of goes back to the first question where I had these ideas and these thoughts about stories that I wanted to portray and talk about. I really liked finding moments that are beautiful and funny moments and mundane moments that are average to my life. I wanted to use those moments to show a lot of the Black experience and then sort of interpret them as if they’re being watched, you know? As if it’s a movie or cinematic, very theatrical, very dramatic. I kind of really always wanted to make beautiful stories out of moments that not everyone usually sees as beautiful moments. They are to me.
I understand that, that’s really beautiful. Speaking of which, I was excited when I saw that your upcoming album ‘Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?!’ was inspired by writer Toni Morrison. Was she always an inspiration when it came to your music?
Yeah, I grew up reading Toni Morrison books, and she had this trilogy called ‘Beloved’, ‘Jazz’, and ‘Paradise’. I thought they were really beautiful even though many people don’t know that those three books were in one package. So for me, ‘Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?!’ was me taking the word ‘beloved’ and being like, ‘Alright, well, these show moments in your community. They are like moments that you have.’ Paradise is where you feel safe, and then jazz is sort of the chaotic aspect of it.
Would you say there are some similarities between her trilogy and your upcoming album?
Yeah, I think what the similarity is between her trilogy and my album is that they both describe love. You know, she’s really good at showing you that love is not just beautiful and it’s not just harrowing; it’s both of it together, and it’s complicated. I’m trying to show that in my music, being inspired by her. And like her books, my three albums were a trilogy, and now this one will encapsulate that trilogy.
That’s really interesting, I’m glad that she was so important for your music. So why did you want to create an album that encapsulates your trilogy?
‘For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her’ was a combination of my other two albums. So for this one, I was like, ‘What is a way that I can encapsulate the trilogy?’ It goes back to being inspired by Toni Morrison and the upcoming album title being a name from her trilogy. I just wanted to make one that could represent all three. The title is like a combination of my previous albums.
After ‘Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?!’, would you make another album, or would you take a break?
I think I’ve got a couple more albums to make. When people think of music, they think of band stories, but they don’t think about how, with rap, I’m just telling my story. So there’s a certain point when it comes to telling my story where I’m like, ‘Am I going too far ahead? Or am I not going far enough?’ I think I left where I was in the south and came to Chicago because I couldn’t make another album there after a decade, and I’m also just chasing experiences. So hopefully those experiences will turn into another album after this.
Yeah, I hope it does if you want to do that. Were there any challenges or hardships when trying to get into the music industry?
Yeah, so when I first came in, I was using instruments and the thing is, when you rap and use instruments, people haven’t really seen that. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it can seem like it is. A lot of rappers didn’t really put me in their music because my set was a lot from adding jazz. And it’s understandable that a lot of rappers also sort of don’t really know that the two can be together, since rap is more about accessibility. Like storytelling accessibility. So for me, I had a band and it made things complicated. Aside from rap, I’d be on rock shows with rock artists, and they would sort of be like, ‘Oh, you’re a rapper, so let’s cut your set short.’ Or, ‘You can only have this amount of time’, or, ‘We can just have you play at the end of the show.’ So a lot of it sort of came from anti-Blackness and also in not really knowing what to do with me, but I made it out.
I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with that, but I’m glad that you made it out, you seem like a talented artist, incorporating both jazz and rap.
I appreciate that. Jazz is really just a way to piece together beautiful images with words from rap, and like I said, rap is more so a genre of accessibility. It’s like, you have an idea in your mind, but you come from a place where you can’t really access the instruments that you want to show those ideas how you want to, so I sort of just did it myself.
McKinley Dixon performed at Gabe’s on April 8 for the Mission Creek Festival. His fourth album “Beloved! Paradise! Jazz?!” will be released on June 2, 2023.