Chicago singer, poet and hip-hop artist Ifeanyi Elswith wears her heart on her sleeve. She relaxes into her feelings, expressing herself through music with no filters and no pause. Her confident energy ripples off the songs from her debut album Everything Festyle that dropped July 26 from Rosebud Allday, a Chicago hip-hop and R&B collective.
22-year-old Elswith, who is first-generation Belizean-American, grew up listening to reggae, punta and R&B but not rap or hip-hop. And yet, while all the music of her childhood is blended into her album, the latter has become a new style that Elswith is sliding into now: she calls herself a singer, not a rapper. But her soprano voice, quick tongue and catchy, aggressively heartfelt lyrics about head-over-heels lust, independence and healing, tell you she’s on her way to perfecting her rap game — as well as her name in the contemporary R&B music world.
Right after the album dropped, I talked with Elswith over the phone to discuss her new music, her inspirations, what themes take center stage on Everything Festyle and how it’s been to release an album during a pandemic.
How do you describe the sounds on this new album?
Versatile and vulnerable because part of Everything Festyle is not only my nickname, which is short for Fefe, but also stands for “feeling.” I am very much a person who is totally okay being in my feelings and operating from my heart and that's a position that a lot of people I know around me are not transparent about. [The album] is also unique because none of those songs sound like any song that I listen to. I don’t think anyone sounds like me.
How has your cultural upbringing and Garifuna music inspired the album?
Yes, it’s most definitely Garifuna-inspired! Our music we made is called
Punta. We are from Belize, so reggae is always playing and so is dancehall. I grew up with all those sounds but I never resonated with them until recently. As an adult I've grown into my culture. It’s embedded in my DNA and just who I am, but it’s cool how it comes out, because it's not intentional. My music is very much Americanized [but also] Garifuna-inspired because that's what I first started hearing as a child and I've been singing since I was four.
How did you pick the album name?
When I was writing the song “Fefestyle,” I was writing it in a freestyle form and it really is only one really long verse. I wanted to call it a freestyle but it’s not because I wrote every single word and I don’t come from hip-hop, it was not played in the house. Because that’s not something I was naturally born into, I take the rules of rap and hip-hop very seriously so I didn’t feel it was right to call it a freestyle if I wrote it. There are plenty of rappers who do that but I just can’t do it. Being a singer and deciding to rap, I put pressure on myself doing that because that’s a whole other realm of performing. So instead of calling it a freestyle, I’m calling it a “fefestyle” and that was one of the first real rap songs I wrote.
What other songs off the album are you proudest of?
Definitely “Don’t Call Me Baby Girl” cuz that one came a long way. “Standing In My Garden” as well, because there was an original version that was going to be called “Find Your Way” and then I listened to it three months after recording it and I was like, ‘No, I hate this, I have to rewrite it. This is not hitting.’ The producer Royale made it into what it is now — a pop, dubstep kind of feel to it. It originally was just the guitar and more hip-hop beats but once he remixed it, I said, ‘This is going in a different direction and I want to follow that.’ Also the song “Mission” because I really like what I’m saying in that one.
“Mission,” Standing In My Garden” and “Fefestyle” are actually my favorites off the album because of their themes of confidence and healing are empowering. What was it like to write these feelings out onto the page?
It felt very relieving because I am so transparent when it comes to my healing. I tend to sulk and dwell and those things are not healthy and that’s where these songs come from; a way to finally let go. It does feel like an accomplishment because I know there are other people that will listen and maybe one of those lines resonates with them, maybe it’s a catalyst for someone else’s feelings the way it is for mine. “Standing In My Garden” felt like a great accomplishment because I felt like I wanted to talk about healing but also I wanted it to be a catchy song and I feel like I succeeded.
You celebrated a birthday the day after your album came out. How has it been to celebrate two monumental events in your life during a pandemic?
It has been intriguing for sure that it worked out in my favor… the fact that [the album] came out a day after my birthday, I was so worried that it came out later than people expected but it doesn’t seem like anyone cared as much about that besides me. It definitely feels full circle and divine timing. No matter the shortcomings I experienced putting this album together, I feel like it came out at the right time and it was a celebration of my life for my birthday and then a celebration of my work, which I was not expecting to happen so close together. It is intriguing as far as my birthday being in a pandemic because I would have liked to do more but [regarding the album] it was nice, people had time to really digest the album.