Oompa, the rapper, poet, and educator from Roxbury, uses fashion to explore visual identity and convey energy. One day she might be a “90’s baby from Roxbury” and the next she might be channeling “Beyoncé.”
“I grew up in Roxbury so I’m a Boston native. I’ve been here all my life with the exception of five years as an undergrad in Pennsylvania.” Oompa was raised by her adoptive mother, along with two of her biological sisters. “We were a tight-nit group in a house full of love, music, and food.”
Oompa’s mother threw themed parties — red and white parties, black and green parties — and music always played. First, it was Motown and Bob Marley, but eventually Oompa started to hear hip hop on the stereo: Public Enemy, N.W.A., and De La Soul. “We always think our parents aren’t cool enough to find these things but she was playing it.”
On days that Oompa is feeling especially like a 90’s baby from Roxbury, she’ll wear a sports jersey, stonewashed or ripped jeans, sneakers, and head gear — a snap-back, a dad hat, or a scully. “Jerseys are a big thing of mine — old-school baseball jerseys, or windbreakers with bright colors.” For sneakers, Oompa chooses from a pair of old Reebok classics, Jordans, griffies, combos, Addidas, or Nikes.
“Beyoncé,” on the other hand, is more of an energy. The look can be expressed through a variety of clothing, but the key element is a sense of daring, risk-taking, and unapologetic individuality.
“Am I gonna cut shit up today and walk all the way out? Is that what I’m doing today? You gotta be fierce, you gotta take a risk. You gotta put on that accessory that maybe you never wore before. Maybe you’ve never worn it with this outfit. But you feel like they belong together today. And today you’re gonna put them on and you’re going to own it no matter what.”
Sometimes Oompa chooses a “Beyoncé” look to express her confidence and celebrate who she is. On other days, it’s a tool to address low feelings, or disorientation with the self.
“It doesn’t always mean that I started out feeling good. It just means that I chose to feel good. Okay, today I’m not necessary fully happy about the way this body of mine has changed or is operating today, but what would Beyoncé do? I’m going to choose to actively work on feeling good. I’m going to be on my Beyoncé.”
Lately Oompa has been taking fashion risks that incorporate traditionally feminine elements. A recent look included a head wrap and a top with buttons opened lower than she is used to. “That’s a new thing for me — my body opening in this way. It’s a really soft look. I still have a hard time in more feminine looks. I have a really hard time bringing myself to be in those looks, even though I want to.”
Investigating this conflict, Oompa recalls early experiences with gender expression. The first time she wore masculine clothing outside the home was one Halloween during middle school. “It took me 20 minutes to get outside of my house. Everybody’s dressed up, it doesn’t mean anything. But for the first time I felt: this is what I wanted to be in. I didn’t want anyone to see me as gay and masculine because I didn’t know what that would mean for me.”
In high school Oompa started wearing traditionally masculine clothing more of the time. “I was first identified as, and then self-identified, as a stud. Which, for me, was really fitting at the time. But then I would hear things about who I was supposed to sleep with, like I had to be a lesbian, had to be masculine-presenting, had to be a certain kind of tough.”
This identity was rewarded and reinforced by love interests. “Cis women that I dated would sort of reward that and also hold me to this standard where now I’m performing as a man in a way that I didn’t always necessarily need to or want to.”
Oompa recalls certain hip hop personalities who demonstrated an ability to express themselves authentically, regardless of gender or orientation. “I think the people who have taught me to push boundaries around gender and sexuality are people like Andre 3000 and Missy Elliot. Those are two people who I always looked at as people who don’t care, who made really good art and who always pushed things forward.”
Over time, Oompa has developed perspective on where the pressure to present in a certain way came from. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that heteronormativity pervades queer spaces. Once I got really into masculine clothes I felt I had to defend that so much, that I think that I started to believe it was the only way I could represent myself.”
Now Oompa is allowing herself more space to explore, in fashion but also in music.
“When I write love songs I don’t care that I’m talking about the woman who I’m in love with, or the guy who I’m in love with, or the gender non-conforming person I’m in love with. I’m writing a song about love and whoever the person is, or whatever this is, that’s honest. People are ready to hear themselves in the song. I’m ready to be honest about that.”
“I also think about the other stories that are not being written yet, about love, our bodies, about the ways our intersections are happening. For me particularly as a chunky black queer poor woman, as an orphan child, just being really honest with my queerness and those identities as they come up. I’m not trying to make songs for queer people but I am a queer person, so by virtue of my existence these things will be queer.”
Audience reactions to Oompa’s gender presentation and queerness are mixed. “Initially people wanna either write me off or give me more props than is necessary. Like they either give me the cushion points, or take a wave from me before they hear me actually rap or recite anything. Then when I do, it’s like — no, you’re good for who you are. Not good for a woman, not good in comparison to this guy, but you’re good. It becomes less about my gender and more about what I’m giving you in that moment.”
Her single, “Your Girl,” featured on her debut album November 3, is a response to a cis hetero man who tried to take Oompa down a notch by claiming he could “steal” Oompa’s girlfriend at the time. “I’m like — when did my girl become a piece of property? When did she become just an object that you could threaten me and my safety with?”
Oompa is often nervous to perform the song, uncertain about how audiences will respond. “I always do it in spaces that are full of hetero dudes and cis dudes, and I’m always surprised by how many dudes are singing along to this song. And I’m like, that’s exactly what I want. I don’t want people to pretend that they can’t be them. I don’t want to do extra work, and you don’t have to do extra work. We can just kind of exist right here.”
A desire to draw people in and share experiences is something that emerges in Oompa’s personal life, as well as her artistic work. “I’m an Aquarius. I’m more inclined to pull into people when I feel that I need something. I’ve always been the kind of person that has been people-oriented, wanted to help folks. Helping people all the time — it can be draining for sure, but it’s always been something that energized me first.”
A couple minutes of scrolling through Oompa’s Instagram or Facebook feeds demonstrates the scope of her efforts — performing rap and slam poetry all over the Northeast, hosting the Haley House slam and a SCAT TV show, mentoring youth through HipStory, coaching a youth slam team, performing at fundraisers, and teaching middle school in the Boston public school system.
This July, Oompa will be part of a crew of HipStory performers touring major Northeast cities for two weeks, taking the work that was birthed in and around Boston out to a wider audience. Check out the video for an introduction to the tour, artists, and HipStory mission.
Any readers who feel inclined to donate to the fundraising effort can mention Oompa’s name in their contribution. The show schedule includes up-to-date information on tour events and listeners can prepare for installments in their city by checking out Oompa’s new album, along with the work of the other very talented HipStory artists, and following her on Instagram and Facebook!
Photography by Jaypix