A joint music video for “Bitch I’m Kawaii” and “Ayo Sis” brings the barrier-smashing performer close to completing their visual EP.
Rapper and RuPaul’s Drag Race & All Stars 3 alumni Aja filmed their new music video for the killer tracks “Bitch I’m Kawaii” and “Ayo Sis” in Downtown Los Angeles, CA on September 12, 2018. Yours truly had the honor of being on set — observing the action, and interviewing both Aja and the video’s director, Assaad Yacoub.
I spoke one-on-one with Aja between the filming of two key scenes. Our discussion was candid, revelatory, and fun. As we spoke, the crew moved their camera and lighting set up from a stuffed animal bureau set to a New York-style apartment bedroom scene.
Derek: I’m really excited to interview you again. So, why did you chose this double track as your new single?
Aja: Well, it was never supposed to actually be my single. “Art God” was going to be the next single. Then I just kind of thought, I have some time, I’m going to be in LA for a few days. I want to shoot a new music video. I couldn’t really decide between the two tracks, “Ayo Sis” and “Bitch I’m Kawaii.” So I said, you know what, why not Missy Elliot it. Who I actually rode with to LA, she was on my plane.
D: Oh! Really?
A: By the way, yeah, which is really random.
D: Wow, that’s awesome!
A: You know how Missy Elliot used to do like those combination videos, where it would be like two videos in one? I was like, why don’t I do that for the last two tracks on my EP, and I’ll be the first person to ever come off of Drag Race and have turned their entire EP into a visual collection of items.
I thought, if we’re going to do this, we should like make it into something very positive. I want to put it into a kind of project where I could promote something I was very interested in. So, we’re using “Bitch I’m Kawaii." The idea of the video is going to be that I’m sleeping with my trans girlfriend, as a male presenting person, and I go into this dream world where it’s kinda like taking a spin on the idea of having a wet dream and it’s kinda gone wrong. And the wet dream will be “Bitch I’m Kawaii,” so there’s like a bathtub and bubbles, and I’ll be in and out of drag in the scene.
I kinda hated “Bitch I’m Kawaii.” I hate the track, so right before it hits the chorus, I wake up and I just had a nightmare. My girlfriend is supposed to be like, “Are you ok?” and I’m like, “No, I just had a nightmare.” Then it kinda starts going into “Ayo Sis.” Which, when I wrote it, it was a feminist anthem — or like an anthem for people who wanted to appreciate femininity. Something that happened recently to me was, I was told my gender nonbinary identity was invalid by these people that claimed to be “radical feminists,” and there are people that don’t believe in trans people at all. I actually got banned from Twitter for telling someone they were a senseless cow for being transphobic online.
A: I wanted to use “Ayo Sis” to push the narrative of appreciating femininity, but also very specifically, in the song, I name a lot of my own female icons. I wanted to use the video as a way of showing how normal like trans lives are. Trans people are normal people and there’s nothing wrong. Also, there’s a part where I’m in my female representation of my gender nonbinary identity. Which people get confused by, because you don’t adhere to any gender; you can present however you want. Which is what being queer is all about. So out of drag, I will be having a trans girlfriend, but in drag, or in that feminine character, I will have a very heteronormative looking boyfriend. To promote that straight men can have trans girlfriends, and straight men can have nonbinary girlfriends, and it’s okay. It doesn’t challenge society as much as people think it does. It is really not serious, and I think that there’s a lot said about the safety of trans women, especially trans women of color. People can just see for themselves, like if you watch this video, it’s just two people who are having fun, are in love and are celebrating.
D: Yeah, definitely. So, with your own gender identity, you have been living as and identifying as genderqueer for a while now. What are your preferred pronouns?
A: I usually just go by they/them, but I rarely like ever offended or slighted by like anything else, but I know there are some people who are. The best thing to do is just to ask. I actually just watched this video on YouTube. There’s this one dude, I think he’s a Republican or something, and he always does like the “convince me why this matters.” He was trying to find out why trans lives are normal, and people were teaching him about preferred pronouns and he was like, “Well if I want to call somebody this, I’m going to call somebody that.” So, like that I will never get around to. I’ll never understand why you can’t call somebody what they want to be called. It’s like, if you want to be called Tom, I’ll call you Tom. So, if somebody wants to be referred to as a he or she, or they or them, why can’t you do just that?
D: Yeah, that’s very valid. Actually in your first answers, you actually answered my second question, which was the inspiration behind the video, so we tackled that one (Laughs). So, this is your fourth music video with director Assaad Yacoub. Describe your collaboration process with him, and why are you a good fit together.
A: It works because I hate him. (Pause, laughs) I’m just kidding. You know what it is, me and Assaad are friends. We met on the set of “C.L.A.T..” It’s technically our fifth collaboration.
D: Oh, cool!
A: But, it’s my fourth solo with just him and me. Assaad is a very rambunctious person who has personality that’s similar to a dog with paranoia. He’s all over the place, and crazy, but he’s one of those people —
Assaad, listening nearby, barks like a dog.
Aja: (Over their shoulder) Yeah, I’m talking about you! (Laughs) He knows how to bring to life a vision. The thing is, I’m a very hands on person like, I am like pretty much the stylist, visual director and creative director of all my music videos. Assaad will — (Over their shoulder) Assaad, I can see you listening to me, move over! — always put his input in. He will take everything that I tell him, and try to create the perfect shot for it. So, if I’m like, “Hey, this is the part where we’re casting a spell and I want mountains, and I want to wear a long robe, and I want to be doing this…” Assaad will be like, “Okay we need to capture from this angle, and we need to put it this way.” And, like whichever way will make it the most exciting. I think we work well together because he likes a challenge, and I’ll always give him a challenge.
D: Yeah, it seems like you guys — because I was observing during the “Bitch I’m Kawaii" set up over there — it seems like you have a great dynamic. The last time we spoke, in the interview, you spoke about using drag less as a means of a theatrical performance, and more as a queer expression in your daily life.
D: Where are you on that journey?
A: Honestly, like at this point, I think that I’m just expressing myself, still doing me. Like the thing is, the big reason I don’t want to just use the term of “drag” is because I feel like people who take drag seriously — who are doing the art of drag — they take their gig seriously. Like, they are doing it for the art of drag. My passion is not in the art of drag, my passion is in music and in burlesque and in different art forms. For me it’s not about being the best drag queen, it’s about being the best burlesque artist and the best musician I can be. There’s people where drag is their art; it’s their passion. For me, drag is a medium, an art, and also a representation of my gender identity. When I get in drag, I realize lately that I want to tone it down and just be more me, because I don’t feel the need to hide behind a character. Also, I don’t want to offend anyone. A lot of people have gotten offended by me saying that — they’re like, “But you were on Drag Race” — and I’m like, yeah. I still do drag, but I just don’t do drag in the same way as other people. It doesn’t make me punk or different. Like, there’s other people who use drag as a medium. Bianca Del Rio doesn’t do anything that drag queens do.
A: Would I consider her a drag queen? Yes, but would I say she’s just a drag queen? No, she’s more of a comedian.
D: It shows in your work, too, because your work is very personal. You can tell when you are rapping your lyrics that they actually come from you, and they are not any sort of like industry clichés or anything. These are your real experiences, and it really does come through in your work.
A: Absolutely, for me everything I’ve done, I’ve written myself. I didn’t have help from anyone. I am just sharing my personal experience, and like people don’t understand. Especially I think it’s something Drag Race fans are not used to. They’re not used to someone doing something serious, like something very personal. I remember when season nine came out, and people were saying Sasha Velour takes herself “too seriously,” — what, because this is more than just, you know, a character for some people? For some people, this is life, like this is who they are. This is who they are. This is their real actual self-expression… who wants people to criticize their self-expression?
D: Yeah, exactly — instead of Aja being a “drag character,” Aja is you; you are Aja.
A: Exactly. So, you know, it took me a long time to realize that these people do not understand that. They think that Aja is like my drag is. Like I’m trying to do something. I’m not trying to do anything. I’m just trying to be me, and trying to express myself. When I went on Drag Race, it was never to like, “Oh my God, I want to be the best drag queen,” or to be held to the standard of anybody. I wanted a platform where I can be me, and people would, you know, love me for who I am.
D: Yeah, because I’ve noticed that on Instagram, you’ll post photos in a more traditionally male drag and then more traditionally female drag, and then also a very genderqueer drag, all as Aja. So, it’s really revolutionizing the way that people think about the identity of different drag performers. I commend you on that.
A: Thank you. I think that people need to broaden their spectrum for once. I think anybody can do drag. I hate this idea that drag is only for men, or for like only certain genders on the spectrum. Anybody can do drag.
A: I feel like there’s a lot of ignorance and there’s a lot of misunderstanding. Which is ironic, because everybody just wants to be accepted. Everyone just wants peace, and wants to be equal. It’s funny the mean things that these people will say. I love people who support everyone. I love people who don’t judge based on race, and based on things that have nothing to do with a person.
D: Yeah, I have seen some of your Instagram lives and it seems like you definitely are one of the leaders in calling out the ignorance within the fanbase, and in some of the performers themselves.
A: Oh, absolutely! I feel like I would never like go up to someone in person and be like, “Oh my God, I hate you,” or whatever, because nobody goes up to you in person and says mean things. There’s something about the magic of anonymity online. I think like every fan base has that, first of all. Like, Drag Race fans are not the only ones who do that. Music industry fans do it, too. Everyone does it. Personally, at this point I have PR; I have good people who run my social media. What we do is, we’ll go on and delete all the bad comments. We’ll just be like, “Hey, these people are clearly assholes, we are just going to delete the comments.” When people compare my art, which is literally just me, to other people? Delete. When people say negative things about me or my family or my friends? Delete or block. I don’t have time to debate why someone is a terrible person or not.
D: I want to end on a couple of light hearted questions. Who are some of your own favorite musical artists?
A: Oh, wow. I have a lot of favorite musical artists. I listen to a lot of rap and since I do rap music. My two favorite rappers are Nicki Minaj and Tyler the Creator. I think Tyler the Creator’s a genius, under-appreciated queer rapper, who literally scammed his way into the industry — got the respect of everyone — and then was like, “I’m gay”. People were like, “What?”
Then, Nicki Minaj is just so intelligent. Everything she writes… you can tell it’s something she wrote, because it’s always on the same flow and it never changes — and it’s always referential. She’s just so smart, and it’s inspiring because she also comes from New York. She’s a perfect description of someone who can be colloquial, but then be very educated. Even in the recent events, like the fashion week stuff, I thought she handled it well. I think that she was smart in the way she played it out.
D: Last question: I love your tattoos, do you have a favorite?
A: My favorite tattoo would have to be my Clefable and Gengar tattoo. It’s a Pokémon tattoo. I have people spot that one anywhere.
D: Oh, yes! I came up with that question looking through your Instagram today, and that was my favorite that I saw on your arm.
A: Everybody’s! It’s everybody’s favorite; it’s my favorite, too.
D: It’s awesome. Thank you so much for speaking with me again.
Aja, now changed into their lingerie drag and a sexy, flowy wig, proceeded to film several sensual takes in bed with model Derek Richmond. Director Assaad Yacoub sat fully engaged behind his monitors, shouting words of encouragement to Aja to bring out the best in their on-screen performance. Once the scene was finished filming, the crew and cast of extras prepped for a rooftop night scene shoot, and Assaad and I had a chance to speak one-on-one.
Derek: So, it’s really awesome to interview you, because I love your work for the different top RuPaul’s Drag Race queens doing their music videos, and also your film Cherry Pop.
Assaad Yacoub: Oh yes, you watched Cherry Pop! I love that, thank you.
D: It was so funny and it had a good message.
A: Thank you so much.
D: So, what is your favorite part of collaborating with Aja?
A: Aja specifically is my favorite, is one of my favorite queens, to work with. I would say Aja, and Bob the Drag Queen are my top two queens I love working with, because they come with fully realized idea, and they put a lot of effort and money into their videos. They know the value of a music video. They are not just like, “Here is $5,000 and make magic.” They understand the value that goes into music videos, so I really enjoy working with them. That’s been the best experience, specifically Aja.
D: Definitely, because I know that this is actually like your fourth music video that you’ve done together, right?
A: This is the fifth one if you consider “Clack,” like the first time I’ve met Aja. “C.L.A.T.,” “Brujeria,” “Finish Her!,” “I Don’t Wanna Brag,” and now this one.
D: Wow, yeah.
A: Yeah, I can’t believe it. The first time I met Aja was on the set of “C.L.A.T..” I had not met them prior to that, and we just bonded right away.
D: They had mentioned that when I spoke to them. That’s cool.
A: That was a great experience.
D: So, for this video in particular, can you walk me through your concept for it?
A: Yes, so for this one, as we see, we are trying to do a pro-trans rights video, and non-binary video as well. So, it’s kinda of a looser concept. It starts with Aja waking up with a nightmare in bed. The nightmare is one of their songs “Bitch I’m Kawaii.” For some reason, Aja doesn’t like that song — and it’s their own song — so they made it a joke about it, and made it into a nightmare in the video. Then it goes into “Ayo Sis,” where we cut between Aja as a boy with a very famous trans model and activist, Cassandra James; she’s awesome, great actress, a lot of fun to work with. Then it cuts to Aja in drag with a guy (Derek Richmond), and kinda playing with gender. I really like that.
D: That’s really cool. What kinds of visual techniques did you use to evoke emotions and portray that concept?
A: One of the things we’re using visually is having a bunch of people come in at some point to form the lines of the trans flag and the nonbinary flag in the background with their shirts. That’s kind of a way that we want to show the message in the background of what’s happening in the foreground. Then we did Aja kissing Cassandra when Aja’s out of drag, and in drag kissing the guy, to show that you can love whoever you want at the same time. I like that message.
D: Cherry Pop was fantastic. Do you have any plans for more movies at all?
A: Actually, we are trying to do a TV show, but I haven’t had the time because of all of the music videos I’ve been doing. We finished writing — my writer and I, because I don’t write — so I work with writer and he wrote the pilot. It’s similar to Cherry Pop. We’re not calling it Cherry Pop, we’re calling it Friends of Dorothy. A nod to the olden days when gay guys could identify each other as “friends of Dorothy.” And so that’s happening now, and I don’t know, we have no further details. We are not moving forward with that because of these music videos. So, I hope to come up with something soon in that theme.
D: For fans who know you through these collaborations with the top talent from the Drag Race world and from Cherry Pop, could you give a bio of yourself for us to get to know you a little bit more?
A: I was born and raised in Dubai. I grew up there until I was 18 — and originally I’m from Lebanon though, I’m Lebanese — then, I moved to Lebanon when I was 18, for a couple of years. I pretty much moved to New York when I was 20. Never been to New York, and I was like, “I’m fucking going to New York.” That’s when I met Bob the Drag Queen actually, eight years before he was called Bob. His name was Kittin Withawhip. I was going to his shows illegally, with a fake ID, and it was a lot of fun. That’s my first experience with drag. I saw Bob and I was like, I need to put you in a movie. That’s how Cherry Pop came about, [originally] as a short film. Then we made it into a feature. So that’s kind of my little bio to America.
D: Do you live here in the Los Angeles area now?
A: Yes, I’ve been in LA for seven years now. I love it here.
D: Do you have any other music video collaborations coming up with anyone?
A: Yeah, I have a ton. I don’t know if I can talk about all of them, but I do have some I feel like I can talk about. Mayhem Miller, Trinity Taylor, and then I just booked a drag trio in New York called Stephanie’s Child. I literally just booked them now. They performed with Jessie J on The Voice and stuff like that. So, they are doing pretty well, too. So I don’t just work with Ru girls, I’m open to working with everyone, which is my goal. It’s not just work with girls who are on Drag Race. I just like to work with talented people.
A: Oh, and Kelly Clarkson. I booked Kelly Clarkson’s music video. I forgot about that one. (Gestures) I should slide that one in.
D: Oh my God! That is awesome.
A: That’s going to be fun.
D: Is that from her current album (Meaning of Life)?
A: Yes, it’s from her current album.
D: I appreciate hearing that, because I’m a huge Kelly Clarkson fan. This new album is such a cool direction for her.
A: Oh, yeah! It’s amazing. I love the song they gave me, so I’m very excited to do it.
D: Obviously, when the queens get off of Drag Race — and some are not even on it — they have to create their own narrative, so what’s that like for you as a visual artist; to be able to help someone who may not otherwise be able to, with the technical and visual stuff, create their own narrative?
A: Narrative in the sense of their storyline in the video?
A: That happens a lot. Tatianna for example, when I just did her video, she called me up and was like, “Here’s the song, come up with whatever you want”. So, I try to come up with different ways to portray that drag queen. Like even Eureka, that was something similar we did. I’m like, let’s try something new with you. Like with Alexis Michelle, people are used to seeing her a certain way, and I was like, do a comedic video where people can see the lighter side of you. At the end of the day, that’s how you’re going to be portrayed — by how you’re portrayed in your video. You want to show a different side of yourself, if the way you’re portrayed on Drag Race sometimes isn’t the best. There are other ways to show people, “This is actually who I am,” so I think that’s the beauty of doing these videos. That’s why I love collaborating with them. I set out to come up with kooky ideas that help show different sides of these girls.
D: It seems like it’s such a one-on-one collaboration process.
A: One hundred percent.
D: You are working on an individual basis in these videos that you turn out. They each seem so unique, to the point where when I was researching for the interview, I had not realized you’d directed all of Aja’s music videos. They are all so different.
A: That’s good. I’m happy that’s the case. I hope that my style goes through all of them, but the goal is that each video is its own little story — its own little narrative, and it keeps changing and evolving — which I hope’s the goal with each video I do.
D: Did you do the Bebe Zahara Benet “Jungle Kitty” video?
D: That was sickening! That was so much fun.
A: That was fun, that was a lot of fun. Bebe is awesome to work with. I really, really enjoyed working with her.
D: She’s from where I’m from, in Minneapolis.
A: Oh, nice!
D: She’s our hometown hero.