Brittnee Moore keeps a folder of Joel Osteen photos on her iPhone. Osteen, the notorious Houston televangelist whose sermons are watched globally by tens of millions of people, is an unlikely inspiration for the rapper. But that, according to Brittnee, is exactly the point: Where Osteen’s many followers look to him for his promise that Christianity can bring wealth, Brittnee — a slick-mouthed, sharp-tongued single mother of four who practices a personalized form of witchcraft — looks to him for the simple fact that people look to him.
“I’m obsessed with him in a way that, like, I hate him. He’s like the ultimate trap nigga, bruh. He can sell any fucking thing and y’all will just spend your money,” she says. Her forthcoming album, which she plans to release through Molly House Records this spring as bbymutha, is called Prosperity Gospel in aspirational honor of Osteen’s cultural reach. “He’s the voice of absolutely nothing, so he might as well be the face of what I’m doing. I feel like that’s what he should get up in that pulpit and tell y’all asses. He should tell y’all not to give your pussy to a nigga who not used to gettin’ pussy...” she says, trailing off.
Brittnee is referencing “Rules,” an excellent single off her Glow Kit EP that showcases her best qualities. The beat, produced by Seattle up-and-comer Luna God, leads off with a crisp guitar riff and even at its peak barely goes beyond a mild bounce; Brittnee’s flow, a slow, icy-cool Chattanooga drawl, suits it perfectly. And her lyrics are a gospel unto themselves: “You can’t give your pussy to a nigga who not used to getting pussy cause that pussy gon’ be everybody business / You can’t break bread with these niggas / Give head to these niggas / They ungrateful, lil’ mama, that’s bad for business.”
“Rules” had been out for months before she released its video last August. In the clip, Brittnee bops in a school hallway with Royal Dansk-blue crochet braids piled on top of her head and a handful of people casually hanging out nearby. “I sit on the internet all fucking day, I pay attention to shit. And I’m like, all these bitches be going viral and going famous overnight because they don’t tweet their links — they tweet clips of shit. Nobody clicks on links anymore unless they already fuck with you,” she says of engineering what she hoped would become a viral moment.
And it did, sort of, but not exactly as she’d hoped. Before the end of 2017, she’d been offered an Adult Swim single, heard that Björk played “Rules” to open a live set, and earned more press attention than any other time throughout the four years she’s been releasing music. Which is why I was surprised to find that, at the time of this writing, “Rules” has barely crossed the 100,000 views mark on YouTube.
Some of the reaction to bbymutha, though, was dismayingly negative. Some people — men in particular, Brittnee says — had a hard time digesting her unique doctrine, one that promises not financial wealth but a future free of bogus dudes and patriarchal shenanigans. In her mentions and in the comments of Instagram accounts that had reposted “Rules,” people called her names and insulted her appearance, often while relying on racist, misogynistic, transphobic, and homophobic “jokes” to do so.
“The more people that pay attention to me, there’s always gonna be somebody that sees it that doesn’t like it,” Brittnee says. “But it’s never just, ‘I don’t care for that.’ It’s always, ‘Ughh this black-ass bitch, et cetera et cetera.’”
The disconnect between the people who support Brittnee online and those who use the internet to lob hate at her is a wide gulf, and it’s where one of today’s most significant culture wars is playing out. We emerged from 2017 with a lot of questions about power dynamics as they relate to gender. In rap, that meant much hand-wringing about how to handle prominent male artists accused of rape, assault, and other anti-woman behavior. But much of the mainstream dialogue about women in rap is limited to loving Cardi B and hating Bhad Bhabie. “There are a lot of female rappers that people have no idea exist,” says Brittnee. “I’m ready to hear more about [them].”
A couple of days into the new year, it’s unseasonably frigid in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the only source of heat in Brittnee’s house is an overworked space heater parked against a wall in her bedroom. She’s plunked in the middle of a tangle of sheets, dressed in snug gray sweatpants and a cropped black T-shirt imprinted with the word “SAVAGE”; a red bra cheekily peeks out.
Within arm’s reach of her is a pair of 4-year-olds and a week’s worth of their clothes. Khloe, who is watching YouTube videos of random children coloring drawings of broccoli, and Tyler, who stirs from a cough-syrup sleep only to nibble on a slice of Domino’s cheese pizza, are the younger of Brittnee’s two sets of twins. Her older twins, 10-year-old Mekel and Mekeila, are out getting their teeth cleaned. For a family of five, activities as banal as oral hygiene must be scheduled in shifts.
The house, which she inherited, along with its $1,500/mo. mortgage, from her paternal grandmother in 2014, has been without functioning gas for roughly that whole time. Brittnee had been nursing her ailing granny when an opportunistic cousin moved himself in. Brittnee and her father, who lives directly next door, tasked him with paying that one bill. By the time the cousin left, he’d run up a debt to the gas company and left behind damage from fiddling with the pipes in an effort to circumvent the utility charge.
“[People] like to come over here and be like, ‘Oh Brittnee don’t take care of that house.’ And it’s like, This is a mortgage. I don’t have a landlord,” she says, crossing her arms around her body. “So when shit goes wrong around here, it’s on me.”
The heat isn’t the only thing that went wrong when her cousin moved in. His “nasty-ass girlfriend” left behind a family of roaches whose reproduction rates have defeated Brittnee’s best efforts. Bugs of various stages of development flit from wall to floor to window. She hasn’t accepted them, but she’s accepted that this is her fate until it isn’t anymore.
“One day we won’t have bugs. One day we’ll have a big, clean house,” she says. She’s ostensibly talking to Khloe, who she describes as her best friend, but it’s hard not to imagine that she’s also talking to herself.
“There are a lot of female rappers that people have no idea exist. I’m ready to hear more about [them].” — bbymutha
Brittnee, now 28, was born in Chattanooga to a pair of high school students whose union, she says, was doomed from the start. She was raised mostly by her mom, a religious woman who kept her children sheltered and whose best intentions were sometimes derailed by the fact that “she feels like her best self when she’s in a relationship.” Her father was a different kind of religious: “He on some N.O.I., anti-women type shit,” says Brittnee. At her mother’s, in a lower-income community in East Chattanooga, the only music she was permitted was contemporary gospel that she found weird and uninspiring. “My mom was like, ‘In this house we read the bible.’ I’d have to get up every morning, read a psalm and a proverb before I could go to school type shit.” At her dad’s, there was a lot of Lil’ Kim and recurring physical abuse. “In spite of his bullshit, he was the fun parent.”
While in elementary school, Brittnee joined Girls Club, an extracurricular program focused on the arts. One year, she and a few cousins participated in a dance competition and won. While the other teams were simply twerking, she remembers, her crew had actually done something special: they had choreographed a routine and executed it well. That, she says, is when her interest in music and performance was piqued.
When Brittnee was 11, her mom became pregnant by a married man who lived in Florida and who insisted that the family move to be closer to him. The abrupt move proved difficult on her, and it was compounded by bad experiences at a school staffed by at least one racist. One day, after that teacher dug her sharp nails into Brittnee’s arm, she blacked out. She saw red and beat the woman up, she says, pointing to a spot on her upper arm where she can still see the scars. A precocious child, she told the authorities that she planned to kill herself in custody. The ruse worked: Instead of juvenile detention, she wound up in psychiatric care with a two-in-one diagnosis of depression and anxiety.
Shortly after, she returned to Chattanooga to live with her dad. By age 13, Brittnee was selling drugs, having sex, and doing “dumb shit.” When she was 17, she wound up pregnant with Mekel and Mekeila. Their father, whom she describes as a pedophile, is barely in the picture. “I don’t necessarily actively try to keep them away from him but I definitely don’t press the issue,” she says. “Like, if you don’t wanna be around them, that is perfectly fine, because I don’t want pedophiles raising my kids.” Just as in her relationship with her own dad, who she says “just doesn’t think it’s wrong to hit women,” she concedes that people are complicated and often flawed, but “canceling them” outright isn’t necessarily a healthy way out.
Brittnee worked her way through call center and retail jobs and, a few years later, moved to Nashville at the behest of a new boyfriend. She enrolled in a Nashville art school to study fashion design. She knew what she wanted from her future: to express herself through clothes. Then, one day, that boyfriend beat her so badly that she thought she’d died. Reluctantly, she called her dad for help and moved back to Chattanooga. On the one occasion she and her ex had makeup sex, she became pregnant with Tyler and Khloe. “I love the shit out of my kids but I wish I could re-choose their parents ‘cause they deserve good fathers,” she says.
Back in Chattanooga, stuck in the house and isolated as a new mom, Brittnee returned to rap. She’d experimented when she was younger and knew she was good, but this time it finally stuck. She dropped her old name, Cindyy Kushh, and called herself bbymutha instead. The choice was a reclamation of an insult thrown at her by a woman whose boyfriend had been cheating on her with Brittnee. (That boyfriend was the rapper Isaiah Rashad.) “It’s not an insult to me. Some of us are babies’ mothers,” she says. “Not everyone is a wife, and not everyone aspires to be a wife.”
In addition to finessing her rap style, Brittnee learned how to use the internet to her advantage — to book shows, to attract fans, to score sponsorships for products she otherwise couldn’t afford. Multiple companies send her the wigs she switches up on a near-daily basis, and when Jeffrey Campbell sent her a box of shoes last fall, it felt like the beginning of something real for Brittnee. Entirely on her own, she’s built relationships and scrambled together tours to places as far from home as Sweden; this spring, she will play in Korea. “I’m so excited about that shit I don’t even know how to explain my excitement,” she says, grinning so hard her eyes disappear.
One friend of hers, Shoey, doubles as her DJ and ad hoc administrative assistant, handling things like packing and mailing merch, and booking airport shuttles when Brittnee can’t do it herself. Another pair of friends, a gregarious couple named Rock and Kindora, offer support on the creative side. “They’re the only white people I trust,” she says. Rock makes the majority of her beats, and Kindora, a singer and songwriter, gives creative advice. For the past few months, she’s been spending time at their spot, a cute bungalow on the artsy side of Downtown Chattanooga. The couple has two kids, which means Brittnee can work with her children nearby and without worrying about babysitting; the bare-bones setup is an upgrade from the closet where she used to have to whisper her songs into a mic to avoid waking up the kids.
“If I rapped about dirty diapers, it would go viral in the wrong way and BuzzFeed would write about it, like, ‘This woman is reclaiming motherhood through rap.’” — bbymutha
After Mekel and Mekeila return from the dentist, Brittnee announces that it’s time to go to Rock and Kindora’s house, to make progress on the two projects she has in the pipeline. The family sedan is infamously moody, and after a string of breakdowns, it’s parked in the driveway awaiting a new serpentine belt. In its stead, an Uber is called — an XL, naturally. After the older kids help the younger ones get dressed, everyone piles in, and as the minivan pulls farther and farther away from home and the sun sinks into the horizon, Brittnee has an urgent question for the universe: “Now that people are really, really paying attention, I’m like, For how long?”
To explain herself to her friends and to her family, she often compares working as an independent musician to working pretty much anywhere. Determined to make a living without “begging the white man for a job,” she is an oddity in Chattanooga, a city where landing a gig at the new Amazon facility is considered something of a jackpot. “The only difference between me and you is that I can’t get fired,” she says. Today, though, she’s stumbled on an amendment to that analogy. “Wait, I guess I can get fired. If people get sick of listening to me, that’s like getting fired.”
One of several qualities Brittnee attributes to her being a Virgo is how analytical she is, often fixating on the significance of details big and small. “I definitely know what I would do if I was not doing this. But now that I’m doing it and it’s actually paying bills and stuff, this is the only thing I can do right now.” But right now isn’t forever, so Brittnee is plotting with Shoey to launch a skincare line that will include an improvement on a cult Tom Ford body oil that costs $100 and probably isn’t that good for your skin. She hopes it’ll be ready to go by the spring. “I’m always thinking about this shit, the future,” she says.
What Brittnee tries not to think about is the nonstop criticism she faces from other people — from her father, from strangers on the internet, from a society that has very specific ideas about what it means to be a woman and, especially, what it means to be a mother. For her, being a good mother requires being a happy mother and living a full life that can be a healthy example for her children. What she learned from her parents, she says, is what not to do. Her mother’s overprotectiveness and her father’s abuse led her, in different ways, to situations that she’d rather keep her kids away from.
When they have questions about sex, she answers them openly. When they have questions about drugs, she does the same. Back in her room, Mekel asks, laughing, whether he can give her weed a quick hit. “Boy if you don’t stop asking me that!” she yells through a smile. In a couple of years, he will turn 12, and if he’s still fascinated by the weed she smokes out of a pipe and the THC pills she takes every morning, she’ll sit him down and let him try. She’s not a regular mom, she’s a cool mom; if he’s going to smoke, she’d rather he do it in the house.
Her choice of bbymutha as a stage name is as good an indication as any of where she stands. People often ask her why she doesn’t rap more about being a parent. In return, she often tells them that she does — whether it’s about the pleasure of sex or the frustrations of shitty dudes or the ups-and-downs of a hustle, that is her life as a mother. “If I rapped about dirty diapers, it would go viral in the wrong way and BuzzFeed would write about it, like, ‘This woman is reclaiming motherhood through rap,’” she says, cracking up. “And then everybody would forget about me.”
Brittnee’s commitment to rapping about the fullness of her life is part of what makes her music so relatable. But it’s also caused her to bump against people. When the “Rules” video took off on Twitter, a Barb told her, perhaps intended as a compliment, that she should have sold one of the verses to Nicki Minaj. That offended her. “Nicki Minaj could never,” she tweeted, angering one of the internet’s most rabid fan bases. She didn’t mean that Nicki Minaj couldn’t rap like that, she says, but that Nicki Minaj couldn’t rap about her life — only she can. “That song was a personal song for me. Not to say Nicki Minaj has never been through some ‘Rules’-ass shit, but that was my story to tell. Plus it’s an insult to Nicki,” who, as Brittnee rightly points out, can write her own verses.
For anyone with sense, being a woman rapper is as simple as being a woman who is a rapper. But for an alarmingly loud segment of the internet-commenting population, it means being compared to Nicki Minaj or, more recently, to Cardi B … who is also compared to Nicki Minaj. “I like Cardi B, but I’m not gonna let you sit up here and tell me I’m tryna be Cardi B,” she says.
When a different buzzing woman rapper mistook a compliment from Brittnee as a drag and blocked her on Twitter, Brittnee refused to let that turn into a beef. “I don’t have to like you to support you,” she says. “I wasn’t doin nothin’ but standing up for you, girl, but I feel you,” she says, clapping her hands. “Go ahead and block me, I’m still gonna be standing on the sidelines every time something good happens to you. Every time you win, I’m gonna be like, ‘Yessssssss.’”
Lounging on the bed in Rock and Kindora’s studio, Brittnee pops a THC pill and pours a little Jack Daniel’s into a cup. Her goal for tonight is to make progress on two projects: her debut album and a free tape that she has promised to release when she hits 10,000 followers on Twitter. She’s only several dozen people away from that milestone, and her fans are impatient. The tape will feature her rapping on top of unexpected but, when you think about it, very appropriate beats; one such song, a short freestyle over a Grimes instrumental, is already doing numbers on Twitter. She also wants to use tracks from Charli XCX and SOPHIE — shiny, diamond-bright productions that underscore her baby-raver aesthetic. “The whole dynamic changes because of the bounce that she raps with,” says Rock. “Like, I’m not a fan of Grimes, but I’m a fan of her rapping over Grimes.”
Crystal Caines, the Harlem producer best known for her work with A$AP Ferg, has just sent over a “fire-ass” beat pack, and it might have something that will inspire her. Brittnee has only finished a couple of songs for it, including a remix featuring a $400 verse from La Chat, but she has already started planning release parties in multiple cities.
When she finds a Crystal Caines beat that moves her, a slinky track with thundering drums, Brittnee looks through her phone for a verse that might fit or an idea that she can expand on. Smacking her lips, she asks Rock and Kindora if either of them knows how to make the Goofy sound, as in the guttural laugh the cartoon dog is known for. She tries a couple of times, and then pulls up some clips on YouTube. It’s unclear why she’s thinking about this particular Disney character until she shares a few bars she’d come up with on a flight home after a New Year’s Eve show in Baltimore. The punchline? Bbymutha wants to go goofy on her man’s dick, hyuk-hyuk.