"It started in junior high," explains Halifax rapper and singer RealEyez (AKA Erin Dorrington). "They'd always say, 'You're too real for your own good,' you know? I'm very outspoken and I'd rather tell people the truth."
And the truth is—RealEyez has big dreams. Along with starting an independent label, Confiscated Records, she will release her second album, The Female King, in early August. It follows up last February's Who I Am.
But this is just the beginning. Her wide, almond-shaped eyes dance from green to blue to grey as they catch the light and sparkle with depth. "People would always ask me if these are my real eyes," she says. "Yes, they are."
Born in Halifax and raised in Truro, Dorrington's passion for performance began in junior high with a community talent show. "I sang Michael Jackson's 'We Are Not Alone' and it was a shock to the whole community," she says. "Even my mom didn't know I could sing like that." Soon, cousins and friends in the neighbourhood told her she should start rapping seriously.
But her life was filled with challenges, and Dorrington was forced to reconcile the real parts of life with her potential.
"I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD," she says hurriedly. "I went through some things in my life. And I think I learned everything the hard way." She mentions that her stepfather was physically abusive so she left home at 14. Now 25, she's able to reflect on her experiences and use them for positive change.
"I had a lot of built-up anger, but when I got away from that negativity, I was able to see the world for what it was," she says. "I'm glad my mom let me go. The person I am today is because of her and she's my biggest inspiration."
Dorrington went to Ontario, first stop Toronto. "I learned everything early. I tried stripping for a month, I got locked up, I got kidnapped. I'm on an assault charge now for pushing someone," she says. "So I do mean everything. I know I'm not perfect. But I don't want anybody else to have to go through those things. I have grown so much as a person and now I want to help."
And she does. Dorrington spends most of her time volunteering with youth—especially girls—in Halifax. She has also worked with the Halifax Rebel Girl Rock Camp and NSCC Recording Arts students, and she graduated from the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Education Development's Second Chance program four years ago. She's now a speaker and mentor in that program. At Centreline Studios in Uniacke Square, Dorrington is a program coordinator with her manager and best friend, Kayla Borden.
"The studio is the place to be. The energy there is through the roof," says Dorrington. "There's nowhere else for the kids to really go and hang, so they're always there." Some days, the unit's three storeys are full of children working on music, playing instruments and helping with the GotAVoice radio broadcasts. "It's cool to teach kids because they teach other people and so on," she says.
"And I love seeing the progress. I can see the confidence going up in these girls all the time. It helps me just as much. Some of them are starting to rap and sing, too, and they even formed a dance team as my back-up dancers." Dorrington takes great pride in being a positive role model in her immediate community. But she knows that music can go further. She knows that music has the ability to impact the world.
Both RealEyez' musical vibes and her personal style are influenced by the 1990s. "I feel like I'm stuck in the "90s," she says, laughing, "I love Lauryn Hill especially. She spreads and teaches knowledge, and I'm doing the same thing. I think that's what we have to do. We have to make sure everyone is aware of what's going on in the world."
As a lyrical songwriter, she often writes about the ways women experience personal struggles in a society that still perpetuates sexist and racist cultural norms. Her most recent single and video, "Head Down Low," is one of her many songs that describe women standing up for themselves against infidelity, injustice or for their own principles.
"I want my music to make our community better and help people be more world-conscious," she says, "Like, I missed the marches for Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, so I wrote this song 'Run Run.' It starts, 'Don't shoot, we're just artists.'" Instantly, RealEyez switches into a freestyle and recites several strong bars about the abuse of force by police officers: "Young son, we know who shot you, the authorities. That's the problem."
Her ability to boldly express her own perspective is as important as the words she uses to express it. RealEyez sees a world that actively disadvantages people based on race, class and gender. Her songs are her way to do something and effect change, yet it's more nuanced than that. While black men in North America experience systemic discrimination, black women—all women—are oppressed even in their own communities. There's no sphere in which it's more evident than hip-hop.
The concept of dynasty is an age-old trope in music. Think of the kings of rock, the queens of country, the princes of pop. In hip-hop, from Lil Kim's Queen Bee to Kanye West's appropriation of "slave" to Kendrick Lamar's "King Kunta," the rap genre uses the very framework of oppression to overcome it. Still, women are degraded and demeaned in rap culture, which is, in turn, reflected in everyday life.
Real Eyez had been reading about Egyptian culture and learning about female pharaohs. This became her inspiration for The Female King. "These women weren't supposed to be rulers because they were female, but they had successful dynasties and it inspired me because that's what it means to defeat all odds," she says. "People say females can't be pharaohs and kings, but they were. I'm taking that history and putting it out in a new-school way."
She says most of the songs on the album focus on female empowerment. "This is a movement to me," she explains. "Women's empowerment is not just about one person. This album is about sharing knowledge. It's about self-knowledge and how it helps me deal with my bipolar. It's about growth because I want to help people grow and give people confidence to be who they want to be."
Her active self-awareness goes against the current of mainstream rap, which is over-saturated with the glorification of masculine archetypes. Even the album's title, The Female King, brings together two opposed concepts, which shows how artificial our social constructs are. "Hip-hop talks about drugs and sex and being hard, and then young boys think that's what they gotta be, but there should be a different message."
RealEyez also avoids using the N-word in her verses: "I'm totally done with that word. I want to stay positive, reach my dreams and keep going," she says. "I'd just rather be me and I'm gonna be me regardless of what anyone says. That's the female king."