The last time I’d seen Olivia K, she had a roomful of people at her first Sofar Sounds show singing “We deserve the best,” the title line of a song — from her upcoming EP Native — that was still stuck in my head weeks later.
On this way-warmer-than-now September afternoon, we were sitting and sweating (the last verb applying mostly to me) on the sunny patio of Cafe Erzulie, the flower shop/cafe/bar/community space located just on the Bed-Stuy side of Broadway — a favorite spot of Olivia’s and her manager/middle-school classmate Eric Hall, who joined us for the interview. While the born-and-raised Brooklyn musician had performed on this patio before, today she was off the clock, free from her duties both as a performer and as a DJ at Manhattan HIIT facility Switch Playground (possibly the coolest day job ever).
There, the cubes in our iced hibiscus teas fighting a losing battle for survival, we settled in to discuss writing songs in the shower, the perks of living with Mom and how it really pays to be in the right place at the right time — mostly when “The Empanada Lady” is involved.
On Caribbean food in Brooklyn (find her recommendations at the bottom of this article)…
My family is Caribbean-American and my mom’s from Guyana. If you move to Crown Heights, go to those places, patronize those restaurants. There’s a bunch of mom-and-pop Caribbean restaurants, and they’re dope.
It’s really awesome because if you go to these Guyanese places, they’ve got all these crazy pastries you’ve never seen before — shortening breads and tarts and things, and they’re all very tasty but completely unknown outside of Guyana.
On her mom…
She’s my homegirl, you know, in the sense that she’s a really big part of my musical taste — she is the maker of my musical taste in so many ways.
She’s an artist in the deepest sense of the word — in the sense of an artist temperament of loving life and really taking it in and transmuting it into something else. And that’s what she was always encouraging me to do as a child.
People ask me all the time, “How can you live with your mom?” It’s great. She’s awesome. She’s very clean, she makes extra food, she’s respectful of all hours… I’m an only child, so it’s a great thing to have that relationship where you’re very close but also have space to be yourself.
On growing up in a multigenerational household…
My mom used to also take care of my grandma, so we were all in the house, three ladies having the best time. I think there’s something about living in a multigenerational household and the benefits of that. There’s so much knowledge that’s being imparted to you, kind of incidentally. Someone teaches you to darn a sock and someone else teaches you how to play soccer…
For me, that’s a big part of my live shows. That’s what I always try to create — that feeling that you just joined this really big, accepting family.
On her musical influence…
As a kid, I didn’t listen to hip hop directly. I wasn’t like, I’m gonna go listen to Biggie! My parents didn’t listen to hip hop, but there was always the music around me. [And] on a Saturday morning, you can hear what everybody cleans their house to. Everybody cleans their house to different stuff — that’s when you hear what they really are about.
I realize that a big part of what I’m drawing from when I’m DJing is that childhood of listening to so many different kinds of music all the time — the salsa, the bachata, the soca, the dance hall, the hip hop, the old-school hip hop, the R&B, the old-school R&B, the blues — there was all this stuff happening at once, and it’s all natural for me. I feel very comfortable going in and out of different genres, so when I perform I’ll take on styles people wouldn’t expect me to because I grew up with all of it. I think it makes my music less straight-edge. It definitely adds a global vibe and feel to it.
And also the old boom bap — that in and of itself is a beat and rhythm that’s inside of me that I never think about, but it’s always there.
On busking in New York…
How many places can you go where you can do what you love and people pay you?
I have the best financial experience in Union Square on the L train, but I do really like Atlantic Center. I like to think of places where there are a lot of people, but it’s underserved. People don’t think that much about Brooklyn —
[ME: We deserve buskers!]
Good buskers! I saw a really terrible group of kids trying to Showtime dance, and it was really bad. I was on the J train like, what’s happening? They couldn’t spin, they couldn’t do anything. Don’t you have to go somewhere before you come here?
On music as a tool for grounding…
Something I used to notice on the trains as a kid, if you get on the train at 6 or 7 am, a lot of people are counting their rosaries, reading their Torah… the Bible… the Quran — whatever their faith is that keeps them going — because this is such a city of hustle, you have to have something to ground you.
For me, that’s my music. My music is a part of that grounding — the messages, what I write about, what I care about… it has a lot to do with grounding yourself, because I have lived what it’s like to be all over the place.
On “That Afro”…
I wrote “That Afro” in the shower. I was washing my hair.
I feel like I’ve been ahead of my time for so long, in so many ways. And it’s weird because if no one picks up on it, then you hear about everything that comes out a year or two later and you’re like, really? NOW Solange wants to talk about her hair? “That Afro” came out in 2016! Girl’s now talking about, don’t touch my hair? Girl, we did this. I visited this. We’re already here.
On her upcoming EP, Native…
The title song, “Native,” is about being from Brooklyn. It’s a little — a lot — about gentrification and some of the frustration, but there’s a little ambivalence — it’s a back and forth. I basically rap about Brooklyn and about people. “Good Things” [referenced in the intro above] is gonna be on it. [Another] one of the songs on the EP is a Caribbean song called “Live It Up.” It’s about how people are just livin’ — music and dancing.
On growing up in New York…
When you meet a New York kid at 18, they have this world weariness like they’re 28 — like, [they’ve] seen it all before. Because you’ve done so many things, you have so much freedom at an early age.
By the time I got to middle school, folks was on trains, taking multiple trains. And then once you’re on the train, can’t nobody stop you. You can get off wherever you want. And that’s what we did — we’d go hang out. Union Square has a special place in my heart, because in high school that’s where you could walk around because it didn’t cost any money — we didn’t have any money — but there was always something to see. Crazy people, art, skateboarders…”Free Hugs” man, still going strong.
On crowds in New York…
I think it’s something very powerful about New York — there are always people. I’m worried when it’s dark out and nobody’s there. Silent night, holy night? Nah, I’m not about that lifestyle. Look, let there be 20 witnesses. And at the bare minimum, one person’s going to do the right thing.
And on leaving New York…
If you haven’t considered leaving once, you haven’t really lived in New York. There’s a push and pull. If you give your all, New York isn’t finished with you. There’s more to give. And that’s what my music is about — recognizing people who have already been here giving their all.
[New York City] is like a trap. When you’ve had enough, that’s when you meet someone like, oh, snap! This thing could work! Or you go to some crazy party that’s so bananas that you can’t even imagine going somewhere else. Because what could top this place?
Feature image: Ben Curry
+ OLIVIA K DOES BK
My family is Caribbean-American and my mom’s from Guyana, and I wanted to highlight authentic Caribbean food that all of us grew up going to so people can go eat there!
Ali’s Roti Shop
They’re Trinidadian and their food is ah-mazing —
I don’t really eat meat, and the cool thing about Caribbean food is there’s always a fish option. They have a really solid shrimp curry roti… it’s spicy, but not too spicy. It’s a healthy dose, but not gonna kill you.
1267 Fulton St, (718) 783-0316 ; 337 Utica Ave, (718) 778-7329
I love being where the people are — where people are being authentic and fun and having a good time.
This particular cafe is really awesome in the summertime. It’s like the whole world comes out. [Eric] introduced me because all his homies go here, and I ended up going by myself and I was running into people I knew. Like, girl, I haven’t seen you since middle school… college. It’s just a random hot party — hotties all over, hanging out, being friends. The DJs here are awesome. I’ve been here at all times of day, and I can get some work done if I don’t run into anyone. And there’s food — it’s authentic Haitian food.
What I also love is this is a very beautiful place for Black Brooklyn — well-to-do Black Brooklyn, you could say. For Young Black Brooklyn to be out together in a small way. I love small venues, I love that intimate cozy vibe. This place kind of has that — it can be very homey, and at the same time, it can be a turn-up covered with people.
894 Broadway, (718) 450-3255, cafeerzulie.com
If you text me and I’m over there, I will come over in a heartbeat. It’s a couple blocks from my house. It’s a Dominican restaurant and they’re like the neighborhood heartbeat, because there are so few places to order food over where we’re from in East New York (Cypress Hills, technically). It just has this homey thing — it’s the same ladies always who are just like, ‘Hey, what’s up!’ and I practice my Spanish with them. They know me.
188 Jamaica Ave, (718) 277-1737
“The Empanada Lady”
It’s not something you can go to — it’s a phenomenon that can happen to you if you’re lucky. The park near our house is called Highland Park, and it’s such a beautiful place, first of all. It’s got tennis courts, basketball courts, handball courts… pretty much everything.
I was there the other day [in September], and I was on my bike and stopped for a break and The Empanada Lady walked by. And The Empanada Lady was the littest woman on Planet Earth.
Oh my god, it was fresh! It was poppin’… the crust was still crunchy. It was amazing. So that’s not something you can go to, but if you’re lucky…
”The Dude on the A Train”
I gotta shout out to the guys who sell the nutcrackers on the train — the little radioactive alcohol beverages. The dude on the A train! He’s got porn, he’s got loose cigarettes. He’s an after-hours person. He comes on the A train like, ‘I’ve got everything! I’ve got family dvds!’ He starts listing off whatever recently came out. ‘I’ve got Moana! Also, I’ve got rated R… You trying to make a date night?’ Built-in date night right there.
Shoutout to the underground economy — it’s my favorite thing.”
]This interview has been edited and condensed.]