Asa Coaxum is a dancer and rapper who lives in Durham, North Carolina. I interviewed her recently and we talked about her new album, how she got her start in the local dance scene, and how Azaelia Banks introduced her to Santeria.
This profile is a collaboration with the Trans Music Podcast. Stream the interview below:
Riley: Hey, I’m Riley for transmusic.org and the Durham Beat, and today I’m here with Asa Coaxum, a local Durham dancer and artist. She just came out with her first EP, Transformations, which I really like. What genre would you call that?
Asa Coaxum: I’d pretty much just put it under alternative, just for the fact that it’s just all around. There’s some very progressive hip-hop tracks on there, like Izwe Lethu, and then there’s some dance tracks, like In the Rings, so alternative just becomes… I really don’t have a bubble yet for it, so I feel like we’re just gonna put it in that category.
Kinda like, a little bit experimental, witchy, dance-y hip-hop.
Yeah, ’cause a lot of it’s experimental, and a lot of the sounds are just experimental sounds that I was just in the studio with the producer Max, Maxville, and he was like, “What kinda sound you want?” And one day I was just like, “Yeah, I want dark, Njongo, mermaid music,” and then he was like, “I got you.” And then, yeah, it was just like, you know.
Where did most of those sounds come from? The sounds that were used in the beats?
The beats, Maxville, who’s a local producer who’s really bomb, actually. He did all the productions for it from scratch, and it was just a process of me being there and saying what kind of sound I wanted that day or how I was feeling that day, and then he would just go at it. And it would take him maybe 15, 30 minutes to make a beat. And then he’ll be like, “How ’bout this?” And I’ll say either yea or nay, and then from there, you know, then I’ll just add some lyrics to it.
Yeah, they’re very unique. And I think that they fit your sound really well; you can tell that they weren’t taken off some random beat website. They’re very cool.
Thank you! I’m gonna tell Max that. Max would appreciate that.
So this is your first real musical project, but you’ve been an entertainer and dancer for a long time, right? How’d you get into that?
The music or the dancing?
The dancing. I guess entertainment in general.
Yeah, dancing started for me… high school. High school I started dancing and modern dance, and I went to school in Cary, actually, and by the end of high school, I had no training really besides that. But it took to my body so naturally, I was just like “oh shit.” And so by the end of high school, I’d decided I wanted to dance professionally, and so I made a deal with my mom, ’cause my mom originally wanted me to just go to college after school, or try to get into college. But she was like, “Hey, if you can find work within the first two months of school being out, then yeah, go for it. But if not, then you’re gonna have to try to get into school.” Luckily for me, I ended up finding, through my sister, a woman in Durham, actually. She owns a dance studio over by Northgate Mall, and gave me free training in any style that I wanted. And I joined her dance company, and that’s how I started dance professionally.
Wow. So you just became friends with her, and then she was like…
Yeah, my sister was working out of a hair salon in Durham at the time, and she ultimately… Ms. Penn at the time had came in, and they had been talking about Ms. Penn; she used to be an Alvin Ailey dancer. So I guess my sister and her started talking, and then she was like, “Yeah, my sibling, they dance,” this, that, and the other, and then she was just like, “Well, give them my number.” And then from there, she and I got into contact, and then I went to a studio.
Oh my god! So that’s like your family sticking up for you.
Yeah, my sister stuck up for me at that moment in time. It was real. And Ms. Penn actually also teaches at the school of the arts in Winston-Salem, so she was doing that, and also had the studio. So that’s how I started doing my first gigs, and I was doing, like… I did one in the Durham Nutcracker, and then at Lynchburg Dance Theatre, which is a cool dance theatre there.
So this is mostly ballet?
Yeah, so it was mostly modern, contemporary, when I was doing those stage shows like that. But then, I also was trained in hip-hop dance, but I always grew up just naturally being in hip-hop culture, you know, whatever. And I’m from New York, so I just grew up naturally freestyling and doing hip-hop. So I’ve been trained in hip-hop, contemporary, ballet. I’ve done some Bollywood and Capoeira. Some jazz, too; jazz was another one I was really into.
Do you still take lessons?
I haven’t taken a class or a workshop in a year or so, honestly. And there’s actually some dope dance workshop that happens in this area. My second dance mentor, Bernadine Fields, she teaches at Southern High School in Durham, but she also runs a dance workshop called NC Underground. Pretty much, they get choreographers from different areas locally, and from L.A. and stuff, to come out and teach dance workshops to where dancers can come in, and you pay maybe 15, 20 bucks, then you take all three classes from these choreographers. And you’re getting training, professional training, which is really cool, because there’s not a lot of places for adults to go to to get training like that.
Usually you have to start really young.
Bingo, right. So the fact that she has this space and created this space to do that has been awesome. So that’s gonna be one of those workshops that I actually go to soon, ’cause I’m like, I’m ready to get my… With me just doing shows of just backup dancing, and doing my own music, I haven’t made time to actually get back to my craft, and you know…
Grow as an artist?
Yeah, just keep freshening up the skills, because for a dancer, there’s always work that could be done.
So let me get this straight: You go to an arts high school, you’re 18, you’re like, “Mom, I don’t wanna go to college; I wanna be a dancer.” She’s like, “Alright, you have two months.” You managed to find an Alvin Ailey dancer who’s willing to give you free lessons, and then you just immediately hop into it, and you’ve been doing it professionally ever since. That’s a pretty amazing story. Like, we’re not in New York; we’re in Durham, North Carolina right now.
But for a while, I feel like it was kinda hard, actually. Especially as far as there being enough jobs for everybody, you know? Like, finding gigs, consistent gigs, that’s always a struggle, I feel like no matter where you are, is just finding consistent gigs. But the dance scene here is pretty good. Once you get into the network of the dance scene here, then things start to flow, and then you meet people who, you know, they do this or they do that, and they’re like, “Oh hey, you wanna be part of this or that?” So yeah, it was pretty good. But then I ended up teaching, too, ’cause I ended up stopping and doing more so teaching. I did maybe four years professionally, two or three years teaching, and then from there I was just doing other random stuff in between there, yeah. Just kind of finding my way.
That’s so cool. That just made me think of, you know, I’m a photographer, and I know that models here… There’s way more models than there are jobs. There just really are. I mean, dancing has a little bit of a higher barrier of entry, like usually people have put more years into it, so they I guess get filtered out a little bit more, but yeah. That’s what I hear from models, is there’s just a lot of…
Oh yeah. I feel like that’s always the case, because it’s just like… I feel like the arts in Durham is an area to where, when you’re doing it professionally, everyone’s going for the same jobs; there’s not enough of the jobs, so it’s like, it can be very cutthroat. And then it also just can be very daunting, too, ’cause you’re just like, “Okay, well, can I do this? Because I’m not booking.” And there’s only so many jobs, so.
Yeah. But if you network, then that’s also a way in right there. I feel like a lot of dancers, also nowadays, it’s always been who you know, but even more so now it’s who you know.
Yeah. And I feel like that’s true everywhere.
So then were you able to turn those dancing networks into music networks? ‘Cause you’ve been playing out a lot; I’ve noticed on your Instagram and stuff.
Oh, yeah. The music stuff, transitioning to that, all really started when I met Zensofly, pretty much. So I’m part of a drag house scenario, or performance arts house, called the House of Coxx, who does a lot of stuff in the area, Vivica C. Coxx being the mother of the house. And I remember there being one show that they were doing at The Bar in Durham, and Zen happened to be at that show, and I remember her coming up to me and being like, “Oh, I like your outfit. You’re really cute, what do you do?” You know, I was just like, “Oh yeah, I’m a dancer.” And then she was like, “Oh shit!” She was like, “Well I’m an artist,” and then we just started kiki-ing and talking, and then she was like, “Well I’m doing this music video; would you like to join it and dance in it?” And I didn’t know who Zen was at the time, to be honest, ’cause I was just like, “Oh, okay.”
Random person, walks into the bar…
Yeah, a random person. You know, I hadn’t heard her music yet, or anything like that, so I was just like, “Okay, cool, I’m down to collab.” ‘Cause I’m that type of person. I like collabing with different people, and just making stuff, so she asked me and I was like, “Yeah.” And then she asked me if I wanted a shot. And I was like, “Yeah,” so I’m thinking we’re going to the bar to take a shot, and she pulls out jello shots out of her pocket. So from then, we became friends and I did that music video, and from me doing the music video onward, I started backup dancing with her and doing shows, and from there, I ended up meeting her friend and producer Max, Maxville. And that’s pretty much how I got into it, because Max was like, “Yeah, you know, Asa seems cool. Do they do anything, like, do they do music stuff or anything?” ‘Cause I think they had saw me joking around, doing some little raps on Instagram, being cute, and then we ended up getting together, and that’s how it all started.
So that one night at The Bar, you must have just been dancing your ass off!
You know what, the funny thing: I hadn’t even been dancing yet, to be honest.
Just a cute outfit? You got all that out of a cute outfit?
Yeah, I just had a cute outfit on, and I had been hanging around the house a few times. I was still kind of new to hanging around the House of Coxx and whatnot. I wasn’t part of the house yet, at the time, but I was friends with Mercury Waters and Stormy Day, and that’s… like, being around them, I would just go to the events, but I was still kinda new into the scene. So yeah, she found me that way.
So I remember, I went to a House of Coxx… it’s like a drag house in the traditional sense, kind of. Oh, and Vivica had said that you were the first person in the house who didn’t have to be a money person first.
Oh, yeah. Yeah, I’m the only person that didn’t do pit crew, really. I didn’t have to go through that. I remember doing it at one point, but I wasn’t ever really a pit crew person.
So if y’all haven’t seen a House of Coxx drag show, they have beautiful boys – mostly boys, I don’t know if they’re all boys – walk around in just their underwear around the crowd with big jugs for tips. And I think it’s very effective. I think it’s very effective. But at the beginning of each show, Vivica has to be like, “Alright y’all, let’s talk about consent. Do not touch these boys anywhere. Just give them money and leave.”
Yep, always the consent talk. Always. Absolutely. Don’t touch anyone anywhere.
But you didn’t have to do that, you were just part of the family, it kinda sounds like.
Yeah, it was weird, because it was like, being friends with Mercury Waters, and that was the first person I ever met, part of the house, I was hanging around with Mercury, and then finally later into our relationship, Mercury introduced me to Stormy, and was like “Oh, you should come to one of the shows sometime.” And around this time too, I also had just realized I was trans, so I was just coming out, and I was really going through a lot, and I had lost a grandpa; it was just a lot. So they had took me in as family, and so I would be at the shows, and I would be to the side, and people would be like, “Are you a part of the house?” I’d be like, “No, I just know them. These are like, my family.” And so from there in time on, as I was hanging out with them, I was like, “Yeah, I really like being around these people, and they are accepting me.” And I was like, “Oh, how do I be a part of the house?” And then they were like, “Well, you gotta kinda work to get in the house.” So I ended up doing the drag shows, and that’s ultimately how I got into the house, is I did my first amateur drag show. I came in second place, and then I did it again, and then I won first place. And then after that, like a month or so afterwards, I was asked into the house. And they were just like, “Yeah, we wanted to hold out and see what was going on, but yeah.”
That’s awesome. That’s really cool. How do you feel about… I mean drag is such a deep tradition. How do you feel about your place within that sort of history?
I like it. I like it, especially being a trans nonbinary person in drag, because there’s so much transphobia within the drag community from cis drag queens who feel like, “Oh, you have to be this to do drag, and drag is only for this certain type of person.” All this other bullshit that’s just really transphobic, and I’m just like, “Yeah, that’s some bullshit.” So, being a part of a house who actually has diversity within it, people who are cis, and people who are trans and nonbinary and whatnot, I think that’s really important to see. Especially being a black trans person in the house. You know, it’s just all these different layers that I find really important at this moment in time to be a part of a drag house. Even though I’m not necessarily a drag performer, I’m still experimenting within the house, I’m kinda like the wild card, because I do dance and because I’m still new to drag and doing drag makeup and all that, so.
Mhm. So you’re kinda figuring it out, figuring out what your place is there.
Yeah, figuring it out. But it’s home, and I definitely feel welcome, and there’s definitely solidarity there to where I feel safe, which is important to me nowadays, too.
Yeah. So let’s talk about the witch thing, if you don’t mind.
Oh yeah, absolutely.
So right now, we are in Asa’s apartment that they share with their boyfriend. You might’ve heard the boyfriend walking around earlier, and I think peeing.
[Both laugh] I love it.
And there’s altars, and there’s black candles, and there’s crystals and plants. A lot of plants; there’s a plant in the shower. And then I’ve just noticed that in your music, like, you have your song Hex Game, which is so catchy I had it stuck in my head for five or six days, and then you also just got featured on a song called Santería. So can you talk a little bit more about your relationship with witch culture and how you feel about it?
Yeah, I’ve been into witchcraft since really young, but I grew up in a really, super Christian household, and that was definitely a non-existent thing. Like, I wasn’t even allowed to read Harry Potter back in the day; my mom threatened to burn the books. But it wasn’t until after high school I ended up really just being like, “Okay, I’m gonna do what I want.” So considering I was into it, I just did my own kinda research into witchcraft, and pagan spirituality, all that sort of things. Wicca – wicca was one of those things when I was in high school where everyone was interested in. It was like “Oh yeah,” like if you were into witchcraft the majority of the time, people were like, “Oh, I’m Wiccan.”
I knew the Wiccan kids.
Yeah, you know the Wiccan kids! So you know, I was into Wicca for a little bit, and I end up meeting this woman who identified as a fag hag. She was from San Francisco, old 50-year-old woman who grew up Catholic and then became a witch later, and she kinda took me under her wing and was just like, “Oh, hey!” She also kinda clocked that I was queer. So she was like, “Oh, I got you, honey.”
So she got me into Wicca, and then I got into Druidism, ’cause her husband was a Druid. And then from there doing it, I was just like, “Mm, these things are, like…” Around this time, I became more conscious, also, just about colonialism and things like that. So I was like, “These things are just hella white for me.” And I felt like, I was just like, “I don’t feel like I can do things with this, but it doesn’t feel home. Homey.” So I started looking into African spirituality a little bit, and ultimately I end up running into this guy, or end up talking to this guy who was a makeup artist – a white guy, actually, too – and he was into Voodoo. Which is odd, right? When you think, considering the history of Voodoo, this white guy doing Voodoo. So he and I were talking one time, and he was like, “Yeah, I’m into Voodoo.” And my understanding, just because I just grew up in a Christian household, and even within pagan culture, African spirituality is kinda demonized. Especially things like Voodoo, Santería, and things like that.
I didn’t know that.
Yeah, very demonized, ’cause it’s black magic. Which, you know, people assume is all about destruction and all that, which, nothing really to do with that.
You would think that there’d be solidarity between the kind of witchy traditions.
Racism even reaches that area. So yeah, he ended up talking to me, and I was like, my knowledge, “Uh, that’s black magic,” and he was like, “No, actually that comes from the African slaves.” So the fact that this white person is now educating me about my own history is kinda annoying, but he ended up introducing me to the loa, who are the spirit of Haitian Voodoo, who are kinda like guardian angels, if you will. And so from there, I got into Voodoo. And around this time also, I was really into Azealia Banks, who’s a bomb artist too. And I followed her on Twitter, and she and I would talk on Twitter a lot. So she ended up introducing me to Santería, which is also coming from west Africa Yoruba tradition.
Pause. Pause. Azealia Banks introduced you to Santería.
Yeah. Just casually, though. Through Twitter, because in the Twittersphere, you know, celebrities talk to their fans, and I was a big-ass fan, too. I was always on her timeline and stuff, and she would talk to her fans really casually, which I really respect. I know she gets a bad rap from people, but actually she’s a really bomb and intelligent person who’s kind of misunderstood and demonized, I feel like. But yeah, she told me about it, and we would exchange information, ’cause I was really into loa and Voodoo and I hadn’t really known about Santería, even though it’s coming from the same areas of Africa. And so she introduced me to the Orishas, who are a different type of spirit in Santería, or Ocha, who are like African spirits, or guardian angels. Guardians of your conscious, which I think Orisha actually translates to guardians of your conscious. But yeah, I started getting into that, Hoodoo, like, all things related to African spirituality from there on out, I just kinda dove into. And that’s how I got into it, and try to reconnect with my ancestors, because I feel like growing up as a young black Christian person and not really knowing the history of where I came from besides slavery, ultimately, I found myself searching to be like, “Okay, I know there’s more to the story than just slavery.” And as I became more conscious and became more radical about my way of thinking and decolonizing myself, the more I was like, “Okay, actually, this history is there.” It’s just like, people have either thrown dirt on it, or there’s misinformation out there, but I ended up finding information for myself, and now I am where I am today. I pray to my ancestors a lot – not recently, which, my altar is not here. So actually, the altar that you see is actually my boyfriend’s. My altar is back at my mom’s place, and my altar actually has my ancestors on them, ’cause my witchcraft mostly has to do with ancestry worship, and dealing with my ancestors, and more so Hoodoo-ish, and working with the Orisha, so it’s kinda like it can be mixed into each other. So that’s what I mostly do, and I tend to my ancestors and make offerings to my ancestors, and make petitions for them to do work for me, or help me through things.
Does that feel more right and more homey to you?
Oh yeah, so much homey. Just because when you connect with your ancestors, when you have that tie there, you sort of feel like you have some backing. Like, you have the backup to do whatever. And you know, when it comes to African spiritualities, the ancestors are like… For any black person or African person who practices Santería, Voodoo, Hoodoo, or anything coming from there, they’ll tell you too, probably, that just the overall feeling of being filled with your ancestors or being in the presence of them is just such a strong feeling, and they’re so powerful.
So what’s next for you musically?
Well, I’m working on a track now called Sirens, that I’m gonna be… actually, it’s almost done. I actually just have to lay vocals on it and maybe extend it a little bit with the time on the track, but I’m working with that with Max also. That should be out soon. He’s been really busy doing projects with other people and stuff like that, and also doing his shows, and the scheduling’s just been off, but I’m gonna be in the studio soon, finishing it out. And then also, I am going to be collaborating with Sand Pact, which is… I opened up for Sand Pact for one of their shows recently, and they’re just really cool in general, but we’ve been in talks about just collabing and having fun. They’re so chill; they’re just like, “Yeah, we love you, whatever, let’s make time.” So that, I’m really excited about that, ’cause I’ve been wanting to work with them for a long time.
I was the first person to buy their latest tape; I was real proud of myself. Also Kaanchee from Sand Pact taught me how to run the NC State radio station!
Oh, listen. Kaanchee, like… they don’t fuck around. They’re gorgeous, strong, I’m about it. Alex is bomb also, just chill, in the cut.
Well I’m excited to hear it!
Yeah, I am too, ’cause I really am. I’m a big fan of theirs. Also, I just feel like the energy that we both have would just be monumental on that track.
I can see it. Alright, well thanks for talking to me.
Find Asa at @cruelworldofasa on social media