The Block Beat multimedia series is a collaboration with The TRiiBE that roots Chicago musicians in places and neighborhoods that matter to them.
“She’ll kick us out. She’ll come down here and make songs, just tell us to leave,” says Aniya Marie Abrams, Queen Key‘s 15-year-old cousin. Around three years before Queen released her debut mixtape, Your Highness, and around five before this summer’s EP Eat My Pussy, the aspiring rapper had bumped heads with her mom and moved out, living instead at Aniya’s house—where she used to take over their shared bedroom to write.
Some things don’t change, and on an unseasonably chilly Thursday evening in August, Queen is doing it again—despite the glittery pink sign on the door reading “Do not buss in my room!” Aniya leans against the dresser while Queen sits on the edge of the bottom bunk, slamming a large cheese from Italian Fiesta Pizzeria, and they reminisce about the years they spent as two of the three kids in that room.
“We couldn’t be down here, like this is her room,” Aniya says. Back then, they didn’t have a bunk bed—only a queen-size bed and a twin-size bed. When Queen took the queen, Aniya and her little brother shared the twin—Queen was a wild sleeper, Aniya says. “It was real hectic. We didn’t have nothing to ourselves,” she adds. “She’d give us $2 if we gave her a massage.”
Queen laughs mischievously, flashing her signature dimples. “Damn. I did use to kick y’all niggas out of y’all shit,” she admits. “But that’s just because when I write my songs, I really do it in private.”
Before transferring to Eisenhower High in Blue Island, a south suburb a couple miles outside Chicago, Queen attended Homewood-Flossmoor about ten miles farther south, where she and her friends would get high and freestyle. “We all came to the conclusion I was raw as fuck,” she says.
But her mother wasn’t feeling that lifestyle. She and Queen fought, and her mom suggested she move to her dad’s house in Wisconsin. But Queen wasn’t going. During her junior year at Homewood-Flossmoor, she started living at the two-story house Aniya’s family has in Blue Island.
“I’m grateful as fuck that I was able to come here,” Queen says. “I had the regular thinking space that I needed and freedom and just opportunity to literally think, ’cause that’s all it was about. That’s all I really wanted to do, like, at my mama’s house and shit. Just smoke and think. Just do me.”
When the Block Beat first met Queen Key, last November in River West recording studio At the Stu, she could barely stop laughing between her sentences. We’d just talked about her in an episode of our music video series the Forecast, and she’d ripped it and posted it on her Instagram page—in that installment, hosts Rome J and Morgan Elise Johnson discuss how Queen always has the upper hand in her songs, never crying about what some man has done to her. In the studio, she played her 2017 single “Pass My Blunt” and a forthcoming track that she thought about naming either “Gangin” or (in a nod to a line from one of her favorite movies, 1999’s The Wood) “Mackin & Hangin.” She even rapped along to the new song on Instagram Live to give her fans a taste.
“I was taught the same thing everybody else was taught in this world—to just be regular,” Queen said. As kids, she explained, we’re all force-fed the same bullshit: stay in line and don’t talk back. “At H-F or just in life, period, I just follow my own rules,” she said. “I was always tardy. Always absent. Always ditching. Always whatever.”
Other people’s rules have never worked for Queen Key. Born Ke’Asha Marie McClure, she was kicked out of preschool for being too smart—and that’s “smart” the way a black granny uses it, when she raises her eyebrow at a kid who challenges everything a grown-up says.
On the day of our August interview, Queen’s friends are supposed to bring her clothes for our photo shoot. When we arrive, she’s dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt, still waiting for those friends to show up. Queen insists on having everything just so—including her outfit—in order to be photographed. She smokes weed to pass the time, and when it becomes clear that her friends aren’t going to arrive, she lets us take about two minutes’ worth of photos on the back porch.
Queen seems apprehensive, even annoyed—not as lighthearted and playful as she was in the studio. She doesn’t have the clothes she wants, and we know she doesn’t want to settle for pictures in her sweats. With the sun going down, it’s getting colder. Eventually she says, quietly and forcefully, “We’ll do the interview now.”
Queen is unapologetic about her feelings and about what she wants. That’s why so many black girls, teens, and women rock with her. “That’s why I’m so welcoming to my fans, because it’s like I understand them,” she says. “I see me when I see them, because I’m a little black girl. I was a little black girl.”
Queen personifies her swaggering, take-no-prisoners lyrics. On the Eat My Pussy single “My Way,” for example, she raps: “I’m a spoiled-ass bitch, I’ma get what I wish / If that nigga got a problem, he could suck his own dick / I got my own shit / I think I’m on, bitch / I’m 21 years old and I got my own business.”
She doesn’t depend on no man, or on anyone else for that matter. She’s the head bitch in charge at all times. And like Trina from Trick Daddy’s late-90s crew at Slip-n-Slide Records, she’s not afraid to talk that real talk about what men are most useful for.
“If a nigga can say he just fucked this bitch and make it sound cool, why can’t I say I just got some head from this nigga and I just went on about my fucking day? That’s real too,” Queen says. “I’m snatching my power. Definitely. I don’t make music for, like, weak moments.”
It’s that confidence in herself as a black woman that makes Queen a voice for her generation. In hip-hop culture even more so than in the world at large, women are often seen as disposable toys—prized possessions flaunted in music videos and on the red carpet. But Queen demands to be taken seriously as a businesswoman. After G Herbo, she’s the next set to blow on the Machine Entertainment Group roster, and she wants people to know that she’s as much about her money as she is her music.
G Herbo, Southside, Queen Key
Wed 11/21, 8 PM, the Forge, 22 W. Cass St., Joliet, $35-$105, all-ages
“Now, it’s about all of these people that’s looking to me,” Queen says. “Real people. Young people. Young females who just don’t got confidence or believe in themselves. People really don’t know you can do it. Literally, you. They think it gotta be a white nigga or somebody in a tie that’s showing you everything you need to do. They think it gotta be somebody guiding you without it just being you, and your heart, and you praying, and you doing you.” v