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Ivy Sole: ‘The role I was asked to play of a devout Christian girl was not quite what I was given upon birth’

The Philadelphia-raised rapper has released their third album, ‘Candid’. They speak to Annabel Nugent about the importance of empathy, the tension between their faith and sexuality, and their reluctance to solely call art their therapy

Thursday 18 August 2022 13:36 BST
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Rapper Ivy Sole’s songwriting is a dense mix of memoir, social commentary, and soul-searching
Rapper Ivy Sole’s songwriting is a dense mix of memoir, social commentary, and soul-searching (Nathan Bajar )

Ivy Sole has no interest in being mysterious. Other musicians may savour secrecy in their work, but Sole – real name Taylor C McLendon – bares all. The Charlotte-born, Philadelphia-bred rapper writes lyrics that feast on the intimate details of their life, past and present. At any given time, McLendon wants you to know exactly what it was like; exactly how it felt. Even when that feeling was awful. “I want the listener to understand,” they say down the line from their home in Philadelphia. As if illustrating their fondness for clarity, McLendon speaks slowly and is prone to taking long pauses before an answer.

Their songwriting is a dense mix of memoir, social commentary, and soul-searching. “I’m the third born and first to survive,” they rap on the mellow track “Reincarnate”. “Little sister, a Pisces / she taught me how to survive.” Their sound is a polychromatic journey through soulful R&B and gospel-inflected alt-rap – a call-back to foregone greats like D’Angelo, and McLendon’s peers such as Noname and Jamila Woods. Meanwhile, the cadence and conviction of their delivery packs the punch of their spoken word roots. Candid is McLendon’s third studio album. The title suggests a singer who, with two releases already under their belt, is ready to get real. But “candid” has always been an apt descriptor of McLendon’s work. Even on their 2016 debut Eden there was that signature frankness. But on Candid, they up the ante. On it, they reckons with their history and upbringing: the good, the bad, and everything in between.

As McLendon approaches 30, it feels fitting that Candid was born out of an existential crisis. “I was very confused about why my mother had me, and then came all the questions that come from that: why did you have me with the person you had me with? Why did you have me in the time you had me? I was asking a lot of deeply existential questions, because life is difficult, and I think sometimes in the past I’ve blamed my parents for that difficulty when it wasn’t necessarily fair.” Empathy, they say, is “what the record is about”.

The roots of Candid first began to take shape almost a decade ago, when McLendon was studying marketing at The University of Philadelphia. At the time, they also helped to run a poetry workshop at an adult prison in Philadelphia where there were 15 juvenile offenders serving time among the adults. The experience stuck with her, and the memories bubbled to the surface in 2019 as the idea of police abolition picked up speed, with movements such as Defund the Police gaining traction in the mainstream.

“A lot of people don’t realise that they’re only one to two degrees’ separation from the carceral system,” they explain. For their part, McLendon came to learn that many important people in their life had interactions with prison and the police. “My biological father was in jail before he met my mother. My aunts and uncles have had run-ins with the police. I have a cousin who was violently detained by police. It’s literally in every corner of my family but because of the nature of policing in prisons, it’s not something that’s discussed. It’s not something that’s interrogated.”

Their newfound understanding of these systems helped bring their childhood into clarity. “It makes perfect sense why my upbringing was the way it was. People don’t go to prison and leave prison behind them. Prison ends up being a part of their lives and their behaviours.” Now, they understand why their mum and dad approached parenting the way they did. “There’s no way it wasn’t impacted by carceral logic. Impossible.”

McLendon grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, but they associate their childhood mostly with a small town outside the city. “Cornfields and churches and gravel roads. That was where my grandmother lived,” they say wistfully. “It was a very specific Black southern experience that I am unbelievably grateful for.” It wasn’t all peachy, though. “My father’s side of the family has always been a complicated situation because of the various traumas they’ve been carrying for years. And the relationship between my mother and father… I would’ve hoped for less chaos between them.” They let a pause sit before reflecting: “But it makes sense there was chaos to begin with.” There’s that empathy.

McLendon attended church three times a week for the entirety of their childhood – which, they laugh, “in retrospect sounds like child abuse but is not”. Wednesdays were for Bible study; Saturdays, volunteering and community building; Sundays, mass. They sang in the choir but, because their church was trying to modernise, didn’t get the “proper, white robe, red sash, swaying gospel experience”. McLendon’s relationship with religion was complicated. On one hand, as a self-confessed nerd, they got “a lot of edification” at church. “There really is no higher calling than to be an educated Christian in the Black south.” But on the other – heavier – hand, they found some of the beliefs to be at odds with their core values. In high school, they joined the North Carolina Youth Council and campaigned for comprehensive sex education beyond abstinence. “I think that moment was the beginning of me moving away from that particular spiritual community.”

‘I had a very keen understanding of the desires of my heart’ (Nathan Bajar)

Their queerness, too, made their relationship to religion fraught. McLendon now identifies as non-binary and uses she/they pronouns. “I think my queerness and transness have always been present. I would have these very lucid moments of realisation and then immediately shut them down because it was just unbelievably…” – they search for the right word and laughs when they find it – “inconvenient. The role I was being asked to play of a devout Christian girl was not quite what I was given upon birth. I had a very keen understanding of the desires of my heart and what I knew to be myself, but I had no interest in expressing that or embodying it because it was unbelievably inconvenient.”

They counts themselves lucky that their family has accepted who they are. “They’re still working on my transness but it’s not because they don’t believe in being trans, it’s literally just them getting up to speed because they’re old,” they laugh. “They’re really trying to understand where I’m coming from, and I do appreciate that.”

Art as therapy is a well-practised notion – and one McLendon believes in – but they’re careful not to depend on it as their only solace. “I think I relied on songwriting for those purposes in the past because I didn’t have other outlets to process things. I’m very happy to have moved past that as my sole method of feeling.” They look back at their time doing spoken word at college with mixed feelings. “When you’re young especially, people are trying to process what they’re dealing with in their art when, really, I think some of us were in need of real support.” They shrug. “A lot of us just needed to go to therapy.”

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