It’s been a while since we’ve heard from DoNormaal, the mesmerizing emcee and producer who exploded on the Seattle underground hip-hop scene in November 2015 with the release of her debut LP Jump Or Die and 2017’s follow-up Third Daughter. Since 2018, her shows and fresh releases have appeared to taper off, save for one-off singles like her stirring response to police oppression in Black communities, “gift and a promise.”
But on November 2nd, DoNormaal quietly reemerged with a new release, “Baby May,” and an accompanying video. There’s a steady bittersweetness in the track’s looped music box lullaby, created in Logic and produced by DoNormaal herself. The track’s title references the name of an auntie the artist’s grandfather often spoke about during his calls home to Sierra Leone, so the beat dovetails nicely with an overall sense of reconnecting to a literal and figurative home. It’s a spacious, emotional track that undulates like the brown hills of the Coachella Valley and speaks to DoNormaal’s last few turbulent years.
DoNormaal, whose given name is Christianne Karefa-Johnson, was raised in Southern California, and also, on the road. She has often described her childhood as “nomadic,” which at times lends her work the sort of wistful quality of watching the world from a car window.
DoNormaal the artist was first born while studying poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. But it wasn’t until after moving to Seattle in 2013 to be with her then-partner, artist Rave Holly, that Karefa-Johnson began releasing music and performing regularly. Together, DoNormaal, Rave Holly, and some friends formed an arts collective and began sharing their individual projects, which, like DoNormaal’s 2015 LP Jump or Die, were well-received by local music fans and critics alike. “It was a beautiful time for me,” she tells Audiofemme.
By the time she released her 2017 LP, the raw post-hip-hop masterpiece Third Daughter, Karefa-Johnson was playing shows almost every night and began slowly working on what she thought would be her next project, Yippee, even releasing a video for the album’s first single, “wannabe,” produced by Wolftone.
“I started making Yippee at a time where I just felt very confident, very secure in and satisfied by my reality,” Karefa-Johnson says. “I had this self-assuredness that came from figuring out how to express myself in a way that people related to and that helped people. The high of being in Seattle and doing all these shows and having people respond the way they did, I had this feeling that no matter what life threw at me, it’s all ‘yippee!’ Because it is, right? All the sorrow and the beauty is always one, but in this particular time I had almost no fear. I was like, ‘I feel blessed. I feel powerful. No matter what.’’’
But, by 2019, that boundless confidence began to wane a bit and she found herself feeling tired and a little stuck. Reeling, DoNormaal made the difficult decision to pick up and head to Palm Springs to live with her mother.
“‘Baby May’ feels very big like the desert,” she explains. “I wrote this song towards the end of my time in Seattle, when I was contemplating, like okay, is it time to make a move? Where am I going to go? What is this going to mean?”
When she landed in Palm Springs, DoNormaal had only planned to spend six months there. The pandemic extended her stay, and the ending of her long-term relationship shortly after left her with much to reflect on.
Feeling untethered and isolated, DoNormaal stepped away from Yippee and threw herself into creating a project that encapsulated what she was currently feeling. She decided to call it Palmspringa, in a play on Rumspringa, a rite of passage in Amish culture when adolescents are allowed to explore the secular world. Palmspringa, produced by Seattle artist Welp Disney, is due out in 2022.
DoNormaal filmed the video for “Baby May” in the mars-like desert of Agua Caliente Reservation in Palm Springs, but she says it will not appear on Palmspringa. Instead, it will be part of Yippee, which she plans to finish afterwards.
For now, the reopening of the world has allowed DoNormaal to settle in L.A., where she lives in a communal artist house and works at a collective of artist studios called Church of Fun. Still, she will be back in Seattle to perform and then some, she says.
“I became DoNormaal in Seattle. I completely grew up in Seattle. It feels very much like a home even though I couldn’t stay there,” she says. “I couldn’t make it my home forever because I had to get back to this other place I come from, to this sun and these palm trees and these brown mountains. But I feel very influenced by Seattle and molded by my time there.”
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