Detroit artist Crystal Allen speaks on her upcoming EP Hemp and Lesbians, the journey it took to get here, and gaining control of her narrative.
By Isabella Grella
“I’m free for the first time in my life,” Crystal Allen tells me on the phone from her Los Angeles apartment. The R&B artist has just released her single “Fake,” and is preparing for her EP Hemp and Lesbians to drop this upcoming Fall. With new music on the way and a new city to soak in, Crystal is finally starting to see her work reap rewards.
But from the beginning of her musical career, the Detroit artist learned how to make a little go a long way, while still enjoying the path her career has taken her. “Being from Detroit means I get to be myself and come out swinging. You know, we have a legacy of great music — from Motown — and now we’ve got a lot of new artists that are coming out now that’s kind of recapturing that moment,” Crystal tells me. “So now I think the time was hot for me to finally get out and speak my perspective on what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.”
From Detroit to New York and LA, picking up jobs along the way and meeting support systems en route, her music is reflective of a slow-burning — but always burning — passion for who she is and what she’s been through. Studio sessions and collaborations are brutally honest in order for her lyrics to be a genuine reflection on her life.
“We were in the studio trying to come up with a prospective list of what we were gonna talk about. I was like, let’s just be honest because it’s been a struggle to get here.” Her latest track “Fake” speaks honestly on the things she had to do to get studio time. “So I was pretty much talking about the process of how you have to by hook or by crook make it,” Crystal explains. “Useless” is about an all-too-familiar story of Crystal catching an unfaithful ex.
But speaking her truth as a queer musician was also a work in progress. “Before I would rap and I would say ‘he,’ because I wasn’t out at the time so the stories I was telling, I was saying he/him. I don’t want to do that anymore.”
How did you get into singing and rapping?
Actually, I was in high school when I started and a friend of mine came up to me and was like “hey we should start a group,” and we started a group. And we employed my friend Pook who was a great rapper; You know, one of those lunchtime rappers at school [at lunchtime] they’re banging on the tables and rapping. So he asked us to start a group, we started a group and then my friend who was boy-crazy, she kinda left me. She found a boyfriend and was like that was it — her career was done. [laughs]
So then, he and I kept working and he kept pushing me to keep going for it and I ended up liking it, liking it a lot! So I continued to do it and I’m still here.
So obviously it’s been a struggle, there hasn’t been an easy route to getting here. Have you had any support systems or anyone to help you along the way?
Oh yeah. My best friend actually, she’s the one that kinda encourages me to keep going. There was a time I didn’t have a dime. I found these glasses, these Tom Ford glasses outside a restaurant and I picked them up. They were like $400.
So, she helped me sell those glasses for like $80 to her brother-in-law and that was $80 that got me a bus ticket to get to New York to try to get to a studio, and then I ended up finding a job at Dunkin Donuts in New York. That job transferred me to Las Vegas. So being in Las Vegas, I would come to Los Angeles on the weekends and try to find a studio. And I ended up in Los Angeles.
If it wasn’t for my best friend I probably never would’ve ended up in Los Angeles. So it was a long route, but I ended up where I wanted to be.
Yeah, and along the way, you ended up well, where you are now. What’s her name?
So since you were spending some time in New York and traveling around — obviously it wasn’t easy — but do you have any takeaways? Do you have any city you love the most so far?
Well, my hometown, Detroit I love that the most. But I think my most liberating experience has been [in] New York. Like it taught me how to survive on my own with no help, no support with anybody there with me. I had to protect myself, I had to go to work, I had to make sure I wasn’t getting scammed of studio time. It made me aware of how bad I wanted this. Because I never would have stayed there and done a whole lot of things if I didn’t want this so bad.
You said kind of what you have to do to get where you want and fulfill your dreams. But do you think that the industry should change or progress? How would you like to see it shift so it can support emerging artists more and not necessarily have to go through everything you said that you went through?
I guess I would like to see some of the major artists reach back and open doors. I don’t see a lot of that and you might see some of that here or there. Pretty much I see a lot of people get on and once they get on it’s like “well I’m here, so f-ck what you’re talking about you’re gonna have to do what I did!” [laughs] And there’s not a lot of reaching back and pulling the next person up or either just creating an independent avenue for people that you might agree with what they’re talking about and opening the door for them so they can halfway get in. I’m not seeing a lot of that.
Can you speak on the music community and any of the cities you’ve been in or any creatives that you’ve really gotten to know?
New York was pretty wide open. As far as the music scene there, there was a bar that I used to go to it’s called the West End Bar, on Broadway. I think the corner of Broadway and 107th. They had open-mic night there and everybody was allowed to come and kinda get on the mic and show what they had. It was the most supportive audience that I’ve seen anywhere. Like Detroit, LA, Ohio anywhere that I’ve been in regards to a hip-hop show New York was the most open and the most supportive.
I think them being the breeders of hip-hop, I like the way that they keep the door open. 24 hours 7 days a week you can come there and do what you want. They’re the most inspiring I think.
Do you think you can see yourself ever going back? I know you just got to LA.
Oh my god, yes! If COVID ever decides to tuck itself back in I would love to go back to New York that’s been my most exciting experience in life. I would love to live in New York. I had a ball.
Let’s talk a little about your EP. It’s titled Hemp and Lesbians. So tell me about the making of the EP and the title, what that means to you.
We were sittin’ in the studio. I smoke a lot of weed or I did smoke a lot of weed — I’m on a hiatus right now. We were talkin’ about relationships. My two producers at the time Ben and Phil, they were talking about relationships and I added my two cents. But then the consensus of everything was that relationships are relationships like whether they’re straight, gay or whatever.
So we were swappin’ stories and they were like “Dang, your stories are way more exciting than ours!” And I was high when we were talking so it made me tell the truth like a lot more than I would have been. So that’s when we were both like let’s name it something about weed, and I was like how about Hemp and Lesbians. And they were like “Yeah! That’s it we’ll name it Hemp and Lesbians.”
Cause I was gonna say like weed and h-es — some derogatory thing — and they’re like “No, you can’t call it weed and b-tches.” And I’m not like that so please don’t take it like that. [laughs] We were just tryna come up with a name and Hemp and Lesbians was like okay, that makes sense. That’s how it came about.
So I want to talk a little about what we were talking about earlier. In such a politically-charged climate what does being in the LGBTQ+ community, specifically being a Black and Queer artist mean to you?
I’m ready for us to get our just dues. Like, we’ve been here for a very long time. Little Richard was always out, and I think a lot of people haven’t felt comfortable just being themselves. So I’m glad for people like Big Freeda, she came out unapologetic and I’m like, “Yeah, we could have been doing that! Yeah, we should have done that yesterday.” I’m just happy that people are now embracing it. So now I’m like we’ve been here, we’ve been prevalent, let’s just keep going with it and keep the momentum going.
I’m not scared anymore I no longer want to use the pronouns and hide behind some other artists or say something different I want to say exactly what I want to say. And talk to the people that I’m talking to. I am talking to an LGBTQ audience in particular, but I’m talking to everybody. So why don’t we just let everybody say what they want to say and who likes it they like it and those who don’t they don’t.
Just for clarity, what do you mean by not use the pronouns?
Before I would rap and I would say “he,” because I wasn’t out at the time so the stories I was telling I was saying he/him. I don’t want to do that anymore. It’s like you’re hiding a part of yourself. I’ve never been indirect; I was told nobody’s gonna accept that if you say it that way. So I’ve always wanted to be out but I was kind of ushered into saying well “Hey, everybody’s not accepting just yet, so you might as well keep those stories he/him.” All that. So now I don’t have to do that anymore.
Yeah, one of my producers was like “Don’t do the gay sh-t. You know, say him, you went out with a guy.” And I was like …. okay? [laughs] Now I don’t have to do it and I don’t want to do it.
I think that speaks to you saying speak your truth. What is that truth that you want people to her in your EP?
I’m free for the first time in my life. So I’m gonna talk about the people that I love whether that’s a guy or a girl — cause on the spectrum I’m bisexual. A lot of people don’t see that they see the androgynous, masculine side, and they automatically label me like, “oh that’s a d-ke!” I’ve heard a lot of derogatory statements as far as my looks are concerned. So on the spectrum, I am bisexual. So whether I meet a guy or a girl and we connect, that’s fine with me. So I’m gonna speak from that perspective and be okay with it.