Coasts and Colors, Anajah Hamilton
Photography & Art Direction: Ji Yeo
Styling: Ana Gabriela Leon
Hair: Luca Ponce
Make Up: Chloe Grae
Assistant: Ky Bennington
Interview: Isis Nicole
The last six months have been soaring for Anajah Hamilton. From having her name in lights on the jumbo screen in Times Square with Nike’s “Dream With Us” campaign, to collaborating with Black Party for the song and music video “4amInNY”, and public speaking at New York University, “I feel like my life has been consistent chaos,” Hamilton says. “I kind of want to feel stable.”
Standing 5 feet one, the soon to be 22-year-old, singer-songwriter, sparkles outside of her comfort zone wearing bright colors that best describe ongoing hues of her music — not necessarily her everyday wardrobe. “I’m not a very colorful person,” says Hamilton. “But I think it’ll be really cool because I do feel like your publication is very colorful.”
The day starts off sunny until the sky loosens for fast moving rain. She pulls out a see-through mushroom shaped umbrella, has big brown eyes, braids flowing down to her back, birthmarks rhythmically flecked across her face, perfectly poised, and virtually glows in the mist.
She knows the importance of fluidity. She has been training to be a singer since age nine, when her mother enrolled her in art classes such as choir, piano and dance, outside of a dangerous city in north New Jersey where Hamilton lived with her family. “It’s a very rough area,” says Hamilton. “I wasn’t allowed to play outside or like anything like that. I would go to the suburbs for all of my extracurricular activities.”
In 2007, while Hamilton was hospitalized all summer long, at age ten, she indulged in media from the 1950s and 1960s including The Sound of Music and The Twilight Zone, which changed her life for good. “I was like, ‘This is the best ever.’ That’s when I was most impressionable,” says Hamilton. “I soaked everything up like a sponge, and it really stuck with me.”
Now focused on learning everything she possibly can about music history plus toiling to make work feel like fun again, Hamilton talks automation, flying first class, and amplifying Art Hoe Collective — a movement co-founded by Mars, Sage Adams, Gabrielle Richardson, Jam, and Hamilton (and supported by Willow Smith, SZA, and Amandla Stenberg) — to provide a space for all creatives of color to share their art.
Isis Nicole: Can a little bit on your background growing up in New Jersey?
Anajah Hamilton: I grew up in north New Jersey. It’s a very rough area, I would say. I wasn’t allowed to play outside or like anything. All of my activities were school related [and] I was in a lot of art clubs. I would go to the suburbs for all of my extracurricular activities. I took a lot of dance classes and piano. I sang in a choir. I did all of that in the suburbs because my mom didn’t want me to do anything where I was from. She said it was really dangerous and I [agree], it didn’t really seem like [the environment] would benefit me artistically.
IN: And how about your parents, what were they like?
AH: My mom was a teacher when I was growing up.
IN: Oh my God!
AH: Yeah. Your mom was a teacher, too?
AH: My mom was an English teacher.
IN: My mom has been teaching for over 20 years now. She mostly does English, history, and math for 6 or 8th graders now.
AH: So one of the classes where they switch everything around.
A: So she’s very well-rounded. My mom just did English [and] hated math. Sometimes she would do other stuff, but she was really about English. So I grew up knowing all of my punctuation marks, cursive, and everything when I was in pre-school. I knew how to read by the time I was three-years-old. I was like a really smart kid. I was very on it! [laughing]
IN: No doubt. This makes me happy.
A: And my dad was an auto-mechanic. He would take a part motorcycles, buy parts, and take me to garages. It was always so boring.
IN: I remember visiting my great uncle’s garage growing up. Always boring. But I want to know more about this for you and your family.
AH: My dad is really into motorcycles and gangster-rap. My parents are very different. My dad is into G-Unit and hardcore rap music and my mom is into neo-soul and house music. And I grew up around my grandparents as well as my great-grandparents, so that’s where I would listen to country, jazz, and soul. And then everybody else in my family listened to rock and different types of music. So I grew up hearing a lot of different things, and it really helped me broaden my music taste.
IN: And so is that where you draw a little bit of your classic interest in fashion and film? Or did that come through your own research?
A: My family’s not artistic at all, but I would always observe how they would react to the music and film. I was like, ‘Wow if this makes my family feel some kind of way I want to be a part of that feeling.’ [Art] just made them feel happy. Like when we would watch “106 & Park” together, or when we would watch movies, I would just be like, ‘Wow! This is something that my family does for fun.’ And when I was younger, my entire family would stay at my grandmother’s house for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter and I would always make all of my cousins do a show. I would put the music together. I would have a schedule. I would style everyone. I did everything. We had a show every single year.
IN: I can relate to this because we did the same thing every holiday in our living room. We would perform to the The Lion King, The Lion King II, and Mulan.
AH: That’s so cute! We have very similar upbringings. Later on, when I was 10-years-old, I had three surgeries and stayed in the hospital all summer. That’s when I started watching old movies. When you’re in there, they only have family shows or programs for older people because that’s usually who’s in hospital. I was watching The Sound of Music and Twilight Zone and when it came into my life and I was like, ‘This is the best ever.’ So I feel like those parts of my childhood definitely shaped how I view art, music, and culture. That’s when I was most impressionable. I soaked everything up like a sponge, and it really stuck with me.
IN: Jumping ahead into the high school portion of your life and education. Your family wanted you to pursue law, but you decided to follow your own path. How has your family responded to your decision since?
A: Well when I decided to do music, I was not as connected as I am now. I was very much on the outside of the industry like anybody who wants to do something that they know nothing about. My family was not supportive. They were [frankly] like, “No.” And this is only because when I was in high school, I studied Communications and Politics at both Princeton and Stanford. I would have college credits for it so they were just like, “You should go to school for law.” But for some reason it just didn’t make me feel anything. Just because I’m very opinionated doesn’t mean that has to be my career. And I grew up liking art and fashion. My family put me in all these different art based things, and then they don’t want me to be an artist. But you know, now my family is very supportive. In the beginning, my dad was very afraid of my future because he’s very structured and strict. He has a very specific way about doing things. And so when I was like, ‘Dad I’m going to be an artist,’ he was not really sure. Now my dad calls me every single day. He says the same thing over and over, “Just calling to make sure you’re okay and I’m proud of you.” Like my family is very supportive now. I think when they weren’t … it wasn’t because they didn’t believe in me.
IN: They probably mostly wanted you to have security.
AH: Yeah. They want me to be secure and have a better life than they did. And if they feel like I’m going toward a path that seems so unconventional and scary — which I also feel like is scary — [it’s a fight to] just trust yourself.
IN: Absolutely. My family is the same because they grew up in the hood and never wanted me to go through what they’ve been through. So what were you previous jobs if you had any before being represented by No Agency New York?
A: I was a hustler. I used to bake sweets, brownies, and cookies and I would sell it out of my locker in high school.
IN: Hell yeah! I would do the same with my mom.
AH: And I had the best brownies! I had the best everything and the security guards would search my stuff and be like, “Why do you have this?” I’d say, ‘Oh I’m running for prom queen. I’m passing out stuff.’ But really I was selling it. By this time, my family and I were living in the suburbs where I use to commute to do all of my art activities. That’s where I went to high school and then eventually started working at the grocery store. It was a very weird period. That’s also when I started doing stuff with Art Hoe Collective because I was really bored at the grocery store. Like … who wants to work at a grocery store and not do anything.
AH: And so I actually got popular on the Internet because I did a shoot at the grocery store. My friend who wanted to be a photographer, he took some pictures of me at the grocery store. He would normally do event photography, not necessarily art photography, and was begging me to take pictures. I was like, ‘I don’t really want to take the pictures. I just wanted to stay in the house, listen to music, and write music.’ I always wrote music and never wanted to do modeling. He said, “No I swear it’s going to be good.” And so he took all these pictures of me holding fruit and stuff like that. I put them on Tumblr and they went viral. I don’t know what happened. It was so weird. Then when I stopped working at the grocery store, I passed out flyers. It was really hot, and I hated it. Then after that, I didn’t have a regular job anymore.
IN: How did you know after going viral to say, "Okay I need really push this.”
AH: I feel like when things happen … sometimes I see people on the Internet who won’t take the opportunity to grab it and run with it. I definitely was like, ‘Okay I need to use this opportunity to just keep it going.’ So after those pictures went viral I just kept posting more pictures. Then I started posting singing videos and I started talking about Art Hoe Collective.
AH: That’s when I got a following. I figured it out. You just need that one moment to see what people like and just grab it.
IN: Yes because it’s a moving train and it’s moving fast.
AH: Yeah, it moves very fast. [laughing]
IN: So how has living in New York City changed your life?
AH: Living in New York has definitely been … a little weird. I’m from only a state away and I didn’t start coming to New York until I was around 17-years-old because I didn’t have friends in New Jersey. My best friend had moved to Georgia, and I was by myself essentially, so I started making friends on the Internet. That’s when I met Samia Hamps, Gabrielle Richardson, Sage Adams, and so many other people. I was like, 'I should just figure out how to navigate this space,’ go to events, and do stuff like that. That’s when I started getting into the different industries because I was actually showing up to things. People were like, “Oh who are you? What do you do?” They really liked me and from living here (for only four months now) it’s not so different from me commuting in and out everyday. It’s definitely is a vibrant city. It has an energy that other cities just don’t have. There’s a realness to it with everybody is just trying to survive, and do their own thing. I feel like everybody has this mutual respect for the people they meet. It doesn’t feel like there’s a hierarchy like, ‘Oh I’m better than you because I’ve done this and I’ve done that.’ I feel like we’re all just trying to make it to this destination that we don’t know exactly know exists yet, but we know that it’s going to happen if you’re in this city.
IN: I definitely agree with this. I do find that (because I’ve only been here for a year now) it has it’s up’s and down’s in extremes for me. So there will be times when I’m really happy and things are going well, projects come together. And then something will happen that kind of crushes the momentum and sometimes even my feelings and I question why am I doing this.
AH: And also when you stay in the house you — and you’re like I have to stay in, I have to work and you see everybody outside living their life, and you get fomo (fear of missing out) because you’re all very close to each other but it just feels like everything is also so far away. You don’t want to waste time here but you also don’t want to miss out. It’s about understanding your time and energy. Knowing what moments are right for you and what moments aren’t. Sometimes living in the city is really lonely, too, you know. Everybody is working and trying to figure things out. It feels really weird sometimes, like you’re out of place.
IN: It can be lonely. I’m really lucky I’m with my boyfriend and that there’s a healthy foundation we’ve made together to come home to. We moved here together, he brought us here actually. But outside of us, it really is lonely. I don’t have girl friends in the city really who I can just randomly call and spend a few hours with not working. I don’t really know anyone deeply. It’s mostly surface and friendly stuff you know like when you go out and it feels — not like a performance but like a little bit of a performance because I don’t know how else to describe it. You know, you have to be on, and sharp. There’s a careful attention to branding and relationships. It’s work, as soon as you step outside.
AH: Yeah. It work. When you step outside and people ask how are you, you can’t be like, “I’m having a shitty day.”
IN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
AH: You’ve gotta be like, “I’m doing fine. Things are going great.” even if it is a lie.
IN: Yup. Which is what we signed up for here and just rolling with it.
AH: Whether we like it or not, we asked for this.
IN: With that said though, how did you know that your dreams were within reach?
AH: I don’t know. I’ve always told myself growing up, whenever I would feel down about something, it’s going to happen when it has to happen. I’ve always just felt like this is what it has to be. Of course I’ve had other interest growing up. I wanted to be a fashion designer or the president at some point, but music has always been THAT girl. This is what I want to do. It was a secret for a long time. I wouldn’t tell people that I can sing. My family didn’t know I want to do this. I held it inside because I felt that it was so precious to me. Even now, I still don’t know if my dreams are in reach, I just do things based off of what I feel. And [singing] makes me feel good. It’s also in some ways therapeutic because I’m working through my emotions and I’m working through these ideas that I have to make reality — not just for me but for other people. When I sing, a lot of people resonate with it. Those moments reassure me that this is something that I should be doing, or that it’s not wrong that I want to do something that is so ridiculous I guess.
IN: No that’s amazing, powerful, and really important. Especially thinking more about what the future is going to look like with automation and stuff. I think it’s going to be important for humanity to figure out what it is that makes them happy in their time (if they have the time) to do so. You have to create the space for it because I don’t know … the thought of robots taking jobs leads me to believe people may become depressed, and if you can now, you’ve got to find what makes you happy and hold onto it. I know it’s way easier said than done but if you have the opportunity — depending on your background that could require time, money, or faith — please discover what makes you feel good and that’s not harming anybody. It’s a bonus if it inspires other people, but definitely lean into your own happiness. I think that will really count in the future. So that makes me happy that you know what THAT girl is for you. Are you a pretty disciplined person in your daily life?
AH: I try my best. I don’t really go out that much. I don’t really party. I don’t drink. I don’t really do stuff. I don’t smoke. So in hindsight I think maybe I’m a lot more disciplined than people my age. I’m only 21 and I’m going to be 22-years-old soon, so you would think I would be all willy-nilly. I’ve always believed that my body is my instrument and I try my best to consume things that I know are going to be good for me mentally and physically. When I wake up, sometimes I do have a schedule for myself. I do actually have a daily schedule for home. I wake up, I make tea, I check my emails, or I make sure my families good. I’m pretty disciplined in that aspect. A lot of times I just go with the flow but I always make sure my basics are out of the way. I take a shower, I fix my hair, and I make sure that I read. I feel like reading and watching at least one movie a week is a thing that every artist should do.
IN: Do you have a favorite?
AH: Perfect Blue directed by Satoshi Kon. The movie came out in 1997, and it was around when the dark web became a really big thing. The movie really feels timeless because the Internet is constantly growing and it talks about female agency in the digital age, how women’s identities are constantly being screwed because of the Internet, and how people can take your image and use it for whatever they want. I just feel like that movie is really important even though it came out years ago. The Internet is a really scary thing now, especially when I think about politics and a disastrous history of the world. I really agree with you when you said before that robots are going to take over and even with [the point that] people need to find what’ll make them happy. People are working themselves to death just for survival and at the end of the day you need to find something more than just survival. I feel like art is really going to help people in the next couple of months, or for the next few years, because we’re just living in a really scary time. Perfect Blue shows what the Internet can do, how it can take control of your life, but you have to step back and see who you really are some times. People are losing their identities with the Internet. People are trying to find the best way to go viral or get likes and that’s so fake sometimes.
IN: I agree. But we know why. There’s value in attention.
AH: Oh yes, there’s definitely value in attention. I can be the spokes person for that [laughing] but it’s like also you gotta remember who you are without a phone.
IN: That’s where nature comes in handy. I’m grateful to be able travel between New York and California with peace off the Internet. And I mean I live in multiple bubbles, but it takes me outside of my social media bubble and helps put things into perspective for me. I read that you have a favorite restaurant called Tokyo Record Bar. What makes it your favorite and is it somewhere I should check out?
AH: Funny about that … I’ve actually never been. They were like, “This is Anajah’s favorite place.” And I’m like, ‘This isn’t my favorite place.’ [laughing] They were trying to do a shoot about music and I don’t go out. At the time I wasn’t even 21-years-old yet, and no karaoke bar in Manhattan will let you come in unless you’re 21.
IN: So honestly, where is your favorite restaurant now if you have one?
AH: I actually really love like Fiat Cafe. I go there with my friends to regroup and talk. I don’t know … it just feels really wholesome. It’s small, has really good food, and it’s a really chill vibe. Fiat’s everywhere. It just makes me feel like I’m back in Italy.
IN: Perfect segue. How was your trip to Italy?
AH: Very fun. I went with Gabrielle Richardson, Salem Mitchell, and Salem’s boyfriend. They were there for work but they could bring friends.
IN: You’re living the dream! How was the flight?
AH: The flight was great. It was my first time out of the country. I was nervous. We had first class (and this had only been my second time in first class). I was just like, ‘Yep. This is IT!’ A really funny thing that happened — we were on the plane and I was trying to recline my seat and couldn’t figure out how. So Gabby pressed a button on the side of my seat, and it turned into a bed.
AH: It was a pretty glamorous trip because every time we ate, there was a menu pre-made for us. We stay at this villa on the water that was owned by an opera singer. We were in the countryside and took sea boats. I felt like it was very refreshing for me to leave New York and see another part of the world that just looks like I don’t know … 2008. It looks old school and really cute.
IN: I would love to experience that someday soon hopefully.
AH: No it’s possible. It’s really crazy because last year I was like, ‘I want to go to Italy and London.’ I was saving my money to go and something happened where I couldn’t travel to Europe anymore. Then all these crazy opportunities just started popping up like, “Oh you’re going to come here. You’re going to go there.” I was like, ‘Okay!’ It was really unexpected for me.
IN: I see. You kind of planted the seeds. I’ve been practicing this. Just saying what I want and believing in it. I do need to be more consistent with that instead of the, ‘I hope so.’ You’re right. I accept more travel into my life.
AH: [You can] even without practicing. My mom is a life couch now. She’s very big on law of attraction, spirituality, and stuff like that. I’m not. So even when it comes to things like that, I just say things with meaning, forget about it, and then it’ll actually happen.
IN: The power of words. So speak life.
AH: It’s very important.
IN: I think I read somewhere that you label your music in colour. Does your music have any today?
AH: Yes. So when I was growing up singing in choir, our music director … he would always yell at us while we were singing saying, “Think in blue, sing in blue, think of a shape.” It was very imaginative and strange to do. Now that I’ve gotten older, when I make music, I still think of colours. Right now, I would say my music is hot pink and red. It’s very mysterious, sensual, and female derivative. Last year, I feel like my music was very white and pink, soft, sweet, and full of emotions. It was all about love. Now it’s not really like that. Even though it’s a slight colour change, I feel like it’s a harsher version of last year’s colours. [laughing]
IN: I see the connection. Hopefully readers can, too. Maybe it’s a little easier for me because I also saw you live last year and it describes the tone of your performance. It’s really light, welcoming, and fun. Moving along my list of questions, do you have a favorite scent?
AH: I’m allergic to perfumes. It’s really hard for me to find something that I’m comfortable wearing, but one that never fails me is the Glossier “You” perfume. It doesn’t hurt my sinuses at all. I also really love fresh air. It’s really hard to find fresh air in the city. I feel like I get fresh air on a crisp autumn day in the park, or when I go to North Carolina to visit my family.
IN: Favorite piece of advice?
AH: I remember when my mom made me take this self-love class with her when I was 19-years-old. I was really sad, going through a break up, and starting college at the time. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. The woman who ran the class would say, “Don’t should yourself.” There’s nothing that you should be doing. Either you want to do it or you don’t want to do it. That always stuck with me. Yeah, I should not be doing this if I don’t want to do it. Do what you have to do, or do what you want to do. You have to pay your bills, you have to buy groceries, but you know … you want to go party. That advice made me feel so much better.
IN: That’s helpful for me. I have a little more free time and I’m putting everything I can into the magazine. There was a visitor who I felt judged me for my choice to stay in. But going out is really expensive and I’m mentally exhausted. I tried to explain, you’re just catching me this week but I’ve been running around working for 10 years and I’m allowed to stay inside if I want. It’s a lot. But when we go out we make it worthwhile.
AH: Oh yes, I really be staying inside. All my friends go out while I really conserve my energy, so I definitely feel you. Spend the money that you want to spend and go home and save the rest.
IN: Do you happen to have a top 3 favorite albums?
AH: Let me get my Apple Music so I don’t leave anything out. I really love Stereolab Dots and Loops (1997) — it’s alternative and so good. I feel like the 90s was experimental and everything was super cool and futuristic which opened the door for the 2000s. I really love Faith Evans debut album Faith (1995), which my mom played a lot when I was little. It’s really weird to think that a lot these songs are about Biggie, but her album is perfection. And one last favorite is this group called Quarteto Em Cy with a self-titled album. I actually found out about them at the Whitney Museum. They had this huge installation with artists work throughout the entire floor, and the exhibit was about Hélio Oiticica and everything he loved. They had sand like it was in Brazil and tents where you could go inside, put headphones on, and listen to a playlist someone made with all his favorite songs including “Inútil Paisagem” from Quarteto Em Cy (1966), and it really changed my life. I love bossa nova already, but I never really hear Brazilian-pop and it’s from the 60s. It’s cool, upbeat, a lot of harmonies. Brazilian music is, in my mind, superior.
IN: I’m excited to be introduced. So what do you want to be remembered for?
AH: I really want to be remembered for being a good person and being dedicated to my craft. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know everything that I should know about my craft because music is one of the oldest things to exist. I don’t want to go into this blind because I love it so much. I just want people to feel my music and be part of that. I want people to remember me for my art and how genuinely passionate I am about existing. I really love life and I feel like it’ll make people love life, too.
IN: I love it. And last question what would you like to accomplish for 2020?
AH: I just want to see some change in my life. I feel like my life has been consistent chaos. I kind of want to feel stable. I also really want to hone in on art. I want to figure out new ways to expand Art Hoe Collective and help people figure out how to navigate their passions. I don’t have an idea of what that is right now, but I know it will come in time. I know I want to release another project. Sometimes when you’re doing something you love (in your career or your job) it feels like work at a certain point. [laughing] I just want to remember what it feels like when it didn’t feel like work and when it felt like fun.
Originally published in IN #8, FW 2019/20