F. Virtue can’t go a day without music.
And why should he? Whether he’s absent-mindedly honing his freestyle skills while cooking breakfast, finding inspiration in an obscure beat that likely hasn’t been given a name yet or hitting play on an Atmosphere record for the umpteenth time, music is woven into every fiber of F. Virtue’s being. What comes with the gift and the curse that is living one’s artistry each and every day, is allowing one’s self to be vulnerable in order to accept and explore one’s individuality. For F. Virtue, that wasn’t always the simplest or easiest of tasks. At times, it still isn’t.
What makes F. Virtue (real name Will Kowall) so refreshing an emcee is while his music is experimental by nature, he succeeds in being able to navigate new territory with each new track without ever losing sight of who is he and even more importantly, who he is becoming. His sound is uniquely his own, without isolating fans who lean towards “traditional” Hip Hop and appealing to those who didn’t know rap music could even the sound the way his music does and still be considered rap music.
After existing as a closeted emcee, Kowall came out identifying as gay through the medium most comfortable to him—his music—and by doing so, gave a new life to the artform that had been giving him life in the first place. His music took on a new meaning as he took on a new calling, realizing that what he was doing was much more than putting words together over sounds. To this day, especially today, it’s bigger than him.
As F. Virtue helps soundtrack the LGBTQ revolution within Hip Hop, it’s to do him a disservice at times to label him as a “gay rapper,” even though that is proudly who he is, similar to how the label “female rapper” can be problematic. While music itself is neither gay, nor straight, nor female, nor male, there is an underlying vital importance reigning true in all aspects of our contemporary music landscape, and that is acceptance. We, as listeners, fans and supporters of culture, Hip Hop specifically, must accept what is different than each of us, as that is the very foundation the entire culture was built upon in the first place. To discredit emcees that don’t fit the mold is to discredit the entire genre and movement itself, and F. Virtue is one of many fighting against what may have been comfortable in the shadows in order to achieve what is immeasurably significant in a spotlight worthy of its shine.
While Kowall is creating his art out of necessity to use his voice in order to inspire others to not be afraid to use theirs, at the end of the day, it’s still about creating music to be enjoyed. Life is good, and it’s only going to get better once music truly becomes the space it’s destined to become where all can feel safe, warm, welcome, free and loved.
From his latest single off his monthly series with PAPER magazine to his new EP Christopher St. Cypher, dedicated in memory of Orlando’s Pulse shooting victims and members of the LGBT and POC communities worldwide facing inequality, persecution, and death, just for being themselves, Kowall’s music is a breath of fresh air we all need to experience and celebrate. Now, more than ever.
How long have you been doing what you do? How did you get started?
I’ve been recording since I was 12, and I was introduced to Hip Hop out the womb through my older brother and sister. From the day I learned to write, I was making songs / poems / rhymes, drawing a lot, and freestyling at my friends. It’s been with me as long as I have.
Is there an early memory you’d like to share about getting into your craft, such as when you realized this was more than just a hobby or a passion?
My dad took me to Seattle for my 13th birthday to see Atmosphere, Murs, Blueprint, Brother Ali, and Mr. Dibbs during the God Loves Ugly tour. We happened to be walking by the venue earlier in the day when the tour van coincidentally pulled up to unload and sound-check. It was wild. We kicked it – I swear I was the first kid that age to ever come to any of their shows and that left an impact. So we stayed in touch – specifically with Slug – and it became an instrumental fuel to my path. On another note, the next night an Anticon show with Dose One, Jel, Josh Martinez, and Alias, (maybe Sole too?) rolled through Seattle and it was 21+ so I stood with my ear to the front door listening, and stuck around to meet them afterwards. That’s one of my earliest and most impactful indie rap moments. Though I also have very vivid memories of listening to Doggystyle top to bottom on my grandparents’ couch when I was 6 and it changed my life. I was obsessed with that for years. Then the first record I actually bought on my own was Common’s Like Water For Chocolate when I was 10.
How do you describe your sound/ what you do to people you haven’t heard before? Who are your influences?
I come from a very obsessive collector’s mentality in rap, meaning I love exploring each and every niche and sub-genre there is. And rap has so many. Boom-bap, golden era, emo, nerdcore, conscious, gangster, trap, horrorcore, pop, etc., etc. Growing up and being such a young fan, I felt like I had to really know the history to be accepted, I owed it to the culture. So I studied the classics while I obsessed over the obscure. I worked at Fat Beats one summer and was dealing with AG and Sadat X in the same breath as Busdriver and Eyedea. I have an affinity for early 2000’s underground Canadian rap, like Peanuts and Corn, Epic, Frek Sho, Sixtoo, and Buck 65… I always loved Classified. Currently, I think the dopest modern (or post-modern? lol) MC is Open Mike Eagle. I love Serengeti. Basically, you don’t want me to DJ your party.
I have a new line in a joint I made with Factor that’s not released yet, but I say, “Too queer for the straight world, too straight for the queer one / As if there’s a difference of distinction when we’re one.” That’s my sound in a nutshell. I don’t fit in anywhere. So for better or for worse, that’s why what I bring is entirely unique – it’s just me. Very real, very honest songs with a sound you can’t put your finger on. Yes that beat was equally inspired by DJ Premier as it was by MikeQ, and I’d rather hold your hand then make you dance.
What is some advice that has stuck with you?
The most important thing is to be yourself entirely. Be unapologetic. That’s the only f*cking chance you will ever have to doing something great.
What do you hope people take away from listening to your music?
Man. It’s so stupid to say but I don’t care because it’s true: I seriously want to make this world a better place. And that starts with the individual. So when people listen to me, I want them to feel safe. Accepted. Like they’re not alone and that I support them and always have their back. And not just me, there’s a world of us out there. Even when things seem absolutely black there’s a light, a hope, a heart.
I want to put positive energy and productive messages into songs that make people think. Feel. Dwell on. Get inspired by. I don’t know. I want to make powerful art. But not to be a powerful artist or to have some self-righteous sense of superiority – but because I understand the potential impact that’s possible on people’s lives. Honestly, I make songs that I think I needed to hear as a kid. I had a hard time growing up closeted and feeling isolated and full of self-hate. I didn’t want to be gay. My heroes and the music I listened to excluded and condemned me. If I had someone like me to listen to at those times I would’ve felt that hope that I’m so trying to spark.
Would you say your music has become your therapy, especially when processing and going through different emotions upon hearing the news about the recent Orlando shooting? I personally felt your initial reaction following the news was very needed and powerful. What was the response to that like? In what ways do you hope your music can help others make sense of what happened, as well as provide some insight into what the LGBT and POC communities go through? Do you feel a responsibility or a calling to be a strong voice for others that may not have the strength to use their own voice?
Music is therapy: it’s a way to deal with and explore feelings and ideas. So after the Orlando shooting I was shaking. I couldn’t stop crying. And I didn’t know what to do. All I could do was write. F*ck. Things are really scary out there for LGBT and POC communities. Hatred is so present it’s actually unbelievable. I made an EP for pride and in memory of the Orlando massacre, and I received comments from people telling me they wish I was at Pulse Nightclub during the shooting, I’m a freak who should die and they can’t imagine listening to me rap because the same mouth that speaks my lyrics kisses my husband. The love of my life. My existence disgusts them and because of that I shouldn’t have the right to a voice… equality… even life. And holy s*it! I’m a privileged, white New Yorker. The awful things I face aren’t even a blip on the map to what the global LGBT and POC communities face.
But here’s the thing. I am proud and fearless and I believe in the voice I provide… if I give up there isn’t anyone around right now to do this for me. And it needs to be done. Human beings are absolutely 100 percent inherently equal, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. We are literally all the same, nothing but skin, bones and blood. We want to love, be loved and have happy lives. And the fact that some people can’t, just for being born… just for being alive, they can’t have a life. That is so f*cked up! But it happens because it is being taught to us, passed down – so my goal is to expose people to me, to LGBT culture, because visibility is one of the most important things we can do right now. I have to keep pushing, putting out music, making videos, and challenging what’s expected, etc., not to blow up or find my own fame, but to bring awareness, connect with people and to keep fighting the good fight.
Following the shooting, Hip Hop definitely had a very strong reaction. Kid Cudi, for one, said, “The Hip Hop community is the least outspoken about gay rights and Ima go out my way to change that.” Do you agree? What changes, in Hip Hop specifically, would you like to see or what changes are working towards yourself?
Hip Hop is very homophobic. And I say that as an insider. I toured with Abstract Rude, and performed with acts like KRS-ONE and RA the Rugged Man as a closeted MC—I was so afraid to come out and be rejected by what I identified with. And to me it makes no sense. Hip Hop was created as a voice for the oppressed. It was a way for the ‘hood to be heard when no one would listen. How can such a culture then reject those in the same situations that birthed it? LGBT people are not treated or seen as equals yet. We need to be heard. We need to change things. Hip Hop is how I am trying to make an impact, with the same heart as those that came before me. It’s an art formed from representing authenticity, harsh realities, and what’s really happening on the streets. THIS is the social movement right now. THIS is what’s happening. So I’m sorry, if you don’t get that, then you’re behind. This is what’s up and whether mainstream rappers or the culture at large accept or even acknowledge that is irrelevant, because there’s about to be an earthquake. And it won’t stop for anyone.
Photo by Mateus Porto