In her Ballard apartment, three flickering candles on the floor and a tiny kitten sneaking around, Christianne Karefa-Johnson tells me about the time her grandfather visited her in a dream.
“He passed away four years ago, but he was a legendary person in my life,” she recounts quietly on her couch. “As he came to my dream, everyone froze and was staring at me and my grandfather, and I became lucid that I was dreaming and that he was actually dead. It wasn’t a dream anymore. It really was my grandfather, coming to say ‘I love you, I’m here.’ After that, I wasn’t afraid of death anymore, because it made me realize people don’t really die. Somehow, we can still talk to them.”
Overcoming her fear of death and traversing the strange, liminal thresholds between it, life, and purpose sits at the core of Karefa-Johnson’s debut LP, Jump or Die. Released a little over a week ago under her performing name as an MC, DoNormaal (a riff on a Dutch phrase that means “Stop acting weird”), Jump or Die already sits near the top of the list next to Mackned’s Female and THEESatisfaction’s EarthEE as one of the most sonically and lyrically distinctive local hip-hop records this year. Which is why it’s a little surprising to hear that Karefa-Johnson was initially scared to do music at all.
“This album was just about me being, like, ‘I’m going to do music, because if I don’t, I’m going to rot away slowly,’ ” the 24-year-old Karefa-Johnson, says. “Either I take the risk, jump and maybe fall, or I die anyway and never try.”
Before moving to Seattle three years ago, Karefa-Johnson had been studying poetry at the prestigious Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and you can clearly hear it in her music. As DoNormaal, the playful way she phrases her lines, teasing apart every left-field cadence she can squeeze out of a word, is utterly her own. Juking on top of the victorious, skronking IGNORVANCE beat on “BlackLifeMother,” Karefa-Johnson moves from introspection to chiding to surreal levity all in a few lines, while simultaneously setting up some killer melodic hooks: “If I go against my conscience I could kiss my heart goodbye/And there’s so many people who don’t have one and it makes my cryyyyyyy/Fills my house with tears and makes me wonder whyyyyy?”
“When I would read my poems, it was always kind of musical,” she says. “I really felt like I needed to make the jump to music to feel free enough to go the distance with melodies and singing—I definitely wasn’t feeling I could do all that with my poetry.” While the jump from poetry to rap might seem like a pretty smooth one, it was a jarring decision for family and friends who had seen her as a poet for almost her whole life.
At just 8 months old, Karefa-Johnson’s father, an urban planner and Dutch citizen from Suriname, tragically passed away. And so, as a little girl touched by death so early, she began writing poetry about mortality, creating what she calls a “memorial mindset” at the forefront of all her art. In her poems, as he also does on Jump or Die, her father often comes back as a “living” character, encouraging her from the beyond.
There’s an inherent unearthly element to Jump or Die as a result of her fascination with death, sudden transformative changes, and divine forces that may or may not be at play in the world. Album standout “50 Jasper Horses,” for instance, paints a vivid portrait inspired by a series of apocalyptic dreams Karefa-Johnson had.
“The most visually amazing things in them would happen,” she says. “Like, I was in a field with a whole bunch of people, and these humongous canopies were in the sky unfolding and coming down. In those dreams I felt like I was witnessing something that would change us, that would change humans and what they believe in forever.”
In the song, over funeral-dirge pianos and a sputtering subdued beat, she wails “You won’t belieeeeve what I sawwwww” and “I can’t belieeeeve what’s in my miiiiiind” with perfect ghostly conviction before dropping to her default, distanced, cool-girl flow for the verses, challenging the listener with the proposition “You can get religious if you’re with me on it.”
What makes Jump or Die cohesive despite the wide net Karefa-Johnson cast with its production (nine producers over 13 tracks) is DoNormaal’s firm control over its spectrum of dreaminess—encompassing both the spookier parts of our unconscious visions and the goofier, surreal elements. “Chocolate Delight,” another album highlight, finds producer Mario Casalini flipping a snippet of a big-band track from an old Mickey Mouse cartoon into a carnivalesque trap beat as Karefa-Johnson riffs on one of her favorite random lines from early-2000s sitcom The Parkers, “I already got my name, it’s Chocolate Delight.”
As a newcomer to Seattle’s hip-hop scene, Karefa-Johnson has set herself up to become an influential voice in the community. Beyond her own output, she’s at the center of 69/50, a collective and “movement” of local hip-hop artists for which she has big plans: shows, dance parties with local arts night LoveCityLove, and—most important to her—artists’ workshops that she hopes will make rappers in Seattle more vulnerable and open to themselves.
“In the Seattle scene I see a lot of hip-hop that feels like hip-hop that’s been made for a long time,” she says. “I think it would be cool if we saw more artists create something only they could create because they’re in this time, in this body, in this city. We all have unique experiences that hold all of this knowledge and information that only we can give to other people. It’s important to veer off to the path less traveled so you can get to the heart of what you are really trying to say.”
DoNormaal with Sendai Era, Astro King Phoenix, Diogenes and more. Central Saloon, 6-11:45 p.m., Free, 21 and over. Thurs., Dec. 3