"I feel like my music allows me to recycle my pain into something beautiful," says Chicago-based rapper KC Ortiz, whose journey to underground hip-hop fame was one of intense delays and drawn-out self-discovery. "I always tell myself, 'You can either be the victim or use everything you went through to be powerful.'"
Raised by her grandma in Mobile, Alabama--the "poor part of town"--Ortiz grew up singing religiously in church choir, which she says was her earliest introduction to music. Before Ortiz had hip-hop, the artist exclusively listened to her grandma's gospel and the occasional Janet or Michael Jackson track--nothing too provocative.
"I didn't listen to rap until I moved in with my mom at 17," she says, citing Lil' Kim as a life-changing discovery. "I bought every CD she was on even if she was sneezing on an interlude. I was obsessed--my goal was to be the next Lil' Kim." But becoming the freshest face of hip-hop inevitably took a backseat to reality. "It felt unobtainable," Ortiz says. "I didn't know where to start. We barely even had utilities, so rap got put on the back-burner for about 12 years."
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Around this time, Ortiz told her family she wanted to transition--something she'd been privately planning for years. "I worked up the courage to tell my mom and she was like, 'No, not in my house. When you live on your own, you can do whatever you want,'" Ortiz says. "Instead, they wanted me to go into the Air Force. I didn't want to, but I had no choice."
Photography: Richard Windslow
This meant years of hiding her true identity, not only as a woman, but as a burgeoning hip-hop artist. "I was going to have to lie to myself for 4 years," Ortiz says. "I'd have to pretend to be someone I'm not." But the young 19-year-old joined, and eventually found herself stationed in South Dakota's Ellsworth Air Force Base with a fully shaved head. "Driving from the airport to the station, I saw absolutely nothing," she says. "I remember thinking, 'This is where I live now.'"
While working, Ortiz dreamt of another life in Atlanta--her beacon--which she envisioned spending in the studio, laying down tracks to embody her icon, Lil' Kim. After just over 2 years of service, Ortiz decided to act on her fantasy, using "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to cut her term short. "I came out as gay to the legal office," she says. "They had a pre-made letter already typed up, so I filled in the blanks and they sent it to my First Sergeant. He thought I was making it up, and was like, 'For you to lie about this to get out is just sad.' I was like, 'I'm not lying, trust me.'"
The years after being discharged from the Air Force were among Ortiz's most formative, as she began pursuing the career she'd alway wanted and working aggressively to break free from a sheltered upbringing. Ortiz immediately moved to Atlanta from South Dakota without a plan--"it was horrible"--and ended up back in Alabama, where her party animal became unruly. "I got sucked into the club scene," she says, admitting her world stumbled out of control. "I eventually lost everything, so I moved back to South Dakota to start fresh--again."
Photography: Richard Windslow
With a quiet mind and calm new home, Ortiz spent hours watching YouTube videos of a female impersonation pageant, called "Miss Continental," where most contestants were openly transgender. This, coupled with a trip to Chicago, where Ortiz witnessed "beautiful trans women with dresses on, gorgeous hair and nice breasts," encouraged her to finally begin transitioning. "My mind was blown," Ortiz says. "I'd been trying to become like these women for years, so I found a doctor, which was hard as hell to find in South Dakota, and started taking hormones. Transitioning in South Dakota--you can imagine how difficult that was."
As her public presentation and physical body gradually began to match the gender she long felt inside, it was time for Ortiz to pave the musical legacy she'd always imagined for herself. Saving paychecks at her entry-level TJ Maxx job, Ortiz finally uprooted to her current home, Chicago, with only $600 and a car packed tight with all her belongings. This move--long overdue, but not at all too late--marked the beginning of her current life chapter as a trans-femme underground rap star.
Her debut 16-track mixtape, Beach Street, saw Ortiz giving the world a taste of what's to come, delivering purposeful hip-hop, a beastly flow and undeniably addictive tracks. (Queue "Ain't Tamer" and "Big Mama" for a proper first introduction). But industry success for Ortiz doesn't mean pumping out mainstream Billboard hits. "I want my music to affect people," she says. "I want it to help people--I write music that would've helped me when I was struggling."
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Ortiz's new single, "Shut Up," released exclusively today on OUT, supports the artist's creative crusade, with empowering lyrics about insecurities and self-affirmation--a universal narrative, but one that especially resonates with the LGBTQ community. "I struggle with negative voices in my head," Ortiz says. "But those ultimately lead to self-sabotage. In the track, when I say, 'Shut Up,' it's me telling those voices in my head to be quiet."
Produced by Toronto's T.O. BEATZ, Ortiz performs above a booming trap-leaning instrumental on "Shut Up," which features a sample from one of Pastor Sheryl Brady's sermons. "Do you know what it's like to have a dream?" Brady questions, asking the Lord if her dream isn't in his will for her life. As someone who's always wrestled between her dreams and reality, Ortiz ultimately powers through her insecurities on the track: "I'm that bitch," she asserts, with an untouchable bite. "Put me on the VIP list."
The rising artist references the timeless impact of icons like James Brown, Ray Charles and Jim Morrison, highlighting their work as a source of personal strength in difficult times. "Music needs to uplift people because life is hard," Ortiz says. "Of course, I want all the diamonds, the cars, the money and the platinum records, but I want my music to have a purpose. I want to be an artist that inspires and educates people."
As a largely unknown rapper in a world that keeps trans individuals on the fringes, Ortiz says she's not discouraged--she's empowered. "I know there are kids out there who don't even know who KC Ortiz is, right now, but I'm going to help them," she says. "I want to use my platform and power to help build stronger people. I feel like we all have a purpose, but what are you going to use your purpose for? Are you going to use it selfishly, or are you going to use it to help other people reach their purpose? I want to be that type of artist. On your worst day, you can listen to my music and know you'll make it through."