Utah Pride announced that one of the headline acts at this year’s festival will be queer musical artist Aja.
If you’ve heard of Aja, it’s probably because they were on season 9 of Ru Paul’s Drag Race and last year’s All Stars 3, but you might not know that Aja is also a singer/songwriter who has dropped nearly two dozen songs, 15 of which on a new album released in February.
Aja is the stage personality of 25-year-old Jay Rivera, who was adopted and raised by a single Puerto Rican mother in Brooklyn. They claim to be of Moroccan, Egyptian and Libyan descent.
At the age of 16, Aja was drawn to drag almost as a lark.
“Honestly, I was watching the second season of Drag Race with my cousin and she was like, ‘you could do this.’ I looked over at her like she was crazy,” Aja told AM New York. Aja said they threw on a cousin’s wig and heels, and entered in Manhattan drag competitions at venues like Posh Bar, Stonewall Inn, Metropolitan bar and the now-shuttered Sugarland, a place where “weirdos and club kids” reigned supreme.
Aja said that drag was therapeutic and changed their life.
“I used to suffer from really terrible PTSD and when I started doing drag, I stopped having panic attacks very quickly. They went from being very significant to very minor and then they just stopped,” they said.
Moving out to be on their own at 18, Aja lived as a trans woman for a year and then took the term genderqueer. After coming in 9th place on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Aja began to eschew the term “drag queen.”
“My decision to release the phrase ‘drag queen’ has less to do with opinions in the mainstream media and more to do with my personal decision as a queer person,” Aja told them. “When I started making music, I had a lot of gender identity issues through my writing, and I thought it would be more comfortable for me to say I’m a queer artist who puts on hair and makeup, and if people want to look at it as drag, they can. I don’t consider myself to be a drag queen for the sake of not confusing my own identity.”
Aja said that a number of Ru Paul alums should embrace the term queer artist more readily than drag queen.
“There are other performers in the community who do other art forms, who I would consider more a ‘queer artist’ than just a ‘drag queen.’ For example, Violet Chachki: she knows her burlesque and her perception of gender is so blurred that I can’t really just say ‘drag queen,’ so I feel more comfortable saying queer artist.
“Or someone like Sasha Velour, who curates these big shows and spaces for queer people — I would never want to reduce titling her as just a drag queen. Even someone like Bianca Del Rio, who’s traveling the world doing comedy, she’s doing more than just being a drag queen. These are people who are taking their talents and showing them through drag in the media.”
Aja began posting music online as a teenager as a way to get their point of view out there and continued to make music as a way to be heard. In February, Aja released their most ambitious music collection, Box Office.
Aja says the track placement of Box Office is in sequential order of the events in their life, highlighted in the music, and plays out as small stories, all connected to make one larger narrative piece. In the music, one should get a sense of the real Aja.
“In the album, I’m really just being myself and putting forward who I’ve always been. I feel like I’m not scared to, and I really hope people listen to it and realize they can just be themselves,” Aja told Canada’s IN Magazine. “I feel as a queer person in hip-hop, or music period, there’s sort of pigeonholing where people want you to be a certain way, look a certain way, act a certain way, and I’m just not. I don’t fit that mold, and it’s a mold I’ll never fit. I’ll never be like, the sassy-person-of-color-queer-artist, I’ll never be that. I can only be me. So I really feel like it was more important for me to just be myself.”
Some may believe that it would be hard or scary for an artist that reveals so much of themselves through their music.
“Honestly, it wasn’t that hard to be open. I think the real battle to overcome when you’re just trying to be yourself and transparent is understanding and knowing that people are going to judge you positively and negatively. It will be personal but at the same time it doesn’t matter because when you’re being yourself, you know, it’s just the most important part of living. Just being you and being an open book. For me, I’ve never had qualms about being an open book so it was really easy to put it down into music.”
Aja’s music is categorized in the rap genre, something they say they were drawn to through artists like Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, Trina, Jay-Z, and Eminem.
“I really had a thing for musical artists who were very clever with their wordplay. I love clever wordplay so much, I love metaphors and I think that there’s something so intelligent about people who can convey a message without having to be so literal,” Aja told IN.
Breaking into the rap industry and finding other artists to collaborate with as a queer artist has been challenging.
“Getting the collaboration wasn’t too easy because I think being a queer rapper, a lot of people didn’t take my project seriously,” they told IN. “We hit up a lot of people, honestly, and I’m being completely transparent; everyone who is on the album is everyone who responded back. And that was crazy to me, the people who I worked with on the album were so easy, so genuine, and so nice. And I feel like it was a blessing because… it doesn’t just happen that you get to work with people, especially people who are in the hip hop community that are easy and nice to work with.
“For me, finding collaborations was like, every time I went to seek out a feature that person needed to fit perfectly on the song. They needed to match the vibe, they needed to match my lyrics. A lot of people won’t actually know this, but when I first wrote ‘Clowns,’ it was a completely different song. When I decided to put Rico Nasty on it, I rewrote the entire song, so that it would match Rico Nasty more because I thought that the chemistry needed to be there in order for the song to really sell. I’m so happy I did because I honestly love the way the song came out.
“It’s the same thing for ‘Safari Zone.’ At first, ‘Safari Zone’ was a completely different song, a completely different beat. It was actually supposed to be a song called ‘Slumber Party,’ and then when CupcakKe agreed to the feature I was like, ‘Okay, well I don’t really wanna put CupcakKe on a song called ‘Slumber Party’ because no one’s really sleeping on her, she’s a badass bitch! People love CupcakKe. I said, ‘Okay, what’s the song for CupcakKe?’… you know honestly, in my opinion, it’s like shaking your lil ass, having fun, and when I got that beat, it was the one.”
Aja said that their image, though known for high concept videos and killer looks, was difficult to narrow down.
“I’ve struggled with image for a long time, and one of the things that I really think about when I’m visual directing, or putting a package together is just… something that I love the most,” they said. “Sometimes fashion just means that you know your style and you’re killing it. For me, I just go for things I like.
“I like a little bit of shiny, a little bit of athletic, and honestly a lot of hood. My style is just kinda like, I’m hood but I’m rich, that’s my style. A little bit of like, Japanese street fashion that I’ve always been into. I’ve been obsessed with this sort of Harajuku lick. It’s not necessarily full on Harajuku but it’s a lick of it, whether it’s in the color palette because I love pastels and I love vibrant colors, or with just the hairstyles. I’ve always had a thing for that style.”
Aja was featured in H&M’s first pride campaign, along with Kim Petras and Gus Kenworthy.
“I think that one of the reasons I was chosen for the campaign was that everyone knows I’m a very outspoken person. I have a lot to say, and these sort of campaigns, especially when they’re picking artists for the campaign, it’s really about people who want to inspire other people and who are just unapologetically themselves,” Aja told IN.
“It really was a compliment for them to request me. To be in it was an accomplishment, and I hope I get to do more endorsements, hopefully sometime soon… and not even relating to Pride because it’s more than just June and July. A lot of us have so much more to say. But I am very grateful for H&M and that campaign. It was very surreal, getting to walk into stores all around the world. I was touring when the campaign was active and I got to see myself on huge billboards. I got to see myself in Times Square. I got to see myself in almost every single store that I went to, it was surreal.
Aja embarked March 16 on a tour of 14 cities, beginning in New Zealand, then Australia, China, and the U.S. They will be heading back from Birmingham, U.K. to join us in Salt Lake at Utah Pride the first weekend of June, then will head to Edmonton, Canada.
Find the full schedule and all performers at Utah Pride at UtahPrideCenter.org
Photo by Tanner Abel