Local Spotlight: kei

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The Dorchester hip-hop visionary comes up for air in the sea of Boston Calling preparation, poised to reintroduce herself to a wider audience while adjusting to her role in the director’s chair.

Off the buzzing lanes of I-93 and across the shimmering ripples of Dorchester Bay stands the world’s largest copyrighted artwork. It’s substantial in circumference, it’s white streaked with rainbow-painted brushstrokes… and it’s a 140-foot-tall National Grid gas tank. Most notably, it’s the North Star of kei—the rapidly ascending, Dorchester-raised hip-hop phenom with the Rainbow Swash artfully inked on her right shoulder.

“I’m very particular about my art, what I place on my body, how I express myself… I want to make sure it’s true to me,” she said, contextualizing the choice of tattoo. “Once I won my Boston Music Award back in 2022, I knew I wanted to get a piece that embodied the city and that was very unique to me.”

Time has not slowed for kei in the two years since her New Artist of the Year crowning. As it turns out, a slew of singles and features, numerous appearances at local concerts and festivals, accolades such as IDK’s No Label Academy and another Boston Music Award in 2023, and opening sets for the likes of TiaCorine, EARTHGANG, and several other notable acts does not leave much open space on the calendar. This rapid regional ascension and all the milestones that catalyzed it have steered kei to the Orange Stage on Friday, May 24 at Boston Calling—a momentous opportunity for a kinetic aesthete eager to turn heads in the festival market.

With increasingly visible placements comes increasingly arduous preparation; this past month has consisted of intensive audition processes for guitarists and dancers to join kei’s Boston Calling performance. She framed her vision for the 40-minute experience as a collaborative showcase, articulating, “I view this as less of an opportunity for me, and more of a chance for the people I know and love to be highlighted on that stage.”

While kei has always possessed the utmost confidence in her vision, never shying away from what she wants, she acknowledged the newness of taking charge and leading those supporting her vision. “It’s felt like a big responsibility because I feel like all of this is larger than what I see in front of me,” she explained, “but I’m rolling with the punches and learning as I go, and it’s really beautiful to experience the pros and cons of that.”

Of all the ingredients required to build a sturdy foundation as an independent musician, kei’s pantry will always be replete with a magnetic on-stage energy, taste-tested through an extensive circuit of local shows and events. She recognizes, however, that the flavors of her craft savored by her intimate home crowds may have yet to hit the taste buds of the festivalgoers. “It’s kind of nerve-wracking, because it’s like I’m introducing myself for the first time all over again, and I want to make sure that I make a good impression and that I’m presenting myself as I am,” she remarked with a discernible tone of care. She identifies these nerves as signifiers of legitimate passion—a pulse only rendered untraceable when the feeling for the art flatlines.

Safe to say, a defibrillator is nothing more than a mere formality on the premises of a kei performance, each appearance reaching greater heights of vim and vigor than the last. To sustain such amplified self-depictions begs the evocation of sociologist Erving Goffman’s theory of dramaturgy, which postulates that presentation of oneself in public spaces is an inherent performance paralleling an onstage actor. When asked to what extent showtime kei mirrors day-to-day kei, she minced no words: the Venn Diagram is a nearly perfect circle. “I’m still very reserved, and oftentimes I’m keeping to myself, but I’m also a ball of energy at the same time,” she elaborated. “Who I am on stage is who I am as a person, and I think that sets me apart as an artist: it’s not a character, it’s not a facade, it’s just pieces of me.”

This point particularly resonated with kei when reflecting on her progression since 2021—the year she released her debut project, “baby steps.” “I feel like that was my first and last time where I was able to be unfiltered, uncensored, and purely just me,” she contemplated with one foot planted in the past and the other in the present. She views her current output as a continuation of that free-spirited essence, with additional refinement and overthinking tacked onto the process due to the increase in external expectation: “I feel like my music is still me, but I also understand that it’s being consumed, so I want to make sure that it resonates with people.”

When stifled by outside perception, kei grounds herself in the power of thoughts and ideas manifesting into something pleasantly unexpected. “baby steps” sprouted from a sense of loss she faced at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic; a dejection morphed into a desire to reconnect with herself through a love of musical expression. That desire translated into a self-portrait—a body of work that gained traction, caught the attention of her current manager Sadiq Ervin, and catapulted her name into “rooms [she] has yet to step into.” Consider the launchpad of kei’s journey a blueprint for aspiring artists spanning the 617 and beyond: create for the self, and the spirit will emanate as intended. 

Beyond preparation for Boston Calling, kei is working on a new project that further illuminates her story—where she’s from, her journey in music, and her journey “growing into the young woman [she is].” She is also in the process of expanding her team, noting that her strength in “discerning people’s whys” has aided her navigation through the increase in recognition and exposure. “As much as our professional relationships are important, personal connections are important to me, too,” she gleamed with palpable admiration of her circle. “I love the people I’m around right now, including my team and my family.”

Across the water, kei can make out a life filled with independence, travel, community impact, family support, and superstardom on her own terms. The current capable of carrying her there is a sustainable career in music—one that centers world-building on large stages with heightened attention to visuals, set design, lights, and video boards. Her Boston Calling set promises downwind conditions; it’s only right to bring a paddle.

Catch kei’s Boston Calling debut on Friday, May 24 at the Orange Stage. Tickets may be purchased here.

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