By Katie Kelly
When you walk into the main control room of Outerspace, Unapologetic’s studio, you’ll see a sign on the ceiling that in comparison to the rest of the studio, is relatively non-descript. In uppercase plain black text with a few chosen words in color, it reads:
“IN THIS PLACE OUR DIFFERENCES ARE VALUED AND CELEBRATED. WE ARE UNITED UNDERNEATH THE UMBRELLA OF INDIVIDUALITY. HERE IS WHERE VULNERABILITY BECOMES ART & WEIRD BECOMES GENIUS. IF YOU ARE PUSHED HERE, IT WILL BE A PUSH IN YOUR DIRECTION. WE DEFINE US SO SOMEONE ELSE CAN CONFIDENTLY DEFINE THEMSELVES. THIS PLACE WAS CREATED TO HELP YOU GET BETTER. FASTER. WE STAND OUT SIMPLY BECAUSE WE DON’T AIM TO FIT IN. WE DO NOT SEEK VALIDATION IN COMMONALITY. EVEN SEPARATE WE MOVE TOGETHER IN CAUSE AND PRINCIPAL. WELCOME TO UNAPOLOGETIC.”
If you ask Unapologetic founder IMAKEMADBEATS about it, he’ll tell you it’s the mission or the vision of the collective but these words are more than that. They are the very heart, the very bloodline that pumps through every single thing Unapologetic touches. Here you lose the preconceived notions or labels society has given you, and instead are allowed – no, encouraged – to just…be.
It seems like a simple enough idea but in the music industry this is a rarity and this is especially true for women. There’s an unspoken rule in the industry that there are still some places reserved only for men. Where women who manage to get a seat at the table must continuously prove their worthiness to be there. It’s an exhausting mentality, one that is both archaic and idiotic, but yet it exists.
So, when a group like Unapologetic goes against the norm and actually has strong, powerful women helping to build, nurture, and grow their creative endeavors, those women deserve to be celebrated. These are some of the many women of Unapologetic.
For this article, I was lucky enough to speak to a handful of women involved in many different roles:
Nubia Yasin – Unapologetic Artist, Assistant to IMAKEMADBEATS
Ariel D – Social Media, Street Team Manager, Unapologetic Garments
Nakita – Program Manager for Outerspace
Marie – Project Manager for Unapologetic
Uniq – Unapologetic Artist and Producer
Gabby Duffie – Unapologetic Visual, Photographer
Sarai – Unapologetic Visual Artist, Unapologetic Garments, Graphic Designer
“Unapologetic would not exist if it wasn’t for my wife,” Mad tells me honestly. “I was complaining about things I accomplished or didn’t accomplish yet and how I was disappointed in myself. She told me I was a reluctant leader, that I am detrimentally humble. She said, ‘you can’t serve your purpose if you’re denying the gifts you’re given for your purpose.’ She was the last domino to fall in terms of telling me what I needed to hear to feel confident in starting Unapologetic.”
Marie is not only Mad’s wife, but also the Project Manager for Unapologetic (though if you ask anyone in the collective they’ll tell you she’s the real boss). She’s much more humble about her integral role. “I am the cheerleader. I cheer on everything that happens. I encouraged any ideas my husband had. I’m not the type of person to say just because I don’t understand it, it shouldn’t be done,” Marie tells me. “I think that’s why Unapologetic took off even from the beginning. Anything that needed to be done, I was there. If something needed to be talked out, he can always bounce those things off of me and I never restricted that. And that made everything else work.”
Despite the vision for Unapologetic being inclusive, they soon saw why so many creative spaces were not. In the early years of Unapologetic, the team recorded in the spare rooms of Mad and Marie’s own house. After about a year of recording in this setting, they started to notice the same thing being said after each session: how grateful women were to finally have a safe place to record.
“There’s a huge kind of elephant in the room, almost a ghost, of the male treatment of women in studio spaces and how that can determine what spaces you decide to be in. In male dominated spaces, there’s always someone saying something about a woman’s ass or someone’s always doing something. And because that was the culture of things, there were assumptions and concerns by default,” Mad stated.
Uniq agrees. After working in various studios across Memphis, she noticed a marked difference in working with Unapologetic. “I feel like this is safer mentally and physically to be honest. I don’t have to worry about guys trying to look at me in any kind of way and they don’t take me being friendly as anything more than just that.”
Safety isn’t the only issue holding women back from flourishing in these creative spaces. As I mentioned before, there’s still this mentality that certain roles in the music industry are just “for men” or just “for women.” Mad recounts a story while working at a music event here in Memphis. A group of 8 or 9 women were gathered around at soundcheck when he arrived. He asked which of them was the engineer. They laughed and said, “We leave the technical stuff to the boys. We just sing.”
Perhaps it’s a pre-conditioned imposter syndrome we as women have internalized. “When society looks at creativity, I really don’t think they look to women a lot,” Marie tells me. “The guys on the team – from Mad all the way down to even the interns – are 100% looking for anyone who has a creative side but I don’t think society looks at women for that.”
She’s quick to remind society of something important though. “We as women look at the world differently. We have our own experiences that are so different from the men. So, what comes from that creatively is going to be different and it’s going to be special.”
Marie pauses. We’re speaking over the phone but I can tell she’s smiling as she continues. “It kind of blows your mind once you see what we’re capable of. It comes out fluorescent. That’s how we flourish. People don’t know what they have in them until there’s a safe space for it to come out.”
This past winter, Unapologetic entered a huge collaboration with the NBA and Memphis Grizzlies. They designed limited edition merchandise, created social media campaigns, and wrote a song to go along with the partnership. While the project was a team effort, Sarai helped to create the designs for the clothes, Uniq penned the song, the photos were taken by Gabby, and Ariel provided design and social media input.
In April, Nubia produced, directed, and designed SHEENA, a visual arts show at the Green Room at Crosstown. “That was the closest to my vision I’ve ever gotten for a live show. I had crazy ideas. I wanted a bathtub and I wanted it to be full of water. I wanted a backdrop with comforters and sheets. They helped me do it all. I nailed things, I sewed things together by hand,” she describes to me. Her hard work and relentless vision paid off. The show quickly sold out. “Everything was perfect,” she says. “I’m really proud of how it turned out. And at no point did I feel like I couldn’t do something as crazy as put a bathtub in the Green Room at Crosstown.”
Uniq might have only recently joined the team, but you wouldn’t know it by her output. “I’ve helped score a TV show. I’m learning to make my own beats and actually writing to them now. I’ve written about 50 songs in just the last few months since I’ve been here. The momentum is crazy.”
If you followed Unapologetic during the pandemic, you would’ve seen the creation of the UndergroundAF radio. That was all Ariel. The street team? Ariel. Social media campaigns and styling videos? Ariel. “I help out wherever I can. When I joined I just did social media but then I got involved with the street team. The street team is essentially like a marketing team but in the Unapologetic way. Nothing traditional,” Ariel says laughing. “I also worked on our 1v1 series which was like a versus battle. It really helped connect artists together and it built a lot of relationships,” she tells me.
To detail all the things Sarai has achieved during her time with Unapologetic, I’d need a week at least. As a long-standing member, Sarai has been involved in countless projects from album cover art, Garments sketches, random skits for the website, and she designed the limited edition beer can Unapologetic did with Memphis Made Brewing. That collaboration sold out.
One of her favorite pieces of work though is the VAGINA collection, a special series Sarai did with Garments. The clothing featured shirts with the word VAGINA in capital letters across the front. “That was so anti how women are supposed to be in the south,” she says proudly. “Women are used to being covered up or conservative so walking around with a shirt that says vagina is pretty bold. A lot of people were uncomfortable. They would be like ‘where would I even wear this shirt?’ and I was like, um, the store?”
When Unapologetic initially formed, their first photographer was Cat Patton, an incredibly talented and innovative artist. She helped form the vision for Unapologetic visual. Now she’s passed the torch to Gabby. “When I came on, I learned so much from Cat. The way she thinks about art…the way she would bring together the pieces of our ideas, the way she projected them to our audience, and the way it was perceived was so different to me. I was kind of transformed,” Gabby explains.
Gabby has picked up right where Cat left off. Last fall she was hired by a PR company to shoot NYFW. At the top of this year, she did a full scale photoshoot with New England Patriots wide receiver Ty Montgomery where she not only took the photos, but she also led the creative direction and helped styled the shoot. “Even though I’m a photographer, I learned I can play big roles,” she tells me of the experiences.
She’s not alone in having this type revelation. In 2018, Unapologetic partnered with Ballet Memphis for a special fall mix performance. Nakita served as point person for the collaboration. “I had to step up and do a lot of the coordination while Mad was gone. I really enjoyed putting the pieces together and making sure everything flowed smoothly.” Now she does this officially for events at their Outerspace studio.
For as much creativity and content the ladies have contributed, they’ve also contributed something equally as important to the collective: softness. “Sometimes when I say things, the guys will take a technical route to it,” Marie explains. “But as soon as I tell a woman, they’ll light up and want to talk about it in a deeper way.”
There is a noticeable bond among the women. It’s not forced either. It’s one formed from genuine care, love, and respect. “There is a sisterhood between us,” Marie says. “It becomes like glue. It’s a very strong adhesive that you didn’t even know was there.”
“We communicate differently than we do with the guys,” Nakita tells me. “I’ve called Marie crying and I just needed some advice. It’s so great to have other women here that I can really talk to and be very open and vulnerable with.”
Sometimes that communication comes across as much needed tough love. “I’ll call Marie or Nakita and they’ll be like ‘Get your shit together, you got this. You’re killing shit out here. Don’t play with yourself. We got your back,’” Uniq tells me.
Nubia is one of the newer members to join Unapologetic but she felt that connection immediately. “One day I came in and I was NOT ok,” she said, shaking her head. “Uniq just came and gave me a hug out of nowhere. At first I was like ‘ok this is nice’. But then she didn’t let go and I was like, ‘oh shit I really needed this hug!’” Nubia laughed.
It’s those little things (a hug, a phone call, a shoulder to cry on) that has solidified the sisterhood but it doesn’t stop there. This closeness also extends to their work. “It’s an open collaboration,” Ariel says. “Every woman on the team has their strengths and I know who to hit up to get certain things.”
“Being a part of the team, having their input, being able to build off each other…it’s almost invaluable. It allows you to be privy to that bigger picture that is bigger than us,” Gabby explains. She relates the collaboration the sisterhood provides as an essential component to the overall vision of Unapologetic. “We’re a part of something that’s greater than ourselves. We might have been able to do it alone, but we can always go farther together.”
Don’t let their enormous list of accomplishments fool you – these ladies are far from being done. When I ask what their goals are over the next month, year, or 5 years, the responses are confident, focused, and intentional. There is no one without a plan. A&R, fashion shows, art exhibits, live performances, tours, DJing, poetry, short films, and new music are just some of the formulated ideas they excitedly tell me about.
Marie adds something more to her answer. “I want more women to feel comfortable expressing their own creativity however it comes out,” she states. “I think something scares or intimidates people when they do something that has never been done before. We’re all weird in our own ways.”
There’s a central message in Unapologetic’s work, and especially in the work of these ladies, that emphasizes the belief “what always was doesn’t have to always be.” The world is a fundamentally better place with the evolution of prior thinking and the introduction of new thinking. Marie articulates this idea much more simply. “Once you cross over that line and you start living your unapologetic self, there’s no way you can go back to the other side.”