words by Britt Julious
photos courtesy of Kilo Kish
Lakisha “Kilo Kish” Robinson stands firmly on her own. Whereas other major recording artists might restrict themselves to a preconceived lane by conforming to conventions, the Orlando-born Robinson swerves left. She’s a rapper, a singer-songwriter, a photographer, a model, a painter, a sculptor and a designer, but she’d rather you refer to her by a less-laborious title: artist. “It's annoying to be one of those super-hyphenated people, where I say I'm a designer slash model and 10 million things after it,” says Robinson, twenty-six, over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I just say I’m an artist. I just like making things.”
Robinson’s ethos is defined by an insatiable creative itch. Whether she’s talking about music or design, her voice pops with the excitement of a firecracker. It is her curiosity –– full of questions about how an object is made from start to finish, or how she can best manipulate her artistic interests fluidly through different mediums –– that makes her so compelling.
Take her recent and current projects, where Robinson manipulated prevailing expectations to fit her vision. After making appearances on songs by a who’s-who of up-and-coming rappers, Robinson released a grab-bag debut album full of everything from K-pop to droney R&B. Then, with her still-in-development lifestyle brand KISHA, Robinson aims to usurp the tropes of a “celebrity fashion line,” and instead create a line of designed essential objects –– tote bags, cups, pajamas. They’re the kind of intricate and precise pieces expected from a former art school student, but ultimately are designed for utility. “[KISHA is] not necessarily the coolest, trendiest, edgiest brand, just simple,” says Robinson.
2016 has been one of the most important years in Robinson’s still-young career. In February, she dropped said debut album, Reflections in Real Time. The release came after years of one-off mixtapes, EPs, and guest appearances on tracks by The Internet (whose Matt Martians co-produced Kish’s first release, the Homeschool EP) Vince Staples, and Childish Gambino. The record is a flexible collection of R&B, full of soft vocals that are half-sung, half-spoken with personal, wondering lyrics that seem lifted off the pages of her diary.
Consider the album’s opening track “Age + Self Esteem: A Funhouse Mirror,” a greeting to her listeners that walks a tightrope between prose-poem and song. Robinson’s voice comes across less like her whispery signature and more like a robotic interjection from a very-near future. If her previous music made her seem winsome and precious, Reflections in Real Time lets her earnestness and downright weirdness (a good weirdness, mind you) shine. And that’s exactly how she wants it. “The way I think about music and the music industry … it’s sometimes on the outs with the ways things are done,” Robinson says about her songwriting method. “You can't put such limits on creativity. I'm thinking the freer and the freer I can get in music, the better.”
Music was not Robinson’s first pursuit. She moved to New York City after high school to attend Pratt Institute and during a year off, began to experiment with music with a roommate as a passing fancy. She eventually earned a degree in textile design from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, and that patchwork approach is apparent within her music. “I feel like I approach music more like a designer than a musician,” says Robinson. “[Reflections] is really just a number of different thoughts from completely different days or different conversations. I put them in a structure that made sense to me, an arc or timeline of the way I was feeling at that time.” For Robinson, every song becomes a problem to solve as she weaves the melodies, the lyrics, and the general mood — whether reflective and quiet, or bouncy and energetic — into a cohesive pattern.
Reflections in Real Time is autobiographical, tracking her young adulthood, and how her self-confidence and fears translate to her interactions with her world. Her vocals double-dutch between singing and rapping, playfully manipulating words, giving them multiple interpretations to underscore her perspective. In “Hello, Lakisha,” she explains the familial lineage of her name, but also how names, or labels, influence the lives we live and the identities we assume, “At home my momma, she calls me kisha, but at the school yard there were a million.” She continues: “When I was young I needed freedom and to feel/I stood out in this world.”
KISHA is another spawn of Robinson’s identity, and puts another spin on her given name. This is not her first experiment with design. Last year, she collaborated with Maison Kitsune for a capsule collection of Americana striped t-shirts, lightweight sweatshirts, and accessories like an iPhone case and tote bag. More importantly, with KISHA, Robinson has not merely slapped her name on someone else’s designs. She’s seeing the process through, from the earliest blueprints to the manufacturing, with her manager and main creative partner, J. Scott. “We're just really playing with each specific product itself. We’re taking the time to think about what it means to be a cup. What it means to be a shirt,” she says. KISHA’s product line is intended to be accessible, affordable essentials, like her own version of Uniqlo or Ikea. “I'm such a basics person, I'm looking for a uniform so that I can wear the same thing every day,” says Robinson.
Balancing all of these mediums might sound impossible, but multitasking is part of how Robinson keeps her peace of mind. “It’s allowing yourself to be okay with what you can, because everything is existing at the same time,” she says. “It’s a balance of keeping [her creative pursuits] all moving forward at the same time.” Rather than juggle everything simultaneously, Robinson chooses to regiment designated time to each medium. “I'm a big to-do list person, I’m an organizational freak,” she says. This allows her to immerse herself in her work without sacrificing quality or ever completely dropping something. Rather, she’ll take breaks from one project to realign her goals and focus before jumping into anything else.
Sometimes Robinson gets bored with making music, the very thing that introduced her to audiences across the globe. “People just want you to do the same thing over and over again and when you do something different or you give them something too different, it is kind of jarring,” Robinson said. She’s found a handful of solutions for that dilemma. Sometimes she’ll unplug from the constant chatter of social media. Other times, she’ll pull up a blank page and start an entirely different project, even if it’s within the umbrella of a larger brand. “People tell me I'm the ‘Google Doc queen.’ I was actually making one before you called. It’s something that I find really fun, to make a bunch of tiny little segments out of something bigger,” she offered. “If it’s something even slightly different, I want it to have it’s own label.”
Labels, stage names and the public expectations that accompany them, can be among biggest hindrances to creative agency. “The more that you work under one name, the more that people expect something. And I don't really like the expectation,” says Robinson explaining her persistent exploration into different fields. “I don't really like being the center of attention, and musicians are made to be these like untouchable kind of people. That whole side of it just makes me so, so uncomfortable. The actual act of making music has has been a really rewarding part because it's the creative part” she says. Unsurprisingly, it’s in the pursuit where Robinson finds her pleasure. “It’s all just mediums, but they’re all so intriguing. Since I was little, I’ve always had a spirit of learning. I’ve been excited by all facets of learning, even the boring parts,” she says. “I don’t wake up feeling I can’t ever do something. I prefer to change when I feel like changing. And I change very often.”