ScarLip Is Speaking The Ugly Truth
“Everything is too pretty right now, so I am bringing back an ugly truth,” answers Bronx-born rap artist ScarLip (real name Sierra Lewis) when asked to describe her appeal and the role she feels she can potentially play within hip-hop culture across the 2020s.
“I bring authenticity, unapologetic rawness, and aggression. I’m bringing pain back to rap. I’m always gonna bring the ugly side.”
It’s a pretty perfect summary of why 2023 has been such a breakout year for this fast-rising 22-year-old, who passionately raps about unpleasant realities in a hoarse rasp that cuts through the air like an uncoiled spring. Her voice carries the bite of someone – finally – turning the tables on a lifelong enemy.
No other rap song released this year slapped you across the face with the icy chill of ScarLip’s “This Is New York,” with its stomping, warped bassline replicating a motorbike revving up and all the war-ready bars (“Get the fuck out New York/ You ain’t welcome anymore!”) helping resurrect the rebellious spirit of the golden era Ruff Ryders crew doing wheelies in the direction of terrified Shiny Suit rappers. This song had no time for pretty, IG-ready diversions; it’s too gnarly and far too busy aiming for the jugular, forcing fuckboys to run off screaming.
“This is New York, fuck I look like telling a ni*** good morning?” ScarLip spits like a cantankerous hood-rap Larry David, snarling like she’s protecting NYC from an invading army of yuppies and gentrifiers. “Fuck I look like being nice, sweet, charming and warming?”
At a time where there isn’t too much to smile about amid the current neverending abyss of our bloody news cycle, ScarLip’s warrior energy; husky, imperfect vocals; refusal to wear a fake smile; and decision to fully embrace the stereotype that New Yorkers are naturally wry and grouchy is pretty radical stuff. She is a much-needed female voice telling the masses that it’s okay to want to scream into the void and be imperfect, or even long for more mainstream hip-hop that speaks for the poor rather than elevating all the venture capitalists. “This Is New York” is the ugly truth.
This rousing single has been embraced by Hot 97’s DJ Funkmaster Flex, as well as pop-rap royalty like Cardi B, 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, and Ice Spice. It also led to an introduction with an impressed Swizz Beats (who said he felt ScarLip was “sent to me by DMX”), hit 4 million views on YouTube, and inspired a very fun Snoop Dogg remix. That’s not even mentioning the major-label deal with Epic Records and all the similarly catchy follow-up singles, including the skippy anti-snitch anthem “No Statements” and its endearing boast: “I come from the system/ Who’d have thought I’d get signed for $4M?”
On that track ScarLip makes the ad libs “mhmm mhmm mhmm” sound like Jason Vorhees whispering “kill, kill, kill” right before snatching a summer camp counselor off into the shadows. Last month’s single “Blick” is indebted more to the laid back yet slightly nervous late night thrill of sample drill. It carries deep introspection (“The perks helping me to manage”), reflecting how ScarLip is constantly battling childhood demons when the cameras stop rolling.
Comparisons to DMX carry enormous pressure, but it’s obvious ScarLip shares the late rap legend’s ability to sound simultaneously invincible and vulnerable during her verses. When rapping this pair sounds like they’re purging to a priest and emotion is therefore extracted from every syllable.
“My earliest memory of freaking out to music was hearing DMX on ‘Ruff Ryders Anthem,’” ScarLip recalls while giving me a rowdy rendition of the legendary song’s battle-cry hook: stop, drop, shut ’em down, open up shop, etc. The comparison to X doesn’t seem to phase her, not one bit. He’s practically her spiritual advisor, and her hope is that her major-label debut will continue in 2024 where It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot left things back in 1998.
“That thing, that thingggg, that thiiiiiiing,” she continues, laughing loudly and mischievously as she sings “Doo Wop.” “Lauryn Hill inspired me a lot too! When I saw her on TV it told me it was okay to be dark skinned, have nappy hair, and look like me. You can still go right to the top, as both a singer and rapper.”
The resilient energy that radiates through ScarLip’s music, and also down the phone line during our mid-morning heart-to-heart, can be traced back to her childhood. ScarLip lost her mother suddenly to a car accident as a teenager, and when she later moved in with family, her aunt’s partner regularly abused and raped her. Amid the morose storytelling of “Therapy”, she powerfully talks about not being able to wear a dress as a little girl and also hiding behind beds to escape her attackers.
While subsequently moving through children’s homes across America as a lost teenager, ScarLip wrote poetry as an escape, rapping about how she “felt like my life is worthless, because I’ll always be the victim/ Been neglected by my family and been neglected by the system.” This blunt honesty led to a cult following on TikTok, where ScarLip would perform makeup-free renditions of her half-barked, soul-baring poems. It would be common to read tales of overcoming abuse from strangers in the comments section underneath ScarLip’s music videos on YouTube, with fans seeing her more like a big sister and personal confidant than just another popular rapper. Someone to help them stand up to a bully.
“I want to tell my story as many times as I can, and I don’t get tired of telling it,” replies ScarLip – who is named after the mark on her lip caused by a beating by her own brother – when asked if it ever gets exhausting being constantly asked about her trauma in interviews. She accepts it is inevitable given how explicitly it is referenced in her music. “My story inspires others to share their stories and be less afraid. I speak up for the people who can’t speak. That’s powerful.”
To celebrate her breakout year, the Bronx rapper talks me through her inspiring origin story, why it’s okay to be cranky, the resurgence of New York City rap, and why she’s finally living rather than just surviving. Below, read our conversation, which has been lightly condensed for clarity.
There’s this bar on “Suicide Awareness” where you say, “You’ve got to pick your head up and stand strong through the storm.” Would you say that’s your mission statement as an artist? You need to make people feel strong, even in their bleakest moments.
SCARLIP: Yes, I do feel like that’s my job: to encourage people and make people feel like they’re beautiful, and ensure that the people from the hood or the Bronx can make it to the top just like everyone else in America! Even when times get hard, and you feel like giving up on yourself, you need to keep going. That’s literally me! That’s the mentality I had to have when I was being abused.
On wax, you’ve never shied away from the darkness of your childhood and how you were passed around children’s homes. Was writing poetry an escape?
SCARLIP: Poetry was a way I could express myself and, whenever I was going through things I didn’t feel comfortable speaking to anyone else about, I would just stay in my room, writing. It was a healthier way to let my anger out. I spent a lot of my younger years in the system and care homes, so I would write about how those experiences made me feel. My first three songs were just three poems: my life as a Black girl, me being in the foster care system, and losing my mom. The same way Billie Eilish can make those big songs about overcoming depression? That’s what I am trying to do. Before I even made it, I said I wanted to get so big from music that I could open up homes for children.
I want to talk about the importance of the line, “If you feel like you’re alone, it aint your fault,” on “Therapy.” So often victims of sexual abuse are made to feel like they brought it on themselves, somehow. Why is it so important to change that toxic mentality?
SCARLIP: I believed as a young girl that it was my fault and a lot of the things that happened – my mistreatment, my abuse, losing my mom, the poor treatment from my aunt – were all things I deserved. That’s what they taught me: “Oh it is you! It is on you!” I repeatedly said that lyric, “It ain’t your fault”, so other people wouldn’t be brainwashed into thinking it was their fault either. I want everyone [who has been abused] to know: It isn’t your fault! If you can be in the system and still make something out of yourself, even after the world and everyone else turned their backs on you, then you can make it through anything else in life.
I hate this expectation that we all must be jolly right after waking up. I think “This Is New York” captures that so perfectly when you complain about having to wish people a good morning and instead embrace being cantankerous. The world is fucked up right now, so it’s okay to have an off day, right?
SCARLIP: Yeah! Not everybody wants to be happy every day. Not everyone can be jolly all the time! Sometimes I want to be mad. Sometimes, ni***, I want to curse you out! We gon’ put all the emotions in the music, you feel me? It ain’t gon just be happy go lucky energy, ni***, we about to go do a drill too! Let’s make a song about punching a ni***s in the face. We don’t always need love.
What was it like getting Snoop Dogg on the song’s remix?
SCARLIP: Snoop is so humble, gracious and kind. One thing Snoop told me after I performed for him: He said I am glad I could bring you out, but next time you will be bringing me out. This dude sees big things for me! Ni***, you Snoop Dogg! You telling me I can bring you out? I gotta be real successful to be able to do that, right?
Does it feel like New York rap is re-energized right now? And are a lot of the best rappers from the five boroughs women? I think so.
SCARLIP: I ain’t gonna let you trick me with that question, haha. But I will say this! Women are dominating, you feel me? New York is as grimey as it has ever been! We winning right now. We got people like me, Lola Brooke, Ice Spice; we all turning the city up! And we all got our own edge, and I feel like we’re bringing something new to the game and something new to the city. Especially the legend Cardi B! She is full-on Bronx. Most of the best rappers right now; we from the Bronx! We’re bringing it back to where hip-hop started. We all soldiers out here, you feel me?
There’s this old bar where you say, “Never had a chance to live/ My life I’ve spent surviving.” Next year you’re going to be releasing your debut studio album, while you recently purchased your first apartment. Does it finally feel like you’re living?
SCARLIP: Yes. I feel like, right now, I am really living. I am a champion. I am gonna be talking my shit! Most people in rap want to be the bully, but I guess I’m the one who strikes back at the bullies.