Qveen Herby on Switch From Karmin, Culture Appropriation & Life As an Indie Artist (Interview)

“The white experience is very different from the black experience in reality. For me, just as simple as sharing the artists that inspired my music – the black superstars who are my idols. Just that can make a difference in communicating to my fans how influential the black musicians are.”

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If the name “Karmin” rings a bell, it’s because in 2011, a video of her along with her partner Nick rapping and singing to Chris Brown, Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne’s ‘Look at Me Now’ went super viral on the internet. In fact, it was one of the first big “viral” moments of social media.

The cover eventually landed Qveen Herby aka Amy Noonan and Nick Noonan a major label deal with Epic Records as the group, Karmin. Although Amy and Nick managed to score a hit or two (‘Brokenhearted‘ was one), Amy wasn’t satisfied with the music she was making as she grew up listening to majorly Hip-Hop and R&B tunes.

Amy has since then, departed from the group (no, she and Nick are still together) and re-branded herself into Qveen Herby, a free artist who is now truly creating the music she want to. Being inspired by musicians like Missy Elliott, TLC and Lauryn Hill but living in a traditional household who was against her listening to explicit Rap music, Qveen has now evolved into a fierce musician who has amassed millions of streams independently. Her now husband Nick is by her side but behind the scenes, taking care of the all-important producer role.

The star in the making is staying independent for now but she’s open to major label offers in the future if the terms match her goals. “I think mentally if you can handle it then indie is the way to go. I think it’s important for artists like us to speak truth and help fellow artists,” she says.

She is also very conscious of the fact that as a white woman, she’s making music which is heavily black-influenced. Her new EP titled EP8 features some of the freshest Hip-Hop I’ve heard in recent times and its pretty impressive that she’s doing it all with an in-house team of creatives.

Qveen Herby spoke to me in detail about her switch from Karmin, growing up in a small town in Nebraska, loving Hip-Hop music, how she makes sure her music doesn’t come across as culture appropriation, balancing professional & personal life with her husband, life as an independent artist and much more.

Thanks for chatting with me today. What should I call you: Qveen, Herby or Qveen Herby?

What do you want to call me? You can even call me Sarah.

Ok Sarah it is. When your publicist sent me your new project, I was super impressed. I’m an 80s baby so when I heard it, it kinda took me back to early 2000s when I started to really get into music.

Oh I feel the same way and I’m an 80s baby too. That era of music was so special. I feel like these young kids need to know.

It immediately reminded me of early 2000s Missy Elliott and I think Missy is a big inspiration for you, right?

For sure! I feel like she was the only female rapper I really listened to as I was growing up because she didn’t have all the cursing, her CDs didn’t all have the parental advisory sticker. I was also into Lauryn Hill and TLC, I got a lot of inspiration from Left Eye. A lot of amazing female rappers. But there’s so many more today which is beautiful. I didn’t think this day would ever come. I was in a Pop group in my younger days, they weren’t really interested in playing female rap on the radio. But now just this past week, we have Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion at the top. And I’m sorry – and Nicki and Beyonce. Like it’s amazing that’s happening.

The rebrand from Karmin to Qveen Herby was certainly a brave one. Why did you decide to do it? How did you overcome all the fears of taking that big step.

Well, it came to a point where I was just comfortable in my independence from my upbringing in a small town in Nebraska. I had made money doing what I love but after a point, I realized it wasn’t the way I would have done if I had done it myself. And it was terrifying.. I mean it took a couple years actually to I guess transition into my true self and feel my own power in my music again. And my husband, who was in Karmin with me, a big reason why this worked was because he learned how to produce. They were putting us in the room with the best producers in the Pop game and it wasn’t that inspiring to me. It was cool to learn the tricks of the trade, but I really wanted to make R&B/Hip Hop music. So yeah he learned production and this producer named Pompano Puff who came on board at the very beginning… he’s worked with Kodak Black & Nicki Minaj among others – he took a chance on me and stayed with me this whole time. So I pretty much credit them because as an indie artist I couldn’t even afford to work with some of these producers, I had to find my own.

Your new music is a lot more Hip-Hop influenced than what you were making as part of Karmin. Was that a conscious decision?

It was both. I felt a little bit frustrated that in times of Karmin, they were telling us they don’t wanna play female rap artists on radio. Like even at that time, Nicki Minaj was singing on a lot of songs. And I was like, what is this inequality for women in Hip-Hop!? I know that historically some would say that Hip-Hop is male dominated and misogynistic even, if you wanna go there. And Hip-Hop has not been a very friendly place for LGBTQ so that intersection started to interest me and I felt like becoming a warrior. I felt like more people would wanna join that movement. Like Hip-Hop became the number 1 genre two years ago.. like it’s really the new Rock & Roll. I’ve always loved it, I never thought I would be accepted as a rapper and it took me a while to find courage and to commit to it but now I don’t see myself moving away from it now that I have it.

Yeah I wouldn’t recommend you making anything else. The new music is fire.

Oh you don’t want me to make a House or Dance music album? (laughs)

(Laughs) Not at all. This music that you’re making right now sounds incredible. And now that you’re telling me your husband is doing most of the work, I’m really impressed. The drums sound sharp too.

Oh my God, the drums are so important to me. Like it’s the reason we love artists like Kanye. That sound, that sound we got from people like Kanye and Timbaland. And Dre! Like have you seen The Defiant Ones? It’s so crazy, that’s what really made me want to do music.

I read in one of your earlier interviews that your family wasn’t very comfortable with some of your appearances and maybe even music. How do you navigate through that and balance it all?

It took a long time, you know you have to be patient with yourself. And for me, I really wanted to make them proud. So there comes a certain point where you have to say ‘ok, their life is not mine’. Like at some point, I have to step up and do what my soul is telling me to do. It’s hard you know, sometimes they express disappointment in what I’ve chosen to do but they still love me and we still have a great relationship. It’s just not their bag, they are not interested. I think they are at least happy that I’m doing something different – most people from my hometown don’t leave.

Yes I think the fact that you still have a great relationship is a blessing. Not everybody is that lucky. I believe Nick has now taken a more behind the scenes role in your music. As husband and wife, how do you create a balance between professional and personal life? Does it ever get stressful?

(Laughs) oh yeah, it does get stressful sometimes. Like sometimes we’re just like ‘we should not do this.’ But it worked, you know. We have a really magical synergy together, it’s like the yin and yang. He pushes me and I probably push him and open his mind up to things. I’m convinced that if we weren’t doing it together, we would not be as successful. Now to keep your romantic life alive? Yes, you have to put in the work and really formalize a few things. But on the professional side? We’re constantly at it. We have a loft in the downtown area of L.A. and we are constantly working on music. It’s like a giant creative room. It’s been like 15 years since we’ve been together so yeah, you figure out how to flow. There aren’t really any fights anymore, thank God (laughs).

You also mentioned recently that since you’re making predominantly black music as a white person, you want to be very careful with culture appropriation. What are some of the things that you keep in mind or things you do in order to achieve that?

I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is to speak up about things that I feel strongly about and to do research and learn constantly about the evolving situations surrounding racism in America. I’m sure in other countries it’s also bad but in America it’s particularly bad. I love how more and more white people today hold each other accountable about white privilege, how it affects the situation and how we can solve this issue. Because for the longest time, so many white people just refused to even believe it’s real, like they don’t even thing racism is real. The white experience is just very different from the black experience in reality. For me, just as simple as sharing the artists that inspired my music – the black superstars who are my idols. Just that can make a difference in communicating to my fans how influential the black musicians are.

But the situation is still so tough, you know. Like just a few days ago, a black man jogging through the neighborhood was murdered (On 23rd February, Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man, was shot dead by two white men in Brunswick, Georgia). It’s ridiculous. Since the law enforcement aren’t doing their job, normal people have to step in and sign petitions to get things right. And this black girl who was shot in her house (A woman named Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in her Louisville, Kentucky, home by police executing a “botched” search warrant). It’s sad. I just hope we get justice for some of these cases. We can go on about this forever – black and brown people getting incarcerated for the same crimes that white people commit and get away with all the time. And their kids grow up without a father? It’s insane.

I know, it’s crazy that things like that happen in 2020. It’s like we haven’t progressed at all as a human race. On a lighter note, who are your favorite rappers and producers?

Kanye is like everything. I have a portrait of him framed in my living room. Like he’s so crazy, he’s the ultimate artist to me. He’s not afraid to speak his mind. Yes, sometimes he’s an a*hole but he’s always so vulnerable and always so ahead of his time when it comes to music and fashion. Dr. Dre was huge for us. These days, Murda Beatz, I’ve been in touch with J. White who’s done a couple of #1s for Cardi B, he’s the female rap whisperer, he knows how to make a hit. I’d love to work with him when this pandemic is over. We’ve been chatting online and vibing. When I’m in songwriter mode – because we’re about to write the next EP – I listen to Kendrick a lot. His whole discography, like he’s so free and he’s got so much intention in his music. He makes me more creative.

You’ve been independent for a while. Is your new EP an indie release as well?

Yes it is technically. We did a little baby distribution deal with a company that a lot of indie artists these days do to get major label distribution strength. Because now-a-days, it’s all about playlists. As soon as you throw my music on a playlist, you get a lot of exposure and it increases the chances of your music doing well. So yeah it’s a little deal and we will see if it makes sense for us in the future but so far, they are doing a great job.

Kanye is like everything. I have a portrait of him framed in my living room. Like he’s so crazy, he’s the ultimate artist to me. He’s not afraid to speak his mind. Yes, sometimes he’s an a*hole but he’s always so vulnerable and always so ahead of his time when it comes to music and fashion.

As an independent artist, are you happy with the amount of money you make from music, touring, merch etc. ?

That’s a great question. Umm.. I would rate it a C and the satisfaction level would be something like a 8/10, it’s pretty good. I have this growing passion to try and help other creatives create a sustainable career in music independently because I think there’s a lot of misinformation and mystery around how to actually make a living from music. If you’re a creative and able to create your music all in house like I do, there’s a few things you have to be able to do to to make it sustainable. Like it’s so shocking, there’s a Forbes article that came out that said I’m in the top 2% of indie artists and I was like.. damn. Like I know I work hard but is it really that rare to find people who can really eat off this? And also pay everybody? I was watching Tinashe and Fat Joe talk about this on Instagram the other day. They were like we are independent and we’re never gonna sign to a label ever again. I think mentally if you can handle it then indie is the way to go. I think it’s important for artists like us to speak truth and help fellow artists.

Are you open to signing with a major in the future if you like the offer or do you plan to stay independent?

You know I look at artists like Russ who put out 100s of songs independently. Like he put out a song a week for a whole year. That dude is so impressive how he did it. And then he signed a multi million dollar deal with Columbia and he only signed over his new album, he kept his entire back catalog with the masters which is huge and that’s gonna pay your bills. Like even if the label drops the ball, you still eat and tour and do your thing. I do see a possibility to see Qveen Herby on a major label but there’s certain thresholds that have to be met. I’m not stressed about it and I’m not in a hurry so to speak. I’d have the wish list and the terms laid down in my journal.

I think the situation has also changed a bit these days. Artists are able to negotiate their terms better and be more in a partnership with the label as opposed to a typical signed artist.

Yes, so true. You know my special industry mafia team that I talk to every once in a while.. they said labels are only signing artists who are blowing up on Tik Tok (laughs). They’re not really interested in longevity or the artist having more than one hit. They’re like let’s get the hit, sign it and make as much money as we can and then on to the next. Which is not sustainable and it’s not what we’re going for.