There are times when she averts eye contact, directing her gaze to her hands, her dark blue lipstick and gleaming bejeweled nose ring a visual reminder of the contrasts that constitute the woman before us.
Alice Villa is many things all at once: a singer, a rapper, an ace ukulele player, a jokester, a voice of reason, a voice of anger. Her demeanor mirrors this breadth, mostly pulsing with energy as if she were plugged into a nearby electrical outlet, but also given to quieter, more contemplative moments where she tilts her head down and clamps her eyes shut as if visualizing her thoughts.
There’s a reason, though, that Villa can come across as a tangled knot of emotions. As transgender rapper Lil Lavedy, she’s immersed herself in a culture with a complicated history in regard to how both women and nonheterosexuals have traditionally been treated.
The daughter of a “hip-hop nerd” father, this punk-turned-MC grew up loving a music that hasn’t always shown a lot of love to those who don’t fit into traditional notions of gender and sexuality.
“There’s a lot of homophobia, transphobia and sexism in hip-hop,” Villa says on a recent afternoon, the gold trim on her black floral dress sparkling beneath the lights at The Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Southern Nevada, where she sits next to The Bronze Cafe. “It’s always been weird trying to justify liking Easy-E when you know a lot of what he says is really derogatory. I don’t think that I want to necessarily fight that, but I want to make the people who are saying that in front of me uncomfortable. When somebody says a homophobic line and I’m at the show, you kind of see them squirm a little bit. And that’s what I want.”
Basically, Villa’s less interested in being a firebrand than simply being who she is, whether onstage or off it.
“I’m more than transgender, I’m transcending / Your feminine guidelines for being so ladylike,” Villa announces on the call-and-response chorus for “TRANScending,” one of two songs featured on her debut demo, which was produced at Naked City Audio by John Kiehlbauch (it can be streamed at https://lillavedy.bandcamp.com/releases). Villa’s an animated, off-kilter presence on the mic, her voice bouncing on the beat like it was coated in rubber, the delivery of her sing-songy rhymes ranging from frantic and hyperventilating to playful and childlike.
A Vegas native, Villa joined her first folk-punk band when she was 15 and has been mostly associated with that scene locally, most notably as frontwoman for Alexander the Terrible. Villa’s maintained her in-your-face stage presence as she’s transitioned to hip-hop, where she acknowledges that there has been some initial wariness from unprepared crowds as they witness Lil Lavedy perform live for the first time.
“When I first started seeking hip-hop shows, so many people were uneasy about a trans person playing hip-hop shows, not because they themselves were bigots, but because they were afraid of what other people were going to be,” she says. “But then when you get in front of a hip-hop crowd and you’ve got bars, that’s all they care about.”
Villa’s acquitted herself well enough to earn the respect of a scene heavy hitter like Hassan Hamilton, one of Vegas’ most acclaimed MCs, who’s both shared the stage and collaborated with Villa.
“Any trailblazer is gonna ruffle feathers along the way,” he says of Villa. “That’s why I feel that hip-hop is the perfect outlet for her ideology, beliefs and content because some of the greatest ever MCs and groups pushed the envelope and made you look at reality no matter how uncomfortable it made most people. Somebody has to start somewhere in regards to the inclusion of transgender and other queer individuals or groups into the culture. I’ve always believed that hip-hop gave a voice to the voiceless, and it would be a shame for that to change now.”
For Villa, this voice isn’t confined to gender issues, which she doesn’t want to be defined by. To wit, the other song on her demo, “Ghosts” is as haunting as its title suggest, a ruminative reflection on the many people who have come and gone in Villa’s life.
“As much as I feel that being trans is going to be a big part of my career, I also don’t want it to be a gimmick by any means,” she explains. “I want my word craft to be the most important thing. But at the same time, screaming, ‘This is who I am!’ is important, too, because when I deal with a crappy customer at work who is transphobic or I get stuff yelled at me while walking to the store, when I finally come home to write, that’s something that’s affecting me. So, of course I’m going to say something about it.”
Soon, Villa will be off to the studio for a recording session with Hamilton and Kiehlbauch. She has plenty to say. Time to go say it.
Jason Bracelin’s Sounding Off column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at email@example.com and find him on Twitter: @JasonBracelin.