It has taken R&B singer King avriel 23 years, a full academic scholarship to UCLA, countless modeling gigs, a few television appearances, and a stack of bell hooks books to figure out who exactly she is.
And, more importantly, what she wants that person to say.
“At first I was just going to go by avriel and I was going to lower case the 'a' in my name for the same reasons that bell hooks does it, in terms of making it be more about the work and less about the individual,” says avriel, whose real name is Avriel Epps. “Keeping with that theme, that's why I capitalize the 'K' in King…When I'm saying I'm a king, I'm saying any woman can be a king. I'm just as much of a king as a man is, and a man is just as much a king as I am.”
In recent weeks she has made waves on music blogs big and small for the video to her song “Freedom,” above, a 92 second snippet where the L.A. native can be seen donning a baggy, black and white Transformers t-shirt and singing behind a mess of dark, frizzy hair. “I kissed a man to keep him from jumping off a ledge,” she croons, presiding over a lifeless body sprawled out on her bedroom floor. “The tighter I embraced him, I understood his hopelessness.”
According to avriel, everything in the video – from the t-shirt to the hair to the Styrofoam cup she's holding to the silver MacBook Pro next to her bed – has a deeply coded and significant meaning. In fact, she wrote a lengthy essay on her Tumblr to accompany the visuals (complete with parenthetical citations to heady texts like Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” by Audre Lorde) in the hopes of explaining the song's message to her listeners more thoroughly.
“We swim through a media environment daily,” says avriel, who studied communications in college and now works as a teaching assistant at UCLA. “We're bombarded by all of these messages and there's no piece of media whatsoever that isn't encoded with hidden messaging and isn't political.”
Despite all the intellectualism and esoteric gender philosophy behind the project, the music is quite solid. Though she's only released a handful of tracks, King avriel's voice comes through as tempered and practiced on each cut, the songwriting mature. Her tone carries a melodic, 90s R&B vibe, while the production registers somewhere closer to Odd Future. The beat for “Freedom” comes courtesy of L.A. producer Sa'eed.
“I think that we don't necessarily expect this of female R&B singers in the last few years, the popular ones,” she says. “Even the ones who have come up on the fringes, as artistic and a creative as they are, there isn't this expectation necessarily that they're trying to embed these institutional critiques in their music.”
If you scour the Internet long enough you can find photos of avriel posing next to up-and-coming rap star Chance the Rapper, or in the studio, head bowed, with the likes of J. Cole. Still, avriel claims she's done with traditional ideas of celebrity and success, having spent her childhood lending her voice to the character of Timberly Johansson on the cartoon “Hey Arnold!” and later, as a teenager, modeling in music videos for artists like Pharrell. She's keeping plans for any future collaborations or new releases strictly under wraps. For avriel, now, it's about putting out the message, not who's spreading it.
“I'm not interested in celebrity,” she says. “I think this is way bigger than me. I think all art is way bigger than the creator… . I'm trying to represent the future.”