Meet King avriel: The Girl Who's Set on Changing The Game

A former actor and model, King avriel's songs wax on relationships, reality TV culture, the male gaze, and the fluidity of gender. Still only 23 her velvety alt-R&B packs one lyrical punch.

Mar 7 2014, 5:30pm

King avriel shot by Amy Wiggins.

Avriel Epps is tying up her Grammy to a wobbly cafe table. Not the gold statue but a fuzzy,10-week old Chihuahua-Maltese mix, named after the award. “If I don’t ever win one, at least I’ll always have one to sleep next to everyday,” Epps jokes. Only four songs into her sociopolitical, alt-R&B project, King avriel, she obviously doesn’t have any awards yet but the 23-year-old currently has a handful of labels vying for her signature.

“It’s crazy to me that it’s happening so early. I feel like the pretty girl getting courted. Lots of dinners and lunches,” she says, folding her hands in her lap. We’re sitting outside of Aroma Cafe on the quaint, stroller-lined stretch of Tujunga Avenue in Studio City, a few stops on the 101 away from where she grew up and now lives. Epps was born into an entertainment family. Her dad is a guitar virtuoso and her older sister was a dancer who worked alongside Michael Jackson in Pepsi ads and other productions until a torn knee ligament at age 16, at which point her agent started working with the younger Epps. Her first gig was at the age of two, a commercial for Bumble Balls, the early 90s vibrating toys that looked like everlasting gobstoppers out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But 90s kids would know her best for her role on “Hey Arnold” as the voice of Gerald’s little sister, Timberly, which lasted five years.

“I stopped acting because I shot up and grew. Usually you play younger roles but I looked older, so I wasn’t getting as many jobs,” Epps explains. “I was over it anyway and wanted to focus on home school and music. Then, when I was 14, I went from 5’6” to 5’9” in a summer. A runway show producer scouted me. That’s when I started modeling.”

Epps is tall but her imposing height doesn’t come across when she’s sitting and her clothes downplay her hairpin frame: a baggy grey tee, a flannel shirt tied around her waist, and a backwards hat fitted over her wild curls. Talking to Epps, you get the idea that she’s relieved her modeling career was short-lived, that she’s happy she escaped unscathed. “My agent was like, ‘You either need to lose the weight or we can’t send you out anymore.’ I was not fat. My mom is a nutritionist, and she would show me and my sister films about eating disorders to make sure we didn’t fall into that trap. When you grow up in LA, it’s really hard. The older girls I was around were doing extreme things to keep weight off.”

After modeling, Epps took a crash course in being a teen. She zipped through high school in two years, graduating at 15 having already skipped grades in elementary school and cramming her junior and senior years into one school year. “I did everything I wanted to do, like cheerleading and homecoming and then was like, ‘Okay, I’m over it’,” she says of the experience. Then Epps started working on her music in a studio space that was offered to her by one of her industry contacts. But the songs she wrote during that time never saw the light of day because she felt misunderstood by her management and label executives. “I was trying to make experimental music that wasn’t R&B but everybody saw me playing the piano and being a singer-songwriter,” she recalls. “I always got pegged into this Alicia Keys role. Every time I’d meet with A&R or do a showcase, I was grouped with urban artists and that wasn’t even close to the music I was making. I was making songs with weirdass synths and vocal effects—definitely not as sophisticated as what I’m doing now but the beginnings of that.”

Tired of being taken advantage of by industry execs, Epps accepted a full-ride at UCLA in fall 2011 to study communications, with hopes of later getting an MBA. She figured “nobody would try to fuck with [her]” if she had an MBA, plus she’d have a fallback career if music didn’t work out. Epps ended up investing her extra stipend money into recording equipment, and incorporating her school texts into crushingly gorgeous songs that wax on relationships, reality TV culture, the male gaze, and the fluidity of gender. Drawing from her modeling career and early experience in the music industry, Epps chose the name King avriel. “I wouldn’t have the ideas that I have about gender roles, body image, or sexuality if I hadn’t gone through that. I have all of the insecurities that every girl has and there’s something empowering about calling myself a king.”

King avriel’s songs unfold like a David Foster Wallace text with intricate webs of references and underlying messages listeners can follow or skip. In case you miss a beat, Epps heavily annotates and unpacks her lyrics on Rapgenius and her Tumblr to make sure her citations are easy to follow. “I think it’s so cool because you can say less,” she says, her brown eyes lit up. “It’s more poetic and economical to do that because that one word holds so much meaning since we already know its back history.”

It’s one of the things that sets her strain of alt-R&B apart from the soundcloud masses trying their hands at the trendy tag: Epps, who wrote her senior thesis on hip-hop, is intellectualizing the historically more sensual genre. As referential as her songs are, they’re easy on the ears. Just like R&B experimentalist Frank Ocean, who Epps looks up to, her characters and their stories are the basis of each song told through her sultry falsetto. “I’m reading people like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and seeing ways in which they make their narratives political but not in an overt, preachy way. I wanted to see how far I can push that in music. How many love songs can I write and how many layers can I put in each song?”

R&B, or the nebulous genre it’s become, has finally caught up to Epps’ aspirations and the aesthetic she was chasing in her teens. “It is R&B but it’s not R&B,” she explains. “There was this narrative about blackness and people in this alt-R&B lane are breaking that down. I think Drake was the first one to start doing that because he was starting to challenge these hard, masculine roles—Kanye, too—and then obviously Frank [Ocean] came along and blew everything up. There are more representations of blackness now within R&B and hip-hop.”

Even though she takes inspiration from Drake, Kanye, and Kendrick Lamar, don’t expect to see a King avriel guest spot on a rap song anytime soon. Epps recently penned a manifesto on her Tumblr, outlining how destructive guest spot culture can be for women. “I feel like too often female artists—specifically black singers—believe they have to ride on the coattails of a rapper, signing under a label imprint, doing hooks, being part of their clique, or making video cameos. And, sometimes this results in the perception of female singers as accessories or supporting actors, not leaders and front women,” she wrote. When I ask her if the post was based on her personal experience—two years ago, she guested on Stalley’s “Island Hopping”—Epps tries to deflect the question. “I got in trouble for that post,” she says, but eventually gives in. “I’ve felt that pressure. I’ve had people tell me this is how she’s doing it and it’s working for them. Just because something is working for someone else doesn’t mean it will work for you. Lorde didn’t have a co-sign. And there are tons of male artists who definitely didn’t need co-signs. It goes against everything I believe in. Honestly, I can’t think of any rappers right now at the top of their game that I’d want to be underneath who don’t already have artists working with them. And at the end of the day I want to be the person who signs artists under me.”

There’s a pinch of irony in King avriel’s distancing herself from the rap world considering her songs were first posted on rap blogs. It was more of a necessity than a strategic move. Her manager only worked with rappers before taking on King avriel so his contacts were closer to Complex and 2 Dope Boyz than sites who typically look at music through more of feminist lens like Rookie. But Avriel counts it as a blessing in disguise since watching a debate about the meaning of her name unfold on The Smoking Section. She recalls one exchange where users were cracking homophobic and misogynistic jokes at the expense of her name until another commentator came in and explained that she set out to challenge gender norms and the second-class treatment of women. “At first I was afraid that I was going to fall back into that urban spot and people weren’t going to get it, but hip-hop bloggers like what I’m doing and it’s providing an opportunity for those kinds of conversations to happen. That’s more than I can ask for. Even if that’s the only conversation that my music sparks, I’d be happy with it.”

Marissa is on Twitter. Follow her - @marissagmuller.

Listen to more King avriel on Soundcloud.

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