“I won all my fights,” Chariell Smith says of her days as the only female on the University of Nevada, Reno boxing team. “If people don’t like it, and it’s too uncomfortable for everyone, that’s too bad for them.”
She brings that same hard-assed attitude to the microphone.
“The world through my eyes—filled with hate, greed and lies. So many hurting hard—trying to make it through hard times,” she raps on the song “Freedom,” the first that she ever recorded.
“When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. I’m down to walk that green mile.”
Smith, 23, who goes by Knowledge on stage, gives a mix of conscious rhymes, street grime and sexual references in her music. She cites two major influences: college—she holds a degree in health ecology—and her younger brother, Lil’ Murda.
Talk about mixed signals.
As for the sex stuff: “I’m tasteful with it,” says the openly gay rapper. “I might write a song where I had a relationship, and it didn’t work … but it’s not [about] gay or straight … it’s [about] life.”
Smith, originally from Las Vegas, made a name for herself doing shows at UNR. Aside from opening for other local rappers a few times, she hasn’t made much of an effort to get her name or her music known past the comfortable confines of campus—until recently.
“It’s allowed me to sort of sit back and watch everyone,” says Smith, regarding her reticence and its influence on her spot in the Reno rap game.
“I figure you gotta know your place,” she says. “Know your time.”
And now is that time. But how does a college-educated, lesbian rapper break into an industry living in a cramped closet full of its own harsh stereotypes?
“I pride myself on being real,” she says. “I don’t write about stuff I don’t know. I write about life, myself, what’s going on with me.
“When I get on the mic and speak, I’m not a girl. I’m not a gay girl. I am just a rapper. And when I start rapping, all that stuff just melts away. It’s secondary. It’s not important.
“At least no one’s ever came up to me and said ‘You’re gay! You can’t be a rapper.'”
But Smith says she does have a fan base in the gay community.
“It’s hard to explain it—gay people love hip-hop,” she says. “They really do. They’re probably some of the biggest supporters in the community. I think that all of us have been through so much, being judged … that we’re really accepting.”
Being an intelligent lesbian rapper may be Smith’s key to signing a major-label deal one day, she says, wearily noting her potential to be seen as a gimmick in an industry already overflowing with pimp cups and 14 karat gold-plated grillz.
“I don’t want to limit myself to that audience,” she says of the gay community. “I don’t want to be the gay rapper. I want to be the rapper.”
The rapper—a tough enough job to get.
Her voice is rough and raspy. Her message is revolution. But she talks about her music more like an author talks about a new novel than most rappers talk about a new song.
“I feel like people write about who they are, where they come from and the things they’ve been through,” she says. “I think college was really the point in my life where I discovered myself. I felt like my writing developed more because the classes I was taking, the books I was reading.”