Your identity is the umbrella under which all the little tokens that constitute you lie. From personality to beliefs, identity is the gentle touch you imprint upon this endlessly evolving world.
Brooke Candy – pop star and provocateur, whose collaborations with Grimes and Charli XCX have pushed her further into the spotlight – is undoubtedly someone who has embraced an identity that has the power to disrupt and disturb. She’s also a woman who envisions the world as a playground for the undeclared and disenfranchised.
It's most telling that during our conversation she tells me her favourite quote is one from notorious outré Marilyn Manson. "He said something along the lines of; 'I measure my success based off of the amount of people that not only love me but the amount of people that hate me'. Because if you're doing something and everyone loves you, then you're not really doing anything at all."
And Brooke Candy, if anything, is provoking a reaction.
Her hyper-sexualised hip-hop and intense videos triggered the chain reaction of Candy's story, her style fusing both drag culture and feminist ideals. My conversation with her takes place while she's preparing for a second stint playing in the middle of a wrestling ring, for an underground Mexican federation called Lucho Libre. Her live shows are the stage on which she presents her true identity in any way possible – and, in this case, any place possible.
But Brooke Candy is far from a 'persona'. She lives and breathes who she is, and amongst the ludicrous imagery and overt sexuality comes truth. "I think starting in gay clubs and queer culture and being how free everyone was; it inspired my true pure identity," she opens. "What you hear in this album, while it may be really silly and fun, it's still feminist, and it's still sex-positive. It's still evident it's just who I am to my core."
The album she's referring to is her long-awaited debut Sexorcism, which is true to everything Candy has presented herself as. "I feel like the persona is who I am. I mean, I have many, we all have many archetypal or archetype identities, like facets to our personalities." The construction of the Brooke Candy of today was always destined to manifest itself in this multifaceted way. Growing up, she took solace from a "really hostile household" in the form of 90s hip-hop icons Biggie Smalls and the empowering tour-de-force Lil Kim. She mentions how "Biggie and Kim gave me this empowering anger."
"I didn't know how to free myself from what I was enduring on a regular basis because I was so young, but they gave me hope that I can escape it and like, it made me kind of angry about it. And that was cool."
Beyond this, Candy's influences take from both the expected and unexpected, ranging from feminist icons and men who lean heavily into androgyny and drag – including the aforementioned Marilyn Manson, punk icon Iggy Pop (for her on-stage development – "I [used to] perform with just a mic like delusionally thinking I'm him") and cult filmmaker and comedian John Waters.
"I always look to people who naturally inspire me. Women, like Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill who started the riot girl movement. Lil Kim, who was like the first of her time and she was just a feminist and fucking hardcore – just so inspiring. Or I'll look to people who have failed a lot and failed and failed and then been regarded as geniuses."
Drag culture has seen a vast rise in popularity thanks to TV shows like Ru Paul's Drag Race. And Candy, for all of her adult life, has been submerged in this culture, even before its cult-like status.
"When I turned seventeen and lived in San Francisco, I was raised by drag queens and so that whole culture, that queer drag culture and the underground gay scene – it was so inviting. [It was] so warm and but also interesting and aesthetically pleasing.”
"It just gave me everything that I needed at that time as a young person who was trying to discover who she was. It helped to shape the person that I am now. I would be nothing really without the community that has always been there and hopefully will always be there. Everything that I do will always be for the gay community. It's like family."
Seeing this world flourish when once it had to retain underground status through fear of persecution has given her affirming lifeblood – “a blessing."
"[Queerness] is something that I've always stood for and widely accepted. I think that's just better even for me and for my art, like… if more people see it, more people will be able to take something from it, and it might help more people, you know?"
That doesn't mean she's not ready to slam her flag into explorative ground. "Hopefully this doesn't come off as arrogant, but what I had always done before I signed my deal..." she pauses. "My first five, six songs or videos I put out…and the way that I was living – all of it – I was preaching feminist ideas in a format that was like silly and fun, like just like I am now.”
"I was very into putting on drag makeup and having drag queens on stage with me and I was performing in those clubs and doing those things far before they were, like, trending. I've never swayed from that, except for my moment with Sony. That's why I was like, 'Okay, my identity is being taken from me', but everything before that was always my trajectory. And it still is evidently – I'm still on it."
That "moment with Sony" is a pivotal part of Candy's story. Before she first started getting recognition by putting her videos on WorldStar Hip-Hop, things were a lot simpler.
"Back then I was playing underground gay clubs before Instagram existed, it was like the only thing that we had," she shares with a fondness. "Actually I remember I had Facebook, and I was like being encouraged to continue to perform." From here, the ball rolled into online videos, and Candy struck up an Instagram-infamy that many other with vivacious visuals and controversial output fall into.
For most artists, finding a major label – Sony RCA in this case – knocking at the door would be confirmation that the road they've chosen is the right one. But for Candy, her signing found her being dismantled and rebuilt into something that went against everything she'd worked for. Talking about this time, her tone flattens in a reflective sadness, as if talking about a relationship that just wouldn't seem to work out. "We just had differences in artistic or aesthetic...I don't know the word; we just had different attitudes on where my career needed to go," she says.
"I was on the trajectory that I had created for myself, and then they pulled me off that trajectory, which was already moving steadily and well. I was doing this thing that no one else was doing, and I was pretty innovative at the time. They pulled me from that to kind of try and fit me into this mould so that I could be a money-making commodity for them."
It's a tale as old as time – someone is just trying to realise their dream, and someone else must capitalise. Not that she holds it against them. The real question that sprung forth for Candy was what they saw in her – "What was my monetary value... as like a hyper-sexualised robot crazy freak?”
"I don't know if they saw any monetary value there. Maybe they saw certain things in me that they could manipulate, to turn me into something that could potentially make them money."
It's amongst this furore that saw the vanishing of her initial debut, Daddy Issues, back in 2015. But more crucially, it's what's led to a moment that sits larger on her timeline than even the release of her debut album – the moment she rediscovered herself.
She explains the initial moments after being released from the label with a candid delicacy. "Since leaving, it took me a minute before I was inspired to make any music or art again. That really … what's the word, broke my spirit quite a bit."
"It took me so long to repeat all of the fragments in my mind and heart. It took me a minute to get to a place where I understood who I was again, and what I wanted to do... what I wanted to say, and how I could say it and do it.”
"It took me a minute to fall in love with making the art that I was making because for so long, it's like everything about it I hated doing and it wasn't because I hate doing it – I love doing it. It was just because I had been forced to do something that I hated, so it forced me to, in turn, hate making it."
Putting out art that ignored who Candy wanted to be, and had already made herself, reduced her to another number-building tool. "The music that they were having me put out wasn't working. It just wasn't working," she admits mournfully. "I was stifled for so long, but then I took a long break."
It was a long road, trying to recover her confidence, introspection "and learning how to be more humble and how to be better". Re-igniting that creativity that had served her her initial success was no mean feat, but when it reappeared, she didn’t know what to do with it – other than channel it back into music.
"I tried to express it in other ways, but no other ways were as gratifying or liberating as making music and directing videos… doing the whole thing that I do. So I just had to try it again. With the right support system around me, people who love me and don't care about monetary success. They just care about my well being and if I'm happy, having those people around while I was starting and again like really helped to make it happen."
"I think a lot of artists wouldn't be able to come back from that." Her stage confidence appears amongst the reminiscent rubble. "They would just be like 'That's it'. But evidently, I'm like a cockroach. You can't stop me. You can keep trying."
The deconstruction of her identity, while painful, has gifted Candy these realisations. While the loss of the major label backing could be seen as a blow, had the opposite happened – overnight, blazing success as with the likes of Azealia Banks or Cardi B – she would have been made vulnerable.
"Actually, if any success would have come my way, like serious success, that happened rapidly..." she says. "If it had happened, I wouldn't have been able to handle it because I was stripped of my identity, and I just wouldn't have been able to enjoy it."
"It's almost like it just wasn't my time. I tried to do the 'thing', but the universe didn't want it to happen. Being stripped of your identity and then trying to come back and be an artist is literally the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life. For so long, I went into this knowing 'exactly' what I wanted to say, what I wanted to do, what my agenda was, and who I was as a person, and I came out like a babbling crazy person."
Which is why this moment of Sexorcism is one to be celebrated. It’s also just the beginning for Candy. "I don't want to get too caught up in it because I made it because I had to make it because I felt this insatiable urge to make it."
"It's nice to complete something after feeling like you can never do it. And I did, so I just showed that anyone could literally do anything, as long as they want it bad enough."
Candy’s identity – and her ability to come back from a brink precarious enough to erase most artists – comes from the strength and honesty in which she believes. This second-wave of hers is all snarled teeth and raw assertiveness.
She's also ready to be a pop star, albeit one that refutes stereotypes and instead holds her ground. Even if the abrasive nature of her music might risk holding her back, becoming radio-friendly would be just what her major label wrecking crew would have wanted.
"I don't mind people being scared of me," Candy says with an audible smirk. "They've been scared of me since I started, so nothing really fazes me at this point. And if this album comes out, and it's reviewed as the worst album of all time, I feel like I'll probably print that out and hang it in my house because that is quite an accomplishment.”
"I would have I have the same views of John Waters, like, I don't fucking care. If anything I'm doing is trash, it's not for you to know if I'm kidding or not, you know, it's just for me to know. I'm just making what I'm making for who's watching me."
That's not to say it's all blood and guts. The emotional awareness someone who is so immersed in counter-culture has to appear at some point too. ”Freak Like Me” is one of Sexorcism's calmer moments: it delves into accepting who you are and fronting in the most Candy way possible, with the lyric 'I'm not America sweetheart and more like Jeffrey Dahmer / I'd rather be hated for who I am and then loved for what I'm not".
"It's the anthem that I would have wanted when I was thirteen," she offers. "The lyrical content is really honest, and what I want to be preaching, you know? It's okay to be weird. It's okay to feel different and like, let me lead the way. Let me guide you towards happiness if that's the way that you feel. Let me be a beacon of light for like people that just don't feel like they fit in."
The yearning in Candy's voice cuts through. When I ask if the harsher elements of her art might be counter-productive to embracing her fans like this, she disagrees.
"Either way, if one person listens to that song and it changes their life or a hundred million people listen to that song and changes their lives, I'm going to be happy no matter what. Because I got to make the song and that's cathartic, and I made a change, however small."