"Wow, am I really talking in the streets like this," says Parisian pop-provocateur Crystal Murray who is slightly taken aback at the words that have just left her mouth. She sheepishly looks to see if anyone is around her, and then breaks into a chuckle.
We're speaking over Zoom about what gets her off. I'm in the comfort of my own home, whilst Murray has been circling the streets of Paris for the past forty minutes, between recording sessions. It's an inappropriate conversation for two strangers to have in most settings, but Murray is more than happy to discuss sexuality and liberation in a public setting. In fact, it's something that she has been doing since she was fourteen years old.
Murray is the kind of musician who embraces the sweaty, the sumptuous and the sordid. A freak by design and a true Parisian; her music tells tales about the excitement and eventual disappointment that comes from longing – "Diamond Man"; the exploration of your sexuality in an unapologetic way – "Like It Nasty"; and the confidence that comes out of knowing and getting what you want – "Boss". These themes form a trifecta that permeates all of Murray's music and also seeps into our conversation. Having been thrust into the fashion world from a young age and turned into an influencer before it became a viable career option, Murray found that navigating such a feral world in her early teens had forced to grow up faster than her peers. In an attempt to retain some of her innocence and youth, she held onto the most precious part of herself that she could think of.
Hypersexualisation is rife in the fashion industry, and its reasoning is fairly simple – sex sells. This becomes an issue when the objectification of female bodies comes into play. Think back to some of the most iconic magazine covers or even perfume adverts. If it is a group shot, you can guarantee that 80% of the time, the woman will be either in lingerie or a slinky dress. If it's a solo shot, she's likely to be wearing little more than a pair of stilettos. For black femininity, this objectification is especially problematic. Whilst Grace Jones is one of the most archetypal faces of empowerment and liberation, her work with Jean-Paul Goude has raised more than a few eyebrows. By manipulating Jones' image and exaggerating her sexuality as the face of his book Jungle Fever, it has been thought that his work was fetishising black women through an animalistic gaze, and this in itself is a dehumanisation that has taken place for many decades now – from segregation of ethnic women in adverts, to tokenistic photoshoots, and even the dulling of Black excellence through the perspectives of white people.
We're lucky to live in a time where more people are unafraid to reclaim their sexual power and re-write history. Lil' Kim was a trailblazer for discussing sex and liberation in the same way that her male counterparts were. It was controversial because she was a woman, but her incessant and unapologetic approach helped to normalise conversations surrounding women who actually enjoyed sex. Nicki Minaj's 2017 Paper Magazine cover came as the perfect example of a black woman reclaiming their sexuality from the male gaze and proved that you don't need to be meek in order to be ladylike; you don't need to mute yourself or subvert your desires in order to be respected. In reality, Minaj was saying – with three versions of herself staring directly into the lens, almost as a challenge – I dare you to try and take this power away from me.
In order to push boundaries, you must be comfortable within yourself and have an awareness of when to tow the line. Murray is incredibly attuned to the way that her body works and is adamant that walking her own path has been a blessing in terms of not falling into uncomfortable situations. Carving out her own strong identity whilst following in the footsteps of artists such as Dawn Richard, Doja Cat, and Lil' Kim has been imperative in Murray feeling as though she is in control in all aspects of her life. In five short years, she has gone from being 1/4 of a friendship group who were facilitating constructive dialogues via the digital platform Safe Place to finding her identity and independence as a black woman who hopes to shake the archaic misogyny that is rife in the creative industries.
Murray's means of getting there: liberation.
BEST FIT: What exactly is the Gucci Gang and can you tell me how the digital platform and talk show Safe Place came about?
CRYSTAL MURRAY: Gucci Gang is essentially a group of friends. It actually started when I was thirteen – we were normal thirteen year old years hanging out together. We really liked like vintage clothes and we were always digging out clothes; cutting t-shirts, making crop tops… We all have big brothers and big sisters and they all had a fashion thing going on that we looked up to. It started very naturally to us. It was in the moment where Instagram was beginning [to take off] and influencers weren’t a thing yet. It started super naturally where we started just posting pictures as 14-year-old girls would, and we started gaining followers and magazines started writing about us as the new fashion gang of Paris. We didn't really know about influencers and the fashion world so we just entered the industry in a super natural way.
From the beginning, it was just four girlfriends having fun and wearing clothes and enjoying taking pictures. It was kind of like normal, and then it became... not normal. It started when we were young, and it didn’t necessarily finish, we got kind of tired of it. After three years of doing magazines and posing for a bunch of brands, we started to question what we were doing it for, so we started this account on YouTube called Safe Place where we wanted to use all these years of having people follow us, to have an open conversations about humanity and sexuality. It really was 14-year-old girls talking to 14-year-old girls. It was just it was an open discussion between people from the same sort of generations.
It’s quite a progressive thing to do at such a young age (14-16 years old). What made you want to be a part of that? Did you find yourself exposed to situations in the fashion industry where you were subject to inappropriate behaviour?
I have a lot of good luck in my life and nothing bad has ever happened to me, but in terms of things like harassment, we talked about it because it was something that happened to a lot of our friends. Growing up a woman is always hard and I think it's in every state; every city; every age. As a teenager, I knew that things could happen and, especially, bad things could happen. A lot of my friends had situations that were definitely not normal and it was important to speak about that – even if nothing had happened to you, it was important to talk about it. I was the youngest one [in Safe Place] and at that time, I needed to connect not just to my femininity in that way, I needed to connect to my roots. I needed to find my community.
I had other problems in my head as opposed my problem as a woman. The woman thing came later, but at first, I needed to deal with my identity. I was at a moment in my life where I was changing from the Gucci Gang, and we had this Safe Place thing which was a big commitment, but it wasn't my place. It wasn't my place at that time because in my head, I was more about people of colour and I just wanted something else. It was very nice for me because it was before I found my femininity and [was] getting with guys, so I learned all of that before going into womanhood.
"I had this thing when I was eight years old, I was like: ‘Men are assholes. There was no prince charming.’"
You briefly touched on being more focused on people of colour at that time in your life. How much do you think your culture and background influenced and educated you personally, in the realms of sexuality?
I come from jazz and soul. My dad is an African-American jazz player and we come from church music. The way I got educated; my mum is a French lady who is half Spanish from the Canary Islands. I have a really good relationship with the vision of a woman. My mum was managing my dad and even if he was doing the shows, we knew that my mum doing everything for it to happen. I’ve had this vision of a strong woman since I was little girl. I grew up listening to jazz, and jazz is the most sexist place ever but it’s still respectful – even if you listen to Marvin Gaye and the way he talks about sex, it’s super classy. We were listening to Minnie Riperton, Macy Gray, Betty Davis; Coltrane…
My mum was always showing her body and all the clothes that I wear now are my mum’s clothes from when she was younger. I had a good education about that because I travelled a lot and have seen so many different things at a very young age. I had this thing when I was eight years old, I was like: ‘Men are assholes. There was no prince charming.’ I have three big brothers and when I was 12/13 they constantly told me not to do things but I did it, and now I’m 19, they are thankful and I’ve opened so many doors for them. I’m starting my own label, I’m just doing everything I want to do. I feel like the fact that I proved them wrong about the cliché of being the girl they wanted me to be. I always had this thing where you just I knew I could like change mentalities. Whatever is the vision of a woman [to somebody else] is not mine.
Growing up, did you have open conversations between both your friends and family, about sex and sexuality?
No, I didn't really talk about sex with my family. Between friends, it was always about sex and I was the one not talking about it. If something happened, then sure we could talk because we have a super open relationship and I knew that at any time, I could talk to anyone, but I didn't want to. I was a shy girl not talking about sex. Even after I had sex, I still didn't talk about it because it's my sexuality and I don’t like making sex the main point of discussion. It’s something that was always for me and not other people.
You mentioned that your friends were sexually active before you, but you took the time to discover everything on your own terms. Did you ever feel pressure at that time?
It was like teenager things and people were like: ‘Crystal, you need to have sex!’ but I didn't care… I'm sure that maybe at 14 I could feel a bit of pressure, but I know that I was waiting for a boy to get me crazy and even if I had boys talking to me, because I was going out and I had a social life, I just felt like I needed to keep some sort of innocence. At a very young age I had an adult life and I was going out with older friends, and I just felt like I was keeping my sexuality precious. I knew that at some point I wouldn’t continue my courses but I stayed in school because I didn't want to turn into a crazy influencer who stopped school just because she has followers. Sex is the same for me – I stayed a virgin because I knew that if I started, things could get crazy and it's good that I did wait a little bit because I would have done things that I would’ve regretted.
Were you dating around that time? How did you partners react to you not wanting to be sexually active?
I had two serious relationships but it was always very toxic. I would fall in love, and when they would fall in love with me, I was just like: ‘Bye!’ – I’m just very intense in relationships. Sex wasn't the main part of the thing, and it’s still not. I've been with my boyfriend for two years and our love is so intense and I love sex, it’s great, but since I was a little girl, I’ve hated making it the centre of attention. I'm just super intense with head games and feelings.
When did you realise you were ready to have sex?
It wasn't really the guy, it was just me; it was in my head that my first time needs to be, not perfect, but subtle. It doesn’t need to be chaotic. I don't want it to be chaotic.
What does sexual liberation mean for you and would you say that by doings things at your own pace, it led you to becoming sexually liberated?
I think I'm sexually liberated because I am open to sex. I Iove having sex with women too. I feel like I am sexually liberated because I can make pleasure for myself. I know when I don't like it. I like talking and I don't like suffering during sex so I will say it. What excites me the most is the pleasure of the other person – it’s not just my pleasure. Orgasms are great but what really gets me going is the pleasure of the other person and I think it's what makes me happiest. I feel good in my body and myself and sexual liberation is when you feel comfortable in your body and don’t feel any pressure from anything. I’ve never felt pressured about anything and I feel very lucky because a lot of women have.
What do you think it is about younger generations that is more open sexually and pushing to normalise conversations around identity, expression, sexuality and fluidity?
I think we’re just following the path of our parents and our grandparents. Hippies were exactly like us, you know? Black Panthers were fighting for the cause exactly like us. We’ve followed it and have made it more common and more about everyone [rather than specific groups fighting for different causes]. The only cool thing about Instagram and social media is that the attention can now get bigger by the minute and I feel like people got interested because it became fashion to be interested. Humans are a bit dumb… We need something to start and then we’re like: ‘well yeah, obviously!’ There are good sides and bad sides but my generation doesn’t want to be put in boxes anymore. Our generation doesn't want to have a discussion on gender. We don't want to have stupid questions anymore, because they’ve already have been answered.
"Consent means total agreement of sharing a body with one another. It’s about having full validation that is not just words, but energies too."
The internet – TikTok especially – has been a big tool in terms of sexual education, normalising kinks, but most importantly, on consent. What does consent mean to you?
Consent means total agreement of sharing a body with one another. It’s about having full validation that is not just words, but energies too – sometimes people are too scared or they just don’t feel like they can say anything, so it's also an energy thing.
Being able to gauge sexual energy is an incredibly delicate thing, but also quite powerful in sensing or quelling anxieties that the other person may be feeling. Can you tell me about your own experiences with sexual anxiety?
I had a bad vagina for a year… I wasn't happy in my relationship with this guy. I was ready to have sex and he wasn't giving me anything. I think we had no sexual energy together, but I stopped having this issue when I stopped being with him. It’s in the head, but clearly the vagina is linked to the head. The doctor told me that I was stressed out. When some women are stressed out, they don't have acne, they just have vagina problems. It comes from different parts of the body and I have a super fragile vagina.
Do you have any advice for people who are struggling with being comfortable in their own sexual identities?
It goes deeper than just sex – there are so many levels before that. Firstly, where do you come from? Okay, accept it. Secondly, your physics. Do you like it? Okay, that's fine. Then it is sex. For me there is so much to accept before contemplating sexuality. It is a whole path to embrace!
If you could go back and speak to the girl who took part in Gucci Gang and Safe Place, what kind of advice would you give yourself?
Take your time. Take the time you need to understand who you are; understand what you want to do. Don't go too fast. Don't try to follow other people's steps because every step is your own. Listen to your mum; listen to the people you love but make your own ideas. Follow your ideas, even if they're crazy. What comes naturally to you is the best – you’re your only captain, even if you’re twelve years old!