As day jobs go, working retail at Urban Outfitters in Chinatown was pretty okay, but Aspen knew it was probably time to quit after five consecutive shifts of hearing the same refrain from random teenage customers: “Oh, my God, you’re Babeo Baggins! Can I get a picture?”
Aspen is a 22-year-old from Leesburg, Va., who identifies as “a gender-fluid, non-binary person” and makes technicolor rap music under the name Babeo Baggins. The rapper’s last name can’t be printed — trolls and hackers have already been too vicious. “I love Tumblr,” Babeo says, “but it’s a breeding ground for so many positive things and so many bad things.”
For the most part, Tumblr has provided Babeo with a hangout, a laboratory and a megaphone. It’s where the rapper formed Barf Troop, the audacious four-person hip-hop collective that Babeo spearheads from behind the screen of an Apple MacBook in the exurban desolation of Loudoun County. Currently living in different cities across the East Coast, the four rappers collaborate just about every night on Skype — but Tumblr is where they post songs about gender identity and lyrics about martians and photos of Drake wearing a
T-shirt with their band name on it.
So when Barf Troop performs at the Trillectro music festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday afternoon, the quartet will be making a strange leap from a restless, pixelated world to an even louder three-dimensional space. They will be in the company of thousands of strangers but also one another.
Historically, rap music has been about representing the culture of a city, a hood, a block, a precise piece of geographical turf. Could it also be about representing a personalized corner of a global micro-blogging platform?
Barf Troop are not the first rappers to ascend via Tumblr, but the group’s recent growth spurt suggests that digital social spaces are still enabling young artists to create with an abandon that flows more freely in the liminal zones between the digital and physical world. There is a certain freedom to the hyper-public quasi-anonymity of it all.
And you can hear it in Barf Troop’s music — especially the lyrics, which often feel intimate and playful but sometimes dart off toward extremes. Babeo’s verses run especially wild. A new mixtape, “Positive,” zigzags between quirky sex boasts and heartsick vulnerability, while “Lookout,” the first song Babeo ever posted online, is an X-rated murder-porn poem that doesn’t wash off in the shower.
“The stuff I rap about is the stuff I’m thinking about,” Babeo says. “It’s very much my truth. It’s not a character or a costume. This is who I am.”
Raised in rural Virginia as a “mixed-race kid torn between being a tomboy and a girly-girl,” the rapper grew up feeling an unshakable loneliness but eventually found relief on a computer screen. There were new friends to be made on Tumblr — other people who laughed at the same jokes and obsessed over the same music, specifically, the rhymes of over-the-top Los Angeles rap outfit Odd Future.
In 2011, Babeo started arranging group Skype sessions with these new friends in which they freestyled for one another until they were confident enough to give themselves rap names. (“Babeo Baggins” is a nod to Tolkien; “Barf Troop” is a nod to Girl Scout solidarity and the necessity of the creative purge; and the group’s logo is a pair of Rolling Stones-style lips spewing Nickelodeon-style slime.)
This sounds like an unconventional way to form a band, sure, but it also sounds like the future. Even though they live in three different states — Babe Simpson and Babeo Baggins in Virginia, Babe Field in Georgia, Babenstein in North Carolina — the members of Barf Troop describe their creative chemistry as if they have entered a state of pre-telepathic communication.
“We literally talk all day long, from the time we get up to the time we go to sleep,” Babe Simpson, 20, says on the phone from Richmond. “By text or by Skype, we’re constantly aware of what each other are doing and thinking.”
When they do assemble in three dimensions, they dress loud and turn heads. The band has a thing for floral print, fake fur, kimonos, Halloween costumes, lingerie and athletic gear.
Babeo’s hair — a Windex-blue puff at the time — is what caught Drake’s attention at a concert in Virginia Beach last year. The rap superstar spotted Babeo and Babe Simpson in the crowd, invited them backstage afterward, and has since been photographed wearing a Barf Troop T-shirt. You can find it on the group’s Tumblr page, along with photos they have recently snapped alongside pop singer Ariana Grande and actor-rapper Jaden Smith, both of whom they befriended by similar strokes of dumb luck.
But for every celebrity fan they have made, there are still dozens of online cretins who have responded to Barf Troop’s transgressive poise with hostility and ugliness. Babeo says that online, “people treat me like I’m Nicki Minaj,” not like someone who still lives at home with mom.
“We get ridiculed because we’re not typical rappers,” Babeo says. “As someone who’s viewed as female, you’re expected to meet a super-high standard to be taken seriously. We’re not like that. We’re just ourselves. And every male rapper gets to be that. Why can’t we? We crack jokes, we like comic books, we like video games, we like that s---, too.”
But when people get it, the connection feels exponentially affirming.
“Having 14-year-olds say, ‘I’m gender-fluid, too! I didn’t know that was okay!’ — that is what I’m here for,” Babeo says. “We want to show black girls that you don’t have to be this or that to be a rapper. You don’t have to be hard like Lil’ Kim. You can be soft. You can be a nerd. You can have colorful hair. You can be yourself.”