There used to be covered parking inside Compton’s New Wilmington Arms housing complex, but today, the cars of tenants and visitors bake beneath the bitterly hot sun. Azjah hides from the heat in the back seat of her mother’s grey Volkswagen. It’s been more than a decade since she’s been a resident, but she’s no visitor.
Moments after she gets out of the car, several grade school kids from the complex ask her for a photo. Only a head or so taller than some, she puts her arms around them and poses, her dark straightened hair flowing from beneath a backwards hat and resting on her shoulders. When she smiles, you can see braces brackets glued to her teeth. She swallowed their connecting wire years ago and has wanted to remove them ever since. Right now, she believes there are more important expenses.
Azjah is a celebrity here. At 25 years old, she has the potential to be the biggest ever female artist from Compton. Her songs have received millions of streams, and last year she appeared alongside Snoop Dogg on his album I Wanna Thank Me — the only female rapper to appear on its 22 tracks. But little about her demeanor or attire indicates the oversized persona that often accompanies burgeoning rap stars. Emerging from the car, she speaks softly, her eyes slightly downcast. She wears a plain white tee and black jogger sweats. No gaudy watches or jewelry. The only visible sign of her recent success is a small gold and diamond-studded pendant of her likeness hanging around her neck. A gift from her father and co-manager, Rocc.
“Once I started doing music, my dad gifted me with this piece like, ‘You have to get a chain and a piece on your neck like the other rappers,’” Azjah says.
In February of last year, Azjah signed a distribution deal with EMPIRE for her debut album, Princess Diaries. The move speaks to her business-savvy (she retains the rights to her music) and rising stature, as the label/distributor has worked with Compton luminaries like Kendrick Lamar and The Game. After the EMPIRE check cleared, she financed the renovation of the basketball court inside the Arms.
Together, she, Rocc, her 12-year-old brother, Tahj, several current residents, and a local artist spent over a month stripping, power washing, and repainting the court before erecting new hoops. Just before they finished, Azjah threw a block party at the Arms to celebrate the release of Princess Diaries. The owners of the Arms removed the property’s dilapidated playground years ago, so Azjah rented a video game truck and inflatable bounce houses for local kids.
“A lot of people think the mayor [paid for the court], but the mayor came to my block party to gift me with a certificate from the city,” she says proudly. Tahj and Azjah’s other co-manager, Knowledge, play one-on-one behind us.
The songs on Princess Diaries are full of adversities familiar to anyone who grew up playing on the Arms basketball court: gangs and domestic violence, socioeconomic and carceral injustices, deaths and more deaths. But none of Azjah’s songs are full of self-pity. With millions of streams, “Time for It” (the original and the remix) and “Spotlight” fly triumphantly in the face of tragedy, full of a post-DJ Mustard bounce of rubbery drums, spare piano lines, and the occasional squealing synth. Azjah alternates between flexing in Benz’s and Lexus’s to shouting out incarcerated family members.
Her rhythmic, half-sung delivery has been compared to Dej Loaf (an admitted influence), but her music is rawer — without pop sheen or radio concessions. There are tender croons to love interests on Princess Diaries, but Azjah’s music hits hardest when she works through grief. “Loved Ones” is an ode to the long list of the slain and relatives who passed prematurely. It’s self-proclaimed “pain music”: music shaped by struggle and grief, made for those coping with it.
Azjah and her family moved to nearby Bellflower in the early 2000s, but the Arms is inextricable from their genealogy. Her parents met here. She and her older brother, Cholo, spent hours playing on and around the basketball court.
This is where she fell in love with the music of Teena Marie and the Temptations, ate tacos that her aunt sold to kids after school, and pranked neighbors playing ding-dong ditch. She still visits weekly.
Built in 1973 at 700 W Laurel St., the Arms is a sprawling, 11-acre expanse populated by two-and-three-story cocoa-colored buildings. A wide river of black asphalt runs between apartments and the trees towering above them. Though privately owned, the property has a Project-Based Section 8 contract with HUD that allows the owners to price tenants’ rent relative to their income.
Like most low-income areas in South L.A., the Arms was devastated by the crack epidemic of the ’80s. In 1985, there were over 60 drug-related arrests in or around the complex. By 1989, the Los Angeles Times had labeled it “a drug dealing haven.” Azjah’s grandmother has been clean for over 20 years, but Rocc says she was briefly addicted during that era.
For every nostalgic memory of Azjah’s ‘90s childhood, there are several that have left indelible scars. She and her childhood friends witnessed countless shootings, including the 1999 crossfire that left two of the Arms’ security guards dead and two more critically wounded. “There were a couple of times that we were sitting right here hanging out and they started shooting. We were immune to that,” she says, moving closer to the cartoon portrait of her painted on the baseline.
Many of those same peers either joined or became closely affiliated with the 700 Blocc clique of the Park Village Compton Crips (PVCC). Also known as Yah Gang, they’ve ruled the Arms since the ‘80s. Rocc is a long-retired member, but he’s still widely revered. Cholo, who was convicted of first-degree murder (along with several other criminal charges) and sentenced to consecutive life sentences in December of 2016, was also a former PVCC member.
Before a friend christened her “Princess of Compton,” people here nicknamed Azjah “princess of the Arms.”
Rap career or not, she was born local royalty, her neighborhood affiliation recognized throughout Compton.
“A lot of people I grew up with are in jail or dead,” Azjah says, her voice somber and resigned. Tahj and Knowledge have finished their game; two other young men start putting up shots.
“My big brother? Jail. My cousins? Dead.”
Rocc says that gang activity and tensions with PVCC rivals have calmed since the ‘90s and early 2000s, during which time sheriff’s gang officials recorded 282 shootings and attempted murders in Compton during a single year. Still, the consequences of gang life continue to fracture families in the Arms.
“When Cholo was in the pen, we were able to text. We were talking every day,” Azjah says. “In the county, it’s harder.”
In an alternate universe, Azjah may have become an EMT. Born Aja Kellum, the future Princess of Compton expressed interest in rap by 11. Recording rhymes on karaoke machines and in small bedroom studios, she absorbed everything. If Rocc played Jay-Z, she threw on James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful.” Though she’s always written lyrics, Azjah lacked the confidence to continue recording in her teens.
A three-sport athlete (basketball, track, and cheer) at Paramount High, she went on to study business at Cerritos College before pursuing a career as an EMT at Compton College. When the judge sentenced Cholo, Azjah’s sorrow was overwhelming. She poured it all into her first official single, 2017’s “The Warm Up.”
“[When I heard that song], I thought I had tears in my eyes. She never really talked about the situation before,” Rocc says. “I know it hurt her because it hurt all of us. But I’d never had a conversation with her about it.”
With money from Rocc and her full-time job at FedEx, Azjah shot a video for “The Warm-Up” in the Arms. Record labels came calling soon after it gained traction online, but Azjah wanted to remain independent. Invigorated by the success of “The Warm-Up,” she and her father started their label, Rocc Solid Entertainment. Before and after the Princess Diaries distribution deal, they’ve paid for all of Azjah’s studio time and music videos. In May of this year, Azjah released her latest project, On One. At turns pained and joyous, she tempers her continued grief over her brother’s incarceration (“True Story”) with songs celebrating her success.
“I would describe her as the best woman rapper ever,” Rocc says when I ask why he thinks Azjah’s music resonates with L.A. rap fans. His voice is gruff but laid back, almost Southern-sounding. Tattooed from his wrists to his neck, Rocc is exceedingly kind. In photos with Azjah, he is nothing short of a proud, doting father.
When I press him about his paternal cheerleading, he chuckles and answers more directly. “She’s talking about what she’s been through, and it’s true. That’s what separates her.”
Despite its storied musical history, Southern California has only produced a few female rappers to break through nationally. Signed to Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records, San Bernardino’s JJ Fad were the first female rap group nominated for a Grammy (Supersonic”), but by 1994, they disbanded.
Yo-Yo landed on several Billboard charts in the ‘90s with the Ice Cube-assisted “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo” and “The Bonnie and Clyde Theme,” but her career never escaped Cube’s massive shadow.
Death Row’s The Lady of Rage charted with 1994’s canonical G-Funk anthem, “Afro Puffs,” but her album came out years after her momentum had subsided; besides, she was actually from Virginia.
In the mid-aughts, oral sex paeans from all-woman groups like Vixen Ent. and Inglewood’s Pink Dollaz soundtracked L.A.’s ephemeral jerkin’ dance movement. Jerkin’, however, faded as quickly as it peaked. Pink Dollaz members (and identical twins) Cam & China reemerged in 2016 with an eponymous EP of bruising lyrical assaults that wound up soundtracking scenes on HBO’s Insecure.
There’s evidence, however, that the trend may be changing. Azjah cites Meechy Blu and Ash Bash as respected L.A. peers, but blames thematic homogeneity as the reason for L.A.’s drought of female rap superstars. “I don’t got nothing against sexual music. That’s who you are,” she says. “But I feel like a lot of female rappers sound the same.”
As far as the future, Azjah mentions purchasing a home in Bellflower or the Inland Empire, but she’s conflicted about being too far from 700 W. Laurel St. The property owners recently removed large sections of the gate along Wilmington. The balls of children playing sports could easily roll into the street, and enemies of PVCC can stroll into the Arms at any time. “They just aren’t taking care of the property,” Azjah says with frustration. “We’re trying to get the gates back up. People were complaining.”
When we finish talking, she moves to the basketball court. She shoots a few shots with her brother, then dribbles as she’s photographed walking through the complex. Her shyness fades the longer the lens is on her. There is joy in her smile and a trace of sadness in her eyes.
She’ll leave for a radio interview in Hollywood soon, but for now, she’s home.
This article appears in Vol. 2, Issue 2 of The LAnd. Click here to pre-order your copy.