Don't miss CoinDesk's Consensus 2022, the must-attend crypto & blockchain festival experience of the year in Austin, TX this June 9-12.
Latashá Alcindor still has a day job, but it’s a lot more fun than the last few.
Like many of the artists now intimately involved with non-fungible tokens (NFT), Alcindor – better known as the mononymous rapper Latashá – began the year without much of an interest in crypto. She’d already found a kind of underground success in her native Brooklyn, N.Y., with a series of independent albums and singles released over the past few years.
Music had been a side hustle before she started making real money from it; stints at companies like Urban Outfitters and JPMorgan (JPM) helped pay the bills. “I was doing three shows a week while also working my nine-to-five,” she said. Sustained collaborations with two prominent New York performance spaces, National Sawdust and The Shed, helped raise her profile, but the songs themselves were never her primary source of income.
This interview originally appeared as part of CoinDesk's Culture Week, in December 2021.
It was Alcindor’s partner, the artist Jahmel Reynolds, who got her hooked on non-fungible tokens back in February.
“It was right during the [coronavirus] pandemic. We were both trying to figure out supplemental income,” she explained. “Couldn’t really perform, couldn’t really do anything. And then Jah came to me one day and was like, ‘Yo, you ever heard of this thing?’”
Alcindor said she didn’t pay much attention until Reynolds started to generate income from his NFTs. It was a sign of a clear momentum at a moment when cash was scarce – and money has a way of melting away some of that initial skepticism. She minted her first token (tied to one of her music videos) on a protocol called Zora, and one of the site’s co-founders snapped it up for $1000.
“Since then,” quipped Alcindor, “I was hitting the ground running.”
Zora hired her as the company’s head of community programming in June, and she’s been promoting the brand ever since. At this year’s Art Basel, in Miami, Alcindor hosted Zoratopia IRL – a day-long event focused around the intersection of culture and crypto, with an emphasis on Black NFT creators.
NFTs remain relatively inaccessible, thanks to crypto’s technical barrier to entry (interacting with these systems is exceedingly complicated) and consistently high fees. Putting art on the blockchain is far more expensive than just uploading it to Instagram.
The way Alcindor sees it, the potential benefits are well worth the price of entry; you won’t find music videos selling for thousands of dollars on Instagram.
“We’re trying to encourage marginalized communities to come on board,” she said. “It’s beautiful to see people see other people’s stories and be like, ‘I could do that too.’”
Our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, is below.
What’s excited you most about the relationship between music and NFTs? And what projects have you been exploring in that niche?
The thing that caught my eye the most about music and NFTs was the agency that it gave back to artists. I have been trying to stay away from labels for years because independence was my goal. And I’ve also just seen a lot of label deals be terrible. When I got into music and NFTs I realized, oh, I can have full agency and full authority of all my choices and what I’m getting paid for. So, platforms like Zora, like Catalog, I’m even looking into sound.xyz right now.
No major labels seem to have really cracked NFTs yet, even if they’ve tried – do you think that’s something we’ll see in the near future?
The system is a mess, and the system is rigged. I’m not gonna even sugarcoat it for you. The system that major labels are running with right now is wrecked and problematic and needs to completely shift in order for them to work within NFTs. I really don’t believe that major labels will do well with an NFT, because this thing is literally made for autonomy, for sovereignty, for artists to figure out how to, like, do this on their own. It’s so direct to artists and consumers that I don’t see the possibilities of major labels really being able to hold it, unless they create a whole new system around it.
I just feel like artists are not going to be here for the [garbage]. I’ve even had some talks with major artists, and they are working on leaving their labels right now, because of the surge that NFTs are showing. But the tables always turn – that’s how it is. We just gotta make sure that while we’re setting these trends and rules with NFTs, we do them the right way. And that’s my work every day.
Is there anything you’re skeptical about, in this space? It’s easy to get starry-eyed very quickly.
My only skepticism is just overall with NFTs, making sure that culture and that communities of different diasporas are taken focus on. Crypto is still very white, tech, male. And a lot of the abundance is going to that group and not so much to the marginalized communities. And I’m really hoping and pushing for collectors to be focusing more on other groups and faces and places. So let’s not act like this is la-la land, we’re still dealing with racism, we’re still dealing with classism, and all the things. But I think if we could nip it in the bud early and quickly through NFTs right now, I think we’re gonna see a big transformation and change in the economy and the gaps that we’re dealing with.
Do you think that culture is starting to change at all?
I hope. I don’t know. I do believe that a lot of people are doing the work to do the changes.
You’ve spoken in the past about hostility in the NFT community, specifically at NFT.NYC. Was that whole week a negative experience?
The whole experience wasn’t negative because we decided to transform the experience in itself. Honestly, I felt kind of shunned from the actual NFT.NYC conference. But I just created my own experiences. When we went there, a lot of the events had invited me but I couldn’t get in, or me and my homies couldn’t get in. And then at one event, I performed, and they cut my set after one song. The music director said I was too aggressive and loud so they cut my set, and then they cut all the hip-hop sets after me.
It just goes to show you what we deal with in certain spaces. After that, though, we just made a decision to create our own spaces that really could equate to our safety and what we need. So I ended up creating Zoratopia IRL at Art Basel off of that experience at NFT.NYC.
What was it like to host your own event in Miami after that experience?
It was just such a dope feeling to see what we’ve been growing online now find a new place to be, and feel full and at their greatest selves. And I was just so full of gratitude to have created this event, because I just wanted to see us have a place where we could speak and celebrate and do all the things. And Zoratopia really became that for me, and I’m really excited to see that continue. Hopefully I can get to tour it next year, with my music and with other things that I’m doing. So, I’m hype.
Do you feel like crypto’s high fees and technical barriers to entry are having a particular effect on underrepresented communities?
One side of it is transforming the monetary mindset. I think a lot of artists came up from scarcity, and this idea that we didn’t have it, or we wouldn’t have it do these things. And a lot of the ones that I’ve onboarded, they’ve complained about the gas fee, and then minted their pieces and sold five times or 10 times more than their gas fee equated to. And they’re like, “I was so worried about that thing at one point, but now I’m not so worried about it anymore.”
But then on the other side, we have opportunities like the Mint Fund created by Ameer “Sirsu” [Suhayb Carter], where we’re supporting artists and paying for the gas fees. We’re trying to encourage marginalized communities to come on board. “It’s beautiful to see people see other people’s stories and be like, ‘I could do that too.’ And some of them came from my really rough times. I mean, if you talk to [the musician] Ibn Inglor, he grew up in the hoods of Chicago, and then started getting into Web 3 and crypto, and did a crowdfund and got 20 ETH for his latest project. It’s something that he never believed could have happened for him. But now he’s seeing it and he knows it could happen. It’s just beautiful to see people’s minds change and their hearts change through this space.
What would you say to artists who are hesitant about crypto, who feel like maybe it’s too much of a gamble, or too much of an investment to get involved?
I came up from gambling a lot of my life – I’m just big on the leap. I’m a risk taker and everybody’s not like that. And if it’s not for you, it’s not for you. And that’s okay, too. I tell that to a lot of people who are skeptical about it. You don’t have to force this to yourself. If anything, I feel like I didn’t even force NFTs on me, NFTs just came to me, and it was like, alright, this makes sense. It’s all good if you’re not with it, but it’s gonna come to you eventually.
I come from being broke. Like, Brooklyn, New York, broke, dollar pizza life. And there were days where I would never believe this was going to happen to me. Or maybe I did, I just didn’t know how it was gonna happen. I did not know NFTs were going to be the thing, but I just always had this belief that I was going to be in my wellness and in my care. But I can’t force anybody to get into it. This is an organic thing that people have to like, decide for themselves if it’s for them.
And if you are ready to try to get into the game, I always tell people: Start with something small, never something huge. Don’t put all your money into this thing at once. Take a few hundred dollars. And if that’s what you can afford, mint something, or buy something even. And see what happens. Because if you’re just being skeptical, you’ll never see anything out of it.