"My Energy, How I Move": Blakchyl's Evolving Hip-Hop Embodies Austin's Eastside

The 78702 rapper on exploring beyond her comfort zone

Blakchyl (Photos by Jana Birchum)

An underrated – and understated – decade-plus rap veteran, Blakchyl's Austin roots date back to her formative years in a youth hip-hop program and exploits with longtime musical group Mindz of a Different Kind.

Multiple records in, with some offerings only scattered across particular streaming services, committed fans of the artist's studied, tough-edged, but evolving hip-hop discover the connecting themes: various collaborators, that wisely mellow voice, and an underdog mentality. Her raps radiate assured swagger, beaming pride for East Austin. Blakchyl, aka Te'aunna Moore, has broached the topic of underappreciation a few times since fully pivoting to a solo career. Some examples from 78702's most ardent representative:

On "Lungsful" (2019): "I'm the best in the city, they avoid it/ Work hard, play hard, I enjoy it/ Give back to the city, that's important/ The East is what kept it in motion."

On "Hazy Dayz" (2022): "Five mics used to mean somethin'/ I mean, at least to me/ Should I move, or stay in a city that's backin' up for me/ That's how it is, that's how it goes, fell out of love with scenes/ Misogyny stay on my shoulder like a burn degree."

Rebel of the Underground

"I feel like I'm the best because I'm just really a student [and] teacher of the game," the lyricist says during an extensive summit outside the George Washington Carver Library. As a youth, the artist used to frequent the library's computer lab to print out pictures for collages of her favorite artists. She particularly states a reverence for 2Pac's work ethic.

"From how I say stuff, my wordplay, how I say things – my cadences are totally different," the Eastside native continues. As far as rappers persistently repping their part of town goes, her constant championing of what she regards as "the mecca of the city" rivals Gucci Mane's love for East Atlanta. Except she's a born-and-raised Austinite hailing from East 10th Street.

"My experience is different. I'm a dark-skinned woman," the artist concludes.

I point out that she perhaps forgot a key identifier in that last sentence.

"Dark-skinned queer woman. Tall, slim. I feel like it's just so taboo to be," she adds. "Not that it's never existed, but in Austin specifically … I don't know. My energy, how I move. I'm just cultured. Hip-hop is in me. I think about it every day, all day. It's really in me. You can tell when it's really in somebody."

I then ask about the figurative burn from "Hazy Dayz," which causes her to tap her left shoulder with a toothy, wry smile. She says mentioning the mark acknowledges her presence as a woman within Austin's male-dominated hip-hop scene without letting that define her approach. Why is an adept rhymer like herself underrated?

"I'm underrated because I'm a dark-skinned queer woman," she says before chuckling.

Her succinct yet heavy answer best summates not only Blakchyl's self-awareness as a queer "stud" in her genre, but also her refusal to harp negatively on the scene she's contributed to since attending Reagan High School. Outright laughter briefly ensues before I can even finish an inevitable question asking for her opinion on rap in the Texas capital.

"I try not to complain in general in life," she explains in reference to her laughing. "That is kind of a pet peeve of mine – I don't like when people be complaining and shit all the time. I do feel like I'm one of Austin's gems. Just my story in general. How I've impacted the next generation – that's pretty monumental to me. That's hip-hop to me. More than just being known, being the best, and having co-signs or jewelry.

"There are some gems in Austin. There's a lot of talent here. I feel like unity is making its way, even though we don't always see it publicly. I do feel there is hope."

The Best Hip-Hop nominee performs at Mohawk during the 2023 Austin Music Awards

Cipher Cloth

A crucial part of Blakchyl's story began in October 2007 when she joined the Cipher ATX, a nonprofit organization co-founded by her first mentor, Chris "Gator" Ockletree, and social worker Shannon Sandrea. The Cipher aimed to bring in high schoolers from underprivileged Austin areas under a unifying umbrella of hip-hop. Moore met Gator – an Eastside rapper from the local group Public Offenders – in a beatmaking class he instructed during her freshman year. Then determined to become a DJ/producer, Moore says he convinced her to take rap more seriously.

"He was like, 'I see you already write poems and stuff like that,'" she recalls. "'I know you do beats, but would you want to join this nonprofit that I'm going to be a part of?' I was like, 'Okay, I'll give it a shot.' Once Gator started giving me industry beats off YouTube, that's when I really started writing songs and realizing I had a lot to say."

“My energy, how I move. I’m just cultured. Hip-hop is in me. I think about it every day, all day.” – Blakchyl

Sandrea describes Moore, who joined the Cipher at 15 years old, as a "through line" of the group. Alongside future MDK partner/frequent collaborator ChiClopz, she entered on the first day and never left until the organization's end. Though Sandrea and Gator's blueprint implemented hip-hop as a key component, their twice-weekly meetings on the Eastside went beyond piecing together socially conscious music. Cipher members ate dinner together during each meeting and shared personal stories.

As members continuously stayed on and became family, the organizers' initial idea of graduating cohorts every two years blossomed into over six years of gatherings and three Cipher musical projects, with 2009's From Soldiers to Warriors available on Spotify. Sandrea and the group's artistic director, theatre artist Zell Miller III, emphasized the need for an inclusive space devoid of hate – no homophobia, no misogyny, well before many thought to lead with those basic principles. For a teenager discovering her own identity, the mentorship and encouraging community proved monumental.

"I felt like I was already a hip-hop head, but it was just so different and informative learning more about business and artists," remembers Blakchyl, who was nicknamed T-Fly within the group. "[We learned] what it takes to make beats and sell them, had other artists come in and tell their stories, had organizations outside of rap come in and be like, 'How do y'all feel about acting and being in theatre?'

"Expressing your trauma and even knowing what that is, just to finally meet other kids who were doing music like me – I think that was the most exciting part. Even though I was still a little shy, man, that program definitely helped me get out of my comfort zone and be open to other people."

Sandrea rejects the notion that the Cipher "made" any of its members: "Something I want to be very careful of is T and her peers and all the people in the room made the Cipher. The Cipher didn't make them. I don't want that narrative to ever be out there."

MDK & the French Touch

T-Fly, ChiClopz, Pip Demascus, and BZA officially formed a rap group when the Cipher started to wind down. Mindz of a Different Kind – a message-driven, lyrical crew inspired by acts such as Dead Prez and Dilated Peoples – released three projects over years of performance. In 2017, MDK's project BORDERLINEZ preceded the silent separation of the quartet.

"It's so layered, because it didn't really feel like a breakup, but I knew I had to move around. I would've just been sitting around waiting for something to shake," Blakchyl says. "For so long it was hard for us to get into arguments because we didn't want to mess up something. But once stuff starts to build, it can just burst. Even though we were in the Cipher and got all this game, it doesn't always mean it's going to click for us in these real-life moments."

Prior to the pause, MDK participated in Awesome Week 2017, a cultural exchange festival in Austin's sister city of Angers, France. The rap group kept in touch until a reunion last year for their third trip to France. During the tours, they conducted workshops in schools with French artists and social workers during the day and performed regular shows at night.

"Before our tour, we talked about not trying to put a certain limit on what we want the group to be," Blakchyl says. "[MDK is] always our foundation, it's what we go back to, especially when we're working with kids and expressing where we're at individually. We don't always have to come together and make music. We can do a children's book together."

According to her, "The youth really inspired MDK to come back for that time.

"Just seeing the other girls in there looking up to me, asking me certain questions – stuff like that reminds MDK how we started," she says. "[Our] purpose is so much bigger. Even before the tour started we were texting each other, hanging out. I feel like a lot of people don't know that. They think we just fell out."

On last year's "Hazy Dayz," each MDK member delivers a verse, marking their first reunion on a song in over five years.

Blakchyl in East Austin, days after the release of her new EP Call Me Sometimes

Gifted Entities Navigating Intelligently Under Stress

After a solid 2022, this year presents new recognition for Blakchyl. She earned her first solo Austin Music Awards nomination in Best Hip-Hop and performed at the February ceremony, and she'll also perform at ACL Fest. Her October 14 Zilker Park debut will mark her first time attending the fest in any capacity.

"I think this will probably be my biggest stage by myself," she says. "All the other big stuff has been with MDK, so I feel like it's a new step. I do feel like the city is getting to it. Like, 'Yo, Blakchyl is outside.'"

Last year, she released two impressive collaborative albums: broken communications from the outer rim with hyah! (David Alvarez) and G.E.N.I.U.S with southside MC Nez Tha Villain. The former deviates greatly from the boom bap, East Coast sound most associated with her. Spiritually birthed after Alvarez backed Blakchyl in a live band before the pandemic, the album opts for a spacey, lo-fi, jazz-adjacent sound influenced by the star-studded late Nineties collective Soulquarians.

G.E.N.I.U.S, the self-titled debut project for her new rap duo with Nez, pairs the guttural 78704 native with Blakchyl's smooth lyricism over more traditional beats cooked up by producer/rapper Cooley Fly. After meeting the MC on Facebook, Nez attended a 2021 This Is Texas show at Flamingo Cantina, where his future collaborator impressed with an unannounced set. When he later asked for a feature verse, Blakchyl – a self-professed "very spontaneous" individual with a constant itch to create – responded gleefully by proposing an extended play.

"That was another way for us to show that unity," she says. "Not just Black and brown unity – people from the east and south side can come together, and we've been doing that."

That vision for an EP expanded into the 11-song debut album G.E.N.I.U.S and a five-song follow-up, Pomegranate. Nez regards Blakchyl as his "stiffest competition" when doing features and credits her for motivating him to bring his A game.

On their collaboration, he adds: "Not only just the south side and the Eastside thing – a Black, gay female and a straight, Hispanic male coming together and creating art should just speak volumes in the world that we live in today.

"I'll go to the top of the mountain to scream that she's better than everybody."

Something 2 Dance 2

Call Me Sometimes, a four-song EP released last month, serves as an appetizer for Blakchyl's forthcoming collaborative album with Austin producer the Mask. Ten seconds of intro "Way Up" – produced by Magna Carda's Dougie Do – induces a brand-new glance at the song's principal. With strings that wouldn't sound out of place on Brandy's 2004 album Afrodisiac, Blakchyl starts crooning in heavy Auto-Tune around the half-minute mark before delivering a verse with a conversational flow. The next track, "White T-Shirt," further escalates proceedings over an inviting R&B beat that begins with a Pharrell-esque count.

"All the Black girls in a white T-shirt, in a white T-shirt/ All the Black girls, a couple shots won't hurt/ She want me, I want her," she desires on the song's hook before transitioning into a hoarse, whispery cadence. A mixture of emotions surface after completing the ambitious nine-minute teaser – both a shocking pivot for longtime listeners, and an indicator of Blakchyl at her most confident inflection point yet. Perhaps it's not quite surprising, since Moore conceived the "Blakchyl" moniker after admiring R&B producer Rodney Jerkins' "Darkchild" tag.

"I studied a lot of people, people you wouldn't even expect," she says. "From just people singing background for Mariah Carey – getting to know her backup singers. Whitney Houston, studying her ad-libs. Teena Marie. Atlantic Starr. So many random R&B acts."

On their upcoming LP, the Mask returns to making beats after dedicating time to establish his new Elevate Network recording studio. "When we did the first [song] together, it was just the hook over this super industry, poppy beat," the producer says. "I was just like, 'This is what you want to try? All right, let's do it.' I'm proud of her for stepping outside of her comfort zone because a lot of the stuff that's on this project, I would've never thought she had something like this in the bag."

Blakchyl wants this experimental EP to show other sides of her – that she's not solely a super serious rapper who doesn't enjoy listening to, and creating, other types of music.

"I'm willing to go there," she says of Call Me Sometimes. "I wanted to make songs that made me feel good, that I can dance to. Not that [my] other songs didn't – just in a different way. The beats he was showing me, I felt like I had no choice but to elevate."

Date unconfirmed, Blakchyl says her next album will likely drop with little warning, and if she ever moved away, it would be a last-minute announcement too. She's also excited to eventually take off for another Europe trip with MDK, with a documentary in the works. Even while on the move, a 13-year-old little sister and other family keeps her rooted in the city.

"I'm going to push the culture everywhere I go," she says. "Even when I wasn't staying on the Eastside, I was still repping it. I'm real big on nostalgia, and it really was my foundation coming up as an artist. It became a way of life, in a way, in my music.

"I just like when any artist says where they're from and takes us there on that journey. That's what keeps me inspired, too – I have made it out, many times, and I feel like I can keep leaving Austin, and the Eastside. Kind of [like in] Like Mike when he needed his Nikes, just a little something to keep me grounded. Like, 'Yeah, I'm about to go to France and Germany again.'"

The world, she acknowledges, is "so much bigger than the Eastside." But wherever she goes next, she's taking home with her. "It's just always going to be a little special place."

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Blakchyl, Te'aunna Moore, The Cipher ATX, Mindz of a Different Kind, Chris "Gator" Ockletree, Shannon Sandrea, Nez Tha Villain, The Mask, David Alvarez

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