“I’m a Capricorn so I don’t have dreams,” Aja says. It’s a Saturday night, and the nonbinary rapper is sitting behind the board of a studio at Brewery Recording in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, playing finished cuts and just-recorded demos of their new album in a grape-purple turtleneck and matching fitted cap. “I have goals. I have never not reached a goal.”
It’s a big proclamation from the 25-year-old queer artist, but they make a good case. A few years ago, Aja (who uses the pronouns they/them) vowed that they would be on television and soon after Aja was a fan-favorite on Season Nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the provider of one of the show’s most iconic, searing reads. Then, they told themselves they would get on TV again, and soon the drag star competed on All-Stars. Once that was done and another season was notched on their belt, Aja told themselves they would make an album, and a year later Box Office, a vicious, scorched-earth trap LP, was birthed of their own volition (and bank account).
“I want people to know how much sacrifice went into this album,” they say, confident and full of clear-eyed intention.
Jay Rivera was born and raised in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, having been adopted by Puerto Rican parents. Surrounded by a mixture of black and Latinx friends, Rivera grew up listening to mostly rap music and considers it their first creative love and outlet. Somewhere, a locked away, secret Tumblr account from Rivera’s teenage years contains “depressing,” angst-ridden early poetry and raps that they started writing and early recordings.
Rivera began performing in drag at 16 years old and dropped out of school two years later to perform as Aja around the neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn. As Aja, they were successful in their scene and pushed music to the back-burner as they continued making a name for themselves. Prior to Drag Race, Aja finally found themselves back in the studio to record the song “Level Ya Pussy Up,” a single the performer describes as “stereotypical, draggy music.” After All-Stars, Aja honed in on their “just do it” mentality and began writing for real.
“The weird part is having to rebrand,” they say, sucking down a yellow lollipop while playing me cuts from Box Office. When we meet, it’s early December and Aja is still recording tracks for the 15-song LP and waiting on features to be finalized. Most importantly, Aja was still figuring out how to continue distancing themselves from their television launchpad. “The thing I need to do is be polarizing and say, ‘No, I’m a musician.’ Whether people like it or not, if you keep saying it, people will catch on.”
During the early rollout of Aja’s non-drag career, they began distancing themselves from the label of “drag queen.” Now, Aja prefers to be known as a queer artist, though elements of that does still involve performing in drag. “I think there’s this big conception that Drag Race is a drag show but it’s really a reality show that’s used as a launching pad for people’s careers,” they explain. Still, Aja is one of the most vocal competitors to explicitly separate what they did on the show from what they do now.
“Most of the people who gain success [from the competition], it’s through other TV shows and music,” they add before slyly suggesting that not enough of the queens from the show take advantage of that platform. “But people don’t listen to me so I’ll keep my secrets and ways of doing things to myself.”
Aja admits that they’re not afraid of losing the fans they found through the show with their new career pivot. In fact, they welcome it. “I know that there are people in that bracket who are genuinely fans of me and my art,” they explain. “Those are the people who I want to follow me. If you’re just a fan of the show, you’re not a fan of me. I want to create an empire. I want to have [my own] Barbz.”
Aja, as they note, was never actually a “character” or fake persona. She was just Jay Rivera — heightened and candy-coated. These days, Aja has stopped paying attention to the “reality competition,” as they continue to refer to Drag Race. More directly this time, they hone in on the fact that more should be done with the show’s platform it provides. Their only advice for past, present and future contenders? “Stop sitting there getting all these little girls riled up for two years and then you lose them. Speak up for your people, speak up for other people and start achieving your goals.”
With Box Office, Aja is both talking that talk and walking that walk. Across all 18 tracks, their love for the early-2000s rap ferocity, club-ready trap beats and Nicki Minaj-level clever wordplay takes centerstage as they show off their rhyming skills alongside features from friends like Momo and Shea Coulee (who competed on Season 9 of Drag Race) as well as up-and-coming stars like CupcakKe and Rico Nasty. Not only is it unchartered territory for stars of the show that elevated Aja’s platform but it’s also something new for typically cis-het male dominated genre of trap as well.
“There’s not a lot of queer rappers who are gaining momentum but for some reason that doesn’t scare me,” Aja admits, noting how much research they had done into how difficult it will be to not only break but be respected in that field as a queer, often femme-presenting rapper. Plus, that “drag queen” label is one they know they’ll be finding ways to shake off, at least when it comes to not being boxed in to one particular style of performance.
“In heterosexual society, drag is a joke and used solely for comedy reasons,” they explain, giving props to Brazilian superstar Pablo Vittar, who is the only drag pop star signed to a major label and has acquired not only a hefty social media following but some Latin Grammy nominations as well. “What people don’t realize is that drag is an art form and a medium.”
Aja is carefully curating their next path, making sure to do more solo touring, performing at non-drag venues and embracing coverage from “heterosexual outlets,” such as this one. “There are these invisible walls where things are put,” they continue. “To me, I feel like I just walked into the next room but people make it a big deal because they pay attention to the walls. In my opinion, the walls don’t matter. Press is press! I think it’s big because for the people who do see those walls they start to realize that this queer artist is recognized by heterosexual press. Your work gets seen by a different audience.”
Looking to the future, Aja sees themselves playing stadiums around the world and turning down million-dollar record deals. Remember, these aren’t dreams: These are tangible goals on an invisible to-do list that the artist knows they’ll have no problem accomplishing. Besides, they’ve worked too hard to see themselves anywhere else but the top.
“This is not effortless,” Aja says, with a brief in-take of breath. “But it is natural.”