More than just a sub-genre, emo rap is a vast global subculture and a world within itself, one that Calgary rapper Chloe James Colt — the alias of Chloe Stankowski — has been independently establishing herself in over the course of the last four years.
In a genre known for its DIY and indie ethos, it’s fitting that Stankowski’s current robust catalogue — which includes three albums and more than 30 singles — can be traced back to her rudimentary setup that just barely got the job done. “I started rapping in my bedroom with an Xbox headset, like a Turtle Beach Xbox headset, just trying to rap over instrumentals of songs I liked,” says Stankowski.
This was 10 years ago when Stankowski was 14. By the time she was in Grade 10 she had already put together a mixtape, and rapping was starting to turn into a serious pursuit. “That got people in my high school talking about me, so that was cool, but I was like ‘yeah I like this, maybe I can do this,’” she says.
When high school ended, Stankowski’s new mantra was one of perseverance. In 2017 her father passed away and she found herself gravitating toward emo rap’s penchant for vulnerability as a way to work through her emotions. “It helped me feel better, and then I was like I want to make music like this,” says Stankowski.
The genre’s unique ability to blend rock, post-hardcore, and hip-hop also appealed to her own eclectic music tastes. “Even before I was into hip-hop I was into rock, alternative, and emo, so me mixing that with hip-hop and rap was the perfect full-circle blend for me.” she says.
Through SoundCloud, Stankowski connected with MBOnTheBeat, a producer that fit the new direction she had in mind, and in the first half of 2017 she released “Articuno” and “New Degree,” her first two tracks as James Colt. Each single also had an accompanying music video on the popular YouTube emo rap platform HAUNTXR. Then in late 2017 Stankowski was featured on Texan rapper 6obby’s song “Doubt,” and she found herself suddenly living what she had been manifesting since junior high. “That’s when I really got introduced into the underground emo SoundCloud scene,” says Stankowski. “He featured me on his album, and then a bunch of people in the underground heard about me and they’re like, ‘oh shit.’”
Stankowski describes 2018 as her breakthrough year. She released her first album independently on Timeless Tomorrow, a label and artist collective that she started with her brother Bret Curtis and fellow Calgary rappers Nick Wise and Nick Royal. The album featured guest verses from emo rap mainstays like Convolk and LiL Lotus. Rather than use this momentum to look for major label support, Stankowski continued to look for ways to keep reaching new heights independently. A self-described student of the industry, Stankowski began closely examining the way other similar artists navigated the industry and grew their brand. “It’s really a lot of trial and error,” she says. “I would submit a lot of my songs to different YouTube channels, pages, and blogs, and nothing really got accepted for the most part, but I kept trying, and I kept trying until some of them caught on.”
She also refined her approach to releasing music, slowly crafting a strategy that’s primed for the algorithm-driven streaming era. “I was kind of more focused on trying to make a lot of projects [albums], but then I realized that projects aren’t that successful a lot of the time unless you have singles that are already buzzing first,” says Stankowski. “So that’s why I tried to focus a lot on singles, and that way I could be consistent.”
“I Can’t Feel” featuring Californian rapper Convolk was the first single Stankowski uploaded to Spotify in 2018, and since then she’s seldom gone more than two months without releasing a new track. “If I have good singles that I can consistently put out there, I think it just reminds people that I’m here and I’m working,” she says.
Stankowski’s latest pop-punk-inspired single, “River Shore,” centres around challenges she’s faced since coming out as transgender last December. “I guess I technically came out on the news, there was this article on the news and it kind of just exposed me,” she says.
While shopping at a local women’s clothing boutique last December, Stankowski was told she couldn’t try on clothes out of fear that other customers would feel uncomfortable. She uploaded a video to TikTok to discuss the encounter, and it rapidly began gaining traction. Soon the story was featured on local news outlets and was even picked up by some international LGBTQ+ news outlets like Pink News.
Prior to this deluge of media coverage Stankowski says she had been hinting about being trans in her music through songs like “Dysphoria.” Now that she’s publicly out, she believes it’s helped her to be more vulnerable and honest, and share more of her life in her music. In particular, “River Shore” deals with a tense encounter that Stankowski recently had at a family wedding. “I didn’t want to go all out and worry everyone and freak everyone out because not everyone there even knows what transgender even is, so I decided to just go with a neutral, gender fluid outfit and it was still allegedly inappropriate,” she says.
Making the situation worse was the fact that the allegation of being inappropriately dressed, which Stankowski says she heard through second-hand accounts, came from her grandmother. “That hurt me, and the fact they couldn’t even tell me to my face, it had to come from word of mouth through one family member to another to another, it just hurt me,” she says. “It was just like damn, I can’t just express myself and be who I am without it being an issue to someone in my family.”
Following this encounter Stankowski penned “River Shore” as a message of encouragement and empowerment to people in a similar situation. “The song is really about expressing yourself, and don’t let other people’s views or assumptions or judgements stop you from doing what makes you happy,” she says.
Although Stankowski has started branching out stylistically in recent releases and exploring new sonic frontiers, “River Shore” demonstrates that her music retains the same focus on being relatable through confronting difficult topics and difficult emotions that seldom get explored in other subgenres of rap. “A lot of people are telling me that my vocals and my lyrics and my flows are still the same, it just feels like now the production and the effects are more futuristic and more 2021,” she says. “It still has my same sort of quality and personality and substance, it’s just being expanded on and being taken to a new futuristic elevated level.”