It’s a gorgeous afternoon in Atlanta’s historic Cabbagetown district and Divinity Walker Rocks is starving. As she weaves through the narrow, pockmarked side streets in her Bronco, she sticks her blonde-dreadlocked head out the window looking for just the right spot. A few moments later, the globetrotting Decatur native settles in at the Carroll Street Café, unmissable in her aviator sunglasses, pink hoodie and Ed Hardy edition Vans.
You may never have heard of Divi Baby, but there’s a good chance you’ve seen her. For about a year, the “Duchess of Decatur” has been playing bass with Beyoncé. But before she ever tore up a BET Awards stage, Divinity was paying her dues; Victor Wooten—arguably one of the world’s best bassists—mentored her for five years.
Her high profile gigs aside, today the thirtysomething MC is turning her attention to her own music, equal parts rock and hip-hop coupled with socially conscious lyrics and, of course, world-class basslines. Her debut, Ain’t No Other Way, features production from The Black-Eyed Peas’ will.i.am and members of Atlanta’s Organized Noize.
Over a Cabbagetown lunch, we quizzed this rising, well-connected artist about the inspirations and motivations for her turn in the solo spotlight.
When did the bass become a part of your life?
I went to UC-Berkley. When I was there I met this guy who was a bass player and we started doing jam sessions at my house. … I always like to say he’s my angel because he was like, “Yo, you should play.” I was like, “Dude, I’m going to play the guitar.” He was like, “Nah, yo, you’re a bass player.” I was like, “for real?” I get it now.
Why did he see you as a bass player?
Because of my swagger. I have a bass player’s swag.
What is “a bass player’s swag?”
Bass players are mad cool. They’re the coolest members of the band. I think that’s what it was. You can tell. Guitar players have a personality. Drummers have a personality …I got a bass and I fell in love with it.
Was making your own album something you’ve always wanted to do?
I was always a writer. I’ve been a writer all my life. I used to read every single book I could pick up. I used to look for the biggest, most boring book. So after I ruptured my Achilles [tendon] I was practicing, practicing and went to Georgia State [University] for a couple of semesters and…Victor Wooten was doing a bass camp — one of the greatest bass players ever. I got into his bass camp.
I’m guessing this was out in his native Tennessee?
Yeah. He‘s a nature guy so the whole thing was about nature and music and how they relate to each other. The first day you’re there, you have to introduce yourself by playing. I was like, “Can I rap, too?” He was like, “Is that what you do?” I was like, “Yeah, let me show you.” I needed to bring these two personalities together. I went into my basement one day and I was like, “Gotta play something funky.” I played this little funky line and I was like, “Ok, I’m going to rap to it.” I took my time and just started rapping and playing. I did the song for Victor and Victor was like, “OK, OK.” After the camp he called me at home and asked me to go on tour with him.
Have people ever looked at you like you’re that weird black girl playing a white man’s instrument?
People always look at me. I’m the ‘weird black girl,’ period. I’ve always been the weird black girl. You know, you don’t have a lot female MCs either. You definitely don’t have a lot of people in hip-hop who play instruments. Mos Def plays the bass, Andre 3000 plays the guitar. We’re starting to see these rappers who are starting to play something. We’re losing the music in our community. It used to be so that you had to learn how to play something when you’re little as a black person. Then they took the music out of the schools—it’s like they keep throwing blows at us.
People say ‘hip-hop is dead.’ What’s your take on that?
I mean, is the Black Power movement dead? Hip-hop is trying to figure out what happens next because it’s still so young and it grew up so fast and it blew up so fast. It got into the hands of a lot of people who didnot have any respect for it, people who don’t know anything about the culture. They don’t care about the culture, all they’re concerned about is making money and it was never about making money.
Tell me about the difference between being in the background and being at the forefront as an artist.
I like [a background role] because I don’t have to worry about things when I’m a member of the band. I don’t have to worry about the set list, the songs and ‘do I remember the lyrics?’ [Beyoncé’s] got to worry about all that. I just have to show up and play. I just feed off her energy and try to give her as much energy as I can. I know what it’s like being on the front of the stage and thinking about all of the [stuff] she’s got to think about. I know what it’s like to be playing and think, “Damn, what is the next line?”
When you’re making a song like “B Girl,” what is the inspiration going into the entire process?
A lot of times a beat will get me into the zone. A lot of times I’ll make a beat on the drum machine and add the bass to it, [then] call my man Kellis, the guitar player, and we have a song. Usually the beats inspire me with the rhymes. I was sitting in my living room in the dark, freestyling and I just got hit with this line (“B what ya b girl”). It’s empowering. That’s all I want to do is empower other people, inspire other people. …It’s about empowerment—yourself and your community. There are people who live in Decatur that never left Decatur who don’t know what’s out there in the world and that is ridiculous.
….I’m finding this [new record] kind of hard to write, too. I want it to be witty…I want it to be a good all-around record. They say music is the soundtrack to your life, so that’s what I want this record to be.
Talk about the equipment you work with to get that unique sound. How involved are you in producing this new album?
I’m recording on [software package] Pro Tools. I watched Will [from Black Eyed Peas] work Pro Tools and manipulate Pro Tools and I can’t say that I’ve gotten as good at it as he is, but I’ve definitely learned a lot and I’m messing with it. I think more women should do that—take it upon themselves to make their own music. …I’m using synths and live instrumentation. I want it to be a balance of live and programmed music.
Life’s all about balance. I can be as ghetto and gangster as them all, but I can also be that much more intellectual. I’m both. Ain’t nothing wrong with being both. Ain’t nothing with being super ghetto and all that because you’ve got to be in the world. At the same you’ve got to have that other perspective. You can go out and have a conversation about what’s going on in the world with someone who is different from you, someone from a totally different culture, totally different perspective and articulate yourself. That’s what I am trying to bring to this record. …
I want people to hear it and say, “Oh, that’s real!” As opposed to, “Oh, that’s contrived.” No it’s not, it’s really me! There are so many different sides to me and I want to be able to bring all those faces to the record.
Tell me about your name—Divinity. Obviously someone put a lot of thought into that one. Were your parents expecting their first child be the divine messenger?
(Laughs) Divinity came about a few years after I was born. … My mother named me Deborah after my aunt, but everyone called me Debby. At 10 or 11, I met a guy who was an MC. He wrote rap for me to rhyme and in the rap he gave me the name Divinity. I looked it up and liked what it meant. It means the most high and we’ve all got that spark of God in us.
What music are you listening to now? Who are your current musical inspirations?
I’m listening to a lot of Bootsy Collins, actually. You know who’s in my CD player right now? System of a Down, Rage Against the Machine, Mint Condition, Betty Davis—I’ve been listening to a lot of old [stuff] lately. That’s what’s moving me.
As an artist, what is it about the old stuff that moves you?
I think I’m doing research, but I’m not aware of it.
How has Atlanta influenced you as an artist?
I always say I’m half country, half city. That’s what Atlanta is. You get both perspectives in Atlanta—you get the country side and the city side. That’s helped me become the individual that I am. I grew up going taking trips to the country and stuff like that. …It’s an international city so you’re going to be exposed to all different kinds of people….I used to sneak into Whild Peach shows when I was young and I would have to say, that energy is the type of energy I want to possess onstage—where there are no limitations. I don’t want to be limited to any type of music. I want to be limitless. I want to have as many experiences as possible and have that come out of me in my music.