Originally published on March 22, 2020, for print publication in “Issue 4: the Boundary Issue.” Due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and a loss of funds, we paused on print publication and released the full issue in digital format. The full PDF download is available here.
What is a band if not a sum of its parts? Guitars, synth, drums, bass — these elements fuse together sonically and manifest as one unit, as “song.” You already knew that, didn’t you? Well, how about this: we can apply that same logic to the people behind those instruments, to the fingers, vocal cords, and compositional eyes behind every band. Here’s a simple equation to demonstrate:
Ariana Abede (drums) + Miranda Corless (bass) + María González (guitar) + Yvette González (guitar) = Kibi James
Simple, right? Here’s the wrench: by adding these individual parts, these “players,” we’re left with a transformative by-product. In other words, the equation above is inherently flawed; behind each member of Kibi James is a world’s worth of factors and moving parts, each representing an umbrella of experience. It seems impossible, the idea that four people could merge to create cohesive pop music. “When we’re together, the four of us disappear and Kibi James is like one person,” Yvette notes, an observation she’d made only after a friend pointed it out.
Who is Kibi James, then? All four of the members laugh darkly, and for a moment, I’m unsure if I’m going to get a solid answer on that one. María speaks up: “One morning, we all woke up and we were recounting our dreams to each other, and we realized we had this figure in our dreams the past night. Like one of those sleep paralysis entities. And the name Kibi James appeared in all four of our dreams that night.”
So… wait. Kibi James is their collective sleep paralysis demon? “And we found his Facebook!” Ariana interjects. It stuck, they say, after they used it on a flyer for their first show. Their set was 3 minutes long.
Now we have this person, this man, Kibi James. What is he defined by? “He’s kinda like our child,” Miranda whispers. She’s having her makeup done, starting to look very Bowie with electric blue liner. Like any good parent, all four of the girls dote on Kibi; there’s a definite warmth to the nurturing tone they use to speak of the band, with each member taking turns watering the ideas of identity Kibi James toils with.
“We look back now [on our first recordings], and we’re like, it’s cute.” And here’s the word, courtesy of Ariana — cute. As an adjective, it’s quite loaded, and if you look at any press about the band, you’re sure to find this word (or one of its many synonyms) somewhere in the mix. Back in 2016, Grimes, on the heels of her mega-successful album Art Angels, decried the word “cute” in a DIY Mag interview: “I don’t wanna succeed on the basis of cute naivety, or endearing failure or charming lack of knowledge. I want to succeed because I’m good.”
It’s undeniable, that “cute” is a bit of a benevolent microaggression. We see it with female artists all the time — we compare them to fairies, or aliens, or animals, which then robs them of their natural creative agency. Does it have to be so dire though? As a morpheme, is “cute” inherently cast in the male gaze? As Atlanta’s self-proclaimed sweethearts, they’re the perfect people to ask.
“It’s something we’ve never talked about. We’re always like, ‘oh my god, we’re so cute!’” Yvette says, and it’s earnest — if there’s one trait that binds each member of Kibi James, it’s their honesty, their authenticity. “I think it started off ironically. We know we’re cute, we have this angelic vibe going on,” María says, followed by Ariana: “But I feel like ‘cute’ is like… we’re happy people. Cute is a way of life!” Their way of life — cuteness is a title, created and ascribed by Kibi James for Kibi James. In that way, it eschews being reductive; they’re in on it, they like it, they live it.
Sonically, their first EP, Azúcar, doesn’t just hit on “cute.” On your first listen, there’s an array of influences that might strike you before you land on a word as vague or mood-laced as “cute.” Tracks like “Cada Día” sway with an effortless deadpan, drawing on elements of Bossa Nova and slacker sensibility, while “Baby’s Gone” soars with sweeping, honeyed vocals and deliberate drums, with ’50s girl-group hums and realized folk-pop sentiment. “Slow Motion” is defined by its play with time, unique among the other more classically structured (yet lovingly scattershot) tracks on Azúcar. Each song shakes with a panoply of grab bag influences, yet somehow lends itself to a global comity. And it feels like that could only happen here, right now, with these four.
“[Azúcar] was us learning the fundamentals of like, what are we, and how are we learning to write songs together. It’s about forming that connection with each other, and that’s what the EP stands for.” As María says this, she looks to each of her friends, eyeing them individually. The three nod in turn. “We really song-by-song were learning how to make music,” Yvette says, continuing “so retrospectively, yeah, it is very sweet to me. We’re still learning.”
It all loops back to the saccharine, but not in a bubblegum-pop, hyperactive sort of way — no, Kibi James’ sweetness is homey, a product of friendship and camaraderie. Miranda, now with her makeup done and looking like a young superhero, joins in: “We were all friends before we were in the band, and that aspect makes us being in a band pretty wholesome. It has sweet beginnings. So it makes sense for our first project to encapsulate that,” and here’s the but: “There is this notion that being cute makes things more digestible. Maybe if things were different or we were perceived differently, our efforts wouldn’t be recognized. Especially being in an all femme band, there’s this idea that that’s why people like you, and that’s why people are stanning you.”
Here’s the thing: Kibi James is hyper-aware of optics, and its members know how people are going to perceive that. So why not play into it, tug on that string, then tip everyone’s expectations? “I will lend myself to ‘Atlanta Sweethearts’ in kind of a mocking way, but at the same time, this is such a community for us. I think we’re already friends, and there’s an uplifting community around us. So for now I’m fine with people calling us cute.” That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be fine with it tomorrow!
When asked about their friendship, Ariana turns to Yvette immediately. “I met you in high school!” Yvette laughs. “I met Miranda almost four or five years ago. I met [Ariana] like… around the same time?” And then there’s María. Ariana fills us in on that one: “I met María at Georgia State. I was in the dorms and María lived in a whole ass house. So everyone would go to María’s house, it was the spot. I met a lot of friends there.” I ask if they’re each others’ mains. Ariana asks for clarification. “Oh, like main baes.” María, who has been drawing for some time, says she feels like they each have their own separate lives.
Ariana lives in Athens, having transferred recently to UGA. She commutes to Atlanta for recording sessions and meetings. She was the last to arrive for the interview by some time; the other three informed me she left straight after class. It was about 7 p.m. by the time she made it. Yvette just finished undergrad at Georgia State, and María and Miranda are finishing up their Bachelor’s there as well. Their majors couldn’t be more different, too — among the four, English, human learning and development, technology, and biology are represented. The four of them would probably never run into each other in the same hallway, much less a classroom. “We all happen to be at the busiest points in our lives,” Miranda says. It’s a minor obstacle for a young band eager to keep creating.
Yvette follows up, saying “It’s interesting how Kibi James has evolved our friendship, because these aren’t the girls I ask to go do this and this. But when we do get together, I have this respect and love for them. It’s different from my other friends.” I think, if they thought about it, the word they would arrive on is “family.” The four interact in a naturalistic way, often completing each other’s thoughts and well-attuned to the space the others occupy. They look to one another for answers, and seem, in many ways, to trust each other’s wisdom on any given subject, passing the baton when they’ve exhausted their own thought. It’s, to borrow from their personal lexicon, very sweet to see.
When asked what’s next, Miranda takes the lead. “It’s funny, we haven’t even done that many interviews, but I feel like we’ve talked about the same thing so many times.” This is exactly what I wanted to avoid, as their interviewer — repetitiveness. “I definitely, like, still want people to know I stand for an inclusive community and a queer space and us taking up space in that. But at the same time, it feels like…” It takes her a second to reach it. “Those feel like buzzwords.”
Already thinking about their narrative, the members of Kibi James show an acute awareness of where they’re going. They might not know how they get there, but they’ve got all the tools they need to make it; they want to be taken seriously, and respected for their artistry. “I want to move on thinking like, we can do this. On to the next thing,” María says. As for more immediate, concrete next moves, the group has a music video recorded and ready to release. They’re waiting for the right time to drop it. The group wants to slow down, work on their songwriting, and not feel rushed to complete anything new — Miranda notes they put their EP out not because they felt finished, but because they joined Neon Indian and Sugar Candy Mountain’s tours in support. “What else would we tell them to do, follow us on Instagram?”
I’m left realizing each member is rich in history and thoughtful in a unique way. I realize, then, that focusing on their synchronicity is also a form of reduction. They might have a preternatural knack for making very small, very disparate sounds work as one, but, like those sounds, each has their own humor, their own territory to fill sonically or physically. Kibi James then might not be a person made from the limbs of four people. Instead, as Miranda put it, he’s a child, filled with the love provided by and precepts taught through his parents.
As I leave Kibi James — the unit and the individuals — I’m reminded that, when I arrived, I overheard Miranda explaining why she recently shelved Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. She found it didactic, noting each passing chapter was like a moralizing lesson for the girls. Like the four sisters in Little Women, the members of Kibi James possess an unshakeable bond but also individual, diverging lives. In contrast, the four have no need of a Marmee to teach them lessons — they’re perfectly capable of teaching themselves.