“In psychology class, I learned about this image of the iceberg in the ocean. The subconscious is represented as the part of the iceberg that’s underwater. It’s a huge mass,” says Milwaukee-based musician Deniesha Kinnebrew — the soft-spoken 23-year-old better known as Fivy.
Kinnebrew and I are discussing her dreams.
The young artist has fostered an intimate connection with her subconscious since she was a child. Her dreams provided much of the inspiration for her impressive debut EP — Dreamscape.
Kinnebrew’s EP is a collection of songs she wrote over the course of several years, though they all draw inspiration from her dreams. Her favorite type of dreams tend to incorporate neon colors, water, flying, hearing music.
“Lucid dreams are ideal. Being in control of what’s going on in this other world, this other dimension. Seeing people who have passed on, like family members, those are always special.”
I first became familiar with Kinnebrew in 2015. She was a guest vocalist with the hip-hop/jazz band Three. Stacks. Eliot. Kinnebrew’s sultry singing was mesmerizing, but her pointed, melodic rapping blew me away.
I sat down with Kinnebrew outside the Fuel Cafe in Riverwest to discuss her upbringing and inspirations.
Kinnebrew was born in the city of Milwaukee, but spent much of her childhood on a reservation in Lac du Flambeau in northern Wisconsin. Her mother’s side of the family is a part of the Ojibwe tribe. On the reservation, Kinnebrew was exposed to traditional songs and dances at powwows and tribal ceremonies.
Growing up, Kinnebrew had to learn to adapt and almost become two different people. She would spend a couple years on the reservation, then a couple years off.
“I remember being in second grade and my mom bought me a CD player and I carried it with me everywhere around this small town, Ashland,” recalls Kinnebrew.
The disc that got the most rotation in that player was a mix of the best R&B artists of the late 1990s/early 2000s, including Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Lauryn Hill. Years later, when Kinnebrew started writing her own songs, she initially imitated Hill.
While attending Wauwatosa East High School, Kinnebrew discovered Cleveland rapper Kid Cudi, which changed her world and mindset towards music.
“It was more emotional, more thought-provoking,” Kinnebrew says of Cudi’s music.
From there she got into West Coast crew Top Dawg Entertainment (Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, and Ab-Soul). As it happens with most burgeoning hip-hop heads, Kinnebrew then looked to the past and studied the boom bap era, particularly Queens legend Nas.
During high school, Kinnebrew kept a journal that chronicled her struggles with insomnia.
“Those high school years I felt like I wasn’t living for me. I had a lot of family issues, trying to be rooted, but I moved so much. I was more accustomed to the small town reservation life. When I came to the city it was hard for me to connect with people.”
“I was alone a lot and it was stressful. I was a full-time student, on the basketball team, and working on the weekends. I wasn’t doing anything that was truly fulfilling, so that kept me up at night.”
Finding her voice
Kinnebrew went away to college at the University of Minnesota-Morris, one of the smaller state schools in the Midwest. It was there that she unlocked her hunger for creative expression.
“I met some really cool, free people out there. After class, we would all go to this house called The Bakery, do some illegal activities and people would just freestyle.”
“I was never personally in a circle of people who were just flowin’ conscious raps like that. That changed my whole world. I was like, ‘If they can do that, I can do that.’”
Having surrounded herself with freethinkers, the well of creativity began to flow. Kinnebrew began writing raps. Then the psychology major enrolled in a one-credit vocal course.
“It was the only class I thoroughly enjoyed. I didn’t even know I could sing until this professor told me I had a voice and taught me how to use it.”
Kinnebrew’s newfound confidence and enthusiasm for performing arose as she grew disinterested in her studies. She decided to drop out and move to Milwaukee.
Upon returning to her birthplace in 2014, Kinnebrew discovered a vibrant art and music scene. She was initially intimidated. One of her classmates at Tosa East — Sam Ahmed (WebsterX) — was making waves with the New Age Narcissism crew, while hip-hop luminary Milo had just moved to town from Los Angeles.
Kinnebrew began performing at open mics around town, including the Miramar Theatre’s Tuesday night slot. There she met poet Kavon Cortez-Jones, who booked some of her first gigs. Other artists that she was inspired by early on include Imaginary Heroes, Abby Jeanne, Zombie, Ms. Lotus Fankh, Cree Myles, Queen Tut, Chakara Blu, YL64, Pleasure Thief and Dad.
Fans of the Milwaukee music scene likely became aware of Fivy from her beautiful hook on the track “Lake Drive" by rugged, lovable rapper Dad.
Though she started performing solo, Fivy was soon approached by local musicians eager to play with her. Multi-instrumentalist Alex Heaton was Fivy’s keyboardist for some time.
“It’s really had to form a (backing) band, because a lot of people are doing their own thing and getting everyone in one room to rehearse and learn your shit, it’s a struggle,” Kinnebrew admits.
For now, Kinnebrew is performing solo with an OP-1 synthesizer. It’s a small machine, but her penetrating music and captivating voice is anything but. She is also teaching herself piano at the moment.
Since coming on the scene two years ago, Fivy has quickly made a name for herself and performed at various shows and festivals.
“Honestly, my favorite shows are those that incorporate a shit ton of women, like (Riverwest) FemFest, or just when people gather lineups of mostly women. Those are the most supportive environments. They’re super inspirational and the most fun for me.”
“I think that rap can be a very masculine expression, just because of the rhythm of the words. Rapping is more dot-dot-dot, whereas singing is more of a wavelength. Not to say that hip-hop in general is just masculine energy, but what I’m saying is feminine energy is more emotional, which is more real to me. Women are really good at expressing emotion. Not just women, but anyone who embraces their femininity.”
Wanting to see more of these sorts of gatherings, Kinnebrew and friends organized the Moon Lodge at Jazale’s Art Studio in March. The new monthly series incorporates poetry, music, conversation/healing, and visual art with a focus on female creators.
When I asked Kinnebrew about a new project, she was a bit cagey. She would only reveal that new music is coming in the form of a short film, which she believes will be out this summer. There’s a chance she might not be Milwaukee-based when that happens, as the young dreamer has plans for a move out West.
“I used to not dig having to reestablish myself in a new city all the time, but now I like it because I’m good at adapting. I’m ready for more experience in this world.”