R. Flex on Breaking Binaries

Photo: Tiana Smith

Discussing their approach to performance, R. Flex laughs, “Nothing is constant. The whole stage is fluid and anything can be flipped at any minute.” If you’ve been lucky enough to see R. Flex onstage, you know this to be true. Adorned with lip-gloss, candy-coloured hair, and an array of attire leaning towards “comfort goth”—from bondage gear to athletic wear, lingerie, mesh, and wigs—R. Flex aims to disrupt what you expect both from alternative R&B and the live performance context itself.

R. Flex is the creative persona and musical project of Ryan Anthony Robinson. Based in Toronto, they’ve been disrupting and invigorating live music in southwestern Ontario and beyond since 2016. Musically speaking, there’s no mistaking R. Flex’s touchstones; sensual synth pads support velvety vocals recalling the R&B divas of the late 90s and early 2000s, paired with ominous electronic noises and the occasional trap hi-hat. With a voice you want to curl up in, Flex’s honeyed melismas evoke Frank Ocean, but they also have a rigidity, some grit and grime, to remind you that smooth isn’t smooth without the rough. R. Flex’s sound-worlds juxtapose the human and non-human, organic and inorganic, the hard and the soft, like a vision of Day-Glo in darkness, oscillating between the seedy and the luxurious, sacred and profane. It’s all about breaking binaries by blending them—as in the title of their debut EP, IN & OUT.  Taking a radically inclusive approach to live performance, R. Flex blurs the boundaries between audience and performer, emphasizing the importance of community to queer life. We spoke with R. Flex about their influences, religion, and exploring creativity as a non-binary artist.

What have you been listening to recently?

Oh my goodness! Today (February 19) was an odd day because an artist I really like, Pop Smoke, got shot, and is dead now… I was really looking forward to more work coming from him. Listening to Kelela still—the Cut 4 Me mix-tape; Cardi B, DaBaby, Megan Thee Stallion; more on the pop side, Ecco-2K—his song “Peroxide”; Shygirl, Bibi Bourelly,  Charli XCX…  So lots of hip-hop, lots of pop.

Photo: Brianna Roye

Your vocals really drive your music. Who are some of your vocal inspirations?

Kelela’s my girl! I really really like her. She gives me a lot of Janet vibes. I’ve also been going back to early 2000s-late 90s Janet in terms of the vocal work that she does. She may not have the most powerful voice (not like Whitney), but she really packs a wallop when she stacks her harmonies. I’ve been listening to Brandy lately. I got into a flow of listening to the things Brandy does with her voice texturally; it’s kind of like painting. And she does a lot of stacks, like Janet. And Mariah Carey!— I love Mariah, her buttery vocals, all the dreaminess of it. She’s a fantastic songwriter, especially in terms of understanding climaxes.

You recently released a cover of Aaliyah’s “Heartbroken.” Why was it so important to record that tribute to her?

Two years ago I was invited to a club in Hamilton called Sous Bas to perform at an annual show called “Aaliyahpalooza.”  And I didn’t have any covers… When I was doing a show called Rainbow Radio, I came across Aaliyah’s song “Hearbroken,” from her One in A Million album. It’s so eerie, with the type of synths that Timbaland uses. I love the drum patterning—it has the drum and bass feel, with girl group harmonies—and I thought, I want to do something with this but put my Flex on it.  With the production, I wanted something grimy, dark, 90s feeling, like Mary J. Blige with dirty Method Man vibes. Vocally, I wanted touches of Luther, touches of Toni, and touches of myself, but still keep the essence of Aaliyah’s work there. I wanted to create a composite of different influences in one packed cover. That’s how that turned out, and I just really love that song. When she’s singing it, she’s 17, so from her, it’s such a mature take on heartbreak. And, at the time that I recorded it, at 28 or 29, I had been through my own affairs, and my own relationship, and there was a little bit more wariness on the track.  Because I sound older (I’m not a 17-year-old singing), and I’ve experienced more, the vocals needed to have that depth and feeling.

Your music combines human and organic sounds with very inorganic sounds. There are a lot of moments when you juxtapose the vulnerability and embodiment of voices with harsh and stark sounds. Do you think about your music and your art in that way? What does that binary mean to you?

Great question. I loved artists like Missy Elliott growing up; Brandy and Aaliyah, and the electronic sounds they had under them.  Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music because my parents are both ministers. But when I was around 8 or 9, our family got cable—we got MTV—and I was exposed to all of this music. Very fresh takes on hip-hop and R&B, influences from old, sampled tracks, twisting them into something unrecognizable, and taking from UK sounds… I just wanted to create music that’s like that. A song like “Thursday” has certain sounds in it, especially the percussion: it’s not a live instrument and it has this very hypnotic feel. I love my voice on it because there’s a grit to it but still very much a fluidity to it. There are edges to my voice and warmth at the same time. So I love playing with that kind of texture, trying to create something unique and experimental in that way.

R-Flex, Babylonia
Photo: Istiana Bestari

You mentioned the influence of religion growing up. How does it play into your music? The album artwork for your single “Babylonia” features you in front of a neon cross…

On that cover, I was thinking about Salvador Dali’s “Last Supper.” It’s sort of holographic; it’s Jesus with the disciples in a glass building, and there’s a hologram of God or Jesus above them, and Jesus pointing upwards. And then it forms a triangular shape, so it has a very classic feel.  When I created that cover, I was thinking about that. And, in the image, you don’t see much of my legs, so you get another triangle; there’s the cross, illuminated, and then my fingers pointing up, and my head down. So it’s kind of me subverting religion and making it mine in the way that I sexualize the cross.  The way I imagine it, if Jesus’ body was there, I’d be giving head to Jesus on the cross.

You’re such a dynamic performer: could you talk a bit about the importance of performance, and the intersections of music, words, fashion, dance, and makeup in your work?

A lot of it is playing with categories, arguably binaries. And I think in terms of performance, as an R&B performer, I’m not expected to play with gender in the way that I do.   I’m not expected to play with the boundaries between audience, artist, and the stage. It’s more than just jumping into the crowd, but rather weaving in and out of them. Thinking about gender, I transform onstage, and take some of the submissive energy that I put into my music and display it, and also display aggressive energy. That’s always very important for me. In terms of making an R. Flex experience, it means that nothing is constant. In “Babylonia,” I take something like Stop-and-Frisk and the carding system, and turn it into a song about role-playing. And when I bring that to the stage, it just becomes its own living thing that I give to my audience, so they can also have a moment to think, “What the fuck is going on? That was great, but what?” And the great thing about what I’m doing is bringing in something tangible, understandable, but still presenting it with density. I want people to keep unpacking what I’m doing for years to come.

How would you sum up R. Flex as a persona, as a musical entity?

Playing between hard and soft. I think that comes from growing up under the lens of what’s expected of me as a Black, masculinized figure, trying to allow my softness to exist, and my vulnerability to exist. You know, I’m not always going to perform in spaces that are going to be safe, but I’m always hoping that I can reach the parts of people that can identify with what I’m doing. R. Flex is ultimately about being human in an inorganic world; trying to get folks to focus in on themselves. I’m really doing that healing work and that personal work. I think that’s where I’m headed right now as R. Flex.

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