In The Mix is a recurring feature series that spotlights special artists who stand out and have a story to tell. To browse the ITM archives and learn about other exciting artists, click here.

Pretenders have laid siege to authenticity. In a world where self-worth equates to a thumbs-up (or lack thereof), honesty sells, and wolves wear sheepskin in hopes of making off like bandits. With wide smiles and recycled cliches disguising so much fake, a premium is placed on what seems truly real. Enter Swsh.

The newly minted 21-year-old speaks her mind, never tongue-tied. She talks freely about anything under the sun—Vic Mensa music videos, deadline anxiety, dating—and always has laughs on deck, ready to roll. It comes as a relief that her music is just as refreshing, one of those intangible sources of allure that only sticks around when creation reflects creator. Animated raps double as jet fuel for gut-punch singing. On songs like “Momma’s Kisses,” she floats.

Swsh, born and raised in LA, started learning chords when the alphabet transferred to long-term memory. In other words, she’s very good at what she does. First came the piano at age five. Bass and guitar soon followed. As one might imagine, music runs in the family.

“We used to do these talent shows every year,” Swsh remembers. “I’d play the bass, which is funny because I was the littlest kid. The bass was 10 times bigger than me. My dad would play the drums in every talent show because we didn’t have a drummer. He’s the shit.”

With full parental support, the garage soon became a safe haven, loud sounds emanating from within. Green Day’s American Idiot occupied shelf space at home, and several artists made regular cameos in Swsh’s iPod headphones—Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Blink-182. Despite the early start, a decade-plus of practice didn’t push her to consider artistry as profession. That honor would be reserved for something else: the introduction of hip-hop to her world.

Swsh soup interview
Photo provided by Swsh

Audibly excited, she explains: “The second I listened to hip-hop, it was like, ‘Wow, I love music.’ It felt more like art than anything else, more abstract and different. Everything else I had listened to before that were just straight-up bands. I’m glad I didn’t become one of those losers who talks about hip-hop like, ‘There’s no soul in it! Where are the fucking instruments! They’re stealing samples!’ Please.”

Rap prizes expression and innovation as much as any other popular art form. If “hip-hop artist” is a box, it’s the loosest categorical constraint conceivable. As Swsh said, it’s different, and so is she, if only because she wasn’t interested in chasing the comfort we tend to seek through sameness.

“I came out when I was in 8th grade,” she says. “It was fucking weird, I think, for people. I did get backlash at school, but it wasn’t like bullying, people would just treat me different. I just learned recently that other moms talked shit to my mom about it. My mom never told me! I was mad because I would have been like, ‘C’mon mom let’s talk shit back! Who said it? Let’s beat their ass!'”

Close with older kids content in their own skin, Swsh enjoyed high school. Social hierarchy—so palpable for so many—hardly existed for her. “People would look at us and say, ‘Oh cool, I can do that!’ and it’s like, you totally can. We’re all just kicking it.”

With less than 10 public tracks to her name, Swsh emphasized independence early. Her debut EP, Soup, a hodgepodge mix of emotion and sound, released through Stem this week without a label, and only features one collaborator: J.KELR, half of Blended Babies and producer for Anderson .Paak and Chance The Rapper. Management deadlines and general structure can cause stress, but the ability to easily see what her music is earning, or how fans are listening, by simply logging into her Stem dashboard is a thrill.

“I was like, ‘Let’s get this money!’ She says, laughing. “I owe my parents so much money! But no, I like myself and I think I deserve it, so I’m stoked. It’s just taking step.”

Swsh remains unapologetic. It’s something she learned, in part, from Kanye West, an icon she aspires to. The road ahead is full of laudable firsts and tough transitions, but if anything is certain, Swsh will stay the course—for someone so passionate, it’s hard to imagine anything else.

Listen to the songs that inspire Swsh to craft her own soundtrack and dive into her In The Mix playlist, embedded below. Want to read about another special artist? Spend some time with Kelechi, a gifted hip-hop ATLien who talked with Stem after a unique strategy led to massive growth in monthly listeners on Spotify.