Tragedy brought Kayla Thompson, a.k.a. KVtheWriter, back to music. She'd made songs as a high school student at Hazelwood East. In 2007, when Thompson was a sophomore, she put out "Apple Bottoms," which many of her friends used as their ringtone. "I used to make diss songs against my older brother," she says.
But she didn't go into music. Instead, she became a teacher for St. Louis Public Schools. But, in 2016, her older brother, Tyrell "Rell Finesse" Thompson, was killed in the Central West End when someone attempted to rob him.
"I needed something to help with my grief, and so I just started making songs like every day after work," Thompson says. It was not the first time tragedy had struck Thompson's family. Her father was murdered in an attempted robbery in 2010. At the time, Thompson had been at an out-of-state college, and her family had asked her and her brother, who was at the Art Institute of California, to return home. Both she and Tyrell then enrolled at Webster University.
Her whole life changed again when her brother died. She didn't re-sign her teaching contract. Instead, she started fundraising to open the Finesse Center, a tribute to her brother who had been a visual artist. The Finesse Center would have showcased his art and been a co-working space for artists, but fundraising didn't go well.
"I wasn't in the right space to open a business. I know that now," Thompson says. "I was grieving and just really going through it. And I just channeled all of my hurt into business or into movement or into doing something. But eventually it just got to be too much."
In the music studio, things weren't going well either at first. Thompson sent her tracks to her college friend Blair the Machine, a music producer. Every track met the same response: Keep working. Then, one track, "Labor" caught Blair's attention, and they started working together.
"I'd go to work, and then I'd come home, and I'd make music till like two or three in the morning," Thompson recalls. "Then I'd wake up in the morning, and my producer, he was over at my house all the time, he'd still be making beats. I would probably do some [music] before I'd go to work, and I was doing that like all day every day." (After teaching, Thompson went on to work for the Boys and Girls Club of St. Louis and now works for Alive and Well, which teaches schools how to do trauma-informed instruction.)
In April 2019, Thompson released her first project, Love Sucks, a five-track EP about failed relationships and dating misadventures. To celebrate the release, she had a concert at the Monocle.
"It was a stormy Tuesday. I was scared, I was like, 'No one is going to come,'" Thompson recalls. "'It's raining super hard outside.'" She figured she would go through with the concert though, since she'd rehearsed, and the band was all there. When she stepped out on stage, "it was packed," she says. "It was people from wall to wall standing super close together."
Thompson is no stranger to the stage. At Webster, in addition to being president of the Black Student Union, she also hosted open-mic sessions called Spiterature. Thompson would often recite poetry or rap.
Still, putting on a whole concert was something new, and she loved it. "I feel like [the stage] is where I belong," Thompson says. "A lot of people tell me that I'm born to be an artist. I think that comes from my family. I'm used to being in front of a crowd. My grandma used to make me do speeches in her place."
Thompson's grandmother was the late civil rights leader Betty Thompson, who was also the first black councilwoman in University City and was a state representative for St. Louis County. Thompson's uncle, Anthony Thompson, is chairman and CEO of Kwame Building Group, and her aunt, Sonja Branscomb-Thompson, and another uncle, Kwame Thompson, used to own Club Isis, a prominent club in the early 2000s.
As a kid, "I remember campaigning for Al Gore," Thompson says. "Then on the flip side, when my aunt and uncle had the club, me and my cousins would be upstairs asleep because our parents were downstairs working." Thompson often would meet celebrities. She was the envy of all her classmates when she shared pictures of herself with Murphy Lee, Anthony Anderson or other celebrities who came to the club.
With that background, the trajectory of KVtheWriter is less surprising. Three months after Love Sucks, Thompson released The Ratchet Tape, which brought the sex appeal. She performed at three spots around St. Louis, and all of the concerts sold out. Profiles and press followed, and she was then invited as an official artist for Atlanta's A3C (All Three Coasts) Festival and decided to move to Atlanta to stay with an uncle.
She stayed for a year, but when the pandemic hit in 2020, she returned to St. Louis, and her music career stalled.
"That sucked all of the momentum out of me," Thompson says. She won Best Hip Hop Artist-Female at the 2020 SLUM Fest Awards, though, and organized a freestyle contest asking people to put a verse over the beat from her song "Ain't That a Bitch." The entrants had to submit a music video, and Thompson says many artists went all out. She got more than 70 submissions.
In October 2021, she also organized the Sessions, inviting more than 100 artists — producers, rappers, singers and sound engineers — to collaborate on a 12-hour studio session. They made 30 songs, and Thompson is working on a documentary about the experience and trying to get the songs mixed and mastered.
All of this community building has helped Thompson realize "as long as I'm consistent and I put together a great package, I'm going to have people come," Thompson says. "If you build it, they will come."
We will honor KVtheWriter as the recipient of our inaugural ChangeMaker Award for music and literary arts at RFT's Art A'Fair on Thursday, June 23, on Cherokee Street.