“I’m coming at music from the perspective of a visual artist,” Cataphant said. “Every song, in my mind, has visuals that I attached to it, and I interpret music visually.”
Cataphant — who on Nov. 27 released her second EP, Half Dead — interprets music differently because her art background is different than most artists affiliated with Christian hip hop. She graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is an elementary school art teacher at a Chicago public school.
Cataphant is not a rapper, rather a painter and singer-songwriter whose Christian hip hop-affiliation started when Alert312 featured her on its song “All I See Is Red.” She has since been featured on numerous Humble Beast Records songs — Beautiful Eulogy’s “Take It Easy,” Foreknown’s “The Truth about Flight, Love, and BB Guns” and Alert312’s “Invisible Man,” as well as “Kill the Elephants” for background vocals.
Alert312 didn’t tell her the title of “Kill the Elephants” until right before she recorded because the animal inspired her stage name.
“I just really like elephants,” she said.
Cataphant’s music may be too different for her elementary school students to appreciate, but she is building a platform in Christian hip hop after overcoming years of hardship.
Meet CataphantIf Cataphant’s music sounds more eclectic than most artists who grew up in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, it’s because she grew up with immigrant parents from Columbia and Argentina. Music played a large role in her childhood because everyone in her family sang and played instruments. However, thanks to a “really bogus teacher,” Cataphant said, she abandoned the idea of becoming a singer in middle school.
“I’m like five-feet tall, but I have a lower voice,” Cataphant said, “and [the teacher] was like, ‘In order to be successful, you need to be a soprano.’ I was like, ‘Well, I’ll never be able to sing that high, so forget about this.’”
In high school, she started to pursue a new craft, painting.
“Honestly,” Cataphant said, “I decided to be a visual artist when I was 15 years old just to piss off my parents.”
Cataphant failed. Her parents supported her, but she realized that wasn’t enough to earn a scholarship to private art school.
By 16, she had begun to pour as much time as she could into painting. Her daily routine eventually became spending the majority of her school day in art class, going home at 3 p.m., sleeping for an hour and then waking up and painting until 3 a.m.
As she pursued a painting scholarship, she started to sing more again, thanks to the encouragement of friends — who also pointed her toward someone else who Cataphant said helped her sing more again. These changes came, though, as she endured trials which left her pondering whether or not life was worth living any longer.
“I had a pretty difficult childhood growing up, just with a lot of family issues,” Cataphant said, “so I think one of the biggest questions in my life growing up was about love and purpose and meaning. And I think it all came to head my high school years, which were probably the most tumultuous of my life. My parents went through a divorce. I had a full-fledged eating disorder. I was suicidal. It was incredibly difficult, and I had a lot of moments where I felt that creativity in art was pretty much saving my life.
“But one by one, my group of friends started becoming believers. I was part of a group of very alternative (laughs) … very alternative teenagers that were very intelligent, and so I feel like the way that they explained Christianity, I could slowly start to understand.”
Then one month her senior year, Cataphant started to study different philosophies, including existentialism. She read the popular book Sophie’s World, which explored many of them, including Christianity.
“One of the things that stuck out to me the most was just the fact that people cannot do it on their own,” Cataphant said. “They need to be forgiven. There needs to be a savior. I think that really spoke to me because I was hurting so much; I was hurting so deeply, but I knew that even though I was hurting, I couldn’t stop hurting other people.”
This shifted Cataphant’s thinking. Shortly after, a friend convinced her to attend church.
“Actually, a boy who I had a crush on — the only reason I said yes to going to church was because I had a huge crush on this boy,” she said, “but I went, and as I walked in, all these people were singing to God. I looked at them with all of their freedom, and I was in there with like no freedom whatsoever, and I was like, ‘I really, really want this. I want to experience what that freedom is.’
“Then afterward, this old, Italian man, the pastor in a wheelchair asked to pray for me. He did, and at that moment — not everyone has a moment, but I have a moment — and that was the moment that I knew.”
Cataphant soon found the freedom she witnessed in the worship service.
“My friends sort of helped me work out my anxiety issues because I played guitar. I played banjo. I sang and everything,” she said, “but I was so shy, I wouldn’t let people look at me while I was singing. I think Jesus and my friends helped me get back into music.”
Cataphant’s friends, who were all musicians, raved about her songwriting and encouraged her to do it more often. She did but never saw it becoming more than a hobby.
Her freshman year of college, though — after Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore had awarded her a scholarship — a not-so-really-bogus professor gave her the final push she needed to ultimately pursue music professionally.
“I was in a bind, and I had to finish project for a class,” Cataphant said. “I was like, ‘I got nothing,’ so I [decided], ‘I’m going to write a song because I know I can do this quickly, and it’ll sound okay.’ I recorded it on roommate’s computer, and then I came to class, sat on the big table and I played the song for everyone. And my teacher was blown away. She was like, ‘Wow, this is a really great song. I can tell you really worked hard on it.’ And I did, but it didn’t take that long. After that, I slowly started doing it more.”
Cataphant transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago her sophomore year. At her church there, she met another artist who, in the middle of the night on Facebook, she asked if he wanted to hear her music. He said to send it over.
A week later, Cataphant was in the studio recording a verse for “All I See Is Red” for Esteban Shedd — also known as emcee Boogalu of Alert 312.
Half DeadThrough Alert312, Cataphant connected with another Humble Beast group, Beautiful Eulogy, which featured her on its Satellite Kite song “Take It Easy.” Then when emcee/producer Ohmega Watts needed a singer for his album Pieces of a Dream (because a singer who had recorded for it, CoCo O. of the duo Quadron, got signed to Epic Records and needed removed), Beautiful Eulogy producer Courtland Urbano suggested Cataphant.
Ohmega Watts listened, featuring her on his track “Icarus.” The two worked well together, which Ohmega Watts’s degree in graphic design and knowledge of color theory didn’t hurt when it came to understanding how someone “sees words and feelings as colors and interprets them into a song,” he said.
“I understood how she interpreted things,” said Ohmega Watts, who had spent years in the same groups as Beautiful Eulogy emcee Braille (Return to Sender, Acts 29 and Lightheaded), “but it was still her own way. It was still super unique. Colors do fit moods, for sure, but she had her own color chart system for, ‘This is what purple means, and when I’m describing the song and the feeling, I might say it’s green, purple and blue.’ But it’s not going to be the typical effect of green, purple and blue. It’s like her interpretation of it, so once she broke it down to me I was like, ‘Ah that makes sense.’ I draw parallels between music and visuals all the time.”
With this unique chemistry, it made sense for Ohmega Watts to produce Cataphant’s entire EP, Half Dead, which just so happened to feature Humble Beast artist JGivens.
Like Cataphant’s faith, Half Dead was birthed during difficult circumstances.
“The Half Dead EP was written during one of the darkest years of my life,” she said. “I was grieving the breakdown of several key relationships within my family and community, resurfacing and undealt-with past trauma and overwhelming disillusionment with where life had brought me. I felt the death of certain hopes, dreams and ideals cloud my once bright vision.
“At the onset of this season, I knew that if I let myself be overcome with despair, I would be crippled by it for years to come. I used songwriting as a means to process pain, as well as declare — out of faith — that the emotional death I was experiencing at the time would ultimately lead to life. Using Jesus as my example and anchor, I musically documented what I learned about being healed, redeemed and resurrected.”
Art isn’t the only thing Cataphant created this year. Throughout her music career, she has been intentional about helping female artists who may be under resourced or uneducated about the music business.
In February, she launched Young Lady, a creative brand that offers grants to female Christian artists. Four months later, Young Lady gave away its first $500 grant to New York-based rapper Angie Rose.
“Young Lady is a long overdue voice in Christian hip hop,” Josh Niemyjski, founder of Sphere of Hip Hop and CEO of Illect Recordings, said. “The ladies have been underrepresented for years now, in spite of the talent being there. Instead of complaining about the lack of female representation in Christian hip hop, Catalina’s organization has taken an active role in helping solve some of those problems by empowering women with resources. Those resources in turn have allowed for more opportunity.
“Their voice is needed because many young girls/women don't have a lot of role models that look like them in Christian hip hop. For them, hearing about issues from a woman's perspective carries a lot more impact than for a man’s perspective. A diverse audience deserves a diverse representation of artists.”
Like Cataphant’s music, Young Lady is different. And both have made noise in Christian hip hop this year.
Main photo by Sparrow Vida Photography