Team Open

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Kellee Maize

This rapper built a powerful community around her free music.

As an independent rapper, Kellee Maize was skeptical about giving her music away for free. Now, under a Creative Commons BY license, she has millions of downloads of her five albums, a Toyota Hybrid sponsorship deal, press coverage in the likes of XXL Magazine, and a Bonnaroo Music Festival performance under her belt.

The CC license indicates that Kellee wants others to use and remix her music, without having to ask her for permission. As a result, she gains new fans who use and buy her songs and attend her shows. “I don’t trust the music industry in general. I don’t think it values music or the artist. CC is one of the many ways we did things differently. I highly recommend it.”

Listen to Kellee Maize’s “Google Female Rapper,” and you hear her rap about transformation and community in such rapid precision that it takes you aback. And if you literally Google “female rapper,” Kellee is first on the list.

Kellee Maize is an independent musician out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who raps about spirituality, feminism, and social and political issues. Under a Creative Commons Attribution (BY) license, she shares all of her music freely to raise awareness and help others live a life of positivity and collaboration.

Kellee first learned of CC after her business partner Joey Rahimi suggested submitting her music through sites like Jamendo and Frostwire, which require a CC license. The decision wasn’t one Kellee took lightly.

“When Joey first suggested it, I wasn’t uncomfortable about potentially losing money, but I feared devaluing art. Art is incredibly valuable,” says Kellee. “It’s a catalyzing medium to evolve consciousness. I realized then that my music has more value if I can get it to more people. It was a risk because we could have been wrong. Maybe it wouldn’t pay off. People could get used to having things for free, and not support us… but it worked.”

“A lot of artists will ask themselves,” adds Joey, “‘Am I forgoing $100,000 by offering my music for free?’ And if you have 100,000 downloads, it’s an arguable possibility. The big reason we took the approach was that the more people we can get our music in the hands of, the better we’ll be. With more hands, we can do more things.”

There are 13,000+ videos on YouTube that use and credit Kellee’s music — a number that goes up daily. The Creative Commons license on her videos tells people that Kellee wants others to use and remix her music, without having to expressly ask her for permission. As a result, every day, Kellee gains new fans who buy her songs, buy her albums, and attend her shows. With a total of five albums for free under a CC license, her albums have been downloaded millions of times.

“CC has definitely been a successful option for us,” says Kellee. “I’ve had over ten million listens of my albums. That is powerful.” It’s allowed Kellee to do music full-time, through multiple income streams including shows, licensing, mp3 sales, and sponsorships. She’s reached #1 on sites like Amazon, Jamendo, and Free Music Archive. Kellee also came in #2 behind Wiz Khalifa as Pittsburgh’s “Top 3 Best Hip-Hop Performers” according to Pittsburgh City Paper, and has been featured in major national media, including hip-hop staple XXL Magazine, MTV, and Huffington Post.

In 2014, Kellee also signed a three-year endorsement deal with Toyota Hybrid as a spokeswoman for its national ad campaigns with three commercials currently airing — a rare feat for an unsigned, independent artist. “Aside from the content in my music, they chose to work with me because I have millions of downloads.”

This type of support affords Kellee incredible opportunities. In the summer of 2011, she was voted by fans to perform at the Bonnaroo Music Festival, joining artists like Eminem and Lil Wayne as one of seven hip-hop acts. The contest is a shining example of her fans’ dedication. By giving freely and generously, her supporters are often more than happy to help her in return. “I’m very communicative with our fans and try to respond to them and create relationships. If we ask people to share things, we often see a return and that’s great.”

Kellee has reached a level of success that many musicians hope to achieve, and in giving back, Kellee is teaching other musicians how to make it, demonstrating how generosity and a do-it-yourself mentality can benefit artists.

“A lot of artists don’t understand that 95% of artists signed to a label fail,” explains Kellee. “I don’t trust the music industry in general. I don’t think it values music or the artist. When you think about artists like TLC with no money, it’s heartbreaking. There has to be another avenue.”

“CC is one of the many ways we did things differently. I highly recommend it. I was skeptical of it, and I totally see the value now. It’s not for everyone, but it’s also not like you’re signing a record deal where your next three albums are owed to someone. And it doesn’t prevent you from doing traditional things like putting your work on iTunes.”

In the same way music has shaped Kellee and helped her thrive amidst challenging life experiences, she hopes freely sharing her music will help her fans feel less alone and transform the world into one that is socially and spiritually conscious. It’s an ideal she also views at the heart of hip-hop as a powerful social and political agent of change.

“Hip-hop is and was born out of a need for a voice and for sharing, both as a social advocacy tool, and it just lets you relax, have fun, and forget what we’re facing everyday. Hip-hop was free in the beginning, and there are still free mixtapes every single day from the biggest artists in the world. It’s part of the culture. It makes a lot of sense for hip-hop artists to look into CC — it holds a foundational interest in sharing ideas, in music, and in power,” says Kellee.

Whereas major labels may not be keen to sign artists with Kelle’s style of conscious rap, Kellee is optimistic that sharing and collaboration will help close that chasm — even if it means challenging established norms in the industry.

“Mainstream music is not conscious content. So we’re sharing how we’re doing it so other conscious artists, hopefully other women, can learn about it and we can pass along the torch to next generation of conscious art. In hip-hop women are pitted against each other. It’s not about collaboration or unity, and those things are important for music to grow.”

“Opening up to these ideas will be challenging,” continues Kellee, “but when we look at fields that are built on sharing like science, things advance, and technology advances, because sharing advances.”

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Creative Commons License

Kellee Maize (Team Open) was written by Meryl Mohan for Creative Commons. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The illustration of Kellee Maize was created by Luke Surl. To the extent possible under the law, Luke Surl has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights under the CC0 Public Domain Declaration.