How Junglepussy Went From East New York to Lecturing at Yale on the Strength of a Single Called “Cream Team”

“When Yale reached out, I thought it was a hoax, but they really ­followed through. I brought my mom. We wore power suits and looked like the Obamas.” Photo: Bobby Doherty

“Today, we’re making Junglepussy juice,” says Junglepussy, the 24-year-old rapper born Shayna McHayle, once she’s finished introducing me to her mother, whose house we’re in, and her aunt and uncle, who are visiting from Trinidad for Thanksgiving. She’s got two albums, 30,000 Twitter followers — including Erykah Badu, who sends her messages like “Damn I love you girl” — and a gig at the Apollo Theater. But she’s serious about that juice: “I wish everybody would treat themselves like a plant,” she says. “You wouldn’t pour soda on plants.” She turns around and bends her lanky five-foot-ten frame down to the freezer to grab frozen strawberries before moving up to the fridge for carrots and ginger, then walks over to the aloe plant by the window, chops off an arm (“I get sad every time I cut one, but what the fuck you grow ’em for?”), and grabs out of the cupboard a plastic jar customized with a sticker that reads JUNGLEPUSSY JUICE: ONE SIP TO SUCCESS.

About that name, which started as a Twitter handle: She says she’s not trying to shock, just express her love of leopard print (Twitter bio: “Everyone wants to be black so bad I wake up feeling so exclusive!”), and she stuck with it when she started releasing music as an F.I.T. student from East New York (first track: “Cream Team”). But as for what’s racy about it, she thinks most people have things backward. “The word jungle always seems to be the more disturbing word out of Junglepussy,” she says now. “There were the Pussycat Dolls, and there’s a band called Perfect Pussy, but they’re white, so they get the pass. I can’t be Junglepussy and black, but I just push through, especially when my mother says she doesn’t have a problem with it.”

As for the music, she’s joining the likes of comedic rappers like Cam’ron and College Dropout–era Kanye West, making emotional connections through well-timed jokes rapped like elastic, expanding and contracting around each insistent, hilarious punch line. And she may not even be the most distinguished performer in a citywide female rap scene that’s grown more idiosyncratic and collectively accomplished than ever, all without the help of record labels. Leikeli47 from Bed-Stuy’s hyper hot-weather hit “F**k the Summer Up” was handpicked by Jay Z as the first song on his very first Tidal playlist. DonMonique, from Brooklyn, who layers the boom-bap style of the early ’90s over slinky current-day menacing trap beats that got Pitchfork’s attention after just one EP. That’s all before mentioning rapper Dai Burger, who’s one of the few openly queer women in rap, and Nyemiah Supreme, who appears on Oxygen’s Sisterhood of Hip Hop (both from Queens), and the fairy-tale-loving Princess Nokia from Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side.

But which of those women can say they’ve been invited to guest lecture at Yale? This September, Junglepussy gave a talk titled “Self Love. Bodacious Rap,” and last week she took her Junglepussy Juice tour to Columbia University for a healthy-eating workshop. “When Yale reached out, I thought it was a hoax, but they really ­followed through,” she says, pulling the fall-lecture-series program off its place of honor on the fridge. “I brought my mom. We wore power suits and looked like the Obamas.”      

Makeup by Michael Anthony. Styling by Rebecca Ramsey. Top and pants by Versace.

*This article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.