Kaila Mullady is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress 52. In 2016, Oxygen's Very Real digital hub is featuring 52 of these outstanding women: that's one woman a week, for 52 weeks. Check out the series here!
You can hear Kaila Mullady's mouth noises long before she actually enters a room. That's because Kaila's mouth never stops: the clicks, bleeps, trills, and hums of her a capella music are basically a perpetual nervous tic for this champion beatboxer. Named a 3-time Beat Rhyme Champion, 2 Time Loop Station Champion, Vice American Champion, and the 2015 Female World Beatbox Champion, Kaila is reinvigorating the art of beatboxing with her unique blend of theater, poetry, and vocal instrumentation.
Those familiar with the history of hip-hop might have a bit more insight into the art of beatboxing, which has since evolved to incorporate other disciplines. Originally used as a replacement for or addition to percussion in a handful of genres, beatboxing has grown into its own full-fledged art form. In Kaila's words: "Beatboxing is using your human instrument. It’s replicating either drum sounds, synths, trumpets, sound effects — kind of anything — and producing it all from the mouth. It’s really fun because it’s very individualized to the person that is doing it."
"Beatboxing started in New York City, it’s one of the 5 elements of hip-hop, but now it’s really a worldwide phenomenon and you can do any genre ever. That’s one of my favorite things about it," she continued, enthusiastically offering examples of different musical genres on the spot. "When you go to international beatbox battles or beatbox events, usually the people from each country bring their culture with them and they bring their influences with them."
Kaila started beatboxing at an early age as a way to entertain herself and escape a turbulent family situation: "I’m the younger sister [in my family] so I had a lot of time to just be by myself and just make up games or create my own fun," she remembered. "My parents got divorced when I was young and there was a lot of animosity and craziness. For me: music was my focus and that’s where I went to ... Anytime things were getting pretty bad I could go into my own world and just leave it all behind."
"I definitely became the ham in the family for that reason: I just wanted everyone to be okay and to be happy. That definitely made me who I am now 'cause I still have that: I just love to make people happy and I love to make people laugh."
Kaila actually never planned on taking her beatboxing seriously. She originally pursued a career in theater and education until she became disenfranchised by the teaching industry. "I was just not happy with how they were telling me to be a teacher. It was very like, 'Don’t really ask questions too much, we have quotas to fill.' It’s not really about connecting with the kid; it’s about getting your results at the end of the day and saving your own ass," she said.
But one day, while Kaila was goofing around with friends, she suddenly found herself seriously injured.
"I jumped off a cliff!" she said.
"It wasn’t like woe is me: [my friends and I] were like, 'Alright let’s do something fun, we’ll jump down the dunes [on Long Island]!' I saw this cliff and I got a little cocky.
"I was falling for so long that I had enough time to think, 'Why am I still in the air? This isn’t good for me to be in the air this long.'"
While the injury may have seemed both silly and scary at the same time, it led Kaila to rethink her priorities. "I think breaking my back was so good," she explained. "It felt like it was meant to happen because when I did that I couldn’t act anymore, I couldn't work anymore, I couldn’t go to school, and I had to really figure out what I wanted to do."
"That was right when I met the beatboxing community. I would go into the city with with my back brace, street performing and carrying my amps around ... I think it’s just one of those things where you just really got to listen to your heart and your gut to tell you what’s right."
Eventually, Kaila found her way into competitive beatboxing. There, she made quite an impression on her foes by using her background in theater to mix poetry and performance into a unique blend called beat rhyming: "I really use the style of beat rhyming to add theatrics ... I’m always trying to create a story or a through line or some sort of concept around the beats."
But Kaila's style isn't entirely well recieved with traditionalists in her medium. "I’m the avant-garde person," she said, "which is why people don’t understand what I’m doing. But audiences understand it and they like it better."
Kaila now finds herself entrenched in a rather male-dominated industry and often takes issues with the gender politics of her art. Although she has taken titles in divisions that separate the women from the men, she doesn't particularly enjoy competing against only other ladies: "I was kinda pissed. Because these women aren't battling with men, some of them aren’t that good. You know what I mean? They're not at the level at which I’m used to competing against. Actually, what happened was I’m so used to male aggression when I’m battling that when I was battling these women I was like, 'What do I do?' It was so strange to not have that like umpf going at me."
"Even if I do win, people say, 'Oh she just won because she’s a girl.'"
And when she competes against men?
"Anytime I beat somebody it’s evidence that girls can battle," she said triumphantly. "[I] still get a lot of flack for it a lot of the time. Even if I do win, people say, 'Oh she just won because she’s a girl.'"
"In the beginning it wasn’t that way, especially in America. With other countries you have to look at their cultures, too: to see a woman on the stage with the guys being just as confident and just as strong is like blasphemy for them. How dare she be this strong! Why is she this strong? Where did this strength come from? I think that it’s a lot more confusion than actual skill level. I think it confuses people when they see me up with guys being just as strong and not being afraid about getting in their faces."
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"The whole thing is like this: battling is strategy. If I know that [my competitor] is going to go really low I’ll do a trumpet or something that’s really high. It’s always about showing what the other person can’t do."
And, strangely enough, Kaila's beatboxing has led her back into education. She uses her art to teach kids with autism about music, math, and language for the program B.E.A.T. NYC. "What we’re really experimenting on is with beatboxing and speech therapy. We think of it as like sneaking vegetables into the fruit smoothie. Because what kid wants to do speech therapy? We go into the classroom with these kids and we make it fun for them. They don’t even realize what we’re doing when we go in there and we really see such amazing results out of it."
Kaila's plans for the future include an eventual full-length album release, which will use a combination of live looping and improvisational techniques. In the mean time, she lives with seven other beatboxers who work together to advance their sounds: "I'm the only lady ... We really did something different by jamming all the time together and sharing all our sounds. We perform all over the world, we perform all the time in New York City, and we’re really just trying to show what beatboxing can be and really show that it’s real music that it’s not just this gimmick. We’re trying to just keep exploring what we can do, exploring out art form and pushing it to the next level."
[Photos: Cassandra Basford]