Interview by Kazeem Kuteyi, Photography by Nefertiti Hernandez
If you follow Erika Ramirez on twitter, you’ll be quick to realize that she has a particular perspective and unapologetic type of wit around a topic we all talk and think about all day and that is love. However, this is not something she’s known for professionally. In the past ten years since moving from California to New York, she’s shared her passion for music for various publications. She cut her teeth at Vibe during its glory years and contributed to magazines like Rolling Stone and Vogue . Her role at Billboard.com as a senior editior was a career defining moment. But in the age of clickbait, her passion for writing about Hip-Hop culture waned. She needed change. And the need for that change birthed ILY. ILY is a magazine about all things love and it was created as need to share her perspective and other people’s views on love. Every month, writers, illustrators, poets and all creative types contribute to the magazine’s monthly theme. There are long reads on relationships gone sour, pieces that share the joys of love and cover stories with familiar faces.
How did you fall into writing?
When I was in high school, I wanted to be a Veterinarian. I took one of those Animal Physiology courses and we had to open up a frog. I was not into it. The instructor said, “this is what you have to do if you want to be a Veterinarian.” She also scolded me for saying my vowels in Spanish, which I still do from time to time. I went to my guidance counselor and told her I didn’t want to do this. She said, “Well, what do you like?” I like music and I like to write, I told her. She tells me, “Why don’t you consider writing about music?” and it blew my mind. [Laughs] It’s that simple? Sometimes it is though. I think that’s why I ask people, “what do you like?” That’s how it should work. You should be pursuing what you like.
When I went to community college in Stockton, California, I wrote hip-hop and R&B album reviews and show reviews for the school newspaper. At the same time, I was working at GAP Outlet. I worked there for four years. I went through this phase where I felt out of place. I’d think to myself, I do not want to be here. This is not what I should be doing. I want to be free. I applied for an unpaid internship at VIBE in 2006 and said I’d be available 24/7⏤ I mean, I did not know how internships worked. Thankfully, they hired me. I remember I told my boss at GAP at the time that I was going and she doubted me. She didn’t think I’d leave. People are so used to seeing you in a certain position, it’s impossible for them to think of your anywhere else, literally and metaphorically. They don’t want to. But, that’s fuel. That made me want to go even more.
I packed two bags and I moved. I stayed at a friend of a friend’s. Two weeks later, I found an apartment in West Harlem and thankfully, because of my Dad, I was able to stay afloat for three months while I was at VIBE. I think he sold his ‘67 Camaro to pay my rent.
Yeah. He didn’t tell me, but I knew. I can’t leave this world until I find a ’67 Camaro for my dad.
I just focused on my internship. I remember I worked and transcribed on the weekends, and it was dope to me because I was learning from great writers, like Jon Caramanica. Towards the end of my internship, Danyel Smith, who was the Editor-In-Chief at VIBE at the time, asked if I was interested in an assistant position in the photo department. There weren’t any writing positions open. I wasn’t familiar with photography as much as writing, but they she had faith in me. They reassured me I’d learn. Of course, I accepted. How do you say no to a job at VIBE? I grew up reading VIBE. I soon transitioned to Associate Photo Editor.
How do you survive in this city especially coming from a small city in California? I have heard that if you can survive in New York, you can survive anywhere⏤ or perhaps my question is, how do you overcome any fear you might have?
It’s almost a do or die instinct. You’ll be scared, but you have to find strength in that fear. You have to turn that fear into fuel. I was scared as hell; It was my first time leaving the state, besides visiting family in Mexico. It was my first time in a new state, my first time moving, and I didn’t have friends or family. But, it wasn’t even a choice or a decision. I had to move to New York City, and become who I wanted to become. I couldn’t become who I wanted to become in Tracy, California. Tracy raised me, but New York City molded me. You have to have faith in yourself, and have faith in fate. That’s also how I see love; it has to be meant to be and you have to believe in it as well. When I got that internship, there was no room for no.” If I do not pursue what I’m interested in or what I’m passionate about, I will feel as if something’s missing. I won’t be fulfilled. I always want more–It’s a blessing and a curse, to be insatiable creatively. I’m ready to jump onto the next dream. It’s always “what am I going to do next?” or “what is the next project?”
Why did you leave Billboard?
From the outside looking in, that move may look crazy. But people focus on the name of a company, of the brand, and not the individual. That individual, those group of individuals, make a company.
As for Billboard, I think I reached my ceiling. I was not given the resources to do more, not necessarily because they didn’t believe in me, because my immediate team surely did. I think resources were being re-directed elsewhere, for whatever reason. I then couldn’t grow. I felt discouraged to brainstorm, and to dream, because I knew there was a strong possibility I couldn’t execute the ideas I’d draw up.
I also felt as if my role was regressing. Most of my time was spent writing about beefs, deaths, or arrests. I felt as if I was I adding to the controversy, and the tiring, negative news cycle. It’s disheartening. Thankfully, I’d balance news stories with feature stories and video series, but when a Drake and Meek Mill beef timeline gets more clicks than a documentary of the late Selena…it’s disheartening. It’s the news cycle, though. There’s interest in negativity, the petty, the evil…whether to distance yourself from it, know more about it, or support it.
I was not fulfilled with being solely a rap writer, either. I’m more than that. Everyone has more than one interest, and they’re entitled to follow everyone of those interests if that makes them happy. I’m out here trying to make a magazine about love, and write about rap. You might be a photographer, but who says you can’t do something else that you’re passionate about.
I was thinking perhaps rap isn’t the genre it used to be. Perhaps the subject matter and the whole debate of “everything sounds the same” doesn’t excite you anymore.
I hate the debate of whether something is rap or is not rap. The whole thing of whether Young Thug is not rap and Kendrick is rap⏤ that’s so ridiculous to me. Thug is rap. You just don’t like his music, and that’s okay. But, be honest about how you feel. If that’s not your style, that’s okay, but don’t discredit someone’s career and talent.
I remember years ago you tweeted that you were going to make a magazine about love and to finally see that thought manifest is really cool to me. What inspired that idea?
Yeah, I think it’s been two years since the idea came to me. Someone said it’s an obsession, and maybe it is, but love is the one thing, besides music, that I don’t ever want to stop learning about. Love intrigues me. I had the emotions of a grown up since I was 12. I was so ridiculous. I still am. I’d write poems about love and my mom would read them, and be like, “What were you going through?!” I wrote as if I was madly in love, or mad for love, when in reality I simply had a crush on my next door neighbor. It wasn’t that deep, but at the same time it was. It was then.
“Everyone has more than one interest, and they’re entitled to follow everyone of those interests if that makes them happy. I’m out here trying to make a magazine about love, and write about rap.”
Haha, that is funny.
Yeah. I always learn something new about love. My meaning of love is different from yours. My meaning of love will change with every experience, relationship, or person I’m with or am not with, so there will always be something new to explore.
I’m an over thinker, and ILY is like my baby, it’s my heart, so I took my time. Maybe too much time… It took me eight months to choose a name. I feel sorry for my friends that had to put up with my late night text messages about the name, alone. I think I went with Bound at some point because I was listening to too much Kanye and then I was going to go with Superpower because I was listening to Beyonce. I’m ridiculous.
I took time to think about how I wanted to build it and what and who I wanted to feature; ILY, even as an idea, became kind of my savior. At the latter end of my tenure at Billboard, I’d find myself unfulfilled and lost. But I’d be excited to go home and work on ILY. Even thinking about ILY was exciting; still is. I remember my best friend Steven tell me, “You have treat you 5-9 as you treat you 9-5; with as much passion and interest.”
I saw your tweet the other day and you said ILY could be a Life of Pablo kind of thing.
Who says you cannot change the design or aesthetic of something online? There is a reason why you update stuff all the time so who says you cannot update the way something looks? You are not the same person you were yesterday. If what your platform represents is continually changing, why can’t the platform change as well?
So money does not motivate you I guess ?
I wish it did; I’d probably be more financially successful than I am right now. It is a fight. If you don’t have the money, you may have to depend on others or work side jobs you aren’t entirely passionate about. But, you have to keep in mind your end goal. What’s your end goal? That’s what you’re doing it for.
So your creativity serves a higher purpose than just money?
Yeah. Sometimes I write things, and perhaps no one is going to read it, but I just have to let it out. I think the first emotional piece I wrote for Billboard was for Drake’s album Nothing Was The Same. It was about the track “Too Much.” I instantly thought of my older brother. It was the verse about his family, how things were going backwards, and he wasn’t talking to them as much. Me and my older brother were always close. When I moved to New York, we grew distant because of the distance. I think I underestimated how important it is to be physically present, perhaps because I’m such a person of words. He’d update me on his life, but I didn’t feel as if I really knew what was going on. He’s my brother, but he also partially raised me, so that song really struck a chord. I wrote about that and I wrote about how Drake’s kryptonite is also his best artistic quality, being emotional. I remember people reaching out and saying that they related to what I wrote. I was like, “Oh, you read it?” As long one person connects to what I wrote, that’s all that really matters. That’s what I want to do with ILY. I want to feature many people’s voices so then others don’t feel alone in what or how they feel.
Would you say you are content?
I’m happy. But, I want to be happier. I want to stay happier.
Do you have a strategy towards being happier or are you sort of living in the moment?
I turned 30 last September. People say when you turn 29 or 30, things begin to shift. It’s true. Things that mattered, matter more. Things that do not matter, you give no fucks about. The next step for me is to see what I want to do next, and how to nourish and fine-tune what I’m doing now.
Someone asked me if I was moving to L.A. to be happy… For me, happiness is a state of mind. You choose to be happy. I remember listening to podcast that Pharrell was featured on, and he spoke on choosing to be happy. If something happens and it ruins your mood, you choose how long you’ll allow it to ruin your mood. The location doesn’t matter. Choose to fuck with happiness.