Hip-hop may seem like the valley of the dolls. There’s a new generation of artists who riff on the same moniker -- Kash Doll, Asian Doll, Dream Doll and Cuban Doll -- but they’re far from manufactured. Kash Doll (born Arkeisha Knight) is sharp, headstrong and savvy. The 27-year-old Detroit native has amassed a strong social following, including 3.4 million followers on Instagram. A shrewd hustler, she's overcome obstacles on her terms.
She leveraged her local buzz from the strip clubs where she once worked and sold her first feature for $2,500 to Detroit rap group Chedda Ave in 2014. “Oh my God! I think I’m a rapper now,” she remembers. In 2017, she went viral with “For Everybody” (25 million views on YouTube) and the next year, she opened up for Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On The Run and Drake’s Summer Sixteen concerts. Fresh off the road with Meek Mill, Kash Doll took a break from making instant ramen at her home in Atlanta to talk to Billboard about her new single “Hustla” and bringing meaning to her music.
You were just touring with Meek Mill. How was that?
It was so crazy, so fun. Meek is such a real guy. Everything was smooth because he doesn’t act like a diva; he acts like a man. He let me have my way, which was perfect. I’m pretty easy to get along. Being a girl, there’s hair and makeup and shoes and all that, but it was amazing. I feel like I wanna be on tour from now on.
This is your biggest tour to date but it feels like you’ve been on the road forever.
You know what I’m saying?! [Laughs.] I’ve been in the game so long, flying around for so long, it may seem like I’ve been on tour. It was so much fun. I had the same set time every day. I had my own dressing room. It was a good vibe. Everyone gave me what I want, so I’m good. That’s all a girl wants. Give me what I want.
Amen. Growing up in Detroit, how did you get into music?
I was [dancing] in the clubs. Once I started rapping, I gave up on that and I wanted people to take me seriously. I dropped all of it. It was crazy because I already had a buzz. I was poppin on Instagram, Facebook. I was popular. I was getting booked in clubs and schools. I was doing all of the Detroit public schools. I was doing little charity events. I was just performing and traveling to like, Flint and Kalamazoo, Pontiac, Grand Rapids. Then I went to Ohio and Milwaukee. I was traveling, driving to these places.
How were you getting these gigs?
I was doing my own bookings. I had my own email and people would email me. I would act like I was the “manager.” I would travel by myself. They’d send someone to pick me up, take me to the venue, take me to the hotel. I was taking chances, girl! By the grace of God, nothing ever happened to me. I always got back in one piece. Nobody every tried to rob me. Nothing crazy happened to me.
Thank God. There’s a lot of weirdos in this world.
Okay?! And especially when you’re handling money as a nice-looking woman, you never know what could happen. I just thank God. I think that was my [late] dad with me the whole time. In 2017, I dropped “For Everybody” and was doing 70 shows in nine months. I was doing three shows in a day. It was crazy. I was booked everywhere.
Where did you get this DIY mentality? You lost your father as a kid. Were you always resourceful and independent?
I’m the oldest of six so I’m like a second mom. My mom had two jobs to take care of us. She was barely home. I would get out of school and wait for my brothers and sisters. We walked home every day. I made sure we ate; I’d make us some chicken, boil us some rice. I always had to be like that. Two of my sisters stay with me now, with their kids and everything. That’s just what I know. I don’t know nothing else.
At a young age, you were working multiple jobs.
Soon as I turned 16, I was punching in. Mr. Alan’s was my first job, then Dot’s clothing store, Little Caesar’s Pizza. Then I worked at Better Made chip factory. Then I worked at Best Buy. Girl, I worked everywhere.
Was that money to help the family?
Yes. Help the family. Making sure my sisters and brothers were good. Making sure their hair was done, they had uniforms, stuff like that. I also took care of myself. I like to be fly. Even back then, I made my own money to buy what I desired.
Did you feel that you had a real childhood or were you basically always a grown woman?
I had a good balance. When I went to school, I had the balance of being a teenager. I got good grades. I used to play basketball. (I’m 5’7”. Back then, I was tall for my age). I was a cheerleader in elementary school. I was in dance group in high school called the Fresh Girls and we used to win trophies. I’ve always been real popular.
After you graduated high school, what were you doing?
I went to Henry Ford Community College for a year. I majored in Business Management. It just wasn’t getting it for me. My passion wasn’t there. I would get the work done. My grades were straight. It just wasn’t for me. All my friends I used to dance with in high school were in the strip club making money. I’m seeing what they’re doing. They’re bringing this crazy money in. They got their own places. Now I’m thinking, I can take care of my sisters and brothers for real. I was probably making $700 with my two jobs put together. They were making $700 an hour! I’m like, “Oh. I can do this, right quick.” Sure enough, I tried it.
How was it?
You always got your pros and your cons. The pros is the money, of course. The cons was I couldn’t deal with talking to these men. It’s a hustle. Even the guy you wouldn’t give a chance to or pay attention to on a regular day, you gotta pay attention to. You here to get the money. Every day I would go into the strip club and take like four shots of Grey Goose. Girl, that’s why now I don’t even drink anymore. I drink water. I’d go into the club. I’d take my shots and hustle my way to be the most paid dancer in Michigan. Period. I started at the Crazy Horse. Then I started getting booked. So now, I’m not a regular girl on the floor talking to the guys. Only way you can talk to me is when I’m dancing on the stage. I got to the point where I was an entertainer. I danced and would leave. I don’t even take my bra off. [Men would say], “Wow, she’s everywhere on social media. She’s poppin'.” I used to make $13,000 at the door. $26,000 on stage. I was in a good position. I moved. My sister moved in with me. My mama paid her bills. We were living.
It sounds like you knew from day one that stripping was a springboard.
Oh yes. I knew what I was going to do. I know what I’m going to do now. It’s just a process of getting to that position. I knew I wasn’t about to be in the club long. I wanted to be Kash Doll but I needed the confidence. I think God puts you through certain things so you can get to the next level. I needed to be in the club to build my confidence. Before, I was a tomboy. Now, I’m a very confident woman. Dancing gave me that confidence to be sexy and tasteful.
Hip-hop -- and pop culture as a whole -- often glorifies strippers but your new song “Hustla” features the darker sides of that life through a character named Kelly.
I’m not glorifying that life. I’m talking about the things that girls had to do, that I’ve seen. And I’ve never seen [those girls] again because of the things that they’ve done. The things that they got paid to do. To this day, I never seen this girl named Mocha because she set a guy up to get robbed, took him home to have sex with him. It’s not what people think. It’s not. You playing with a man like that? He will kill you. I think there’s a big disconnect. That’s why I’m doing the Kelly Chronicles so girls can know. If they do go in there, and it is a stepping stone, the girls will know what do and what not to do.
In your case, were people supportive when you pivoted from dancing to rapping?
Detroit is 50/50. People like high schoolers, college students, people not in that life, liked me. They took to me quick. People in the [strip club] were like, “Nah. I’m not taking her seriously.” But I understand. You don’t respect me? I’ll make you respect me. I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid. I was the kid writing poems, singing Anita Baker with a comb in my hand. I’m very creative. I dream a lot. That’s who I am. I didn’t make this up.
Has stripping helped you better maneuver around men in hip-hop?
I know how to curve people the right way. I’m a woman. I have morals. I don’t have to sleep [with anyone] to do nothing I don’t want to do. So, I know how to not do that -- and still get what I want. You have to know how to do that in a male-dominated industry. You have to be on tour with guys and not be in their tour bus and their bed. I’m not a virgin but I’m not a whore either. I’ll do what I want but I don’t have to give you that. Stripping helped a lot because that’s what I was doing there. You know your worth. Period.
Female rappers have traditionally needed a man’s cosign to make it. Coming up on your own -- and knowing your worth -- there’s a lot of power in that.
I came up on my own. I don’t have to depend on a man. There’s so much power in that.