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KeiyaA: “Things would be better if we rejected the status quo”

The Chicago-born KeiyaA is a singular voice in modern R&B, blending a DIY spirit with an exceptional talent for delicately textured production.

Image for KeiyaA: “Things would be better if we rejected the status quo”

On her debut album Forever, ya girl, Chicago-born KeiyaA set the scene alight with her singular brand of underground R&B. She is currently on her first major tour of Europe. Photo: Neva Wireko

The Chicago-born KeiyaA is a singular voice in modern R&B, blending a DIY spirit with an exceptional talent for delicately textured production. We caught up with her ahead of her upcoming show at Oyoun on Wednesday, November 24.

You famously made most of your debut album all by yourself. What did that experience teach you as an artist?

It was great. It really taught me how to trust myself and be confident in my ideas. I think one of the things that I love about collaborating with others is that you always have a buffer, a tether or another way to collect feedback. But that can also hold you back, because you can get too comfortable.

Tethering my head is like second guessing why it is the way it is, so having that freedom to just do whatever I want and take risks and write more vulnerably, openly and honestly was awesome and necessary for me to reach that level.

You’ve said that live performance heavily inspired the album. How?

In a way, I come from a jazz understanding of music creation, and a lot of that is through live music being recorded or tunes being played in a live context with other musicians. And so a lot of the way that I wrote was me making beats at home or composing music at home. I would then perform it live, improvise and create melodies and words as I’m playing shows. So, live performances, and specifically improvisation in a live setting, has definitely informed a lot of the way I wrote songs, especially tracks like ‘Heavenly’. That was one that I think was completely idealised in a live setting.

Is there an element of songwriting that comes to you more easily than others?

I think melody-writing definitely comes the easiest to me, because it’s probably what I did the most being a sax player. What I’m most interested in understanding is harmony-writing, mainly from the perspective of a piano player or just someone composing a tune from the ground up. I’m really, really interested in furthering my understanding of not only jazz harmony, but all different types of musical harmony.

I look at jazz music or Black American music as the building blocks for a lot of our music. I hesitate on using the word ‘master’ because of that relationship with ownership and slavery, and I don’t like the word master being used as like the ultimate level of achievement, but I do want some achievement. Lyric-writing is also something that I think comes naturally to me. I studied poetry and was interested in creative writing from a very young age, but I don’t necessarily have a lot of writing study. I’m just flexing that muscle too.

Improvisation in a live setting has definitely informed a lot of the way I wrote songs.

Do you find self-education to be a liberating force in your music?

I think self-education is a good thing, but also not really a great thing. You know, there are essential things that you miss out on through self-study. Self-study is very liberating, because I feel like I can have a thought and it might not necessarily fit in someone’s lesson plan or syllabus, and I have the autonomy and the wherewithal to study that. But if I really think about that, even when I was under directed study, if I thought about something else I wanted to study, I could do it.

Education, in most things, is tainted by so many life biases, based on who someone has access to and who’s delivering the information. I think I’m somebody that, on paper, is not supposed to have access to a lot of things, including my own culture and my own people’s art in practice, especially now, because it’s deemed as viable and as important and as worthy by people outside myself who control that. It’s important for me to try to take what I know and pass it on to people.

Your music manages to feel both familiar and underground at the same time. How do you manage that?

I think being underground is what makes it so special. Maybe the world would be a better place in general if we all subscribed to rejecting the status quo and preserving things about our culture that are more important than what is sellable in our own life and what is trendy. I definitely think that I’m in my own genre, but my work is informed by things that are very popular.

Like, I consider Brandy to be a really experimental avant-garde artist who’s been producing sounds that have challenged the status quo since the 1990s, and she’s a big pop artist. Playing her music is not always regarded as such, even though it is that. In a way, I feel like I’m following the tradition of a lot of Black pop, composer, songwriter folks. But yeah, it is different, I have to acknowledge that. I love that because it means a lot to me to be able to have my own voice and create my own world.

Much of the music you have released has had themes of healing and desire. Have you felt those desires changing as you move through the healing process?

It’s a mixed bag. I definitely think I have healed in ways. I sing a lot about loneliness and my past, and my perception about certain aspects of loneliness have changed externally, and now I’m looking at myself more. I do think I have healed in some ways and some new scars have surfaced as a result. But I definitely have grown up a lot since that record. And I think my perspective on life is a lot more nuanced now than before, and I’m excited to explore those themes moving forward, but you’re going to have to hear it in the music. There are too many things to surmise in one statement, that’s for sure.

KeiyaA will perform on Wednesday, November 24, 20:00, at Oyoun Kultur NeuDenken. Tickets here