Interviews

Interview: Yahzarah

by Kil

Everybody who knows me knows that I’ve been a music critic way before I ever did radio, started writing for Couch Sessions or blogging. See, I live music, and while others use it as a backdrop to their life, music is my life. I was asked last week, what’s my favorite kind of music and since the bulk of the music I produce is hip hop, cats assume that’s all I listen to and nothing could be further from the truth. Personally, my favorite kind of music is anything that I can feel. So, if that’s hip hop, cool. If it’s soul, cool. If it’s rock, gospel, alternative, etc. cool. All I care about is that I can feel what you’re saying. And if you want to start talking about artists who you can feel, then you have to talk about DC’s first lady Yahzarah.

Yahzarah has every possible attribute that you would want from a singer. A beautiful voice, a sick stage show, an ill writing game, that emotion that makes you hang on every word she sings and last but not least, someone who can actually sing. And me personally, I love a singer who pours their heart and soul into their music. That after listening to a song, you feel like you actually know the singer. And Yahzarah pours so much of herself into her music, that there’s really never a need for an interview because the majority of the answers you’d be looking for can be found right there in her music. So instead of doing an interview with Yahzarah, I decided to just have a conversation with her. And during this conversation, we chop it up about everything from her pregnancy (yup, ya’ll heard right, she’s pregnant), industry rules #4,080-#4,557 to why DC has such a deep musical history and why she gets so much love from Chocolate City. So get ready to do some ear hustling ya’ll…and shout outs to Soulcial Grind Media for making this happen!

Congratulations on the pregnancy! How many months are you?

I’m 5 ½ months now…actually 5 months and 21 weeks.

Since this is your first pregnancy, how does it feel?

I feel like a piece of ripe fruit on a vine. I never felt more beautiful, more creative. I mean it’s a cliché to say I feel more creative and so in touch but I do. It took me a while at first because I was in denial. I did not plan this pregnancy. And then one day I sprouted and I realized this baby is really real. And he moves and I know I’m having a boy, Miles Walter Song and it’s the first man child on my mother’s side since 1929. It’s a huge blessing. I hadn’t really seen myself being a mother because I was so engaged in my career and I still am and I thought it would be years before this would happen, but I’m really glad God choose me.

Now how does being pregnant affect your grind in this industry?

Well, it hasn’t thus far and I’m really fortunate that I have some really great resources. My mother is retired, my mother in law is retired. I have a really great support system. My husband and I are no longer together but we are still a family. He’ll be a great dad and I’ll be a great mom and we’re committed to that. And everybody wants me to keep doing what I’m doing. In fact a month after I have my baby I’m back on the road. I’m working on a new record right now. This summer I have an EP coming out called “Love’s On Life Support” and tentatively the new record is called “The River” because I feel like I’ve been baptized and I’m coming out anew.

Now you’re one of fourteen kids, do you want a big family?

I think at one time when I was younger…backdrop I’m a big church girl so at some point in my life I wanted 7 children, the Lord rested on the 7th day. I’m gonna have 7 children, my first baby will be born on the Sabbath day of July 7th. (laughter) Now I just want as many children that I can take care of and be a good parent to. Miles is my priority right now and if the Lord wills for me to be in a relationship after this one that would yield for me to have another child, maybe I would be open to that. I would love to have a little girl, but I’ll take whatever God gives me. But first I have to meet a new person and I’m not even remotely interested in carrying on a brand new relationship.

I’ve heard horror stories of female actresses and singers coming out and saying they’re pregnant, and then having problems booking shows and being casted in roles. Have you come across any obstacles like that since you’ve announced you’re expecting?

It hasn’t been my story but I’ve heard of people talking about that being theirs. And I sympathize with it. And I think it’s what keeps a lot of my colleagues from coming out and saying that they’re pregnant. I’ve had some people tell me I’m so brave. I don’t think what I’m doing is something so new. I heard a story of Millie Jackson saying she didn’t tell the label she was pregnant until she walked in with the kid so she could continue working! And yes, there’s a grave double standard. The idea that because I’m pregnant that I can’t do my job or perform or be any less attractive, sexual, sensual, beautiful is a crock of bullshit to me. I’m doing all of those things very well.

It’s crazy because in 2008 when WNBA superstar Candace Parker announced she was pregnant, it was like the WNBA was mad at her for wanting to start a family because they knew she would have to sit out the following season. How do you feel about the double standard that women are faced with when wanting to start a family?

It’s my God given right to pro create if see fit. People make love, babies happen. And we ought to be happy to see them. Especially in a day and age when so many people…you know, the idea of family and the concept of that is dying every day. And we need to celebrate the women who decide they want to do that. It’s a brave task. I used to always say to my friends “oh girl, I don’t know how you do that” (laughter) and now that I’m embarking on the same thing and I’m seeing it takes a certain amount of bravery to become a parent. And particularly to become a mother because the world looks at you like…I know there are people in the world that are going to look at me like I’m crazy because I’m leaving my son or because my son is coming with me on the road, he’s going to have a lot of stamps on his passport. And there are some people who are going to say that I’m a hero to them for that and there will be others that will judge my work. But if I was a man, no one would have anything to say about that. The product of a man’s procreation never has to be seen by the public but a woman’s pregnancy and process is seen by the world.

The other day I was watching a special on Dwayne Wade and they were talking about how his mother was on drugs and had been to jail twice. And while she was in jail, Dwayne wrote her a letter saying she was his hero. Now in my opinion for the average man, if that was his Dad who was on drugs and had been in and out of jail his whole life, he would’ve written him off, but sons seem to LOVE their mothers unconditionally! Where do you think that “mother/son” bond comes from?

I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to experiencing that. Mother’s bring us into this world, they sustain us at their breast, their job is to nurture and their primary goal is to love and shape. A man teaches a young man how to be a man, the tough angles of life. Maybe that’s where the whole loving movement comes from, son’s cry with their mothers early. I do hope that my son feels the ease with me that I felt with my mother. I’m actually a mama’s girl. You know the way most daughter’s would be a daddy’s girl, my mother raised me and I love her. I just want to be a mother my son can be proud of and if that results in me being his hero, awesome. But I was just saying to someone else, that I just want to make my son a formative member of society who understands that it’s important to work hard and sees a mother who works hard and who want to be his best. Maybe a track running scientist who plays the piano.

You’ve made your displeasure with the music industry publically known. As a black woman how do you navigate through this industry?

I’ve had a lot of lessons I’ve had to learn. I’ve never been the type who is…one thing for me is I highly recommend that young ladies don’t for a lack of better term and I hate it but that you don’t shit where you sleep. This is a business and there is a double standard for your morality and your personal and physical compass to be clean in this industry. It’s the difference between your success or your lack of it. I like that most of the guys in this business see me as little sis. I like that. It doesn’t mean I’m not a girl they would date, it just means that they know I don’t do that where I work. And this industry is my workspace, and I’d rather have a bunch of big brothers and uncles then a whole bunch of lovers. Cause it makes it hard when you walk in a studio and I’ve known sisters who walk in someplace and they’ve dated half the room. And it’s hard for them no matter how talented they are to maintain the respect that’s necessary. And also because I’m a business woman and there’s a certain amount of authority I have to create for myself because I’m a conglomerate, I am my own business, I don’t need that in the way. I celebrate my sensuality through my dress and my clothing so I need to be business all the time so I’m not taken for granted because of that.

Now most women feel like they have to do certain things to be a part of the “casting couch” to get their foot in the door. Was it your upbringing that prepared you to not become a part of that revolving door?

Definitely, my upbringing. When I was growing up I never woke up and there was a man cooking eggs in my mom’s robe in the kitchen. My mother for me was Mother Teressa, she might have been getting down but I didn’t know anything about it and I carry that same level of personal respect for myself into my business place. For me I come from a long line of women, I am my mother’s only daughter, my mother is her mother’s only daughter and so on and so forth. Even my uncle, was my grandmother’s brother had all girls. Which is why Miles is a big deal. But what I’ve learned by the strong women in my life is that, there’s a code of moral ethics. It doesn’t mean you’re perfect, it doesn’t mean that if you want to make love, you make love. If you want to do that you do that. (laughter) For me personally, so much of my personal life is already written out in my music that I don’t need to spread that around in my business place. People who do business with me know that I am all business. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand the dynamics of the need for a masculine voice. I like having male management. Because they can have conversations that keep people on business. I’ve had female management and they’ve gone through hell because people don’t want to pay attention to the fact that they’re managing me and want to see if they can get them in the bed. I like having a male manager, he does a great job. His name is Hawk Burns, he also managers Bilal Oliver. I consider him a big brother and a boss but he knows that this is my life. And if someone has a problem I always tell him to tell them to call me. I will relay to them that I told you that this is how my business is run. Not a problem.

If you could change one thing about the music business, what would it be?

And this is not from a gender specific place at all where I’m coming from. I would change the lack of musical diversity. And mainstream radio and television, etc. I believe that there are a whole bunch of really great relevant stories that are told by a lot of different people who look a lot of different ways and I believe particularly among us people of color that we have regimented what we sing and what we do and what we have to say by out ethnicity. And we are limiting ourselves. Rock music belongs to us, jazz is a child of our struggle, gospel belongs to us, bluegrass belongs to us. We tell many great stories that are marketable and could make a whole bunch of money but we’re segmented and regulated to being independent artists because some of the people who look just like us don’t believe in our ability to make people great amount of money telling really great stories. The reality is radio and television have decided to go in this particular direction, but now you have internet and print and folks are diggin’ in the crates to find what it is that they want. Artists are putting out 3 song EP’s and are getting signed by major artist. And ironically major artist have been stealing from independent artists forever. It’s nothing to see your great independent idea, all of a sudden marketed and maintained by a major artist. The difference is now as labels are going under and as the pyridine shifts to more of an independent model, that people are doing what they want to and the fans have decided. When I first heard about blogs I was like what’s this blog thing? Is this really going to be real? Is this really going to be powerful?” And we are sitting right here because of a blog and the power of that blog. That means the voice of the people are speaking saying I just want to hear and enjoy something different and they’re going to get it.

You, Raheem DeVaughn, Wale and Tabi Boney are looked at as DC’s Mt. Rushmore when it comes to current music scene. And most artist don’t get shown a lot of love from their hometown but you’re the exact opposite. DC shows you nothing but love. Why do you think that is?

Well for me I can say that my career started in North Carolina and I never make bones or lie about that. I went to North Carolina Central University, I performed in juke joints out there and I started my own coffee house. And when I put out my first record “Hear Me” it was a class project and when I put it out people rallied behind me because they loved what I was doing and they jumped behind my life and they brought 6 or 7 copies of that record and sent it to their friends and the next thing I know I’m in Essence, etc. and it snowballs and then my hometown was like “oh, hold up this girl’s down here doing some things and she’s from here!” And then when I put out “Blackstar” that’s when the hometown love started to surface. And I really don’t care how long it took them, I’m just glad that they’re here with me. And when DC loves you…DC LOVES you and they support you. And I feel that love.

I’m now selling out shows in my hometown and that’s a blessing. It’s crazy, I did two shows at Blue’s Alley New Year’s Day and I was like “it’s New Year’s Day, who’s going to come out New Year’s Day, hung over, who’s going to come see me?” We sold out both shows and turned away 84 people at Blue’s Alley! But it was just telling, and I probably gave two of the very best shows of my career. And it’s been like that consistently and that’s the love of your hometown. I see repeat fans and they’re saying not only are we supporting you because we love your music but because you’re someone just like us, who’s doing something great without compromising themselves. And Raheem to me is a legend, simply because of the excellence and the tenacity that he showed. His label wasn’t all of a sudden behind him. If you tell that dude to come to your beauty salon and serenade all the chicks under the dryers, Raheem is gonna do that! And he’ll stay there and sit at the table and sign mixtapes and CD’s all night until the last girl left with her rollers in. And I learned from his hustle and Eric Roberson’s .Once I left my last label, that was back in the old days when you had a label that invested x amount of dollars in you and the limo came to pick you up from the airport and drove you home. And you went into a big huge studio, with the big glass and the label’s sitting around and everybody’s nodding their head and that is over. No one’s going to walk into your show and say “we’re going to sign you” those type of deals don’t happen anymore, except every blue moon. And so I had to reassess my idea of success and what my career’s model is gonna be made of and I looked towards people like Raheem and Eric Roberson and Suzanne Vega who many of us in the independent music business call the mother of the independent music business. She’s not a soul artist but she’s an alternative artist who said I’m not going to be a slave to these labels, I’m going to do it my way. And she did. The Dave Matthews Band is a model to me.

There are people who blazed a trail long before. Sam Cooke, James Brown, Tuff Gong. These are people who showed me upon reflection that I could do this on my own. Gordon Parks, a man who was defined by more than just where he came from. You might have a place where you started but I’m responsible for where I end up. So what I’m not on a label. I’m glad I was able to at least leave and choose to leave, instead of being stuck and not able to determine my own future. And that doesn’t mean that if a great label gave me the opportunity to make music the way I want to make music that I wouldn’t roll. Cause it’s a hard way to hoe being an independent artist and everything you’re doing, making money and funneling it back into something. Ask how many of us have retirement plans and we’ll probably say none of us but we wouldn’t do it any other way.

How would you explain DC’s music scene to someone who isn’t from here?

Chuck Brown, Spur of the Moment, Lissen Band. We are the home of Maiesha and the Hip Huggers, Belladonna. We are home of great musical minds, educated musical professionals. And you become a discerning listener before you can crawl up out the crib. Your parents are taking you to festivals. Stevie Wonder used to do a free festival at Hains Point every year, here in Washington DC. Bohemian Cavers was the catalyst and the breeding ground for Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. Tell me another city, this small who could be responsible for those type of things. We grow and nurture talent. And if we don’t like you, chances are no one else is gonna like you elsewhere. Dc is one of the few places I can come home and turn on PBS and there’s a black woman singing “La Boheme.” Where UDC , which is a city run school that has an excellent music department and a competitive jazz band. We are music. Music is in our walk here, in our swagger the way we talk, the way we move. We are beautiful, well rounded, sexy people here in DC and music is the soundtrack to our lives. Go Go is just a part of it. That gets the hips moving but our souls are moved by all types of music. There are jersey wearing thugs who know opera here because we make sure that music and art is available and that it’s not something that’s a luxury but a right.

If you could name one singer, who helped shape you into who you are today, who would it be?

I can’t name just one but I can give you five. Tina Turner, Grace Jones, Diana Ross. Diana Ross’ presentation overall, I think she’s really slept on. Her history of whatever affairs she had…she is a casement performer. A huge artist and very deliberate and I’m just as deliberate. It was nothing for Halloweens as a young girl to be asked to be dressed as Tina Turner or Diana Ross. My mother will tell you, that or Smurfette. (laughter) There were only 3 people I was trying to mess around with. I think I gravitated towards them because I guess I’ve always been a little Vegas showgirl. Minnie Ripperton, a woman who’s voice was subtle and beautiful but who was also a mother. Who was able to balance that so beautifully and gracefully. And the last person, and this is a wild card is Mahalia Jackson. Because she demanded that her business be right. She carried that big wad in her bra, and she said “either you got my money, or I ain’t got the time.” And that seems rough, but I can’t do my art and maintain what I choose to do if you want to take advantage of that art. And that doesn’t mean that everything has to be for money, somethings are just to help me and make me feel better and I give that because God has given the gift but as a woman and as a performer it’s very easy to give you the name of bitch when you decide to take care of your business. And Mahalia Jackson is one of those people that we herald, and we love and we reverence but not many people know that she was a very excellent business woman.

I’m going to name you some of my favorite songs that are either yours or that you’ve been featured on and I want you to tell me how the songs came together.

Last to Leave: That’s an interesting story. I was in New York City, and I had an argument with my significant other and it was raining and it was really, really cold. It was a cold, cold, fall day in New York. And the rain was falling, arpeggio. And I was on my way to meet Nate Smith to do a sessions and we were gonna write a song from scratch and I started writing these words because we had this huge argument where I was like, we’ve been together for so long , why on earth would we destroy this thing over trivial stuff? All I need to hear from you is you might be pissed but you need to tell me you are the last person in this relationship who has any plans on leaving here. That’s not on my mind and it shouldn’t be on yours. I’m crying down the streets of New York City and I got to my session I said “Nate I’ve got a song.” And we worked on the drums first together and we worked on the keys so he and I actually co produced that song together. And then my writing partner at the time, Nandi Willis, I let her hear the hook and where I was going with it and she came up with the first verse. “We made a vow to ride this out/so what is there to figure out?” From there we wrote this very personal song about what I was dealing with and it’s ironic that now, I’m in the middle of a divorce. And the person I wrote this for, it shows that maybe sometimes, love may be difficult and it can be hard but we have to encourage ourselves to stay if we can and that’s what’s “Last to Leave” is about.

Starship: Wow. Starship is the very first song I wrote when I decided not to quit the music business and to work on “The Ballad of Purple Saint James.” It was the song God gave me to encourage myself. And to decide that I wasn’t going to have a pity party anymore because I was really wallowing in self pity like “I don’t want no label to take care for nothing or no manager. All my life I had to fight my brothers and my cousin.” (laughter) But God said to me but you’re here. You are here. And Steve McKie gave me this beat CD of all this work that he and Tone Whitfield had been working on and Steve McKie is one of the main producers on Bilal Oliver’s “Airtight’s Revenge” and he’s just good peoples and I met him when I was on the road with Erykah some years back and he gave me this track and the moment I heard it, it took me no more then 15, 10 minutes and I wrote it. The same way with the song “Shadow” I heard that and I immediately wrote my heart into it. But Starship was written in 15 minutes and I knew at that moment that I had released all of the tension of my childhood, and my career and every relationship gone bad into that record. And I think that’s why people are so touched by it because I’m sincerely releasing myself and it just so happens that you guys latched onto it. But really I felt like God gave me that song purely for me.

Sincere: Ironically, originally Nic had given me that track for me to use on “Blackstar” and the label I was with at the time, just did not see the vision. They had one idea of who they wanted me to be and I had another. But I never let go of that track. And Te called me when they were working on “Connected” and he was like “hey I go this song I wanna work on” and it just so happened it was the track that Nic had already given me and I was like “perfect, I already got a verse.” So, I write my verse and Te wrote his and the rest is kinda history. And at the time we were both going through parallel issues in our relationships that put us in a position to be able to write from a very honest place and space and I think again it’s just one of those songs that people connect with because there’s the honest of something that people are really living connected to it.

Come To Me: Come To Me I actually wrote with a good friend of mine named Apple Juice Kid who’s out of North Carolina and I had been contacted about writing songs and doing a score for a movie that was supposed to be an adaptation of Mile Davis’ life. And it never came out unfortunately and Mos Def was suppose to play Miles and we had done all of these songs. And he had done a whole soundtrack of reworked Mile’s songs and I loved “Blue and Green” and I said I really want you to rework “Blue and Green” and I want to do a duet. And Anthony Hamilton and I had been playing around with it but we could never get our schedules to get it together. And I’d always been a fan of Raheem, so I contacted him and I said “I got this song that I ‘ve written and he was such a good sport. He didn’t say “I gotta write one verse, I gotta write a new hook” and if he had I would’ve still been like dope. But he sung it and put his twist on it and the chemistry was there and it’s just a beautiful song about saying that out of everything in the whole wide world, out of everyone I’ve ever met, you are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen before. You remind me of places in the world I’ve yet to ever be. You are every color in any oil painting that the world could ever make. You are the most beautiful dream of love I’ve ever seen and that’s come to me.

What else can we expect from Yahzarah for the rest of 2011?

Just look out for me touring this summer. I’ll be singing to them until my water breaks. (laughter) My next performance is going to be with Anthony David at Ram’s Head on stage and that’s May 12th. But if people want to know what I’m doing, where I’m going and to stay in contact with me, I’m on twitter of course (@yahzarahstjames ) but they can also go to my website which is www.whoisyahzarah.com and they can learn about everything that’s Yahzarah there. I put up pics of fans up there but most importantly they can join my email list so they can stop asking me on twitter when the next show is. (laughter) Because the next show is gonna be blasted to you and I only send one a month because I hate spam. I also want to invite people out and come to my new event in Durham, North Carolina at Beyu called “The Connection” and basically I do songs that build me by my favorite artist and then I invite artist like Chocolate Moore, or Eric Roberson and Bilal Oliver to come and do their set and do the same thing. And it’s backed by Anthony Hamilton’s band and I do it once a month, so it’s always the last Friday of the month at Beyu Café in Durham, North Carolina. I’ll be doing the series all summer. I’m really excited about it because it gives me a chance to build my chops. Last week we did “Jealous Guy”, “This Love that I’m Feeling”, “Inside My Love” and I got a lot of John Lennon tunes that I got to get out and we have such a great time and it’s just opening up the idea that North Carolina has a lot of talent and I’m trying to bring things about the city where I’m from, Washington DC and the places I’ve gone to like New York City and South Africa and bring all of this great music and culture back in Durham. Because there are plenty of people of color who want to experience it and I’m glad they’re letting me do that. And I’ll be doing some university teaching this summer at UNC. I’ll be working with young people ages 13-17 years old at the University of North Carolina teaching them vocal performance and coaching and I’m really excited about it. I’m working on a curriculum that I’m going to be pitching to some universities as well. It’s been a whirlwind year for me. Having “The Ballad of Purple Saint James” make a preliminary ballot for a Grammy in 6 categories, I’m on the board of governors for the Grammy’s, a lot of great things are happening and I know the sky is the limit and God is blessing my work and I just want people to keep sticking with me and if they can put their high hopes in the air for me not to stop.