Breathe in, breathe out. “Hvnli,” a centerpiece from KeiyaA’s 2020 debut album, Forever, Ya Girl, begins with a simple act of exhalation.
She ignites a lighter, burns a joint, and audibly inhales smoke. Finally, the Brooklyn-based artist begins to unravel her troubles.
“Gone for so long, I can barely recall my rememory,” KeiyaA sings, evoking a phenomenon invented by the late Toni Morrison in her seminal novel, Beloved. “Gone for so long, I can barely afford to eat much more red meh-aht,” she continues, drawing out the word “meat” into two syllables and repeating the construction—“meh-aht,” “meh-aht”—as if she’s sobbing. She has programmed the music over which she sings, and it burbles with warm bass tones and synthesized key notes. It sounds like spiritual jazz for a congregation of one, a poetic, messy expression of loneliness and longing, a search for meaning in life’s details.
Gone for so long, I prefer to spend time alone with my pain.
Gone for so long, I can barely recall the last my phone rang.
Gone for so long, I can surely afford to be in the rain.
Gone for so long, I can barely afford to eat much more red meh-aht.
As she unburdens herself, KeiyaA double-tracks her voice, harmonizing the “heavenly” title in honeyed, comforting tones. Lingering in the background, it’s a crushingly poignant counterpoint to the adversity she outlines.
“And my soul loves carelessly/My God is always there for me,” she lilts as the chorus reverberates. “And my love is heavenly, heavenly, heavenly.”
Two years after the March 20, 2020, release of Forever, Ya Girl, KeiyaA’s intensely personal R&B has brought her to London, and she’s relaxing on a brief holiday after a six-date run of European shows. Speaking over a glitchy Google Chat connection that occasionally disconnects, she sounds determined and focused, yet warm and empathetic. Admittedly prone to critical analysis, she doesn’t lose sight of enjoying the moment.
“There’s so many memories...it’s all a blur,” she says, then happily recounts watching Patrice Rushen perform at the Cross the Tracks festival in Brixton, and thrilling at how the jazz pianist, academic, and maker of ’80s boogie-funk classics like “Forget Me Nots” and “Haven’t You Heard” wielded a keytar on stage. “She set the precipice for artists like me: Black woman, composer, instrumentalist, singer—and to see her shredding with a keytar at her age a few feet away from me is something I’ll never forget and always cherish.”
KeiyaA is surprised by the global acclaim Forever, Ya Girl has received. Its message of self-care immediately resonated with an audience struggling to adjust to the horrors of lockdown and isolation, fearful of catching a little-understood virus, and worried about a collapsing global economy. Amidst the tumult, they found balm in a 42-minute self-released project by a woman who was experiencing housing insecurity and joblessness and sleeping on friends’ couches even as she marveled at the comments piling up on her Bandcamp page. “It's been great. Really confusing and overwhelming, but also affirming,” she says. As a relatively new artist, she adds, “The huge success off the bat is such a gift. I’ve been able to learn on the job.”
But KeiyaA’s modest yet rising fame also brings expectations from folks who don’t know or who care little about her roots in Chicago and her difficult growth in a thriving, near-indescribable Brooklyn atmosphere conjured by dynamic and innovative artists of color. She wonders what may get lost in translation as a result. “There’s an inevitable appreciation that I must have for a [wider audience] because it leads to more work, opportunities for your music to grow, and more money, performance opportunities, opportunities to travel the world. But it definitely feels a bit like the zoo, if you will.”
Forever, Ya Girl may sound like an open diary. But KeiyaA workshopped the instrumentals at neighborhood spots like Trans-Pecos in Ridgewood, the Williamsburg Music Center, and the Broadway in Bushwick. “I would play ‘Hvnli’ out before it even had words,” she explains, noting how she'd cue up the loop on her SP-202 while improvising word sounds as accompaniment. “Most of the lyrics and songwriting didn’t come until a couple of months before releasing.” As a result, Forever, Ya Girl blends supple, layered instrumentation with the raw immediacy of her words, creating a portrait of her yearslong immersion in the city as well as a snapshot of a life on the edge.
“I was going through a breakup,” she recalls. “I had also quit my job, the longest job I had ever had, and where I was making the most money. As a result, I got into a sticky situation with my landlord. It was basically an illegal eviction where I wasn’t able to pay my rent, my landlord threatened to evict everyone in the house if I didn’t leave in 30 days, and I wasn’t necessarily friends with my roommates, so they insisted that I do that. I was basically crashing on my friends’ couches. I had also been estranged from most of my family.
“It was really an intense, at times desperate, time. I felt pretty defeated and broken,” she adds. “I decided to focus as much of my energy as I could on making the album, hence a lot of the subject matter and content.” When asked how she managed to conjure a melancholy yet hopeful, uplifting experience from such dire circumstances, she laughs and answers, “I think it’s the last drip of DNA left from my family’s deep religious past. I had this almost blind hope...or else I was going to die.”
Born Chakeiya Richmond, she was raised in a “Godfearing, Christian, Southern Baptist-leaning” family, and grew up singing in the Chicago Children’s Choir. “My mother wasn’t so much committed to going to church but was committed to using God in a Christian context as a way to discipline us,” she remembers. “I was very young when I detached myself from those beliefs.” She’s now exploring alternate spiritualities, including the Yoruba religion If a, Afro-Caribbean practices like hoodoo and vodun, and pagan disciplines like tarot and candle manifestation.
As a child, KeiyaA nurtured a talent for alto saxophone. But when she began attending university—one year at the University of Illinois Chicago, then two years at Columbia College—she grew disillusioned with the academic nature of jazz study. “I have so many other parts of me, experimental, hip-hop, and other things I want to incorporate into this jazz tonality that doesn’t seem to fit in my schooling,” she explains. “I thought, ‘Maybe jazz isn’t for me. Maybe I need to put the saxophone down and pick up beats.’”
When KeiyaA attempted to network in Chicago’s thriving hip-hop scene, she found herself relegated to a side role, playing oft-uncredited saxophone for producers. (Past profiles claimed that she worked with Chance the Rapper, but she clarifies, “There was a bit of a misquote. I never sat in on any sessions with Chance the Rapper.”) She participated in sessions with several local artists and landed an uncredited saxophone solo on Mick Jenkins’ album The Waters. Throughout, she felt limited in her potential as an artist. She decided to leave her hometown, but not before releasing a four-track EP, Work.
“My relationship with Chicago is like when you have a bad breakup with an ex—it’s really traumatic, and then 10 years later, you meet and become best friends,” she says. “I’ve had my therapy and trauma healing, and now I can see the city for its true, raw beauty.”
When KeiyaA moved to Brooklyn in 2015, she encountered a community that was disrupting notions of how Black musicians should sound and confronting how the industry siloes them into traditional genre boxes like R&B and hip-hop. “There are so many artists that, foundationally and spiritually, come from the school of jazz, but the music they make isn’t jazz in the old sonic tradition. But the spirit is there,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh shit! There is a way to take these jazz fundamentals and flip it anew and modernize them.’” She name-drops rappers Amani Fela and MIKE (the latter co-produced a few tracks on Forever, Ya Girl), multi-instrumentalist Keenyn Omari, jazz singer Melanie Charles, spoken-word poet LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, and Akeema-Zane. “These are all native New Yorkers who incorporate poetry, singing, and spoken word, and have a certain scholarship aspect to their work that is something I didn’t think was possible to juxtapose and synthesize,” she adds.
I thought maybe jazz isn’t for me. Maybe I need to put the saxophone down and pick up beats.
Maassai, a friend of KeiyaA’s, is one of those acts whose experimental approach eludes expectations. Her 2021 rap album With the Shifts drew acclaim for its elliptical electronic rhythms and unusual, offbeat flows. “I think jazz does this a lot. A lot of the grooves will be different than in other genres of music. The same in West African rhythms—I grew up doing West African dance, and a lot of these rhythms are not traditional.” She notes how KeiyaA’s music “grooves, and you feel the grooves, but there’s still a lot of odd syncopations that are happening.”
Evan Lawrence, who performs as 13th Law, says meeting KeiyaA “was like meeting another Super Saiyan. ” The two connected at Silent Barn, an all-ages venue in Bush wick. “It doesn't exist anymore because of gentrification and rent prices,” he says, adding that “a lot of indie people” like Japanese Breakfast, Vagabond (whom he played bass for), and Ava Luna performed early shows there. Reminiscing about his introduction to KeiyaA, he says, “She had really short hair and a kufi hat. It was a really cool hat. I remember seeing her sit on the couch and approaching her, and we started talking. Over the years, we’ve been in the same circle of friends.” Last year, when she made an acclaimed live appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk showcase, 13th Law played in her backing band.
As a Queens native, Lawrence remembers how the local DIY community was once dominated by buzzy hipster acts like the Strokes and LCD Soundsystem. “People who try to promote the culture have historically been white,” he says. But he says that’s slowly begun to change, and the scene is becoming more racially and economically diverse. “That’s where me and my friends like KeiyaA come in. All of us have been working to not make the space Black, but just transform the landscape of DIY music in New York City to include more than just popular white rock bands,” he explains. “There’s a huge sense of community that didn't exist before, I would say, 2014.”
Maassai compares the Brooklyn scene, which has yielded acclaimed artists like Standing on the Corner, Armand Hammer, and many others, as “an uprising” and a “school of thought." “In regard to fusion or experimental music, there’s a lot of Black artists here right now who are trying to make new things,” she says.
Much like her peers, KeiyaA strains at stereotypical notions of what an R&B artist sounds like. Her sound encompasses lo-fi hip-hop beats, spacey soul-jazz, and winsome electronic pop. “R&B is a tradition that’s always involved a mix of different genres,” she explains. Its earliest hybridists, from Ray Charles and Sam Cooke to Nina Simone, mixed gospel, jump-up blues, swing jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and cabaret pop into a uniquely soulful idiom. Today, she continues, “part of me feels proud that I exist in the R&B space because it would further my belief that R&B is dynamic and has room for experimentation. At the same time, I do incorporate other genres, and I think that should be recognized. ”
Those disparate qualities are what make Forever, Ya Girl a rich, engrossing experience. It burbles with sampled voices, from Paula Moore’s anguished performance in Ntozake Shange’s classic stage play and recording For Colored Girls Who Have Considered SuicideANhen the Rainbow Is Enuf to Tommy Redmond Hicks and John Canada Terrell’s repartee in a TV commercial for the 1987 soft-soul comp Hey Love...The Classic Sounds of Sexy Soul. (“No, my brother...you’ve got to buy your own.”) She builds the chorus for “Do Yourself a Favor,” a kiss-off to her ex-boyfriend, around an allusion to Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By.” Meanwhile, the rhythm squelches like Dillastyled electronic funk. More than simply chronicling her personal foibles, KeiyaA garlands Forever, Ya Girl with specific cultural experiences and sociopolitical commentary. “Long as you respect me, I could care less if you like me,” she sings on “Every N***a Is a Star.”
Maassai believes her friend KeiyaA has the potential to reach different audiences without compromise. “It’s very well deserved. She’s so talented. She deserved a bigger platform to do what she loves,” says Maassai. “It feels so good, but when you look at it on a [musical or experimental level], it still resonates with you, because that’s her approach, you know?”
Still, KeiyaA remains wary of the music industry she’s begun to engage with. “It can be super easy as a Black artist in the machine to exploit or commodify aspects of the struggle for personal gain. Part of that relationship with commodification is aiding in the consumption, smudging, or blurring of sharp, critical lines to make it digestible for others,” she says. But she also delights at the opportunity to build bridges in unexpected places. Last year, British indie rocker Niliifer Yanya asked her for a remix; she responded by adding sprightly keyboard melodies and rhythms to Yanya’s “Day 7.5093.” Earlier this summer, she contributed “Camille’s Daughter” to Soon Come, a compilation by the South London club collective Touching Bass.
“Going into this I thought, ‘Oh no, what will these Europeans think?”’ she says with exaggerated concern in her voice as she recalls her nervousness about touring overseas. “But I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of Black and Brown people who live in Europe, and that know my music and come to my shows, and also the nonBlacks who I’ve spoken to about the context and are able to understand.
“The people have proven me wrong,” she says. Finally, she lets out a laugh. “Honestly, I’m still figuring it out.”