Retro-Neo is an interview series where we speak with future trailblazers of neo-soul about their connection to the genre. For our first edition, we spoke with the enigmatic songstress KeiyaA about what neo-soul means to her.
“I was born in ‘92, so I was a child of hip-hop and neo-soul.”- KeiyaA
KeiyaA sounds like amorphous autonomy. Spoken word reclamations of her precious time as a Black woman can flow from a bed of spacey computer beeps and bellowing chants into “conflicts centered on topics of liberation” over smoldering guitar licks, free of any traditional song structure. Her debut album, Forever, Ya Girl, is 42 minutes of crushing barriers and building a world of her own from the ashes, like her neo-soul forefathers.
“Neo-soul, to me, was for us. It was our evolution of [jazz]. We still respect the elders and tradition laid before us,” KeiyaA said. “But, we were born in the same shit but a little bit different shit. I feel that music and that sound felt like freedom to me.”
After 25 plus years, neo-soul is old enough to have a legacy. In our new series Retro-Neo, we talk with the future trailblazers of the genre about their connection to it, its connection to the Black experience, and the future of a genre predicated on remixing the new.
For the first in our series, we spoke with KeiyaA who talked about her favorite neo-soul albums, how Erykah Badu’s “Green Eyes” shaped every phase of her life, and she gives an update on her upcoming album.
When did you get introduced to neo-soul?
KeiyaA: Definitely from my mother. She was born in ‘75, so she was in her mid-twenties in the early 2000s. That was her shit. She played a lot of [Erykah] Badu, Jill Scott, Common, D’Angelo, and all of these neo-soul singer/songwriters. I didn’t know that was neo-soul. I just knew it was the shit my mom liked a lot. My earliest memories are of us riding around in the car with that music on repeat.
What are your favorite neo-soul albums that you love and shaped you?
An album that really did shape me was Voodoo by D’Angelo. That shaped a lot of the way I understood harmony, songwriting, and song form. That album is probably why I always have to have background vocals and three-part harmonies singing along with me. Then, there’s definitely [Erykah Badu’s] Mama’s Gun because that was one my mama’s favorite albums, so I knew it front to back. That album introduced me to the idea of taking old soul songs, re-harmonizing them and giving them a funky groove — a hip-hop edge. I sound like a journalist right now (laughs). Also, Alicia Keys. I know that might be a controversial pick, but I really feel Songs In A Minor can be considered a neo-soul album.
What songs from those albums connect with you and why?
From Mama’s Gun, “Green Eyes,” for sure. For every phase of my life, that song rings true for me.
Jealousy, envy, dissatisfaction and disappointment are universal. We’ve been in this pandemic for a little over a year, and prior to that I was in a crazy situation with me losing my job, crashing on couches, broke, and not exactly sure how I was going to survive besides putting an album on the internet. Even though I make the conscious choice to leave my job and pursue music full-time, I think I was still bitter and frustrated at how my life was what it was and why I had to go through such sacrifice and pain. I was living paycheck to paycheck, living in poverty, and basically going through a breakup. Now, I’m in this place where I have to try to be grateful for the success I’ve had compared to last year. We’re locked inside with a public health crisis happening that’s not being properly handled correctly. Landlords are still asking for rent every month. Shows are cancelled, as they should be. But, the industry is set up where artists can only make money through that extended labor. That’s why “Green Eyes” is ringing true.
What about for Voodoo and Songs in A Minor?
For Voodoo, “The Root” would be the song that rings true the most to me. I listened to D’Angelo, thanks to the influence of my mom, when it first came out. But, I revisited it as a young adult in college. That’s when I felt I had my own personal relationship with that album. That’s the song I would play on repeat with that album. For Songs in A Minor, that classic run on “Fallin’” is what we did on the playground when we were kids. “Can you sing? Prove it.” That was my “prove it.” We’d go back and forth being really annoying in school, after-school programs, gym, recess (laughs). I feel I have to say that song just because of that childhood memory.
Your debut album, Forever, Ya Girl, was one of the best neo-soul albums of 2020. What songs from that project would you say have remnants of classic neo-soul albums?
“Rectifyaa” is a good pick. I can’t say when I was writing it I was channeling a certain song. I feel music and art influence work different where it’s in you in ways you don’t recognize until after. With that said, I used to work at Nordstrom [Rack], and because I was a student at the time I would have to do crazy shifts. I’d have to do morning shifts before class and night shifts after class I would play “I Want You” by Erykah Badu. It’s basically a jam and a [vamp]. There’s this repetition where she slowly unveils the song through repeating stuff and improvising here and there. That rings true in the way I approached writing “Rectifyaa” in the way it slowly unfolds and it’s kind of like a vamp working.
Also, my song “Do Yaself A Favor.” I know it’s a cover, but I completely reharmonized and rearranged it. I think neo-soul is a fusion of so many Black genres. There’s gospel, jazz, hip-hop, and all types of stuff mixed in. Some of the traditions of jazz culture ring true in neo-soul where you’ll write what’s called a “contrafact” where you’ll take the head, or main melody of a song, and reharmonize the chords. Neo soul artists do that alot. You’ll hear them jazz up or funk-ify a classic soul record either just for the live show or for their album. So, I definitely think “Do Yaself a Favor” definitely embodies the spirit of that culture.
What are your favorite neo-soul songs to cover?
Let me sit and actually think about this. It’s a newer neo-soul song, “Silver Lining” by Jazmine Sullivan. I love that. I love that groove, the melody, and the messaging. That’s a song I’ll always sing to myself all the time. It’s hard for me to sing that song without crying because it’s such a powerful message. That’s one I love to cover. It’s such a good vocal exercise. I love covering D’Angelo’s version of “Feel Like Making Love.” ‘
You played sax at Kenwood Academy High School, University of Illinois, and Columbia College Chicago, but said previously you hated rigid techniques. How did neo-soul allow you to be you?
I was born in ‘92, so I was a child of hip-hop and neo-soul. I’m from Chicago, born in the inner city, so I have this very Black American inner city upbringing. I grew up kinda poor and then transitioned to middle class. I was very much around major pop culture influence. I still wound up studying jazz in school because classical music didn’t connect with me and I grew up listening to a little jazz thanks to my grandparents. Jazz seemed like the classical [music] for Black people. I wound up pursuing that. When it was senior year of high school and I had to figure out what I wanted to do, I was like, “I might as well do this saxophone shit.” After a while, I found myself feeling constricted by the additional culture associated with the rigidity and hierarchical structure of music conservatory. I loved the rigorousness of having to perform and practice a lot. The respectability politics and social standards of some of the elders wasn’t something I could relate too. I felt I was too hood, weird, and experimental for them to understand I had my shit together enough to be the next jazz pick.
In the history of that music that felt like freedom to you, where do you feel you fit in its future? How has the sound changed during your era?
The sound has changed and morphed into six different sub-genres of neo soul, probably more. I think it’s opened the gateway for more traditional, contemporary R&B to become more experimental, pop music to be more experimental, and jazz music to be more hip-hop. Where I fit in it? I’m grateful and honored, but just a part of the post-modern tradition of what happens when those elders did what they did. I’m one of many folks who love this and uphold that tradition. Not by any specific standards, but just experimenting , talking about life, love, and human existence from this perspective.
Are there plans for a new KeiyaA album?
The new album is coming. I think I’m such an experiential artist. I have to live life, have experiences, and have some shit to say before I have some shit to say, if that makes sense (laughs). I have some shit to say, it’s just being said. There will definitely be some new music in due time.
Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire