Okayplayer spoke to rising Bay Area artist Zyah Belle about spirituality, the importance of community, and her newest album Yam Grier.
Sounds of Brazil, better known as S.O.B.’s, has long become an institution where stars are made since its inception in 1982. From Drake and Cardi B to Jill Scott and Justin Timberlake, it continues to be a space for rising talent, as was the case for Zyah Belle, the second performer of the night between India Shawn and Remey Williams for a recent October show. Belle, who just finished up her spot as an opening act on Alex Isley’s tour and is currently on the road with Shawn and Williams, didn’t take long to win over the crowd. The Bay Area-based singer turned hardened New Yorkers into instant supporters, her onstage presence just as commanding as it was fearless — a testament to her roots in the church choir before having her first real taste as a soloist in the lead role of Dorothy for her high school’s rendition of The Wiz.
However, Belle wasn’t always like this, with the singer revealing that she had anxiety about singing solo. But her desire to take on that role triumphed over her fear, with the artist starting to perform solo shows while still in high school.
“We did six shows, sold out every single night, and once it got to the point where we had college reps coming every single night, I was like, ‘Wow, I can really do this,’” Belle said. “I started to feel more encouraged about my voice. I just couldn’t shake it.”
Belle became locally known thanks to singles like “Forbidden Fruit” (2014) and projects like 2016’s New Levels and 2019’s IX. But it was 2021’s Who’s Listening Anyway that would garner massive attention, and expose her to a broader audience. Although her music falls under R&B, Belle said her music doesn’t just fit in an “R&B/Neo-Soul” box. Instead, she creates her music with the following ethos in mind — “I just do what I want” — which couldn’t be clearer than with her newest release, Yam Grier.
Inspired by friends during a conversation about self-love, Yam Grier is Belle’s equivalent to Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce: a persona that could emote her energy. Yam Grier is also a clear nod to the legendary Pam Grier, pulling from her iconic portrayals of characters “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown,” as sonically (and aesthetically) demonstrated on the album’s ‘70s-inspired opener, “Ready or Not.” With her close group of collaborators including musicians/songwriters Tempest and Aj Claire, producer Gerald Keys, and a devoted team, Belle’s Yam Grier is her most ambitious, eclectic, focused, and polished project yet. A proper introduction for a woman who is ready to be formally introduced to the world.
“I always say before I release my music, it’s a personal experience for me. It’s my praise and worship,” she said. “I decided to share it with other people but it’s for me first. I’m intimate with my music.”
In our conversation with Zyah Belle, we spoke about spirituality, the importance of her tribe, and the making of “Yam Grier” — the persona and album.
Okayplayer: Could you speak a little more about the creation of “Yam Grier” the persona?
Zyah Belle: I was given that name at a time when I was just talking my shit about loving my body. I said something about yams and my friend was like, “Yam Grier.” During the pandemic and slightly before, I started coming into my own as a woman. Into my physical body, into my spiritual connection with myself, and my confidence. Yam Grier felt like a persona where I could emote that energy. A woman who is affirmed in herself. Maybe not always confident, but I know deep down when I’m not feeling like that girl, I needed something to give that. Also, the women that raised me and the strength of the women that raised me. I started to go through a period of self-actualization in the past two years. That’s what Yam Grier represents to me.
What’s your creative process like? How did that play a role in the creation of this album?
I’m such a jukebox. I’m always thinking about different cadences in my mind, always referencing chord progressions or various songs. If I’m writing by myself, I’m able to just freestyle something if the beat inspires. I use what I learned in the church in my writing. I let whatever is in me lead me. Typically, it comes out as a freestyle, whether it’s full lyrics or mumbling. I’ll write a top line and then add the lyrics to it.
A huge thing I enjoy is connecting my creativity through my music as it’s translated visually, lyrically, musically, etc. For “Not The One” in particular, we were like, “This beat makes us feel like Rihanna, Anti — so very bad bitch era.” Because I am so theatrical, I see scenes in my mind as well. The story of Yam Grier is about a woman coming into her own. Being non-judgmental of what they look and sound like. Getting to a place of getting comfortable that everything for her is at the right time. That’s something that I didn’t feel with Who’s Listening Anyway. I was frustrated and coming to understand divine timing. It’s a lot of honesty. Multiple songs about toxic stages and getting out of that, and it’s a bit of everything in one. Some of the topics I touch on in the album, I’m not even going through right now. If I could wrap my life up in one from track one to track 12, that would be it.
What are some standout songs from the album that best describe the feeling of it?
“Holding On/Goofy,” “Spiritual Bath,” and “Closure.” “Holding On/Goofy” is listed as two different songs, but it’s actually one whole song split. The transitions production-wise are insane. It’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve written, and I take pride in the fact that I freestyled pretty much that whole first verse. “Spiritual Bath” is significant because it’s a point in the album where I wash away old things, and it is something that I do in my own spiritual practice. I love that I was able to create a song about that. “Closure” — shoutout to Jane Hancock, she killed that song. Myself, Aj Claire, and Jane barred the fuck out of that song. That was one of those songs where I was really proud of myself. It’s classic.
How important is your tribe? More specifically, the women in your personal and professional life?
The voicemail [on “Sugawater,” a previously-released single] from my aunt, she sent to me when I first moved to LA and I got my first placement opportunity with Snoop, and I kept it. It really meant something to be affirmed in that way. That’s what those women have always represented in my life. I saw her recently and she was like, “Ooh, my baby is so well-spoken and so polite,” and I’m like, “I get it from y’all.” They taught me poise and style. My mom is one of my fashion icons. I do my baby hair, nails, and designs from my mom. I draw so much inspiration from them. They’ve been representatives of what it means to be transformative women. My mom went through so many phases, she just never stops becoming her best self. I always looked up to that. That’s a huge foundation for Yam Grier.
A lot of my collaborations are with that core group: Aj Claire, J Wild, Tempest, and Shelley. It’s been a lot of amazing connections and people who are surprising the hell out of me like, “I love your music!” I’ve just been enjoying these collaborative moments. It’s not often you find people in this industry that y’all can connect with outside of being artists and really lean on each other, especially as women in the industry. My whole team is filled with people who are really my friends. It’s really no-new friends. You need that to remind you and encourage you.
You speak a lot about spirituality in your music and incorporate it sonically and visually. How does it keep you grounded?
One lesson that has been huge for me is celebrating every moment. Because the bittersweet thing about the industry is that it puts you on this hamster wheel, that you always have to strive for more. Reminding myself where I come from, that’s so important. It’s what sustains me. When you’re empathetic and conscious enough, this industry can eat you alive. There are people that are purposeful about their gift, but there are people who feel exploited or wanna exploit you. You have to stay prayed up. I’m so glad that I’m grounded in my own spirituality and my team.
My spirituality is at the heart of who I am as an artist. I light my candles and sit out water for my ancestors. It’s a declaration. It helps me understand beyond the work that I do and the talent I possess. It’s transformed me as a woman and as an artist. I can’t help but put that in my music as well.