[This is a story I wrote in 2003. It ran as the cover story of Music Monthly. If the story had a title–which I’m fairly certain it did–I wasn’t able to find it.]
“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Boarding a plane to Texas with no promise of a job, and no money to get back home, Yahzarah certainly couldn’t see the whole staircase, but that first step she took in auditioning to sing backup for Erykah Badu was certainly a giant leap of faith. In fact, the DC-born and bred singer called it a “faith walk”—one of many she has taken, and undoubtedly will continue to take. As a freshman at North Carolina Central University, Yahzarah was told of the audition in Dallas by her friend and bandmate Eugene Young. “My mom and I scraped up everything we had,” she recalls. (Yahzarah’s mother was a public school teacher in D.C., and she joked, “It’s not like I had a trust fund or something.”) “It was about a hundred bucks…. I had no money to get back home. It was a faith walk, for real” As it turns out, return fare was a moot point, because Yahzarah was quickly hired to sing backup for Ms. Badu, whose career was just starting to skyrocket at that time. “I never saw singing backup as a bad thing. I looked at it as an honor.”
As part of Erykah Badu’s band, Yahzarah traveled the globe, met a lot of different artists, and also got an inside glimpse at the working of big business music—all of which has come in handy as she releases her first national solo LP, Blackstar, on Three Keys/Marimelj. It’s a common complaint among DC artists that their hometown often doesn’t embrace their own artists until other areas have embraced—and somehow validated—the artists. Yahzarah has clearly felt this from DC. “You have to make it someplace else to be supported at home. But, it’s OK, Jesus wasn’t embraced in Bethlehem,” she says, laughing. “It is what it is. Hopefully, it will change.”
In the meantime, Yahzarah holds no grudges nor ill will. “I love you when you love me,” she says. “I embrace [the love], and am enjoying it.” A lot of the love—now and for a long time—has come from her adopted home of North Carolina. “It was the people in North Carolina who gave my music to a friend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to a friend,” she explains. Fellow North Carolina artists Little Brother are one group Yahzarah came up with. She used to open up for them at area performances.
“That was definitely trial by fire,” she laughs. “Here it is, a hip-hop show, and I get up there to sing.” Anyone who has witnessed Yahzarah sing live, though, can be certain that she won them over within minutes. Diminutive in size, her voice and spirit are larger than life. Brought up singing in the church, she made her professional debut at the ripe age of seven at the world-renowned Kennedy Center in DC.
Even at that young age, Yahzarah says she could feel “God leading me”—a theme she comes back to often during our conversation. It was her faith that not only allowed her to take that trip to Dallas, but also helped her make the decision to drop out of college to pursue her career in singing. “Unfortunately, at many HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) [careers in entertainment] aren’t often encouraged.”
In what could possibly be viewed as overcompensating for the stereotype that African Americans are recognized for entertainment and sports, Yahzarah says that she didn’t get the support from school that would have been necessary for her to travel and complete her studies. “If we couldn’t sing, we wouldn’t be free, and if we couldn’t run fast, we never could have run away,” she says, putting it into perspective.
In 2000, she released her solo debut. She pressed 5,000 copies, which eventually all sold. Later, her music wound up in the hands of Marcus Johnson, ironically back in DC. “We had a lot of label interest, but we decided to go with Marcus Johnson because of his policy of putting artistry and music first,” she explains. “They loved what they heard of me and didn’t want to change anything—they just wanted to give it a chance to be heard by a wider audience.”
Certainly a wider audience is being reached with the release of Blackstar, which came out last month. Picking producers for the album was, according to Yahzarah, a “joint process” between her and the label. “We all brought our best assets to the table.” In the end, Chip Shearin, Eccentric, 88 Fingers, Black Beat, Khalifani, Eric Parham, and Sol Messiah all contributed tracks—and their own different sounds—to Blackstar.
The result is a nice musical journey in which Yahzarah’s powerful and soulful voice has plenty of room to shine. A video for the first single, “Wishing”, has been played on BET quite a bit. The second video was shot in DC at the end of October.
Taking control of her career and standing her ground is something that Yahzarah has worked hard to do, but it hasn’t been easy. “All of my life, I’ve been a person who wanted to please [other people],” Yahzarah admits. “A lot of times people used this as a weapon against me.” Through her navigation of the business of music, she has learned that there are way too many people ready to take her kindness for weakness, so she has adjusted. “It’s a balance now,” she says. “And sometimes it’s just knowing when to sit back and wait on God.”
She has also learned to better recognize the “fine line between friendship and business.” For instance she “realized that labels are your associates, not your friends.
“You are a the product, and the label is the vehicle,” she explains. While there are certain expectations of the way the vehicle/label should be doing, Yahzarah also points out the importance of making herself accountable as the artist/product. Of her relationship with Three Keys, she says, “It’s a wonderful beginning for all of us.”Yahzarah readily admits to recording certain songs with the goal of getting a “radio hit” in mind, but it’s all part of the balance.
“One of my biggest fears was that the people who embraced my first album [wouldn’t embrace Blackstar.] “But, those people weren’t alone with me in my apartment when I was broke and eating frosted flakes,” she points out. “I decided from here on out to create music I want to create.” Creating the music on record is one thing, but Yahzarah’s true love seems to lie with live performances. When we speak, she has just returned form a weekend of shows with soul singer Donnie, and can’t stop gushing about the experience.
“It was a wonderful, spiritually elevating experience,” she says. “Donnie was so humble, and so willing to give himself [to the audience]. Plus, he can sing his ass off,” she jokes. Yahzarah is equally gush-y about her affection for her fans. “I am in love with my fans,” she tells me, emphatically. Laughing, she says, “I have to let my fans know that my boyfriend is jealous of y’all and my mama hates you.”
The way things are going, her boyfriend and mother will have even more people with whom to compete for Yahzarah’s time. But, I’m sure they really wouldn’t have it any other way.