The Brooklyn-based R&B artist discusses the forces behind her creativity, American pop culture's roots in Black creativity, and her love for Donny Hathaway
Yaya Bey is a multidisciplinary storyteller, and quite an astute one. The Brooklyn-based artist makes the type of album you should listen to in order and all the way through. Bey’s music is music that speaks for itself—it’s honest and forward in sound and lyric. That’s true whether the R&B singer is working with a full ensemble—trumpets and all—or a single bass or guitar.
Bey stays with what’s built-in to her own experience. She sings about sex and heartache. About Black romance, love, and womanhood. About family trauma and social media anxieties. If Bey can be called enigmatic, her music is decidedly less so. She has a discerning awareness of her world and of her community, which isn’t only planted into her work—it encompasses it, and characterizes it. The result is approachable, poised music. Communicative music which is intentionally imperfect, properly grainy, and definitely well-reasoned. I met with Bey to discuss the playlist she’s curated for Document, which focuses on self-compassion—a theme she’s been grappling with lately. Here, Bey reflects on the vulnerability of voice lessons, Mary J. Blige, and the wisdom of Audre Lorde.
Morgan Becker: Do you make playlists often? This one is excellent.
Yaya Bey: I love making playlists. It’s like my thing.
Morgan: Can you tell me more about how you chose your theme, self-compassion? Why does self-compassion speak to you right now?
Yaya: That was a really crazy day when I made the playlist. I was headed to the city for my voice lessons. I’m sensitive about my voice because I’ve never taken [them before]. I’m like, a grown-ass woman doing it for the first time. But my voice coach had to reschedule. After he established that he was rescheduling, he was like, ‘Wishing you peace and self-compassion.’ And I was like, ‘Whoo, self-compassion, that’s a hard one.’ He was like, ‘Yeah, artists especially need self-compassion.’ I got this review earlier in the week, and the person that did the write-up said something like, ‘She doesn’t have the greatest vocal range,’ or some shit like that. I was in my head. I was walking around with imposter syndrome for like three days, kind of just messed up about it. Then he said something about self-compassion, and I was like, wow.
So then, I was in the train station when I was making the playlist. Unfortunately, someone had gotten hit by the train, so I was waiting on the train for like, an hour and a half. At the time, I didn’t know that someone had gotten hit, so I was just like, ‘Okay I’m gonna sit here and make this playlist.’ I’m in a weird place in life where I’m revisiting a lot of things from childhood and shifting my perspective on it. A lot of those songs are things I’m revisiting and sitting with now. It’s crazy, with compassion too—after it was established that someone got hit by the train—New York is a wild place, man—people got off the train, the whole station shut down. Everyone was mad that the train was not there and available, and no one acknowledged that someone was hit by a train. It was really wild.
Morgan: So you included a Mary J. Blige interlude, ‘My Life – Commentary.’ She talks about her love for this Roy Ayers song, ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine,’ which she considers to be incredibly healing—and a massive influence on her life and on her music. Do you understand the feeling that Blige is talking about? Is there a single song that has always stayed with and comforted you?
Yaya: Oh, man—I would say a lot of Donny Hathaway songs. I don’t know if I can pin it down to one. It may be like, ‘For All We Know,’ or ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free.’ Just Donny Hathaway, period. When I first heard him, it was like, ‘Oh. Music is about emoting.’ You know, my dad is a rapper. But Donny Hathaway was the first person that I was like, ‘Oh, you can make music from the heart.’
“Art creates conversation, and so I like to incorporate that conversation with the art and start it—because it’s gonna happen anyway.”
Morgan: You include a lot of interludes in your own music. I’m thinking about your third album, Madison Tapes—about tracks like ‘what truly is,’ ‘talibah talks surrender,’ ‘people come and go… let them go.’ Where do these conversational inserts come from? And what’s their function in your music?
Yaya: So everyone on Madison Tapes is a friend of mine. In the beginning of Madison Tapes, like side A, I’m in the room with those people. I’m just pressing record while everything’s happening. Side B, the pandemic started, and so I sent interview questions to my friends and they sent me [answers] back. I used to be a curator at a museum in Maryland, and for my art shows I would do installation work. I would interview people and photograph them. You could listen to the interviews as part of the exhibitions I was doing. I sort of stuck with that in my work. I think that commentary is just an important component to art, because it’s gonna happen regardless. Whether it’s a part of the exhibition, or the album, or whatever, when you go to a museum, people are gonna talk amongst themselves about what’s happening. Art creates conversation, and so I like to incorporate that conversation with the art and start it—because it’s gonna happen anyway.
Morgan: Tell me about the start of your creative career.
Yaya: I started as a songwriter. My dad is a rapper and a producer and so in my house, he’d be making a beat and that one track would just be on loop all day. When I was nine, it started off like, ‘Just write the hook, write the chorus.’ And then eventually, I started writing songs. My dad, he never really encouraged me to make my own music. He was always like, ‘You could write for other people, that’s something you could do.’ So I just started off as a songwriter. And then, I wanted to have control over my own words. For a long time, I was like, ‘I can’t sing,’ because my dad told me I couldn’t sing. I had a time when I was just doing spoken word poetry as a way to have my words be my words, for me. In my twenties, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna sing. I’m gonna sing now.
“White males are the default, and the closer you get to whiteness, the less political your work is perceived. Taylor Swift makes music about being a white woman, essentially. But that’s American pride—it doesn’t matter, you know?”
Morgan: One thing that I keep reading about your music is that you blend the personal and the political. You draw from Audre Lorde in The Many Alter-Egos of Trill’eta Brown, for instance—and in the same breath, you’re working through your own tumultuous relationships. Is this ‘blending’ an intentional choice on your part? Is it in some sense inevitable? What do you make of this assessment?
Yaya: I think a lot of white people write about me. The thing about being Black, and a woman, in America—and especially growing up in the hood or ghetto or whatever—just writing about my life is going to be perceived as political; it’s going to be political. The things that happen to me and around me are happening for political reasons. My existence, the way that people treat me, the cards I’m dealt. It trickles over into everything. Even in our romantic dealings. I don’t think that many Black people set out to make identity work. But to be Black, and to even just acknowledge our existence becomes political because we aren’t the default. White males are the default, and the closer you get to whiteness, the less political your work is perceived. Taylor Swift makes music about being a white woman, essentially. But that’s American pride—it doesn’t matter, you know?
Morgan: You also wrote a book to go along with Trill’eta Brown, which you called a ‘multi-media biomythography.’ Would you explain how that term applies to your work? What does your poetry achieve, separately from your music?
Yaya: Well, Audre Lorde is the creator of biomythography. First of all, I’m not really sure how I feel about that book [laughs]. I kind of like, took it back. When I was writing it, I was including real things from my life and bending them a little bit to make sense of it. I know that a lot of people in my position, that grew up dealing with a lot of things that I’ve dealt with, need help making sense of what the fuck happened. I grew up in a lot of trauma. We don’t really talk about what happens in the hood in America. It’s like everything that happens to Black Americans period, but when you add poverty on top of it, it’s a different layer of trauma. It’s amplified. That trauma is so normalized. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized, ‘Wait, this shit isn’t normal.’ Black people, we do this thing when dealing with shit where we laugh about everything. That’s literally what Black Twitter is. People outside of the Black community don’t really understand. They just think TikTok is funny, and Twitter is funny, the Internet is funny. The Internet is funny because of Black people. Because Black people are experts at laughing to keep from crying. And it makes Blackness really fun! But at the same time, you can’t keep track of like, ‘Wait, was this trauma?’ You don’t know what happened. You could just live a whole life like that.
At some point, I was like, ‘Yo, I think I’m damaged. I think I’m fucked up.’ That wasn’t the first book I wrote about my life. I was just writing about my life because there were layers that I needed to pull back. I couldn’t even tell what was true and what wasn’t true. The first time I was arrested I was eleven. It was just shit that shouldn’t be happening to a little girl, that was happening, that I needed to process. And that I was bringing into my adult life. As far as the difference between doing that in poetry and doing that in music—I think I can do that more freely in music. I can do it with poetry; sometimes it’s necessary. But music has a different component to it, that is more soothing for me. After I wrote those books—the process felt sterile sometimes. And music feels like it’s giving something back to me. Poetry didn’t feel like it was giving me anything, it just felt like it was sucking me dry.
“But what’s happening in the ghettos in America, the hood in America—that’s where American culture is being made. A lot of pop culture in America is Black culture, but it’s not middle class Black culture, or upper-middle class Black culture. It’s what’s happening in real Bed-Stuy, you know what I mean?”
Morgan: I loved the video for “fxck it then.” What was the concept, and what part did you play in the creative process?
Yaya: The concept is mine, but it’s directed by Morgan Powell, who’s my roommate. I think that I advocate a lot for a specific type of Black woman. Again—ghetto Black women. I’m not an advocate for poverty or glorifying poverty. I think no one should live in poverty. But what’s happening in the ghettos in America, the hood in America—that’s where American culture is being made. A lot of pop culture in America is Black culture, but it’s not middle class Black culture, or upper-middle class Black culture. It’s what’s happening in real Bed-Stuy, you know what I mean? In the projects. When you say eyebrows are gonna be on fleek or yaaas or you’re laying your baby hairs. All of that is coming from a very specific Black [demographic], who is not welcome anywhere. You see Bed-Stuy, it’s gentrified. It’s only a certain kind of Black person who can walk into new Bed-Stuy, into these new establishments, and feel safe. I’m one of them now, because art has afforded me a certain aesthetic and a certain thing about me that I don’t necessarily walk into a space and you automatically think, ‘She’s ghetto, she’s a threat.’ But actual Bed-Stuy—actual people who are from here—can’t walk into these new spaces and be comfortable. They can’t walk into the coffee shop, into the new vintage store, and be welcomed. But, you can’t sell anything without a little bit of [Black] culture. Anything. White people can’t sell shit, other people of color, no one. That’s how you market anything. And that’s some shit we don’t talk about. Because classism is inherently racist. We can’t get to the classism part because we’re so caught up in that first level of racism. And so I’ve been trying to start the conversation. “Fxck it then” is kind of an ode to that specific type of woman.
Morgan: What’s next for you?
Yaya: I’m making an album and a film, at the same time. It’s kicking my ass, but I’m doing it. I’m about 40 percent done with the album, and we’re looking to release a first single early fall, September. The film will come out with the album. I’m in very intense work mode right now. I’m working really hard, and pushing myself further than I’ve ever pushed myself. It’s intense, but we’re doing it.