Brooklyn-based artist Yaya Bey feels the most empowered behind the scenes


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Brooklyn-based artist Yaya Bey feels the most empowered behind the scenes

Yaya Bey is a writer’s writer. Initially finding success through writing poetry, the Queens native transitioned to music in 2016 with the release of her debut album ‘The Many Alter-Ego’s of Trill’eta Brown’. Since then, she’s released five more projects, and, influenced by her turbulent journey of finding love, losing love, and then refinding love (and her voice) again, her diaristic-style of R&B has evolved in the process. A fan of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘The Color Purple’, Bey’s musical interrogation of Black womanhood feels like an extension of the American author’s legacy: she sprinkles mentions of Celie, the book’s main character, throughout her discography. In her latest project ‘Exodus the North Star’, she remains dedicated to this reference, establishing that Black women are more than their trauma, just like Walker did.

In line with her recent A COLOR’S SHOW performance of ‘crying through my teeth’, we spoke to Yaya Bey about ‘The Color Purple’, misogyny, and finally living life on her terms.

What is your first musical memory?

My dad was a rapper, so I grew up in a very musical household. I don’t ever remember music not being there. In middle school, my dad first played Donny Hathaway for me. That’s an important memory.

How would you describe the difference between the sound of your first two projects—‘The Many Alter Egos of Trill’eta Brown’ (2016) and ‘This Too… (2019)’—and the music that you’re making now? You’re older and newer work is even labeled differently on Apple Music: neo-soul versus R&B/soul. 

I’m more confident now and you can hear it in my music. I’m more decisive and empowered. Where I might have dabbled in something previously, I’m more committed to my ideas now.

You wrote your track ‘Ratchet Rhonda’ on ‘The Many Alter Egos of Trill’eta Brown’ from the perspective of the character of Yvette (played by Taraji P. Henson) from the 2001 film ‘Baby Boy’. As someone who is a writer first, how did you take familiar stories like this and modernize them?

My ex-husband produced a lot of that album. I was kind of confined by his sound, which is very different to mine. My dad produced ‘Ratched Rhonda’. Working with him gave me the permission to be more creative, bolder. I grew up on hip-hop, which is explicit and references things that have meaning to me. Leaning on things that have more cultural significance lends itself to better writing.

On ‘fxck it then’, a track from the album ‘Things I Can’t Take With Me’ (2021) you say: “There’s nothing that you can do to me, that won’t make me rich / I write beautifully / Watch me flip the script.” How did you grow into using writing as your superpower?

I was always told that I couldn’t sing, and received the most validation as a writer. I was in the poetry world for a long time, and I had a lot of success. I also started to write for other singers at a very young age. Singing, performing, and feeling worthy enough to be on stage or in front of a camera are always the hardest parts of the job for me. Writing is a behind the scenes kind of thing. I find it easier to feel empowered behind the scenes.

The way your 2020 album ‘Madison Tapes’ weaves in personal narratives from your inner circle reminds me of ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ (1998), which includes conversations between school children about the nature of love. What do you think it is about your projects that make people feel comfortable to reveal things that they might not have said aloud otherwise?

All of the people on the project are my real friends, so the conversations you hear are things that we talk about in real life. It’s easier to share things when it’s coming from your homies and homegirls. It’s less performative.

“I’m really just looking for the freedom to… express my feelings without being in jeopardy of losing one side of my identity to the other.”

When I heard ‘Unseen Freestyle’, which is also from ‘Madison Tapes’, it was really refreshing to hear a woman who speaks like me. We’re both Black women of Caribbean descent from New York City. That combination of identities doesn’t exactly allow us to navigate spaces “softly” or in a hyper-feminine way. Your music is feminine even though you’re not exactly speaking delicately. How do you find that balance in your music? 

Femininity and masculinity have always felt like a tug of war inside me. I have a bit of both. One doesn’t cancel out the other. I’ve always asked myself: “Who am I? Who do I get to be?” I’m really just looking for the freedom to be myself, to be whoever I need to be in the moment, and to express my feelings without being in jeopardy of losing one side of my identity to the other.

You’ve mentioned Celie, the main character from the novel and film ‘The Color Purple’ on a few projects. What is your relationship to her?

For most of the film, Celie isn’t given permission to love or find pleasure. She has to give herself permission, because no one else will. I identify with that a lot. I’m finding the courage to give myself permission. It’s been a lifelong journey for me.

While ‘Madison Tapes’ uses audio recordings to tie together its narrative, your album ‘Remember Your North Star’ (2022) uses poetry…

The poems are there to help move the album along. They express the little nuances that the songs don’t quite say, and help to craft the story.

‘big daddy ya’ and ‘mama love her son’, two tracks on ‘Remember Your North Star’ feel like companion pieces in a lot of ways. They both analyze misogyny, but from different vantage points. How do both of those songs work in tandem with the album’s theme, while also speaking to your own lived experience? 

Men are always at the center of everything, all the time [laughs]. Our relationship to men is always what’s defining us. I’m at a point in my life where I’m just trying to give myself permission to be who I came here to be, regardless of my relationship to a man.

I had this conversation with a friend of mine years ago. She said that her mother taught her not to trust women. As a result, she also learnt not to trust herself. I was raised by a very misogynistic woman. I’ve experienced a lot of misogyny from men and women. I don’t really want to be angry at anyone about it, I just want to be okay, and find my own way to feel safe again. I have to be able to trust life, my own discernment, and the ability of myself and others to heal. I need to have faith in an alternate reality to the one I’ve experienced and, as a writer, I have to be able to write about that.

“I’m at a point in my life where I’m just trying to give myself permission to be who I came here to be, regardless of my relationship to a man.”

You’ve been releasing a project every year since 2020. What made you want to release ‘Exodus’, a continuation to ‘North Star’, even though that project had already received so much praise.

I started to notice that Europeans fetishize me: my Black American struggle is a big point of interest. I got a little depressed about it. Interview after interview I was asked: “how hard is it to be a Black woman in America?” It is difficult, but my life is so joyous in spite of the pain. I aspire to have healthy love. I aspire to so many things. I realized that I should write about this joy. That’s what ‘Exodus’ is about. I received a lot of pushback on it because people don’t really want to hear about that.

Last year, in an interview with Clash, you said that survival is the crux of your art. Where are you at with that now? Do you feel like your art still functions the same way?

No, I think I’m thriving now. I’ve been to nine countries in two weeks. I’m in a completely different place.

Yaya Bey is a Brooklyn, New York-based artist whose debut A COLORS SHOW dropped on 15th August 2023. You can watch the full performance on our YouTube channel.

Text: Kristin Corry
Photography: Megan Courtis
Videography: Lucas Sanou
Video Editing: Katia Fisenko


What our community says

great interview, very thoughtful, intriguing and insightful questions. i can tell the writer did her homework, from referencing bey’s older interviews, and thoroughly listening to the lyrics. good work, and amazing journalism.

mia - bali

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