Three Keys Music artist YahZarah is unmistakably petite. But there isn’t anything small about this Washington, D.C. native’s wealth of musical talent. The artist formerly known as Dana Williams has lent her versatile six-octave vocal range to a number of powerful performances, most notably with Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker and Dave Brubeck. Once a backup singer for Erykah Badu, YahZarah now brings funk-inspired soul to the masses with her debut CD Black Star (Three Keys Music). Essence.com writer Candice Carto recently sat down with this former student of the Duke Ellington School of The Arts to discuss her latest musical sojourn.
Many of the tracks on Black Star seems to stem from your personal experiences of love and heartache. How important was it to bring this autobiographical element to your music?
It’s extremely important to me. I can’t sing about anything that I don’t feel. I wrote most of the songs about the most innocent, elementary feelings of love. I wanted to sing about love in its most pure form. Many of us have lost track that this kind of love even exists, and I wanted to take people back to those first teenage feelings of sweaty palms and butterflies in the stomach — all of those beautiful things that are associated with true love, the love you never think you’ll have again. I sing with honesty. I always want to be real about my music because I know that there are people out there who will understand and relate to the things I’ve gone through.
You suggest that there is a great deal of “cookie-cutter” music in the industry today. Unfortunately many artists seem content to churn out the same bootylicious beats rather than create a fresh, new groove. What about your music sets you apart?
I can’t say what separates me from others; I can only say what it is I do. If other artists are saying what they think and singing what they like, then I guess we have a lot in common. I, too, have songs that are meant to pay the bills. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. All I ask is that we have some balance. That we all get equal play. I shake just like the rest. And that’s fine. But, what happens when the club closes up and we have to go home and identify with ourselves. This is the question each of us must ask ourselves. Life is so much more than shaking and blinging. And it’s important to remember that.
I’ve read that you refuse to be labeled a “neo-soul singer.” How important is it to remain free of such static markers?
I’ve had the blessing of being classically trained in many different forms of music; therefore I would be doing my audience and myself an injustice if I decided to say I was any one thing but good music. I’d rather put the music out there and let the people decide what it is I am. At the end of the day, it’s really all about the ministry, and the ministry is the people.
You spent six years touring with Erykah Badu. Certainly this was an amazing opportunity to work with such an inspirational and talented artist. What made you decide to step out on your own?
When I started singing for Erykah, I always knew that I wouldn’t be singing in the background for the rest of my life. But I understood that I needed instruction. The reality was that I was not ready and I needed to watch someone do it, and do it well. I enjoyed humbling myself in the role of a supporting cast member. The experience with N’Dambi Gilbert and Erykah on the road was a blessing. They taught me how to be true to myself and pick out a nice pair of shoes while I’m doing it. That was the beginning of me figuring out, in the influences of those women, where the YahZarah fit.
It’s great to have a gift, but that gift has to be cultivated. And that’s where that beautiful thing called artist development comes in. That’s when you sit back and you say ‘Who do I want to be? What is it that I want to say? And what is it that I want to be remembered for?’ And that’s what I did during those six years on the road. I quietly sat back and bided my time until I knew what I wanted to say and who I wanted to be.
You’ve said that Black Star is “not really deep as much as it is just life.” What about this album speaks to what you call “the pain and passion of life?”
I’ve been through some tough times, real heartache — we all have. In my music, I try to talk about stuff that is reality. It’s tempting to sit back and just wallow in self-pity and bitterness. But in order to move on, move forward, you must learn to let go of the hurt and pain of the past. A lot of my songs are written for release, to help people heal the hurt of what has happened to them in love.
I want people to understand that it’s okay to have the emotion of sadness. We all have fears, we all have pains and passions, but that’s life. Life is full of different cycles, and we learn from each one we travel through. Black Star is about living through these cycles. It’s also about breaking the cycles that wound the spirit, about getting over the stuff that needs getting over.