“Polyester!” KeiyaA says, laughing. “The uniforms were so thick and dense.” We’re in what she calls the “studio room” of her Bushwick apartment, reminiscing about singing in the Chicago Children’s Choir. Hanging on the wall behind her is a white pegboard adorned with an assortment of audio cables. KeiyaA, 28, was in the choir till she was 12, but she tells me she doesn’t remember much besides the red vests of their performance uniforms and the dimly lit church (First Unitarian, on the corner of 56th and Woodlawn) where they rehearsed. But she looks back at that time fondly, because joining CCC helped introduce her to music.
Since then, the Chicago native has learned to wear many hats: singer, multi-instrumentalist, artist, producer, businesswoman. But it hasn’t been a smooth road. Just a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic, KeiyaA quit her day job. By spring she’d lost her apartment and was couch surfing with friends. On March 27, with a lockdown in effect across New York State, she self-released her debut album, Forever, Ya Girl.
Throughout the year she rolled out different physical editions of the album—she had no strategy, she says, and was just doing what seemed necessary at the time—and in September she finally moved into her own place. The first-ever vinyl release of Forever, Ya Girl is coming soon, and it has a growing audience waiting for it: the album appeared on several big year-end lists, including at Pitchfork, NPR, Complex, Vice, and Vogue. Strategy or no, KeiyaA has thrived during one of the roughest years for musicians in memory.
KeiyaA’s life in music began in earnest when representatives from the Chicago Children’s Choir stopped by Bret Harte Elementary to recruit kids from her class. They asked KeiyaA and her peers to sing out loud, and if they liked what they heard, they put a Post-it note on the student’s desk. KeiyaA attended schools in Hyde Park, where her paternal grandparents lived, but her family was working class and often poor—she remembers moving around the south side growing up, living in Cottage Grove and in what she calls “basically low-income housing” at 63rd and Stony Island in Englewood. “We didn’t have cable. We didn’t have Internet. We didn’t have TVs,” she says. “I learned that I was different when I went to school, and my friends talked about all these things I didn’t have.”
At age eight, KeiyaA became one of four kids from her class chosen to join CCC. For the next few years, she was engulfed in music theory, practice, and repertoire. But when she was 12, she says, her family disciplined her by pulling her out of the choir.
At first, the loss of a creative outlet stung, but within a few years KeiyaA tested into the Chicago Public Schools magnet program and picked up the alto saxophone at Kenwood Academy. Given that Kenwood isn’t an arts-focused high school, she felt lucky to have saxophonist Gerald Powell as her band instructor—he worked hard to create a conservatory-like environment.
When it came to applying to college, though, KeiyaA wasn’t yet ready to commit to a music school. She began her jazz studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2010. “I went there because it was a way to trick my parents into thinking that I was going there to study something unrelated to music,” she says. “Ultimately, though, I think there was a part of me that was afraid of challenging myself and afraid that I wasn’t going to get into a music program that was more reputable and more challenging, like a New York school.”
KeiyaA knew a few of the jazz instructors at UIC through after-school music programs she’d attended in high school. In 2014, after acclaimed flutist Nicole Mitchell left the UIC faculty, KeiyaA transferred to Columbia College to study jazz more formally. She says that at first she loved the experience, not only because she could play with various jazz combos at school but also because her peers inspired her with their own bands outside school, influenced more by contemporary hip-hop and rock.
Around this time, KeiyaA began making her debut EP, Work, using only a cheap microphone and an Avid Mbox 3 interface, which let her record to her computer. But she was also working full-time to support herself, and she was struggling with her mental health.
“I’ve been working jobs even before I was 16,” KeiyaA says. In high school she played church gigs, and once she could legally work in Chicago she bounced among various retail jobs, including H&M and Dusty Groove. Eventually she discovered the advantages of work-from-home call-center jobs, and started doing customer support for tech companies such as Uber and Vivid Seats. In 2013, hoping to save up some money and give herself a break, she decided to take a semester off from school. But once she left, she never looked back.
KeiyaA released Work on Soundcloud a few months after dropping out of Columbia. “I told myself that I really had to make up for the fact that I dropped out of school, or else I would look like a fool,” she says.
At that point, KeiyaA didn’t know what her next album was going to sound like, but she knew she wanted it to highlight her production skills—and she also knew it’d be called Forever, Ya Girl. During this period, she went to lots of shows in Chicago, trying to meet as many artists as she could, but for a long time she’d also been craving a change of scenery. Getting evicted—from her grandparents’ house, no less—gave her the final push to leave Chicago.
“I feel like there’s a pattern where there’s always crazy life circumstances that lead me to things,” KeiyaA says. “I was working this job and couldn’t afford my rent, and then my hot water got cut off, and then I moved into my grandparents’ basement, but I couldn’t even pay them rent.” Her boyfriend at the time had family in New Jersey, and she still had the same impression of New York that had colored her college hunt—that it was the place to be for contemporary Black musicians.
In fall 2014, KeiyaA and her boyfriend moved into his mom’s house in the suburbs of New Jersey. During this yearlong incubation period, KeiyaA met members of long-running jazz/hip-hop fusion group Scienz of Life through her boyfriend. She learned production skills from them and made many of the beats that would eventually appear on Forever, Ya Girl. In summer 2015, the couple moved to Crown Heights after her boyfriend’s mom passed away.
In her first few years in New York, KeiyaA split her time between working at SeatGeek and planning shows with a community of Black artists she’d found—one of them, rapper MIKE, contributed production to Forever, Ya Girl under the name DJ BlackPower. She performed at venues such as Aviv and Cafe Erzulie, and by improvising onstage she started to develop many of the songs on her debut album.
The influence of New York on this material is clear. “When I came to New York, I was exposed to so many more facets of ethnic diasporas than I was used to in Chicago,” KeiyaA says. “It feels weird saying this because we’re in a full-blown pandemic, but I just remember being out and meeting people hanging outside in the bars and hearing all these DJs playing all types of Caribbean and African music.”
The bulk of Forever, Ya Girl came together in the last few months before its release, though. In late 2019, KeiyaA quit her job at SeatGeek because she had issues with what she saw as poor management. She hasn’t worked for anyone but herself since. After two months, she could no longer afford to pay rent and was evicted from her apartment in Bed-Stuy with little notice. She crashed on friends’ couches and kept working on her album.
“I was in this desperate-ass place, where I was like, I have to drop this shit ASAP, because I have to make money somehow,” KeiyaA says. “I thought, let me just put this up on Bandcamp and maybe that’ll be enough for me to get an apartment and figure out how to pay my bills.” She already knew she wanted the songs “Hvnli” and “Do Yourself a Favor” to be on the album, and over the past few years she’d created more than enough beats to select from.
When Forever, Ya Girl came out on March 27, New York was a week into its pandemic lockdown. Almost entirely written, produced, and sung by KeiyaA, the album blends neosoul, hip-hop, and jazz, and its lyrics provide insight into her search for self-liberation and affirmation. The creation of the album acted as an agent of healing for KeiyaA, just as the album itself can for those willing to listen. KeiyaA’s main goal had been to put out a project that looked official enough to convince people a digital album was worth 15 dollars, but Forever, Ya Girl got critics’ attention quickly. Pitchfork named the album Best New Music in April.
When the digital album had been flying off the shelves for a few days, KeiyaA had the idea of making a run of cassette tapes. “I was thinking, OK, this might be my opportunity to never go back to work ever again, at least for now,” she says. “The only way I know how to do that is by flipping. That’s what I grew up learning in the streets.”
KeiyaA says her family taught her early on about the importance of financial independence. “I know that art is what I’m meant to do, and it’s a way for me to express myself and to heal myself,” she says. “But I also want this to be a way for me to build a strong foundation and legacy that doesn’t have to be attached to me working for somebody else.”
Since she was little, KeiyaA has been drawn to tangible objects as part of her relationship with the music she loves—she remembers the Backstreet Boys releasing action figures in partnership with Burger King, and another favorite artist creating a custom Barbie doll. “I’m not talking about just a CD or piece of vinyl, because those are special as well,” she says. “But I loved having T-shirts. I loved having Hit Clips. I loved having weird, awesome items that connect with the art that I love, but also have a practical use.”
KeiyaA calls such objects “apocalypse proof,” and from the beginning she knew she wanted to create special editions of Forever, Ya Girl that would feel the same way. “I like the idea of having special small things,” she says.
After researching the way capitalism conditions people to expect mass production and mass access, KeiyaA decided she wanted to challenge and reject some of those norms. “It’s not necessarily about it being inaccessible,” she says. “It’s just about putting out work consciously and sustainably.”
For KeiyaA, producing work intentionally includes allocating a portion of her revenue to organizations she cares about. On June 22, she released the first physical pressing of Forever, Ya Girl—a special-edition cassette selling for $44—and donated some of the proceeds to For the Gworls Medical Fund and the Free Black Women’s Library Sister Outsider Relief Grant. To help justify the high price, KeiyaA accompanied each signed and hand-numbered tape with stickers, an O-card sleeve, and a J-card filled with lyrics and collages.
Those tapes sold out, but even given the growing success of her album, it took KeiyaA another three months to get back on her feet and rent the Bushwick apartment where she now lives. Bandcamp typically takes a 15 percent cut of digital sales and a 10 percent cut of merch sales, but since March 20, 2020, on select Fridays it’s passed its share of revenue along to artists and labels instead—an attempt to help its community compensate for lost tour and gig income. KeiyaA timed the next three versions of Forever, Ya Girl to coincide with the Bandcamp Friday on December 4: a CD ($33), a cassette ($22), and a print companion called On Returning My Quikest Language Back to My Mouth ($44). They’ve all since sold out as well.
KeiyaA designed On Returning herself, but she got the opportunity to create it because Yusuf Hassan, founder of Black Mass Publishing in Queens, approached her about making a simple lyric book. Their plans evolved quickly, and they settled on a visually oriented lyric booklet, a risograph pamphlet, and a fun, light-hearted poster called “The Natural Way to Fight Stress” that shows KeiyaA wearing various expressions and demonstrating different yoga poses (it was inspired by a newspaper clipping she saw on Tumblr).
KeiyaA says she was excited that Black Mass gave her a supportive, helpful environment where she could play around with InDesign and try out a new medium she’d always wanted to explore. The lyric booklet’s content is entirely her doing, and Black Mass handled printing and assembly. “I basically made the whole book myself, but it was a fucking challenge, let me tell you that,” she says.
In the artwork for Forever, Ya Girl and On Returning My Quikest Language Back to My Mouth, KeiyaA grounds herself visually. The cover of Forever, Ya Girl, designed by her current boyfriend, Jefferson Harris, is anchored by a stunning photo taken by Rahim Fortune, whom she met through mutual friends; it shows an unbothered-looking KeiyaA gazing at the camera over her clasped hands. On Returning is filled with black-and-white photos of KeiyaA’s body bending and transforming, taken by Chris Currence (who also shot her “Negus Poem 1 & 2” music video). I ask KeiyaA about her inclination to accompany her art with portraits of herself. “There are so many Black women and performers who physically embody this human experience they’re trying to convey, and I think there’s something about that that has always resonated with me,” she says. Then she laughs. “I also probably have some deep narcissistic relationship with myself.”
KeiyaA’s path as an artist has taken a lot of unforeseen turns since she was tapped with a Post-it for the Chicago Children’s Choir. The process of learning how to support herself doing what she loves during a pandemic has been a wild journey too, and she’s still just barely getting by. “I think when people see ‘sold out’ on Bandcamp, or they see that I’m on the cover of magazines, they think I’m not broke,” she says. But KeiyaA is just getting started: the vinyl editions of Forever, Ya Girl are already in the pipeline, and she’s constantly thinking of new merchandise and objects to accompany the album.
“I now see myself more holistically and more like a member of a tradition bigger than my fixed human plight as a Black woman in America,” she says. “I want to face the world as a musician with gifts, and I want to share these gifts. I want to sing over people’s music. I want to write with people. I want to write for people. All of that.” v