KeiyaA: The artist is here for her things
Forever, Ya Girl was one of the defining albums of 2020, but the work is just beginning. And KeiyaA is more than ready.
Listen to an audio version of this story here
The Abalone shell KeiyaA holds up to her laptop camera still shimmers though it’s dusted with ash. That sooty residue is a testament to how often she uses the ashtray when she needs to get her mind right. “I usually always have some sort of resin or incense burning,” she says during our afternoon call this past autumn. “Palo Santo, frankincense and sandalwood; those are the smells that make me feel at home and safe.” Also nearby, she grabs a smooth hunk of rose quartz the size of her hand. The bright pink gemstone, shining between her teal, stiletto nails, reminds her to be kind to herself.
© Neva Wireko
Dress and Sleeves: Collina Strada
Leggings: Issey Miyake
Boots: Brother Vellies
Some of KeiyaA’s other tools are visible over her shoulder. Cables neatly coiled on a pegboard, synths and similar equipment sitting edge to edge on a metal rack. But it’s her cache of spiritual items she relies on when she needs to be able to create. They were there last year when KeiyaA was struggling to make rent, weeks away from an illegal eviction, shaping her album on an old laptop. At the time of our call, she’s just months into exploring her music career with some semblance of stability. She answers my deluge of questions between pulls from a joint in the Bushwick apartment that’s now her home. “I always struggle with being kind and gentle to myself. So I always want to have that as a reminder,” she says of the rose quartz stone, “like, ‘Girl, you’re good. You’re fine.’”
When we first speak, it’s less than a week until the US presidential election and there’s a new flavour of gnawing anxiety in the air. But it’s also the day after KeiyaA released the music video for her song I! Gits! Weary! For a time, we let the excitement of the latter drown out the unmentioned aura of the former. Every song off of KeiyaA’s full-length debut album Forever, Ya Girlfeels like a precious antidote to isolation and despair, and the lush soul of “I! Gits! Weary!” is no exception.
In the video’s first half, she steps through Brooklyn – head high, dress tight, adorned with gold, black wig touching heaven. Then she reappears at night – lips glittering, draping fabrics, crowned in hot pink, bunched silk – singing heavenly assertion and desire directly to the camera: “To build and destroy is to be divine/ All I really want is peace of mind.” On screen, she embodies the defiant fervency, and celebration of Black abundance, that she gives voice to throughout Forever, Ya Girl. It’s a quality that helped the album, following its release in March 2020, reach more souls than KeiyaA ever had before.
Crashing on friends’ couches at the time, KeiyaA watched as the sales and downloads quickly outpaced her expectations. It was clearly reaching beyond the web of people who already knew, and fucked with, her work. “I didn’t understand why. I’m not backed by a label. I don’t have a team pushing me or anything like that,” she says. “I realised that it was resonating with people.” Acclaim from reviewers and fans soon followed, bringing even more listeners her way. And then, the messages. Some thanking her for the healing the album had provided them, others detailing how it was a lifeline during crisis. Each message, each sale, each unfeigned shoutout on social media, was confirmation that she was right to quit her desk job a year earlier and pour herself into her art. As the cliché goes, KeiyaA’s life changed overnight. She had emerged as a prescient voice of the times.
© Neva Wireko
Embellished Bodysuit: Stylist’s own
Shoes: Manolo Blahnik
Earrings: Stylist’s own
KeiyaA was born Chakeiya Richmond, her name pronounced with the same opening shush as her hometown, Chicago. “People would always tell me that my name is ghetto, people telling me my name is spelled phonetically incorrect cause it starts with a C, all that shit,” she says, smiling at the memory. “I was like, ‘That’s my name! Get used to it. Get into it.’”
When the time came to name herself as an artist, she embraced her nickname, Keiya. Inspired by forebears known formally or familiarly, at least in Black American households, she went with mononymity. KeiyaA goes down the list: There’s Brandy, Faith, Aretha, Patti, and of course, Nina, Miss Simone, whose name she has tattooed in script on the left side of her chest. Originally going by Keiya, she added the second ‘A’ to keep from being mistaken with the untold numbers of other Keiyas, Kiyas, and Kias on streaming sites.
Long before that second A, though, the 28-year-old singer, producer and multi-instrumentalist got her start on a toy Casio keyboard. She doesn’t remember, but her mother and grandmother tell her she’d use it to plonk out commercial jingles and show themes she learned by ear from the television. After a time in the Chicago Children’s Choir, 7th grade KeiyaA tested into a Chicago Public Schools magnet program where she got her first introduction to orchestral instruments. She chose to focus on the alto saxophone, drawn, as she remembers it, by some desire for connection. “I felt like it was a real, like, fickle-ass reason at the time,” she remembers. “Like this girl who I wanted to be friends with had played it. So I wanted to play it too, but it came really easy to me.”
Her band director happened to be jazz composer and saxophonist Gerald Powell. Encouraging, but strict, he held his 12-year-old players to the same standard as the Juilliard-bound seniors they played alongside. The experience changed KeiyaA’s vision of her future. “I was just thrust into the world of music. And I think what was most important is that I got to see other poor Black kids making art and seeing them just be artists,” she says. “That changed my world. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m about this saxophone shit. You can’t tell me nothing.’”
© Neva Wireko
Dress and Sleeves: Collina Strada
“Seeing other poor Black kids making art… That changed my world. I was like, ‘Oh, I'm about this saxophone shit. You can't tell me nothing’”
She stayed on saxophone through college – “I was like, ‘Nope, not a singer,’” – where KeiyaA entered a jazz programme that threatened to snuff out her still-young fire. Wrestling with colourism and desirability politics, and studying Black music through a white, academic gaze, KeiyaA grew disillusioned with her dream of making music professionally. The artistry of other Black kids in Chicago, both within and outside of the programme, once again showed her a new possibility.
“I was questioning my entire value and worth. Then I started meeting rappers and singers and producers, [seeing them] create freely on their computer and not worry about the right chord or if what they sang was in tune,” she says. “That just looked like freedom. Freedom in art and freedom in music.” From then on, KeiyaA, through observation and painstaking experimentation, began to produce, compose and make beats. She released her first EP Work in 2015, before moving to New York.
Somewhere between Work and Forever, Ya Girl, KeiyaA learned to embrace the jazz background she had recoiled from. “When I was making the WorkEP, I was very much focused on lack. I want[ed] to completely reject these things that I’ve learned in music conservatories,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, I have to make this completely on my computer. No live instruments. I have to mix and master it myself. I’m not going to outsource anything.’” She describes her process for Forever, Ya Girl as more open and intuitive, drawing inspiration from anywhere.
Now, KeiyaA approaches her beatmaking with the mind of a jazzhead, her samples with the eye of an archivist. She wraps her shining alto around her dense, stirring compositions, intermixing vocal clips from sources as seemingly disparate as poet Jayne Cortez and Paul Mooney from the 2003 Chappelle’s Show skit, “Ask a Black Dude.” Like code, the instrumentation and lyrics on Forever, Ya Girl offers a nod of recognition to anyone who loves deeply, carries intergenerational pain, and has a resolve to shine. Its ability to speak to a universal resilience, however, is a byproduct. KeiyaA is speaking directly to Black people. “Think about it, they knew!” she sings on Every Nigga is a Star. “Why they copy every single thing that we do?”
While creating Forever, Ya Girl, and in the time since, KeiyaA finds herself closer to understanding the philosophy that informs her work. “There’s a space where I just allow myself to write freely, and to say whatever, even if it’s blah, blah, blah,” she says. “But I’ve realised that I don’t really like to commit something to paper or to sound if it’s, A. not true, and B. of no weight. So, to be true and to say something that holds weight are definitely guiding principles that I say to myself consciously when creating.”
“To be true and to say something that holds weight are definitely guiding principles that I say to myself consciously when creating”
That philosophy has served her well thus far in terms of creating an evocative work of art. She finds the rankings and end of year lists fraught with social politics. Still, as 2020 came to a close, praise for the album kept rolling in, with Jay-Z even including not one but two of her tracks on his latest annual playlist. She receives these more visible honors similarly to the messages she receives from her “fans” – a term she still isn’t used to saying. “This was such a chaotic and shifting year for the entire world population,” she reflects over email. “For several entities to say that my work was even a blip on the radar, makes me feel seen in the same way they say my music makes them feel seen. It’s beautiful to see really!”
It’s easy to imagine KeiyaA’s summer, fall and winter, had 2020 run a more predictable course. She’d have brought her vision of Forever, Ya Girl to stages where she could tap into the collective consciousness and spiritual energy of a live show. Instead, like many artists, KeiyaA has turned to virtual and live-stream performances, which offer her a different way to build out the visual and textural world around Forever, Ya Girl. In this facet of her art, she takes inspiration from filmmakers like Cheryl Dunye, Julie Dash and Camille Billops, as well as scholar Saidiya Hartman.
© Neva Wireko
Scarf: Pleats Please Issey Miyake
Brooch: Rainbow Unicorn Birthday Surprise
Necklaces: Laura Lombardi
Jewellery (left): Bernard James
Bracelet (right): Laura Lombardi
Rings (right): Panconesi and L’enchanteur
In one livestream from November, in a show called All Falls Apart alongside artists Mesonjixx and Salami Rose Joe Louis, KeiyaA incorporates quotes from Hartman’s 2019 book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. In one section, KeiyaA appears to embody one of the book’s subjects, Mattie, a Black teen who moves to the city with dreams for her future and comes face to face with romantic abandonment and young motherhood. “Mattie was determined to be more than nothing,” Hartman writes of the character. KeiyaA brings that bold determination to the screen, again crowned in a teased wig as she sings. She articulated one magnetic quality of her vision best in an Instagram caption, accompanying a photo from the digital performance: “i do not make art about representation. we are already here. regardless of you. this is about your participation in reality. we need y’all to catch up so we can continue to be.”
When it comes to KeiyaA’s biography, last year, with all its turmoil, will always be the one where she released a stunning vision of Black love and affirmation, and at a time when people quite acutely needed it most. That feat holds that much more weight when one remembers, despite the years becoming the artist she is today, she’s still just getting started.
For now, the coming year holds only promise. “There’s definitely a part of me that’s ready to put the angst associated with 2020 behind,” she writes in an email. “I’m also excited about new works to show the world all throughout the year. I’m really focused on getting to know myself, and showing y’all what I’m learning along the way.” In the meantime, KeiyaA’s audience continues to grow. And as time goes on, Forever, Ya Girl can only grow more beloved. It could all be too overwhelming for one person. But for KeiyaA, somehow, it’s not. “It’s almost as if my ancestors have been prepping me for this,” she says. “Because there’s something about it that just doesn’t really phase me that much.”
Forever, Ya Girl is out now on Quik Language