Ifeanyi Elswith Sees Bravery In Vulnerability
Written by Vocalo Radio on November 15, 2021
“I’m just proud to call myself a Chicagoan. There’s no other city I’d rather be from.”– Ifeanyi Elswith
Ifeanyi Elswith chooses to wear her heart on her sleeve.
Chicago singer, songwriter, poet and model Ifeanyi Elswith made waves in the Chicago scene with the release of debut album Everything Festyle on July 24, 2020 — with the Chicago Reader describing it as having “all the hallmarks of a star-making turn.” The album explores themes of self-analysis, vulnerability, relationship examination and more, and “Pray 4 U,” the second-to-last track on the album, was featured on Vocalo’s “In Rotation” playlist for October 2021.
In the 16 months since the album’s release, Elswith has kept busy with local performances, freelance modeling and collaborations with other Chicago artists like Michael Damani and Adia. Looking back on the album in November 2021, Elswith felt she has only grown to love it more over time.
We chatted with Ifeanyi Elswith about her relationship with songwriting and poetry, the philosophy behind her music, reflections on emotional vulnerability and more.
Talk to us a little bit about your earliest introduction to music. Were there any artists you loved from a young age, or any musicians in your family?
My earliest introduction to music was always hearing my parents and family play our native Garifuna music called Punta, our native Belizean music called Brukdown, as well as Reggae, Soca/Calypso, Dancehall and more around the house and at family functions. My oldest sister, Theresa, played a big role in the building of my personal music taste, though. She would always play artists like Amerie, Ashanti, Brandy, 3LW and many more of the early 2000s era. Even Selena, who I’ve been a huge fan of since the age of four. All of those artists influenced my dream of becoming a professional singer.
I do have some musicians in my family! I have a cousin named Sheldon who is a part of the international Garifuna music group The Garifuna Collective, which was co-founded by late Garifuna and Belizean legend Andy Palacio. As well as another cousin named Vida who sings in a Garifuna Punta band called Sweet Pain, who is really popular in Belize. My dad isn’t a musician but he has always been the MC and Entertainment Manager for Belize Day In The Park Fest, where Belizeans and Belizean-Americans from all over Chicago would gather every first Sunday of August to celebrate our country. He has had a Soca and Calypso radio show on 88.5 FM WHPK from 2-6 p.m. central every Saturday for as along as I remember. I’ve always been inspired by his work! They all inspire me to continue representing my culture in my music and brand.
Do you remember writing your first song? What was it about?
I wrote my first song, called “Can’t Afford 2 Lose,” in 2017. I was working with a fellow music student from Harold Washington College named Julien. We were in his apartment brainstorming when he started playing a couple chords on the piano. They hit, and the words, “put down ya guns and put dem on the floor, stop shooting our men, we can’t lose anymore,” popped into my head. That lyric became the opening line and hook of the song. I continued writing the full song based off of that lyric, and the rest is history. I remember how excited he was when we finished it and how excited my family and friends were when they heard the song. Like, they all had this light in their eyes when I would play the song for them. It felt so affirming, like I made the right choice in pursuing my dream. It just made me eager to create more music! The song now lives on SoundCloud.
Looking back on music you made when you were first getting started, how do you feel you have grown and evolved as an artist over time?
I’ve developed my own singing style now. I think my style and voice has become more distinguished. Of course, there’s room to improve and expand, but I know my approach to songs more now and what I want to say. I feel like writing has also become like second nature to me, and that feels pretty damn good!
In what ways has living in Chicago informed your identity, as both a musician and an individual?
This is such a hard question. I would say artists like Chaka Khan, Saba, Common, Kanye West, Chance The Rapper, Twista, Lupe Fiasco, Da Brat and many, many, many more all remind me that my dream of making an impact in the music industry as a whole is possible. Navigating the local music scene and performing around Chicago for the past four years has made me better as a performer and continues to do so. As an individual, I don’t know, I’m just proud to call myself a Chicagoan. There’s no other city I’d rather be from.
You collaborated with Adia on the song “Off Grid” and its beautiful music video in Lucea, Jamaica. Tell us the story behind the collaboration. How did it come about? What was your experience shooting the video?
Adia is a close friend of mine, and we’ve been friends for a while before finally collaborating. She texted me one day with a list of instrumentals she was writing songs to. She chose one of them and wrote “Off Grid” and asked me to write a verse, and so I did. I wrote a verse that I felt bounced off of her lyrics and then re-wrote it, because I felt I could do better, and wrote the bridge. I think together we’ve made such an ethereal and vibey song! The experience shooting the video was fun and a bit chaotic, because we were on a time crunch. We shot the video literally as soon as we landed in Jamaica. The check-in process at the resort had gone longer than expected and cut into our shoot time, so I didn’t even get to settle into my hotel room until after the shoot. I had to get ready in the lobby bathroom with only five minutes to do my makeup. But, overall, it was a fantastic shoot. The director knew what she was doing and how to bring our vision to fruition. I’m very proud of Adia for putting together the whole thing! The trip to Jamaica was for her 23rd birthday as well. It was my first time there and definitely a trip that I’ll remember for the rest of my life!
You released your debut album Everything Festyle in July 2020. What did it feel like to record and release that record? Now that the album’s been out for more than a year, have your feelings about the album changed at all?
It was invigorating as a new artist! The album came together because all eight songs — the eighth song, “Changeability,” lives only on SoundCloud — were songs that I’d written over the past two years since I released “Note To Self” and “Sharon.” They illustrate the balance of coming into adulthood, finding myself, establishing boundaries in friendships and relationships, knowing my worth, speaking my truth and more. I think of that album as giving my audience a glimpse into my heart and mind at the time. I’m still amazed by it every time I listen, as it sounds very different from my previous work.
My feelings about the album have changed in the sense that I love it more and more as time goes on! Sometimes I think back on the recording sessions and think, “Damn, I don’t remember being this satisfied coming out of the booth!” Especially the harmonies. I’m just like, “Wow, I came up with those harmonies?” I think it was greatly mixed and mastered as well. Shoutout to Bryan Schwaller.
You tweeted that your music is “all about pushing back against this narrative that vulnerability is weak. It’s actually quite the opposite.” Could you expand on this idea and share how it’s reflected by the music you make?
This society pushes people to repress their emotions to the point where everyone is walking around with some form of depression or anxiety. Emotions themselves are looked down upon as if they are not an integral part of being a human. Growing up in Chicago, you’re taught to be tough no matter what. Kindness is often taken for granted. I think that choosing to wear your heart on your sleeve in a cold, cruel world displays major strength, simply because most people are so afraid of doing so. And I understand that, because it does leave you susceptible to getting hurt, right? But, to me, it shows a streak of bravery. Those who take advantage of kind people are only playing themselves. If you’re naturally a sweet or open person, don’t silence that part of yourself because the world has taught you to do so. Of course, make sure to protect yourself at all times, establish your boundaries, don’t let anyone try you! But don’t try to be something you’re not either.
In my song “Mission” on Everything Festyle, I rap about that: “Now everybody and they mama wanna be so hard, but bitch you can’t be hard if you don’t know what’s in ya heart,” and, “Hey, you ain’t gotta be gangsta in the booth, you just gotta let go and be the real you.”
Challenging the rappers who promote a tough exterior, who tote guns in their videos and glorify violence but aren’t really living that life: “You rap about weight you don’t move and bitches you don’t shoot.” It sends a toxic message to youth that they can’t express their emotions or be who they truly are, because it may not be cool enough. It’s ridiculous. Even today’s hustle culture denounces emotions. While the popular phrase “Get out your feelings and into your bag” makes sense, it kinda promotes sacrificing your mental health for the coin. I’m not saying to not focus on your coin — get in your bag by all means, we do live in a capitalist society! But sometimes you need to sit in your feelings to process. When we fail to process our emotions, to process trauma, that’s when mental health issues sneak in. It’s all connected.
You also tweeted: “Is the art truly challenging you if it doesn’t expose you a bit? If it doesn’t peel a layer?” Do you remember a piece of art which prompted you to self-reflect or which challenged your views and beliefs?
“Pray 4 U” from Everything Festyle is about two specific people that I had to let go of at the time of writing it. Anyone close to me may be able to infer who one or both of those people were. I’m completely letting out all my feels in that song! I wrote it because I was self-reflecting on my actions with both individuals and realized I was giving out way more than I was receiving. So I had to just release them and love them from afar.
In high school, I was apart of the Louder Than A Bomb slam poetry team at Senn High School. I remember writing a poem about a fight I had with my best friend that was so revealing of the hurt I’d felt. I just know that whenever I finish a piece or a song and I cringe a bit at how much I’m letting out, that’s what makes my art so good and relatable.
When you model, do you feel like your creative process is similar to making music, or is it in its entirely own space?
I would say it’s entirely it’s own space. Simply because, with modeling, I’m there to portray a certain look — specifically, what the designer needs me to portray. Think America’s Next Top Model: it’s all about delivering the concept presented to you. There’s certain angles I need to hit, poses I need to hit. Eyes need to look alive and like they’re saying something. It’s more similar to acting than to making and performing music to me. Even when I’m modeling for music, it’s a different mindset to me.
Do you have any hidden talents or interests your fans might be surprised to learn about?
I’m actually pretty good at writing narrative stories and erotic stories.
What can fans expect from you in the future — any new projects on the way?
Fans can expect new R&B music with a a bit of a dark feel and a crossover into Caribbean music, coming soon!
Edited for length and clarity by Erik Anderson
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