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KeiyaA Works Toward Greatness

Written by on September 13, 2021

Vocalist and producer KeiyaA returned to her hometown for the first time since the release of her critically-acclaimed project Forever, Ya Girl to perform at the Pitchfork Music Festival.

photo: Neva Wireko

“I’m just willing to adapt, depending on my environment, mainly as a survival technique. This music was a conversation between these many adaptive selves and my core.”


The first thing KeiyaA does on Forever, Ya Girl, her 2020 debut, is ask a question.

Now based in New York, the Chicago native returned home for a Sept. 12 set at the Pitchfork Music Festival. It was the first time the neo-soul vocalist and producer had performed in her hometown since Forever’s release, and was one of the largest platforms KeiyaA’s had to play in front of a crowd.

The appearance raises more questions.

On “Hvnli” — and across her entire album — the 29-year-old lyricist expresses a comfort with solitude, regardless of her attendant struggles and circumstances.

It’s a rub that makes performing before the throngs of Pitchfork attendees a conundrum. So, is it a struggle to get psyched up for a gig like that?

“I didn’t think Pitchfork would be the first time I was showcasing myself [in Chicago], but it is. I’m excited about that, but obviously feeling the pressure,” said the vocalist, who as a kid sang in the Chicago Children’s Choir. “[M]y relationship with performing has been a conversation between my training, upbringing and a foundational understanding of performance in an ensemble sense, and performing compositions solo. It’s been interesting. I don’t think I’ve settled into any place yet. I feel like something’s missing.”

Forever yields another contrast: The probing lyrics sometimes clash with the otherwise savory productions that KeiyaA crafted during a seven-year stretch. It’s an aspect of her craft largely ignored in other coverage of the vocalist and composer.

“Rectifiya,” a slinky, organic groove in the album, is both quirky and engaging in equal measure. It’s a sonic announcement of purpose, one that draws on her expansive musical preferences. The undeniably unique qualities of the beats here blossom from her omnivorous taste in music. A blend of soul, R&B, hip-hop and jazz — as well as her formative familiarity with the saxophone — should be instantly recognizable.

“The saxophone and my voice, to me, are interchangeable, in the way that I view music making through the lens of jazz composition,” KeiyaA said. “[Saxophonist] Wayne Shorter is one of my favorite composers, because of the way he would juxtapose post-bop grooves with nontraditional harmonies. Then the melodies would be rhythmic and strong … . I kind of do the same thing: Instead of the melodies being saxophone, they’re melodies that I sing. And I use words to capture emotion that [the saxophone’s] texture or timbre would otherwise.”

If the music that comprises Forever began being developed during her early 20s, lyrically, too, KeiyaA is engaged in discussion with her past selves, touching on materialism, exhaustion, relationships and more.

“I think that the core of me hasn’t changed much,”she said about her own personal evolution. “I’m just willing to adapt, depending on my environment, mainly as a survival technique. This music was a conversation between these many adaptive selves and my core.”

With a boundless musical palette and the ability to unwind her inner-most thoughts — stretching from appropriation to fiscal insolvency — it might be hard to simply slot KeiyaA into the neo-soul category. But it’s a marker she wholly embraces, seeing her work within the genre’s continuum, as she leans equally on hip-hop’s finespun rhythms and the luxuriant melodies of soul and R&B.

“I still think it’s hard for people to know how to receive someone who is a strong vocalist, is a strong writer and a strong producer,” she said about largely tackling the album on her own. “Usually, you’re only talking about one of those aspects.”

That expansiveness likely will be on display for future recordings, too. As the pandemic’s afforded KeiyaA time away from live performances, work on some demos for a new album has begun. The vocalist and producer, though, doesn’t feel pressure to crank out another record too quickly.

“I think I could be someone who just makes music that reflects the time I’m creating in and calls it an album, and does it once or twice a year,” she said. “But I want to give myself space. I saw what I was able to do when I low-key scrambled together what I already had and made Forever, Ya Girl. I need to give myself, maybe not another seven years, but maybe space and time to do something great.”

Written By Dave Cantor

Follow KeiyaA on Twitter and Instagram, and stream Forever, Ya Girl. on Spotify below.

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