It's hard to define soul. Soul exists on a level beyond description, but when it hits you its realer than any words could be.
Soul is my daughter dancing in the kitchen to the breakdown section of "Honey," hair flying as the tempo of the drums speed up and up. Soul is that screamed "I love ya!" that can't be contained. Soul is Eryn Allen Kane.
Credit due to Lucas, he was the one who first came to me two years ago talking about this new singer. She was doing a rendition of BJ the Chicago Kid and Kendrick's "His Pain" and the emotion was impossible to ignore. It was only one song, though, and while I followed Kane as she contributed to a host of Chicago compatriots, from Saba's "Burnout" to being one of the 57 people who worked on Surf, I needed to hear her headlining vision before I was sold. Aviary Act I was that vision - I was so fucking sold. There's nothing I can write that "Have Mercy" can't say better. This was soul, it escapes words.
If she wasn't a Top Prospect I don't know why we were even running the series, and then something better happened. In between confirming her as a Prospect and actually interviewing her she dropped Aviary Act II and it was somehow even better. Suddenly I was back to my dad playing Donny Hathaway in the house on Sundays. I couldn't define soul, but I knew it when I heard it.
When I talked to Eryn she was leaving Target, which is the kind of detail a writer includes in a profile to let the reader know she's still very much normal despite having made a song with the velveted God, Prince, and we started at the beginning. She grew up in Detroit, the type of kid who sang in a choir and acted although she always loved art more than performing. Her first real brush with the music industry came young, but predictably it was far more smoke than substance.
"I signed a terrible development deal in high school, for 18 months I couldn't do anything," she remembered. "They wanted me to be the next Christina Milian. I kept telling them that wasn't what I wanted. I grew up listening to Earth Wind and Fire, Aretha Franklin. They said they were going to make me famous, get me on Disney, but I've never wanted that since I've been making music."
Learning industry rule 4080 so young was a blessing in disguise, forcing her to return to the most basic of basics as she literally learned to write songs using household objects. "I started making songs from the ground up with my voice, playing drum sounds on a laundry basket," she said. "Vocally I'd sing horn sections, arrange entire songs with my voice, just so I knew that if one day I actually had a band, this is what each instrument would play."
A move to Chicago and a growing roster of connections - she met Chance the Rapper working as a Red Bull girl, driving around the city handing out drinks - brought that dream of recording with a band even closer, but now she also had to figure out not just what her music wanted to sound like, but what she wanted it to feel like, and so she gravitated towards music that revealed her scars as a way to heal them. "You can release the things you've been hurt by," she said, "and it heals people who may have gone through something similar."
While Aviary Act I is a very internal album, Act II widens the scope from Kane's personal pain towards the wounds currently being torn open in America, wounds that also have a deep personal resonance. Growing up in Detroit as part of a multi-racial family she saw how her white step-brother and black brother were treated differently and felt the sting of police brutality come as close as her front lawn when cops came onto her family's property to harass her brother.
"They got really aggressive with him and started fighting with him and busted his eye open, slammed him on the hood of the car. I come outside and he's bleeding. I'm seeing these men for like the twelfth time in two years, completely degrading this strong man I know. I flipped out, they were like, 'You want to go to jail too?' My mom had to make me go back inside, she was crying.
It was something I had to get used to seeing but I never got accustomed to it, every time I see it makes me sick to my stomach. Yes, racism still does exist and we have to confront that. If I can speak out about something I'm going to do it."
That willingness to use music as a form of protest places her in a tradition that stretches back to Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone and further. It's a heavy responsibility, but we need artists who aren't afraid of embracing it. We need music like "How Many Times."
It's a little hard to believe considering how complex her music is, but Kane really just is in the infant stages of her career. Aviary Act I was the first project of her career and it was an EP, and while she's been getting some press in Chicago, when we spoke she was getting ready to perform at her first show - as in first ever - before embarking on her first small tour.
From that first YouTube link Lucas hit me up with until now she's getting better at an almost unfair speed and it's tempting to envision grand things for her, SNL performances and adoring crowds. But while I hope those things come true for her, to be honest I don't really care, not really. I'm not trying to convince you to listen to her music so you'll be able to say "I've been listening to her since..." when she does end up on SNL (although that'll be cool too).
No, I'm writing this because keeping soul to yourself is an original sin. Soul demands to be shared, it is inherently impossible to contain, and hopefully her soul will spread over us all.
By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.