Shortly after I called KeiyaA for our interview this past Friday, she asked if we could talk over FaceTime instead. After a quick outfit change, I was happy to oblige. “Now we can actually talk and see each other,” the New York-via-Chicago singer—born Chakeiya Richmond—said with glee. In her excitement, she spilled weed ashes all over her lap.
KeiyaA writes to be understood. It’s one of the reasons her debut album, Forever, Ya Girl, released this past March, is such an enchanting listen. Her lyrics deal in affirmation (“I’m gonna keep burning, so baby roll up!” from “I Want My Things!”) and plainspoken declarations (“Long as you respect me, I could care less if you like me” from “Every Nigga Is A Star”).
It’s hard to deny KeiyaA’s power. Outside of production assists from underground rap mainstays MIKE and BSTFRND, whom she met through mutual friend AKAI SOLO after first moving to New York, KeiyaA produced, composed, played every instrument, and looped every sample across Forever by herself.
“Some beats were six years old,” KeiyaA admits. “Some songs were half-written pieces I’d been freestyling and improvising live. I was wearing a lot of different hats. I was a one-person band and my own executive producer, in essence.” Through her piecemealing process, Forever finally came together over just two weeks.
The standout selection on the album, “HVNLI,” in particular, is a microcosm of KeiyaA’s recording process. “I made the loop for ‘HVNLI’ on my SP two years ago while jamming one day,” she recalls. “Then I started getting booked and had to put a set together, so I started playing loops and would come up with one melody.” The bookings kept rolling in, and she added bits and pieces to the song with every new show. After a while, she realized she had formed the song’s skeleton and wrote the lyrics during her two-week crafting period.
KeiyaA created much of Forever, Ya Girl in isolation with only a few helping hands. The album’s singular vision speaks to her exceptional skills and willingness to reach others through her music. “I needed to take that space and get that chip off my shoulder so I could come to environments as a real collaborator,” she admits. In the meantime, one of music’s most exciting new voices has come for her things.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Growing up, when did you first fall in love with music?
KeiyaA: I was in the Chicago Children’s Choir growing up. Scouts would go to public schools and look for people who could be good singers. One day, this old white dude and this younger very hip Japanese woman in a suit came to my choir class, and they had everybody sing some basic ass shit and went around and listened to everyone’s voices. If they liked your voice, they’d leave a Post-It note on your desk. That Post-It note was your secret invitation to join the choir, so I wound up joining on some afterschool stuff. I’d perform concerts all over the city: traditional classical songs, show tunes, you know, choral stuff.
That was my first formal experience of rigorous music shit. Even though I hadn’t identified it myself, it’s around the time I fell in love with music. I remember thinking as a kid; this is what I liked to do. Before that, I had dabbled around in music. There were instruments at home like a broken guitar or a keyboard. I would teach myself to play those. I would take piano lessons. Music found me because I was always around it. It wasn’t until high school that I was seriously thinking about myself as a musician.
What inspired your move from Chicago to New York?
Good question. I was struggling to feel like part of the community there. I had existed in the Chicago music scene as a side person. I sat in on Mick Jenkins, Chance The Rapper, Noname, and Vic Mensa sessions playing saxophone. I was in an all-woman band called SHE. Schenay Mosley—who sings with Smino—and Loona Dae were also in the band. This was around the Acid Rap era. Jamila Woods and Ravyn Lenae were just starting something. It was a renaissance of Chicago artists, and I felt I deserved to be a part of that community, but I was struggling to nestle in as KeiyaA, the vocalist and the producer.
I was Chakeyia Richmond playing the saxophone, but I wanted to transition, and, to be honest, I was frustrated and over it. I was in a relationship with my ex, who was a rapper, and he had the same experience. We both thought about moving to a different area. I was familiar with the New York underground just from the beat scene shit. My instinct was New York because it was the only community I knew outside of Chicago. It made sense because he was from Jersey. In terms of logistics, all of those factors hit at once, and we said, “Fuck it, let’s do it.”
You’ve been making music professionally for at least five years. Why was now the right time to release your debut album Forever, Ya Girl?
There were things in my life that started to fall into place that made me think it was time to give my music career a real shot. When I left Chicago, I was working jobs and doing this to survive. I got kicked out the crib because I couldn’t pay my rent anymore. All of these things started to fall apart, except I was getting booked like crazy. My music community was tightening up, and I was making some of the best music ever. I thought since I was doing shows, I should probably release an album. I already wanted to drop an album in 2020, but in late January/early February, the April tour got confirmed. From there, I decided to drop the album in March.
Walk me through the process of creating Forever, Ya Girl.
I dragged my feet creating some of these songs. Some beats were six years old. Some songs were half-written pieces I’d been freestyling and improvising live. A lot of the album came together in two weeks because of those reasons. It was a lot of piecemealing, composing, and arranging. I was wearing a lot of different hats. I was a one-person band and my own executive producer, in essence. Once all the songs were done, I took a day-and-a-half to piece it together with all the transitions and composed all of those.
I made the loop for “HVNLI” on my SP two years ago while jamming one day. Then I started getting booked and had to put a set together, so I started playing loops and would come up with one melody. Over time, I played “HVNLI,” and I’d add something to it during the show. “HVNLI” was a half-written song with barely any lyrics, but the melody and energy was there.
So you created “HVNLI” over time at live shows. That’s amazing.
Through improvisation, yeah. That’s how a lot of the album was made and how a lot of my creative process works. I have such a jazz foundation, so I can’t help but write any other way. “Every Nigga Is A Star” was a beat I’d made two or three years ago on Reason, and it was one of those beats I thought I was gonna sell to a rapper. I had no idea how to use it. At some point late in the album’s creation, I was thinking in executive producer mode, and I thought having this sound on the record would be crazy.
The intro track, “I Thot There Was One Wound in This House, There’s Two,” was a poem I had written and read before. I wanted to see if I could compose something around this poem. There were some traditional studio moments, too. Through some connects, I’d gained access to XL Studios on the Lower East Side. I recorded “I! Gits! Weary!” there.
Forever, Ya Girl is a singular album in nearly every way. How, if at all, has creating by yourself affected the way you make music?
I thought it was necessary to not only learn and understand at my own rate but to heal. Music education environments, and educational institutions in general, are traumatic and harmful to Black children. They breed competitiveness... In school, we learn how to be worker bees and how to control worker bees. All of that impacted how I see myself and how I value myself creatively, and I just needed to be alone to shed that. Even when we collaborate, sometimes those environments can be hostile in ways we don’t know. I needed to take that space and get that chip off my shoulder so I could come to environments as a real collaborator.
What do you have to say to listeners who think R&B is dead or declining?
It’s important to recognize something sinister is happening in the major market. The arbiters of R&B are no longer the face of the sound. We’re reflected in the songwriting and producing teams sometimes. It used to be understood that women like Aretha Franklin were the image attached to the voice. It even took a lot of work for that to be recognized. Now that image looks like white women. That’s important to recognize and call out. But I find it difficult to be outraged because it’s by design. The energy could and should be used to affirm people who are representing the best of the genre so we can uplift them. R&B isn’t dead, just like mumble rap isn’t the only form of rap.
Now we’re in a tricky place where R&B has become an actual tradition. If we hate the origins, maybe we can collectively change it. Now, R&B is a tradition that has to be defended. I get frustrated because now it’s cool to be “alt” as if that wasn’t always a part of Black music, and we weren’t innovating things. Now you have Black artists who don’t want to be labeled as who they are; they want to be associated with indie rock ideals. This is one of those new-world burdens. I don’t blame anybody for what they’re doing, but it’s important to stand in and revere the tradition based on how we define it.