‘I was sad in a way I never knew possible’: Yaya Bey on grief, poverty and using music as therapy

Estimated read time 7 min read

“My life has been a whirlwind,” sighs Yaya Bey. Across a turbulent near-decade, the R&B auteur has weathered divorce and bereavement, relocated from Washington DC back home to New York and wrested control of her musical direction. Her 2022 breakthrough, Remember Your North Star, fused homespun neo-soul with hip-hop as she brooded over heartache, depression and a world that no longer made sense, coining a sound as intimate as a voice note from a desperate friend. Her honesty and wit have won her widespread acclaim, and that’s only likely to grow with the release of her ambitious new album Ten Fold.

“But I haven’t been able to reflect on all that’s happened,” she says. “I’ve been fighting this uphill battle for years, and it’s been exhausting beyond belief. I still have so much to say, I’m striking while the iron’s hot. But after one more album, I’m taking a break.”

Bey has been at the game since she was nine. Her father, Ayub Bey, was Grand Daddy IU of Queensbridge, New York hip-hop collective the Juice Crew. Yaya got her start writing hooks for her dad’s rapper friends. “Choruses for songs I really didn’t understand, because I was so young,” she says. “But I always took music seriously, even as a kid; I always knew this was what I wanted to do.”

Finding her true voice took time. “It was step by step,” she says. “I started out trying to write songs for other people. Then I was in a duo, and I joined a band.” Based in Washington DC, she recorded a couple of early solo records, produced by her then-husband. “But that was not my sound. He was more influenced by the blues and Americana. But I come from hip-hop, from R&B, and disco, club music and sampling. I wanted to tap into my roots.”

In 2019, her marriage over, she moved back to New York, her mind set on making music she “could truly guide”. But it didn’t come easy. “I would work at my day job for 13 hours, come home, make music for five hours, sleep a couple of hours, and then start over. I was sad, overworked, exhausted to the point of depression. The music was the only thing that gave me hope. Because I finally sounded like myself.”

On a mission, she removed her old albums from streaming and worked on her new material, piecing the music together from samples. She began work on an EP, a calling card to secure management and a record deal, to show what she could do. Then Covid hit. “So I said: ‘OK, fuck it. I’ll make an album.’ I recorded it in my house and then I put it out myself.”

That album, 2020’s Madison Tapes, secured Bey a record deal with venerated UK-based hip-hop label Big Dada. It was a salvation, of sorts. “I’d been in complete and utter survival mode when I made Madison Tapes,” she says. “I was down bad; I felt like I was fighting for my life. I had a manager now, a record deal. But I was still three months behind on my rent, I was in a crazy relationship.”

She ploughed this angst into making the brilliant Remember Your North Star, which she described on the sleeve as “my personal take on navigating misogynoir in romantic relationships”. Dark, funny and sad, the album blended R&B, lover’s rock and hip-hop (Reprise), took aim at loser dudes (Rolling Stoner), and bemoaned toxic relationships (Keisha, with the genius hook: “The pussy’s so, so good / And you still don’t love me”). The reviews were rapturous, and Bey set off on a four-month tour of Europe in late 2022.

But while she was on the road, her dad passed away. She tried to escape her grief in music, but found her father waiting for her there. “My dad taught me how to listen to music,” she says. “How to relate to it, how to find your humanity in it; the fragility of just being a human and being alive. We don’t talk about how fragile life is, because we’d all be fucking wrecks if we focused on that. But in music, the vulnerability of life exists in a visceral way, in a way we can swallow. My dad taught me how to be present with that.”

She considered taking a break to recover from the loss. “But Dad didn’t have life insurance, and when someone dies, it’s so expensive. I had to finance that, so I had to keep going.” As she started work on Ten Fold, she realised she was in better shape than she’d thought: “I was sad in a way that I never knew was possible. But I was not in despair. I was witnessing everything I ever wanted come to life.”

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Ten Fold is a markedly different album from North Star – still powerfully honest, sharp and tender, but more stable, more upbeat. Seeking to “elevate” her sound, Bey handed production reins to Corey Fonville, Karriem Riggins and others. Her characteristic introspection is tempered by political broadsides (Eric Adams in the Club, a swipe at New York’s disastrous mayor, dancing while the Big Apple burns), celebrations of funk legends (iloveyoufrankiebeverly, a tribute to the Maze bandleader who “achieved something phenomenal with his cookout music – it uplifts people”), and anthems of self-celebration (the gloriously housey Sir Princess Bad Bitch, with its chorus of “I wouldn’t never rather be / No other thing but the thing I am”.

“There’s many affirmations on the album, because I was coaching myself through this big shift in my life,” she says. “I went through this fear I wouldn’t be able to sustain my success, and experienced a lot of survivor’s guilt. I grew up in poverty, and I came up in a time when a lot of people in New York – a lot of my father’s generation, a lot of my elders – did not make it. Where I come from, turning out the way I did is rare. My life taking the turns it has … a lot of people don’t get that. There’s a grief that comes with that.”

She sighs. “I was like, ‘OK, if you’re here and you got this far, you gotta believe in yourself’. But this last year has really been a mindfuck. It’s hard, to constantly be documenting my life through this music in real time.” But the music is also therapeutic: one of Ten Fold’s strongest tracks – opener Crying Through My Teeth – works through the loss of her father. You sense that, even if she does take that much-needed break after finishing Ten Fold’s follow-up, she won’t be able to resist music’s siren call for long.

“Making music reminds me of my grief,” she says. “It reminds me of my dad, it reminds me that I won’t be here for ever – that nothing is here for ever. It reminds me to be alive while I can be.” She pauses. “But it’s also a comfort, to have a place to go, to make sense of it all.”

Source: theguardian.com

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