I’m going to go on and say it: Sy Smith is the hardest working indie artist in show business. Full stop.
Okay, to clarify of course there are a tremendous amount of uber talented grinders, movers and shakers out here on the independent music scene. You’ve got to be if you’re going to have a career in entertainment. So I use this distinction to make a point about this multi-hyphenated global trendsetting diva-singer-songwriter-producer extraordinaire.
We met over fifteen years ago in Los Angeles when she was gaining momentum as an unsigned a singer. In significant ways, she is one of the pioneers of the Indie Soul Movement that came about during the early 2000s, before there was even a movement.
That’s probably why she’s been dubbed “the Queen of Underground Soul.” About a year after the release of her first EP, a mutual friend introduced me to Sy Smith during her monthly showcase at a coffee shop called Lucy Florence in Leimert Park, near where I grew up. I’ve since marveled at how far Sy has come as the master of her fate truly realizing that the world is her oyster.
Long gone are the nights of slinging CDs from the back of her Ford Explorer after gigs at Temple Bar. These days she is the definition of “jetsetter” while on a never-ending world tour as a world-class entertainer in demand. A featured vocalist with Grammy Award-winning pop instrumentalist Chris Botti, with whom you can see her in the August 18th episode of PBS’ Great Performances, Sy exemplifies Diana Ross pomp-and-circumstance.
Botti’s sensational band sells out a residency at The Blue Note every Christmas season in New York City, which is how I know for sure that I can put Sy Smith and Diana Ross in the same sentence. You’ll also find her on stage with Sheila E. or her father, the legendary Pete Escovedo. She’s been featured in tributes to Ella Fitzgerald at Carnegie Hall (which I also saw and was blown away by) and the Kennedy Center.
She’s often in the studio with some of the illest cats to pick up instruments. Her tour credits read like a Who’s Who of notable musical artists across genre. She’s on local radio stations while her music plays on the Music Choice R&B Soul cable channel. Nevermind trying to keep up with Carmen Sandiego or figure out where Waldo is, Sy Smith is the one to follow!
As if her plate wasn’t already jam-packed with delicious opportunity, Sy is currently underway with her own national tour to promote her fifth studio album Sometimes A Rose Will Grow In Concrete. Released in February under her own label, Psyko! Records, SRWGC is receiving critical acclaim as Sy’s finest work.
It also marks the first album of her catalogue that was completely written and produced by the multi-talented artist, who is also an actress having appeared on stage, television and in film. Thoughtful and compelling as a musical storyteller, Sy is seen as a “21st century Roberta Flack” with the range of Minnie Riperton because of her whimsical mastery of singing, songwriting and hypnotizing her Syberspace audience.
Shoppe Black: So, the first quote that I’ll use to shape the interview is from the song “Moonlight” on Jay-Z’s 4:44 album:
“Y’all niggas still signin’ deals? Still? After all they done stole, for real? After what they done to our Lauryn Hill? And y’all niggas is ‘posed to be trill? That’s real talk when you behind on your taxes, and you pawned all your chains, and they run off with your masters, and took it to Beverly Hills while we in Calabasas, and my head is scratchin’ ’cause that shit is backwards.”
Can you talk about your very first (and only if I’m not mistaken) recording deal, and how it shaped your emergence as an independent artist starting your own label?
Sy Smith: My first record deal came about by accident, really. I was shopping around my writer’s catalog in pursuit of a publishing deal but everyone who heard it thought it was a demo. After months and months of telling people, “No! I’m a writer, not a recording artist…” I finally just decided to embrace it when Hollywood Records offered me the [record] deal. My experience there was eye-opening to say the least.
I learned a lot about how Black artists are treated (or mistreated) when the machine involved has completely segregated the “urban” acts. I learned how even the slightest bit of political speech from Black people is considered threatening and inappropriate by the white folks who run things.
I really learned a lot. But, most importantly, I learned to stay true to my vision of who I am, even if it means the rug will be pulled out from under me. I learned how to fly alone. My independent spirit probably wouldn’t be what it is without my experience as a signed artist.
SB: Speaking of Lauryn Hill, she gets a lot of shade these days from every direction (and justifiably so, to be clear)! But if there’s one thing that Ms. Hill has always had a knack for since the ‘90s, it’s dropping science and pearls of wisdom. She once said: “I had to confront my fears and master my every demonic thought about inferiority, insecurity, or the fear of being Black, young, and gifted in this Western culture.”
In your personal thought process, do you acknowledge your own limitations as a barrier to what you are further able to accomplish? Or use them as motivation to move past/around the perceived limitation?
Sy: What limitations?? LOL. Just kidding. I think I am pretty pragmatic about how I pursue my goals, even if the goals themselves seem lofty. I’ve never met a challenge that I didn’t see through to completion. At least none that I can think of. Sometimes though, I might say to myself, “This is something you can do. You’ll just need to put it away and learn more about it before you come back to it.” And then I’ll do just that.
I think I’m so used to people looking at me and making assumptions about what I can or can’t do… seems like I’ve made it my life’s work to prove people wrong [professionally, as an indie artist]. That’s kinda what Black Girl Magic is though, right?
SB: Diana Ross, one of your iconic heroes, said about chasing dreams: “You can’t just sit there and wait for people to give you that golden dream. You’ve got to get out there and make it happen for yourself.”
What are the most challenging (as well as gratifying) business decisions you’ve had to make as an entrepreneur?
Sy: Well, the most challenging was probably after my record deal was a wrap and I needed to decide whether or not I was going to continuing pursuing a career as a recording artist. I was jaded AF. I was depressed, chronically so. I was fed up. But I also had a story to tell. I had things I wanted to say, and I felt like I had a unique point of view. So I decided to release an EP back in 2001 [ entitled One Like Me].
That decision sparked the indie artist in me, long before there was an independent soul movement or anything. And that was one of the most gratifying business decisions I’ve ever made – the decision to take my music into my own hands, and release it on my own terms…
For every one of us [entrepreneurs] who do what we do, there are so many people who go to work everyday at jobs that they hate. It sounds strange when there’s an entire world for us. They’re afraid, and won’t leave their cities. The fear is taught, and we’re taught to be complacent [instead of following that entrepreneurial spirit].
SB: Michelle Obama famously said, “When they go low, we go high!” But she also encourages: “We as women, we have to understand that we know more, just even instinctively, than we think we do.”
How do you know where and when to draw the line? (In several contexts: draw the line with people demanding things of you; draw the line in knowing that it’s time to rest and having to turn down opportunity; draw the line with executing decisiveness as a businesswoman, or in any other instance.)
Sy: It’s really simple for me. Whenever something doesn’t FEEL good to me anymore, I stop doing it. Whenever something doesn’t feel “right,” I don’t do it. Being grown has taught me the beauty of “No” and I relish in that shit. Like, my default answer used to be “Yes” to everything. I thought that made me someone who’s easy to work with. Someone who works well with others.
Someone who people will call back for more all the time… But really, “Yes” to everything just burns you out faster. So, yeah, I take my time processing these days and say “No” without packing my bags for a guilt trip. And that came with experience. Growing up and maturing. My body was falling apart until I learned how to say “No,” and relish what “No” means for me in the long run.
SB: Another fabulous badass bawse and global trendsetter is Bozoma Saint John (Chief Marketing Officer at Endeavor Global Marketing) who has said, “I love sleep so much. That’s the one thing I won’t sacrifice. I really cannot.” She’s also commented on how great of a nap-taker she is, and how she’ll take a nap just about anywhere.
How do you manage and negotiate constantly being on the road with self-care. Does your ongoing travel affect your health and wellness? What impact does it have on your relationship with your husband (actor/director Shawn Carter Peterson), loved ones, or Djinji (her just-as-famous Red Standard Poodle)?
Sy: I wish I could take naps. My husband takes a nap everyday like a kindergartner and I can’t stand him for it! LOL! I’ve suffered from bouts of insomnia for as long as I can remember remembering, and it can border on debilitating if not checked. I’ve just been trying to consciously live a healthier life–mentally and physically.
For the last two years, I’ve been using an app called “Headspace” for a 10-minute daily meditation. I do this meditation every single day, usually at night right before I go to bed. Meditating like this is working wonders for my mind. I’m almost mad at myself for not having done this sooner!
As far as navigating my career and my family, you know… it’s just a matter of us both consciously checking in with each other. We do this especially when I’m home, in the mornings over morning coffee. We just sit and talk about stuff going on in our lives. And then it’s like, BOOM! We do a mental fist bump and we get back to work.
Sometimes we do impromptu things like meet for lunch or we take Djinji for walks together around the neighborhood or at the park… It’s all a matter of making that conscious effort to check in. And that meditation is also a mode of checking in. Only, it’s with myself.
Exercise and biking a lot helps me sleep late at night, as well. Until I had a big health scare, I was just allowing myself to suffer, and I learned from that experience. You HAVE to take care of your body, whatever that means. Balance is very important. You can’t do that [neglect yourself] for long periods of time and expect your body to hold up. [But that] means something different to every person.
SB: You are regarded as the Queen of Underground Soul, and the Queen of Media, Oprah Winfrey, states: “Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a different way to stand.”
How do you deal with disappointments and challenges (either professional or, sometimes even more devastating, personal), and still be able to keep going (showing up on stage/in public as your full self each day)?
Sy: Man, I still don’t know the answer to this. Sometimes I look back on my performances and think, “That show was two days after Aunt Rita passed away.” Or “This video was shot the same day I found out that I needed emergency surgery.” Or something like that. And I wonder how I even made it through. But there’s something about the stage for me… When I’m on it, everything else around me in the world disappears, and it’s just that room and the people in it that exist. For that moment, we are the entire world.
I think that’s how it’s always been for me when it comes to performing. After performances though, when I return to life… I love hard, I grieve hard, I feel HARD. Which makes showing up in public a whole ‘nother show. That’s the part that can become thoroughly exhausting… being “on” even when you kinda don’t want to be. I think that’s why I am happy with how my career has turned out thus far.
I’m not a household name, and that’s okay with me. Means I can be anonymous to an extent and still enjoy the world. It’s no fun when TMZ shows up with cameras after shit like a dentist appointment to ask you a bunch of questions about a TV show you have nothing to do with (true story).
SB: Now for some fun questions! Your life in 5 movie titles! Choose a film that reflects each time period of your life: Your formative years (coming of age); Your HU days (You know!); Your early career/moving to LA; Your current chapter as a professional entertainer; and, your retirement.
Sy: First, this is a HARD question! Second, I really did have fun with it.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: My coming of age was really about taking the reins and determining what my life was going to be. Whether I was going to live for me or live for my parents …which this movie speaks to in a way. It’s also about taking chances and being able to deal with the consequences. Definitely my coming of age title… Am I gonna sit around and suffer and live up to my dad’s expectations???
I really identified with that moment. [The characters] did have some pressure [from their parents]. It took some time [as an undergraduate] to figure out what I was going to do, and I had some coming of age moments with my family, especially with my dad. When I said I wasn’t going to grad school… Mom was a clinical social worker (among other things), with her own private practice. My dad’s Masters is in sociology… Behavioral Science was an easy choice because that was what my parents did. I excelled at it, but it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue.
The Wiz: I didn’t want to say School Daze because that wasn’t my HU experience. My life at Howard University was like being ejected from the world I know (though not unexpectedly) and coming into this completely new world that seemed a little foreign, at first, but quickly became familiar to me. I gained this motley crew of friends from all walks of (Black) life. And we followed our own yellow brick roads to graduation where that big voice boomed from the loudspeakers conferring upon us our diplomas, confirming that we’d completed our goals. Plus, song and dance numbers were regular occurrences at HU. LOL!
Go! : This movie reminds me of my early days in L.A. in a couple of ways. I first watched it during that time in my life, of course. But also, I kind of hit the ground running when I moved here, and in this movie, the main character is living kind of a mundane life when all of a sudden she’s forced to get moving, quickly. She improvises a lot to make things work out in the end, hilariously sometimes and dangerously sometimes. Which I think I did too. We make dangerous decisions when we’re young because we’re too naïve to be afraid. When I got to California, bam! I was on my own… I refused to call home and ask for money, so I hit the ground running.
(Sy also explains that she’s never had a full-time nine-to-five, except for a few months on Capitol Hill right after finishing her degree at Howard. Other than temping with an agency during her first few weeks in L.A., she’s been on the winding, upward hill as an indie artist.)
PeeWee’s Big Adventure: Sometimes my life seems pretty surreal, just like this movie. And the things I experience, not many people would believe ever really happened. Like in this movie. LOL! But it’s still the best ride I could ever have. Plus, the score of this Big Adventure is awesome. I think it would be the perfect score to my life. …Like one time with [trumpeter Chris] Botti, we had a show in Italy, a wedding reception at a castle in Tuscany. When we landed he was like, “We should go to [rock legend] Sting’s house…” In PWBA, he does really ridiculous stuff, but in a good way!
Big: I think when I retire, I’ll turn into a kid in a grown person’s body. I’ll try to do all the things I wanted to do, which will likely look childish to most grown people. But there’s a part of me that will never really grow up. I want to do leisurely things. I just want to go to the amusement park, because I can’t go today. Six Flags… Universal Studios… on a rainy Wednesday when all the children are at school, and get on rides with Shawn.
SB: Favorite Podcasts: I know you’re into them big time, particularly during flights or on the tour bus.
I live for true crime podcasts these days. This happened after that first season of Serial. I love these other podcasts: Undisclosed, Criminal, Sword And Scale, In The Dark, Suspect Convictions. There was a limited series called Dirty John, which was amazing. I also love This American Life, and Snap Judgment – both of which are storytelling type podcasts. And the science geek in me lives for RadioLab! For lighter moods, I just started listening to a podcast called Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor Of All Time Period with W. Kamau Bell. It’s pretty funny too.
SB: Apps you can’t live without (either that you love to indulge in, or that need to keep your demanding life efficient and moving forward)
Sy: “Words With Friends” cause I’m a beast. LOL! All the airline apps that I use – because, boarding passes. “Mobile Pass” for getting back into the U.S. without waiting in those long lines at immigration/customs. It will get you the same entry as Global Entry, but it’s free.
You have to be on WiFi [by purchasing it on the airplane] two hours before you land, and fill out the mobile pass while you’re online. “Headspace” for daily meditation. [It helps with] consciously making an effort to live in a healthy way. This is a circumstance where technology helps me get grounded. It’s like doing pushups, and you have to practice on focusing. But it helps me be mindful of what my mind is doing. All of the processes that go on in our mind, we really can take control of them.
SB: Whitney (who you’ve toured with), Michael and Prince. What has each taught you about being true to yourself in this industry, as an entertainer, as a creator, AND in terms of ownership?
Sy: Whitney, Michael and Prince all had a certain strength about them. They carried enormous loads, single-handedly, for many years and we never heard them publicly complain. They were fighters. They fought for ALL of us, but especially for Black entertainers. And they represented a spirit of freedom and liberation, especially as Prince and Michael got older, that I can really appreciate now.
These are the things I learned from them: How to maintain my freedom in an industry that literally wants us to work for free. And not only maintain ownership of things like masters, but ownership of my being – being self-defined in a world that feels like it can define me by my gender and ethnicity alone. I am a Black woman, yes. And that in itself is a damn GRAND being to be. But I’m so much more than even that. I fully and gladly embrace that truth.
(The conversation takes a sidebar with Sy recalling the moment she met Prince backstage at the Great Western Forum in 2011, where he was performing his “Twenty-One Night Stand/Welcome To America” tour. She was a part of Sheila E’s band, which was opening that night, and had stepped out of the green room for a moment. Sy would return to the room with Prince encircled by the family entourage as Sheila intimately made introductions. Stunned, she introduced herself to Prince, who replied, “I know who you are. I love your work.”
This led the discussion to how Prince was quietly and consistently stanning for Black singers, like Shelby J, Liv Warfield, Judith Hill and several others, for years. We then shifted to Michael Jackson and how, though his physical appearance was always in question throughout his life, he always celebrated Blackness, most notably with the “Remember The Time” video choreographed by veteran dancer Fatima Robinson. Sy reflects, “They [Whitney, Prince and Michael] owned their Blackness. You could really see it on display as they got older. But us, their audience getting older, we also had to recognize it.”)
SB: You’re touring all over the world, very much living a glamorous life–by all accounts. But there’s also something very charming and relatable about the love you share for your home in South Los Angeles with Shawn and Djinji. You’ve posted moments of dressing up for Halloween and passing out candy to the neighborhood children. Your wedding was in your backyard where you also host legendary cookouts for friends and family. You relish serene hikes in Kenneth Hahn Park not far from where you live. I also remember reading about your ancestral home in Tennessee called “Promise Land.” If I may quote you: “And now, thanks to my mother Serina Gilbert, who gave me 5 acres of property here in this Promise Land, this legacy will continue through me and my other relatives who still remain there.”
Something about this made me think of Master P’s interludes on Solange’s A Seat At The Table. He reminisces:
“…To being able to make Forbes and come from the projects. You know, ‘Top 40 Under 40,’ which they said couldn’t be done… Had twenty records on the top Billboard at one time. For an independent company. Black-owned company…! …You know, going to the white lady’s house where my grandmother lived at, and saying, ‘Look, you don’t have to work here no more Big Mama! We got more money than the people on St. Charles Street.’”
Contextualize what it means to have established the home that you share in L.A. and the home that you’re building in Promise Land? Especially as a Black woman who happens to be a professional independent artist.
Every time I walk into our modest backyard here in L.A., I think to myself, “Man! We have LAND in Los Angeles!” As modest as our 108-year old home is, there is something big about that. And I know it because everybody and their mama wants some of this ground. If they didn’t, real estate prices wouldn’t be soaring as they are.
But bigger than real estate, there is this: The idea of owning a little piece of the world for a little piece of time, and going down in the archives as one of the owners of this little house. I love the idea of being archived in this way, of being a small part of this history. For as long as this nation will exist and the history of it, Shawn and I will have a tiny little piece of history in those archives and that’s important.
A similar feeling is evoked when I think of the land my mother has given me in Tennessee. This is part of the same land my ancestors worked on, bled on, birthed on, learned on, built on–for more than 150 years! And now, by the grace of God and the fierce intelligence/foresight of my mom, I have a piece of it. I can’t explain the feeling of taking my shoes off and running around barefoot on my plot, which is just a huge field of grass and wildflowers next door to the historic one-room schoolhouse that my ancestors built in the early 1900s to educate themselves (even my mother attended Promise Land School).
But it’s the epitome of being GROUNDED. Barefoot on your own ground. That your ancestors passed on to you! A connection to something so much bigger. This is what ownership is. It’s a connection to something way bigger than money. It’s a connection to history. People are always telling Black folk to leave the history in the past. “Why don’t you just move on?” they say. We’re always scolded, “Can’t you just forget about it and move on?” We’re [literally] taught to leave it in the past; it’s all about now.
But it’s also telling us that we shouldn’t own our history. While at the same time, they build MONUMENTS and parks to their heroes and their history. Highways and entire circles with statues that we have to drive around. They don’t care if we move on or not, but they do care if we OWN our history. They don’t want that. Ownership means we can build monuments too. I’m proud to be an owner in Promise Land. That piece of Tennessee is a monument to my entire family. As small as it is, it’s huge to me. It’s huge to my family.
Keep up with Sy online!
Mai Perkins is Cali girl in a Bed Stuy world, with several blogs under her belt including Uberlicious.nyc and MaiOnTheMove.com. She is a contributing writer for the music publication Pop-Mag.com, and has written for Relevant and Bust Magazine. With an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and an MA in International Affairs from The New School, she reps her beloved alma mater, Howard University, every chance she gets. As a poet and a non-fiction writer, she has just published her first manuscript, The Walking Nerve-Ending, available now on Amazon & Kindle.
Twitter: @flymai on Twitter