Check the best-selling lists at area Millennium Music stores, and the names are mostly familiar: Janet Jackson, Destiny’s Child, ex-Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks and Enya.
And then there’s local entry YahZarah, a 21-year-old newcomer who was hanging on in the No. 4 slot in last week’s sales tally in the Durham store. Since the April 24 release of her album, Hear Me, that Millennium branch has sold 35 copies of the CD, unusually high for a local R&B artist.
YahZarah? Most shoppers don’t know the name, the sound, whether YahZarah is a band or solo artist, or how to pronounce that complex-looking name. But that’s about to change: She’s a Durham singer who evokes the very best of soul music “way back when” and the burgeoning “Neo-Soul” movement. A performer who’s been singing professionally since age 11, YahZarah has done everything from gospel to classical music at the Kennedy Center.
“She’s going to be a hometown hero. YahZarah is going to blow up bigger than Sankofa and the other local acts you hear about,” said Kim Arrington, artist and media relations manager for Keo Music.
Hear Me also marks the debut of Keo Music, a new Raleigh-based R&B record label and the outfit that discovered YahZarah. Keo is the brainchild of Chip Shearin, the company’s chief executive officer. A music industry veteran, Shearin’s worked with such disparate acts as Michael Bolton, Toni Braxton and saxophonist Marion Meadows. Shearin also built the label’s studio, where he produced the YahZarah CD.
There are new ways to promote artists, Shearin said, and Keo is hoping to be a pioneer in the field. Their Web site, KeoMusic.com, updates regularly (and Shearin said it will, “almost daily”) and will soon include journal entries from YahZarah, whose pre-recording ritual was to scribble and doodle in a little book while drinking tea. The label also plans to release a YahZarah CD seasonally, so listeners can expect something fresh on a regular basis.
As a high school student, Washington, D.C. native YahZarah, nee Dana Williams, attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. There she was a fundamental part of the school’s first funk band.
In August 1997, she came to the Bull City to study at North Carolina Central University, where she won a full scholarship to the jazz program. Her talent had won her acceptance letters from the prestigious Juilliard and Carnegie Mellon music programs, but she came to N.C. Central because all eight members of her band got accepted there. Now with established roots in Durham, she’s played regular dates as part of her former band Hidden Image at Talk of the Town and at Durham’s now-defunct The Lounge at Cosmic Cantina.
When she decided to pursue a musical career full time, Williams became YahZarah as a tribute to her grandmothers, Yah and Sarah. Although she’s currently performing soul and R&B–recently completing a stint as a backup singer on Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun tour–she hasn’t forgotten her roots in her deeply religious family.
“I grew up in the church and feel this career was God-ordained. I’m thankful that the fight about me not doing gospel music came when I was in high school,” she said.
It’s not often that a performer can hop genres as easily as jump ropes. But YahZarah can and does. Her music collection is an example of her wide-ranging musical interests: It spans from black British singer Omar to Minnie Ripperton (check out the track “Love is You”) to Beck. And right now, her passion is funk. “I’m very funk-oriented. And I hope [that phase] stays with me, ’cause I’m feeling really good now.”
Soft-spoken in conversation, YahZarah is anything but quiet on Hear Me a 17-track blend of mellowness and intensity. In “Rooftop,” she talks about a woman in a toxic romantic relationship, who’s willing to live the “thug life” for a man who’s up to no good.
“This CD is all about things I was going through. I mean, I’m telling you all my damn business,” she says.
Both on her album and in person, YahZarah oozes honesty. She looks you straight in the eye, speaks quietly even when she’s getting a point across, and rocks the forest-green, artsy smock and knee-high moccasins she wears like jewels during a recent interview in Cary.
She’s a girl from the neighborhood–with a touch of Zen. Each of the instrumentalists and singers in her entourage gets a nickname, and it’s clear that Keo Music is, for YahZarah, a family. She and Shearin co-wrote most of the songs on Hear Me and when Keo’s vice president of A&R, E. Blair Brown (aka Blackbeat), joins the conversation, the three banter comfortably and make jokes only they can fully appreciate.
YahZarah confesses she has two little problems: a tendency to use profanity (“It just feels so good sometimes”) and a slight complex about her 5-foot-1-inch height. Of the latter, she said, “People often remember me as the little girl who wears 7-inch stiletto heels [while performing]. I love the way the air feels up there.”
Her candidness is part and parcel why, Shearin said, YahZarah was chosen as the first artist for Keo to represent. He began hearing about her when he taught a class on the business of the music industry at N.C. Central.
“What people need to know about Keo is that 100 percent of our effort goes to doing honest music. YahZarah isn’t a person who was made to look or act like this. We didn’t have to invent her. Motown is dead and gone,” he said.
Keo, which stands for “Keeping our Eyes Open,” is Shearin’s response to trends in today’s R&B, which has stagnated between bump-and-grind ditties (example: R. Kelly’s latest “noncontribution” to the genre, “Feelin’ on Yo Booty”) and odes to materialism.
“We want to get back to the soul singing. One of the criteria I looked for [in the Keo staff] was that they better not think that current R&B is hip,” he says.
According to Shearin, the entire notion of R&B has become complicated with the addition of other musical genres and empty themes. “Rap is confused with R&B. For the average listener, all they know is that [the songs] are beat-driven. But rap has no melody,” he said.
While Shearin has little positive to say about the status quo and most radio playlists, he cannot say enough about YahZarah. “One thing that I can tell you about Yah is that she has no idea what she’s going to do in the studio. She comes up with melodies driving on [Interstate] 40. Almost every song on the CD is a first take.
“After she does something, she’ll say, ‘Oh, Chip, don’t erase that. I don’t know what I just did.’ And it was perfect –intonation and all.” Listening to such compliments, YahZarah half covers her face with her hands. Yet the diminutive artist with a head full of blonde-brown locks isn’t embarrassed; she’s just humble.
The association with Ms. Badu leaves tall shoes to fill, but YahZarah said that the experience left her with a “greater understanding of what it’s like to be the head woman.” Shearin said that YahZarah is a star in her own right, adding, “When she auditioned for Erykah, Erykah sang backup for her.”
Keo plans to put out a YahZarah CD every year, a tough production schedule even for seasoned artists. But YahZarah is looking forward to it.
“I know this business is about being flexible. … My style is quickly evolving; I don’t want to put myself in a box,” she says. “This is just my first baby. I’ve got many more to birth.”