Nurturing Empowerment: A Conversation on The Artist Soapbox

The Artist Soapbox is a platform that features local North Carolina artists to discuss their work, processes and journeys as creatives. The podcast was created by Tamara Kissane, a local artist in her own right, who decided to make this podcast with the hope to form a stronger community of artists of all mediums and to give space for artists to share deep insights into their creative lives.

Not too long ago, Tamara reached out to our team to feature The Beautiful Project on an upcoming episode. Two of our core team members, Pamela Thompson and Khayla Deans, had the great opportunity to speak with Tamara about their roles at The Beautiful Project and the impact of our work. Many thanks to Tamara for featuring us on The Artist Soapbox! You can listen to the podcast below or learn more about our episode of Artist Soapbox here.

 

 

As a collective of artists, we are drawn to Black women and girls who choose to express themselves through any art medium. Such is the case for Durham-based artist, A.yoni Jeffries. She is a dynamic woman that we had our eyes on for a while due to her presence in the local artist and advocacy community. A.yoni is a multilayered creative, wearing multiple hats. She is an artist, singer, writer, entrepreneur, activist, and more. Her work is just as diverse as her interests. She is passionate about creating and sharing her art, which is often personal. She is also just as passionate about creating space to cultivate the artistry of others, particularly youth. For example, she is the Co-founder of Smooth Organic and Progressive Worldwide Inc., also known as SOAP, which is an organization — rooted in liberation and love — that intersects justice, arts, and agriculture for community advancement.

When A.yoni recently debuted her new song, “Searchin 4,” our team was rooting from the sidelines. The inspirational and honest song comes to life in the music video, co-directed by Monet Marshall and Stephaun Perry, which can be seen below. Our resident music aficionado, Khayla Deans, discussed with A.yoni about the inspiration behind the song, her journey as an artist, and her hopes for the future.

 

KD: In your own words, how would you describe yourself?

AJ: I am a creator. In all ways. I don’t think I’m done discovering the extent of my creations. I just like to make stuff with my hands, with my voice, with my brain. In every way.

KD: What are some of the things that you make?

AJ: I make music. I’m a singer songwriter. I like making visual art. I love photography. A lot of times I like to make or alter clothes. I like to make skits and little cartoon concepts. I create businesses.

I just want my people to live better lives. But I think that we got it wrong and I feel like that’s why I was created to create. For me as a creative, I always feel so strongly and so passionately and maybe that’s why I create so much. I’m such a passionate person. I look at all of these different industries that I have my hand in and I see people doing it, but they are not doing it from their hearts. They’re not doing it from love. They don’t care. But if I focus on that, I would be upset all day long. I peep it and I’m like, ‘Alright, this is why you are doing what you are doing. So keep going.’

KD: And that brings me to my next question. What do you enjoy most about creating?

AJ: Getting it out. For real. It is getting it out. I create a lot through pain. I’m still learning myself. So I’m not sure yet if I’m actually creating through pain or from the same source that my pain is sourced from. My creativity and my sadness kinda come from the same place. Each time it’s like giving birth.

KD: How did you get into singing?

AJ: My mom told me I’ve been doing it my whole life. She remembers me when I was a baby who hummed songs that she never heard before. I wish she had recorded it. She told me that she remembers me just humming a little song. I started writing when I was four years old. My mom homeschooled me for a little while. I was able to pick up quicker at home in that learning environment. So I was reading chapter books by five years old. I used to love reading so much because it gave me the ability to see a story more than just watching it on tv.

KD: You can imagine a lot more.

AJ: Yeah, you control the picture and what you see. I began singing out a lot when I turned five as well. I remember the first song I learned the words to was Britney Spears’  Oops I Did It Again (proceeds to sing the words of the chorus). But I used to sing through my nose.

KD: She did too.

AJ: Yeah, I didn’t realize it at the time because of course I was just five years old. But over time I learned that I have this very rare ability to mimic somebody to a T when it comes to music. So I have songs written in the styles of all these artists. I have over 300 songs in my catalogue, just waiting to sell. I want to sell all of them. But I came with this ability to write from the perspective of an artist and it is so spot on sometimes it scares me.

KD: So you have this song, “Searchin 4” — you put it out there, create a dope video behind it. It’s been released, it’s on SoulBounce, it’s making its way. How are you feeling in this moment right now that your music is out there?

AJ: I’m feeling so good. So good! Honestly, when I started living like this—living my talent and living my calling out loud– is when one of my best friends passed in December. That really struck something within me, more so than being hurt. More than that, B passed away with all of what he had still in him. Not really, because we made so much music, and I know that music one day will be bigger than the both of us ever imagined, so I’m holding on to that. But just seeing that he passed away so young, just 24, and his last couple of years were not his best years. It was just all of that really weighing heavy on me and I just had to do this just now.

I’ve made all of these excuses. In those moments though, it teaches me about being patient with other people because I didn’t even know that I was being paralyzed by fear. It’s something that you don’t even know is happening to you. You are just going on with how you are feeling in that moment. But you are able to become more emotionally aware of your stages and your processing, you learn how you can place some of what you’re experiencing [such as] ‘Oh this is actually me being very scared of succeeding in this thing.’

I can only imagine what’s coming. I sincerely hope my journey shows other people who are ridden with fear that you can still do this. You can still get it out of you. You can still be in this world with everyone else and be who you are. Ultimately, above anything else, we are scared to be our truest selves. We’re scared of ourselves. We’re the only people that know who we are individually. We are the only people who know us from when we’re at our best moments to our worst and lowest moments. But the fact that we always hide and harbor and keep secluded those more intense moments with ourselves, we feel like we are unrelated to everyone else.

 

KD: So in the song — listening to the lyrics and then seeing the video, the themes of release and healing come to mind. Transformation. What’s the story behind the song?

There are so many stories behind the song. I’ll tell you how I wrote the song first and then I’ll fast forward to this year.

So, I had just broke up. We weren’t going through much until I moved out of the house. We were living together and I moved out into my own apartment.  I love myself enough to know that I can’t stay in this spot. So I did physically leave. I remember one night I was laying on my floor and I was just having these thoughts like, ‘Damn, did I make a mistake? This is terrible, I can’t believe I’m in this situation.’

And I’m like, let me just write it out. So I wrote all of the lyrics, which actually the hook of it, “the wandering eyes — pray you find what you’re searching for,” that part comes from Damien’s song. He wrote this song called Wandering Eyes and it is the same exact lyric except he says hope where I say pray. So I didn’t even know I was going to write that song. I was just writing and I was like, these are his lyrics but let me just put it here. So I write and it was in the style of a poem first. And then I got on my computer and I was looking through beats and I find that instrumental and thought, this is so beautiful. Then I was like, let me just see if these lyrics fit. And when I tell you it was too right! What you hear — that’s how the song sounded since I first wrote it.

After I released it, I didn’t even listen to this damn song. It wasn’t until April of this year. I was sitting in the car and listening to the song, and realized I was talking to myself. Which I had to be because I wrote the damn song. So everything came from me. After listening to the song, I knew I wanted to do a couple of videos. With that, I wanted to make sure it was the right person doing the video. I wanted to make sure it was the perfect time, perfect place. That’s really what has been keeping me from doing the video thus far.

Steph [one of the co-directors of the video] ended up hearing the song and reached out wanting to work with me. Monet [other co-director] winds up hearing it. She texts me, ‘There’s going to become a time when you’ll want to do a video for Searchin 4 and when that time comes, I want to help you.’

Because of this new revelation I had with the song, I felt like I was learning it all over again. I listened differently and I interpreted differently. Since my situation was different this time. So it [the video] has to be me with myself. I wanted to be myself but I wanted people to understand that it’s me assessing myself from a nostalgic feel and not necessarily a present moment feel. That’s my little sister in the video and it just so happens that she looks like me. It was really divine. It was meant to happen that way.

 

KD: And she’s playing a younger you?

AJ: Yes. At the beginning of the video, she’s starts out outside and I’m inside. A lot of people have interpreted it in different ways but, one of my favorite ones thus far is that each room was a representation of a different type of me. I didn’t even see that but after looking at it again, she’s correct in that assessment. It’s crazy how when you create something, other people will tell you how you created your work. Because you are learning something about me that I don’t even recognize about myself right now.

KD: In our work, we purposely create intergenerational spaces among Black girls and women so that we can collectively share our stories and learn from each other. In your journey so far as a Black woman, what is one piece of wisdom that you would pass along to a Black girl or younger woman and what is one piece of wisdom that you seek from a Black woman who is an elder?

For the little girls or any person at all, I would just say to be yourself, which is that fearlessness. I’m speaking for myself. Anything that I say to someone else, I’m always going to tap and see how it fits in my life first. Life happens to each of us so differently. We all grow up so differently. I’m still over here picking through certain things that I was raised with and am like ‘Oh, I don’t actually need this in my journey. If I do, when the time presents itself, I’ll use it, but in this moment, I don’t need it, so I’m just going to leave it where it’s at.’ You feel me?

KD: This is the last question I have. At one point in the song, you sing “I pray you find what you need to set you free.” The work that you do with your art and in the community seems to center on the fight for liberation, healing, and justice.  With this idea of setting ourselves free, what are your prayers and hopes for Black women and girls who are in pursuit of personal and collective freedom?

AJ: I feel like my life is a prayer. The way that I live is a prayer. I really have to come to terms to that. Growing up, my family is Christian — non denominational. My mom always stressed the importance of prayer. But one thing I realized early on is that I don’t receive and access God the way everybody else does. Even when I would go to church — I feel like my life is prayer just with the way I live it. When we say you have to believe in what you pray for—well I believe in myself. I’m my own prayer–and not in a narcissistic way where it is overly confident. I trust that in the moment, I’m going to ask what I need, and in that moment, I’m going to get it. If not, that means it wasn’t for me and something else is on its way. So that is what I mean by living my life as a prayer. Through action. Praying is action.

 

Photography by Khayla Deans