MusicMusic Features

Charlotte’s Queen of Neo-Soul Cyanca Dishes on New Beginnings, New Label, New EP

Cyanca rising

Save for DaBaby, one would be hard-pressed to find a Charlotte musician with more momentum than Cyanca in this moment. Building on the strength of songs like “Patti Mayonnaise,” the 2019 summer jam with a deep message that earned her “Best Song” in Queen City Nerve’s inaugural Best in the Nest issue, the neo-soul singer has carved a lane for herself since moving to Charlotte in 2016.

As much of a standalone talent as Cyanca is, she’s also shined in collaborative efforts with local hip-hop artists such as Erick Lottary, Elevator Jay, Lute West and Deniro Farrar.

We expect next year to be the one in which the world learns about Cyanca. Before that occurs, Queen City Nerve contributor Lamont Lilly recently sat with Cyanca at Mert’s Heart & Soul in Uptown to discuss her roots, her recent signing with Infinite Companion, a new upcoming project and more.

Cyanca
Cyanca (Photo by Breonna Collier)

Lamont Lilly: Your original beginnings were in a small town just outside of Raleigh called Smithfield. What was growing up in Smithfield like for you?

Cyanca: Smithfield was country living. My grandparents raised me alongside my father. I was in Smithfield up until 18 [years old] and it’s definitely a small town, so as teenagers we hung out in Southside Raleigh. It was a different kind of upbringing for someone my age. My dad is 50 but my grandparents were born in the 1930s. They lived the civil rights movement. They lived segregation.

Then there’s things like us having a clothesline growing up. We hung our clothes outside. If a storm came or it rained, we hung our clothes in the basement. So I grew up knowing how to survive. On the weekends I was with my dad. He had this little [Volkswagen] Beetle. He was always bumping some hip-hop — a lot of A Tribe Called Quest. I also went to Princeton High School. I graduated with like 80 other seniors. That was Smithfield. Simple, but good living.

Can you share a little about your musical background? You’re a vocalist, but you’re also a musician.

My dad bought me a drum set at the age of 6. I used to take my grandmother’s shoe boxes and make a drum set with those old wire hangers. The drum set my dad bought me prepared me for playing at church, which my grandmother was really big on. We were at church three to five times a week. There was Sunday service but there were also church meetings, choir rehearsal, fundraisers. I was playing the drums, keys, and organ at a very early age.

My grandmother and the Baptist church are definitely my beginnings, but the car rides with my dad were like training school. He was schooling me at a very young age. We would even watch videos together. I don’t even think he knew how much he was really investing in me. When I went to college, I majored in music at UNC Greensboro. So I’m also formally trained.

This is why in the song “Badu,” you can hear the tambourine in the background ever so gently. On the song “Eat,” that 808 bass line is old school. It’s a tempo count from jazz, that kind of old school influence I picked up learning about folks like Chuck Berry. Musicianship is definitely at my core. I’m actually a musician first.

Cyanca
Cyanca (Photo by Darian Carlos)

Charlotte’s hip-hop scene has really been buzzing the last few years. How has this community of hip-hop creatives assisted in your development as a musical artist?

The Charlotte hip-hop scene has been so supportive. I moved here in 2016 for a job promotion. I didn’t come here for music. I came here to better myself. But Lute West was one of the first people I met and he showed so much love. Elevator Jay is another Charlotte artist who just welcomed me in. Jay showed me around the city. I look up to folks like Jay and Lute. I pay attention to how they move. I take notes from them to add to what I do. Even people like singer and musician Greg Cox.

All of these folks are amazing! They really embraced me. They didn’t have to do that because I’m actually an outsider. I’m originally from the 919 and there’s always been this unspoken competitive beef between the two areas. That’s how I know that God has me covered. No matter where I am, I always find good people and trust my gifts. I love the community here.

You mentioned your song “Badu,” which pays tribute to neo-soul pioneer Erykah Badu. Who are some of your other musical influences?

I love me some Brandy. I’m actually a huge Brandy fan! Also Lauryn Hill, The Clark Sisters, Hezekiah Walker. I grew up on quartet music, so The Winans and The Canton Spirituals were cornerstones. On the R&B side, it was Sade and Jodeci.

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Q-Tip and Missy Elliot are probably the two people I hold onto most, though. They’re the blueprint of what I would like to grow into one day. Eventually, I would love to help develop other artists like Missy did with Aaliyah and folks like Tweet. Tweet was a groove, too.

Your style reflects such a full range. There’s a dose of Southern-trap-bounce with a bit of tomboy sex appeal. There’s also the Black church with a little Jill Scott and juke-joint soul from Stax Records. How did you bring all of these influences together in one voice, in one style?

I don’t really know how to explain it but a lot of these influences are just bleeding out of my spirit, organically.
I’ve been through so much growing up in life, I just let it flow out of me. I take all of those experiences and just wrap it into one package. I’m also a perfectionist and very particular about a lot of things, especially my music.

I need all the ingredients to be there, in a certain way, in a certain spot. The tambourine has to hit right here, the organ in this spot because this is what I want to convey through the music, through the sound itself. Sound is a form of my self-expression.

Cyanca
Cyanca (Photo by Breonna Collier)

You make it sound so effortless and seamless — as if you just wake up and sound like this — as if those lyrics and melodies are merely a part of who you are.

[Laughing] Well yeah, that’s me. That’s how I like the music to feel. Natural. I wrote “Eat” in like 20 minutes. I heard that beat and it was like the beat to my life; that’s literally how it felt. Man, that trap-soul sample with that saxophone and tambourine blend just blew my mind. I was like, “What is this?” Once I sat down in the studio to write, me and Laphelle knocked that out in half an hour, just vibing off each other.

What is your creative process like? Is everything organic — it just comes when it comes — or do you have a daily routine that helps you create and produce?

For me, everything a has free-flow and is pretty organic. I’m not a routine person. [Laughing] My room can’t even stay the same for six months. I have to change something around. I just feel like, by keeping things free, I’m always ready to receive something new. I’ve literally received lyrics while using the bathroom in McDonald’s, in the car driving, or a funeral of all places. It’s mind-blowing what God just drops in my spirit at random times. So no, there’s definitely no everyday routine. When we’re working on something intentional, that’s a different story. 

If I’m doing a feature or collaborating with another creative in the studio, I try to minimize my speaking a day or two beforehand to save my voice. I also like to surround myself with different types of sounds. That could mean listening to nature or studying the work of other vocalists and musicians that I admire. That’s probably the biggest part of my creative process. I’m a huge consumer of sounds. My manager is so awesome about this. She’ll send me a songwriting playlist from Nina Simone to Pink Floyd — from country to pop to funk.

When I’m in my creative mode I go into this huge over-consumption of just listening to music and sounds all day. I take notes. It’s like “Oh, this is how they wrote this,” or, “I noticed they didn’t rhyme here.” I like to really study and pull back the layers. When it comes to music, Lamont, that’s when I get very analytical. So I guess I do have a process. It’s just not routine.

Cyanca
Cyanca (Photo by Darian Carlos)

You said something very interesting; you actually listen to other people’s music when you’re in your own creative process. A lot of artists are the exact opposite, especially musicians. How does that work for you? 

I find that interesting, too. I hear that from other artists all the time, like you said, especially from my musician and rap friends. They’re always like, “I don’t listen to other peoples’ stuff. I only listen to my music.” And I get that, fully. But for me, no, I can’t do that. I’d rather listen to other peoples’ music than listen to my own. My friends ask me all the time, “Are you tired of your own music?” And sometimes yes, I do get tired of my own music. I love my music. But I hear my music all the time.

Again, I like to study. When I consume other peoples’ music, I’m taking notes. It’s like being in the classroom for me. I listened to Frank Ocean for two days straight and then I wrote “Katina Brother.” Frank is really great at not rhyming but still telling good stories. Listening to Frank Ocean helped me realize I can still have a certain scheme to my lines, but you don’t have to rhyme all the time. So I listen to study. I also listen to music to enjoy it, but when I’m in that creative process, listening is a part of the work.

What allows me to do this is that I’m very confident in who I am. I’m very secure in my specific sound, and in my ability to differentiate what’s naturally pouring from my spirit versus what’s coming from someone else. I don’t desire to sound like anyone else. Of course, I do get comparisons, but my goal is to be original. Regardless of what I listen to, I just feel like what God has for me will be for me. I just breathe in, breathe out and create. I let the universe take care of the rest.

Lamont Lilly: In your February 2020 interview with Teen Vogue you stated that, “My journey as an artist has been utilizing what I have, executing it and exhausting it to the max.” How have you created such high-quality music with such limited resources?  

Cyanca: At first it was very discouraging. When you see other artists who have all the access and resources they need to succeed, and you’re still struggling just to get the basics, it makes you tough. On the flipside, some of the cats who come from hustling and the streets, they have the extra dough to throw at the radio stations. I’m just a country girl who would watch my grandparents clean a deer with their bare hands and a few supplies right before we cooked it and ate it.

We’ve always made it out the mud. I come from that. I came from “survival of the fittest.” I grew up on well water. When it didn’t rain, we had to do what we had to do. That’s literally been my life. So even though resources have been limited for me, it honestly hasn’t been a huge struggle for me because my focus now is working smarter, not necessarily harder. I take the process for what it is now. I don’t do much complaining. I trust my gifts and let God do the rest. The way I look at it, if he’s given me this certain thing or amount of something, he obviously gave it to me because he knew I could make something out of it.

A lot of times, as artists and creatives, we’re so focused on what we don’t have, we forget to work with what we do have. Like no, you really do have it all. You just don’t know how to work it. For my last EP I’m Staying Home, the album cover was shot at an artist co-working space. One of my homies did the photography for free. We produced that cover for next to nothing. Just a little gas money, time and creativity. But man, I can’t tell you how many people have complimented that EP cover.

Cyanca, from the ‘I’m Staying Home’ photo shoot. (Photo by Aaron Kasey)

I thought that cover was a professional photo shoot. You did that yourself?

Basically yeah. That was just me, my homie and a camera. I wish I could say it was a professional shoot. But no, that was a co-op space. I’ve literally had people in the music industry tell me they haven’t seen a cover like that in years. Folks have literally told me “You’re still a virgin and putting out stuff like you’re mainstream.”

You have to believe in your gifts. You have to believe in your purpose and be creative. Even with the recent remix I just put out with Durand — that happened by chance. One afternoon, one of my friends just hit me up like, “Yo, Durand Bernarr is singing your song right now.” I was like, “Wait, the Durand Bernarr who sings backup for Erykah Badu?” They said yeah. So I messaged him and asked him to hop on the remix. He said, “Sure thing,” and he hopped on. He didn’t even charge me. Said he was just doing it for the love. I didn’t even know Durand. I was so grateful.

These things have just happened by trusting the process. People think I have money like I’m dropping stacks on these things. No, I’m working with pennies. What I’ve created so far is nothing compared to where my mind truly wants to go. We’re just getting started.

You recently just signed to a record label. Can you tell us about the label and how all of that happened for you?

The label I recently signed with is called Infinite Companion. IC Records is based out of Portland, Oregon. To be transparent, I had several labels reach out to me. I’ve certainly been in my share of label meetings and conversations with record executives. At the end of the day, though, it’s about what’s best for Cyanca.

What I really wanted was to own [the rights to] my masters. What’s big for me is ownership. With Infinite Companion, I just loved how they were moving. They not only said the right things, they showed real love. They also extended genuine freedom. They were like, “Never mind the boxes, Cyanca. Just fly.”

They’re ready to push me forward and they’re investing in me. It’s a great start to a beautiful relationship, but it’s more like a partnership. Shout out as well to Nipsey Hussle. I’m just trying to make smart moves and be an example for someone else. Sure, we all marvel at the big labels, but there’s more than one way to break into the industry.

Some of these smaller labels have just as much clout and resources.

It’s not all about the glitz and glamour. Glitz and glamour look good until they put you on a shelf. I wanted freedom, ownership, and genuine support. I’m just excited about what’s to come.

You’ve laid a serious foundation over the last few years. What’s next?

We’re actually about to put out a new EP through Infinite Companion. That’s the main focus right now. It’s coming out next year with all fresh material. That’s going to be four to five new songs. We’re going to put out new visuals for it and really push it.

We’re also working on creating merchandise and vinyl, all types of cool stuff. IC also specializes in sync licensing, or synchronization rights, which means getting your music placed on TV shows, films, commercials, even video games.
Live shows and touring may be canceled right now, but to all the rappers and musicians out there, there are definitely other ways to create a livelihood.

I’m just going to keep working, Lamont, and making good decisions. I’ll actually be heading up to Asheville pretty soon to start working on the new project. I’ll be staying in the mountains for a few weeks just writing and recording. That’s coming from the label.

Right now it’s about building this new relationship. They’re good people over there and we’re already on the same page. It’s been a blessing.

Cyanca
Cyanca (Photo by Breonna Collier)

You’ve been through a lot in life, Cyanca. The passing of your mother as a small child is just one example. Your music feels like you’ve found a way to use pain as a source of inspiration. That inspiration has brought joy to others. That’s a powerful transformation. Do you ever step back to process the impact of that?

Yes, all the time. It’s kind of still mind-boggling for me though because it took me a while to accept my calling. Despite the many storms in my life, I had to understand that I can’t just remain a victim.

Fuck throwing a pity party. I have to use everything I’ve been through as a testimony for others.

I started to understand that as an artist, what you put out in the world can save someone’s life. One of my listeners may have gone through some of the same things I’ve been through.

I just truly believe in the power of releasing your trauma. I have to let that stuff go so I can fully grow into who I’m supposed to be and achieve the things I was born to do.

That’s the only way I’ve been able to put the music out. “Patti Mayonnaise” talks about the death of my mother and what it’s like to grow up without a mom. I have to share those experiences because there are others who live that same situation. Transforming negative energy and experiences is definitely a gift I’ve had to work on.

I’m also not ashamed to tell people I go to therapy, Lamont. It’s therapy and my family that keeps me grounded. I’m so thankful for them. I’m also thankful for the Charlotte community, especially the artists here, and the fans. These are things that keep my spirit fed.

In return, what comes out feeds others. Besides, I kind of like being happy. Feels good! Those lonely nights crying in the dark are no fun. I’d rather create light, love and joy.

Cyanca
Cyanca (Photo by Breonna Collier)

Despite the racism, discrimination, and long legacy of Jim Crow, you seem to have a real soft spot for the U.S. South — a kind of Southern Black pride. What’s that about? Where does that come from?   

My grandmother. She was one strong Black woman. I watched her go through so much. I’ve seen her do all types of things. Seeing her do things and how she did them made me believe that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. So much of me comes from her.

Coming from Smithfield, we dealt with racism in high school. Growing up, I remember when people used to drive into Smithfield. There used to be a sign that said “Welcome to Smithfield, Ku Klux Klan Kountry.” That’s a true story. Of course, that’s the stuff I’m not proud of. But we survived, in spite of that. Racism was all around us.

 

It honestly just motivated me to keep going and fighting for my people. The pride part comes from learning to survive down here, as a family and as a people. That definitely came from my grandparents.

What are the keystones of your music and message? What are listeners holding on to when the dope beat fades away, when the rhythm is long gone?

I want my music to be soul food just like Mert’s. I want it to be nourishment to the mind and soul. I try to lay my spirit out and put my all in whatever I release. But I also try to leave my music open so listeners can interpret the message however they want. Sometimes the message is very obvious. Other times, it’s there but it’s soft. With “New Phone, Who Dis?” there’s actually not a whole lot of lyrics there. That element was very intentional.

Sometimes it’s important to give people the space to interpret the message on their own. That way, they can receive whatever they need to from it. Whatever folks take from it, I want the music and message to feel timeless. I want people to feel good on the inside, not only about the music but about themselves. If I can do that, I’ve accomplished my purpose.

Any last words?

I’m just proud of the whole city. There are so many dope artists here. Charlotte, let’s keep opening doors for each other. North Carolina, I love y’all!

Cyanca’s music can be found on streaming platforms such as Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Audiomack, Amazon Music, and Google Play. She also has a presence on YouTube and Twitter. The Infinite Companion website has the full Cyanca’s full back catalog. For performances, promos, or features her management can be contacted at bookcyanca@gmail.com. 

Lamont Lilly is an independent journalist, activist and community organizer.


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