LGBTQMusicMusic Features

Janelle Sy’mone’s Unexpected Win and Evolving Music Journey

The Unplanned Victory that Ignited a Rising Star's Path

Janelle Sy’mone looking at the camera with a pink background
Janelle Sy’mone (Photo by Raquez Rouse)

Janelle Sy’mone says she wasn’t supposed to win the 2019 Carolina Music Award for Best Female R&B artist. The eclectic singer-songwriter, just two years into her fledgling music career, was sitting in the audience at the Raleigh gala when she was announced as the winner. She didn’t think she heard correctly.

“I was up against women who had albums out,” Sy’mone remembers. “I felt like a fish out of water.”

The favorite to win that year was Imani Pressley, a Grammy-nominated artist who even Sy’mone considered “super dope.” In contrast, Sy’mone had released one single, “That L.O.V.E,” an ode to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and a rumination on the #MeToo movement.

“[The song] details how women can come into this world with every ounce of sunlight and magic, and have it stripped away in a second,” Sy’mone says.

It’s a powerful message wrapped in dance-pop perfection, but it was a solitary single. Sy’mone maintains that, having been nominated and put up against artists with extensive oeuvres, she discounted hearing her name once she was called to the podium. A man sitting next to her had to urge her up to the stage.

“My first win, first nomination and first time trying,” Sy’mone says. “That was crazy.”

Growing up in Atlanta and then Valdosta, Georgia, Sy’mone remembers being 6 years old, grabbing the handle of her grandmother’s vacuum cleaner and singing into it as if it was a microphone. By the time she was 12, Sy’mone was writing songs, but she didn’t think they were any good. Although she found inspiration in Anita Baker, TLC, Sade and Jill Scott — powerful Black women with big and distinctive voices — Sy’mone didn’t embrace her nascent talent.

In 2012, at the urging of her beloved sister, a Black trans woman named Diamond Z. Starr-Reynolds, Sy’mone moved to Raleigh. In 2017, Sy’mone met her husband, a fellow Georgia native, on a dating site. That same year, she got married at the age of 25.

“I was head over heels in love, and happy with who and where I was with him,” Sy’mone says. She went to school to become a psychologist, and only sang in the bathroom. Despite Sy’mone’s happiness, the marriage only lasted five months.

The Catalyst for Sy’mone’s Artistic Evolution

“Nothing is happenstance,” Sy’mone says. “The breakup was the catalyst for becoming who I was supposed to be, an alchemist onstage, an entertainer. Had [my ex-husband] not broken me, I would not have been able to find myself in the pieces.”

So, Sy’mone changed her life’s course.

“I couldn’t just sit on the couch and cry about this man,” she says.

She did her first open mic, and one stage led to another. Sy’mone joined first one and then a second Raleigh-based cover band. The groups fizzled, but through them Sy’mone met musician and producer Jeremy James, who urged her to work on her own songwriting.

“Jeremy said, ‘Sing me something. I’ll send you a beat, and we’ll build a song from there,’” Sy’mone recalls.

The duo started building tracks. With every iteration, James added something new: live horns, bass, percussion, and even a talkbox. They started playing original material onstage, polishing Sy’mone’s live performances.

All Sy’mone’s subsequent singles as well as her entire debut album Good Girl, which dropped on Aug. 3, are produced by James. He is an old-school producer, but in a good way, Sy’mone says, going with live instruments on every track. The songs also include bridges, an increasingly rare commodity in today’s songwriting, Sy’mone offers.

“Jeremy challenges me,” Sy’mone says. “I’ve yet to find that same chemistry with anybody else.”

Sy’mone’s work is a unique intertwining of commercial and artistic, with tunes designed to take listeners on an emotional journey. A tactile feeling that evokes Sy’mone’s electrifying stage performances threads through her second single, recorded in 2019 at Post Pro Studios in Raleigh. In Sy’mone’s most blues-based and personal song to date, she delivers a heartbroken R&B narrative inspired by her divorce.

When Sy’mone’s ex tried to convince her that he wouldn’t hurt her, her stark rejoinder became the song’s title, “Prove It 2 Me.”

I know we fuss and argue, but I love that man/ He says that I’m wrong, but he don’t understand/ If, though I love him, I don’t really trust him/ I’ve been hurt again…   

Collaborating with Videographer Stephaun Perry

With its gospel-influenced chorus and torch song intensity, the tune is augmented by a vivid video directed by Stephaun Perry. It’s a stylized 1940s Technicolor performance piece, a study in deep reds, whites and shadowy blacks.

Sy’mone remembers meeting Perry at an open mic. The young videographer has directed all of Sy’mone’s subsequent videos, becoming part of her creative family.

“He went from this guy with a camera and a little gimbal, to [having] a whole team, 25 people working for him,” says Sy’mone. “It is amazing to see his growth.”

By the time the tune’s video debuted, Sy’mone had permanently moved to Charlotte.

With pulsing horns, washes of strings, tightly choreographed dance moves and Sy’mone’s punchy powerful vocals, “Got You” was tracked at Post Pro in 2020. The accompanying video was shot in an alleyway on a bitterly cold night, Sy’mone remembers. The COVID pandemic was just hitting, and director Perry worked overtime to keep curious outdoor diners from butting into frame.

Janelle Sy’mone looking at the camera on top of a blue box with a yellow and pink swirled background
Janelle Sy’mone (Photo by KB Photography)

The video is dedicated to Sy’mone’s sister Starr-Reynolds, who was murdered by her boyfriend in 2017.

The dance-pop tune “All Night” followed in 2021. The ebullient 1980s electro-funk vibe is accompanied by an arresting dance video. It’s a riot of black and white imagery, silhouetted dancers and smoky spotlights.

The emotions engendered by the tune are a far cry from those in “Prove It 2 Me.”

“[‘All Night’ is about] trying to have a one-night stand with a guy that you meet, but you don’t want him to talk about it,” Sy’mone says.

Her most recent song/video release is the live performance clip for energetic pop tune “The Blackout” from 2022.

Incorporating Starr-Reynolds’ Wisdom into Sy’mone’s Work

On Aug. 3, Sy’mone dropped Good Girl, accompanied by the single release of the title track. Both song and album highlight Sy’mone’s most polished pop music to date, yet the tunes retain an experimental edge. Each song is interspersed with brief audio interludes, which mix dialog with evocative background music. The dialog on the interlude “Diamond’s Wisdom” precedes “Good Girl” on the album. It’s taken from a recording made by Starr-Reynolds.

“She had a boyfriend before [the boyfriend who murdered her] who was cheating on her,” Sy’mone says. “[Starr-Reynolds] recorded a video … where she says words to the effect that she’s been a good girl … and she still doesn’t get any respect.”

Through Sy’mone’s heart aches that her sister didn’t live to hear the interlude and song, she takes solace from the recording.

“Her voice is at the beginning [of the song] so I can always carry her with me,” Sy’mone says.

Sy’mone’s Charlotte Pride will be a kind of tribute to Starr-Reynolds,  and so much more.

“It’s my first Charlotte Pride, [and] I’m on the main stage in the middle of the festival!” says Sy’mone, who promises to put on an amazing show. Citing the tragic death of her sister, Sy’mone feels that Pride is especially needed in these trying times.

“For the LGBTQIA+ community, it has been horrendous — the laws that are being passed, the people that are being impacted,” Sy’mone says. “For the community to come out and still be beautiful, bold and hopeful in the face of everything…”

She trails off, but picks up the thread with a burst of positivity. “There is so much love here. There is hope. We all stick together.”

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