1 dec 2023

Interview with Samara Joy, the 2023 Grammy Awards revelation the stars already adore

Awarded “Best New Artist” at the 2023 Grammy Awards last February, New Yorker Samara Joy has shrugged off today’s musical conventions to establish herself as the best jazz singer of Gen Z. The worthy heiress of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday is the star of the American label Theory Holiday’s new campaign, photographed by Tyler Mitchell.

1. Samara Joy: Jazz singer, revelation of the 2023 Grammy Awards, and new face of Theory’s upcoming campaign.


Samara Joy McLendon will long remember that day. On February 5th, 2023, the 23-year-old New York singer honored the stage of the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles twice. Firstly, when she performed her song Can’t Get Out of This Mood wearing a pale pink evening gown, elegantly introducing the pianist accompanying her. Combining ultra-technical vocals and a chic restraint, her performance earned her a standing ovation from her fellow singers. Secondly, when she returned to the stage to collect her trophy a few moments later: the Grammy Award for “Best New Artist” of 2023. 


Samara Joy outperformed Brazilian singer Anitta, Domi & JD Beck, Latto, Måneskin, Molly Tuttle, Muni Long, Omar Apollo, Tobe Nwigwe, and Wet Leg. She then faced the gaze of the superstars who had inspired her and applauded her earlier that night: “Oh my God! I really don’t know what to say. I’ve been watching you on television for so long… me, just a little girl from the Bronx.” This time she wore a scarlet dress, as if the precious trophy completed her metamorphosis into a great lady of jazz. She now joins the very elitist club of musicians who have received the grammy for “Best New Artist”, including Megan Thee Stallion, Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa, Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, and Lauryn Hill…


Numéro : I saw your silhouette on a giant screen in the streets of London. You are the new face of the New York label Theory. I think that’s pretty lit!

Samara Joy : It’s huge! After the Grammys, I was a bit worried about the idea of having to attend so many social events… I’ve just landed in the fashion world and I’m very happy to be on that journey with Theory because I’m a fairly reserved woman and I wasn’t down for something too exuberant or too wild. The quality and shape of the pieces are perfect and Theory perfectly matches my image. What more could I ask for? It’s the best way for me to reach as many people as possible through my music.

2. The heiress of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald


Samara Joy’s music conjures up images of smoky café windows, Manhattan’s genteel jazz clubs in the 1950s, burning cigars, and the felt hats of idle music lovers. She describes it as a rollercoaster ride, from rage to sweetness, in which the colors red, blue, yellow, and at times, green spring from all sides. Among the offbeats inspired by the swing of the 1920s and the dynamic bebop themes, in which melodies are played before even being written down on a score, Samara Joy enjoys a traditional Afro-American genre that is light years from the musical genres of her time. 


As the worthy heiress of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, she invokes Louis Armstrong’s scat – an improvisation in which words are replaced by onomatopoeia to mimic instruments – and the murmurs of a double bass, as opposed to the throbbing, saturated bass used in contemporary hip-hop. This is what prompted the iconic Verve Records label (Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Joao Gilberto) to sign a contract with her. Already crowned “Best New Artist” by JazzTimes magazine in 2021, Samara Joy has made her mark on the music scene in just two solo albums, Samara Joy (2021) and Linger Awhile (2022) – just like a certain Amy Winehouse did with Frank (2003) and Back to Black (2006) twenty years ago. But as far as she’s concerned, she is quoting Whitney Houston, James Brown, Duke Ellington, and Beyonce as references…


Numéro : It is often said that jazz is an elitist musical genre. Do you make music for yourself or for others?

Samara Joy : I really like the idea of making music for others. But if it was really the case, it would mean that I would have far too much responsibility to shoulder and it wouldn’t be fun any more. I need to enjoy it for myself in order to be excited about sharing it with others. So I’d say that I make music for myself. I try not to listen too much to what people tell me –  “I’d like you to sing this, I’d like you to do that…”. I prefer asking myself whether or not I really want to do it.

3. Samara Joy: from TikTok to the Grammys


Samara Joy grew up in the disadvantaged neighborhood of the Bronx in the 2000s. Music has always been part of her family environment. Her bass-playing father taught her the rudiments of soul music, while her grandparents were members of a gospel choir and passed on their love of singing to her. As a teenager, she followed in her family’s footsteps and joined the church choir, then a jazz group at Fordham High School for the Arts. She won her first music competition there, and the prizes eventually started piling up on her bookshelf. 


Surprisingly, Samara Joy developed a real passion for jazz music around the age of 18, and loved creating comic situations on TikTok, where she has accumulated over 200,000 followers. Yet, her smooth, crystalline voice has finally made her the first Gen Z classical jazz singer. Her songs already sound like standards…


Numéro : What was your childhood neighborhood like?

Samara Joy : The streets were pretty quiet. The house I lived in was directly connected to our neighbors’ houses, left and right. So our families were quite close, especially when I was a child. As my grandmother looked after a lot of the children in the neighborhood, the house was always full of toys, with cartoons on TV all day long. When I wasn’t at the park, I’d see children hurtling down the stairs. That’s where I grew up, in my grandmother’s house.


On September 10th, Samara Joy landed in Paris for the 22nd edition of the Jazz à la Villette Music Festival, jointly held at the Paris Philharmonie from August 30th to September 10th. The program included a tribute to Erykah Badu with José James, the sublime singer Oumou Sangaré, hip-hop legends De La Soul in a live band, GoGo Penguin, Anne Paceo, and Ethiopian keyboardist Mulatu Astatke. Performing after the pianist and organist Julius Rodriguez, Samara Joy could count on an audience fully committed to her cause. And what a breathtaking performance it was…



The pieces of the Theory Holiday 2023 campaign are available on the label’s website.


Translation by Emma Naroumbo Armaing.