22 apr 2024

Who is Yaya Bey, New York activist and embodiment of disenchanted soul?

Rooted in R&B, jazz, and soul, Yaya Bey’s music finds its corollary in the collages the 34-year-old American regularly shows in trendy New York art galleries. Through her songs, the brilliant all-rounder artist, who is about to bring out her fifth studio album, Ten Fold, talks from her own personal experience about the collective struggle for Black female empowerment.

Yaya Bey, a musician lost in a dramatic comedy


Hidaiyah Bey takes a few seconds to digest the question she’s just been asked: if you could spend a whole week inside a work of fiction, which one would you choose? “A comedy-drama!” she replies, with a slight smile. Her choice seems fitting, for the music made by this 34-year-old American all-rounder is just like a comedy-drama, at once tender and ferocious, wild and charming, vivid and disabused, as is her life.


Hailing from Barbados, Yaya Bey, as she’s known, grew up in New York with her father and her cousins at a time when Queens was effervescent. Today based in Washington, she evokes with nostalgia the brown-brick buildings of her childhood neighbourhood. “I remember the revving cars, the sound of basketballs, of music pouring from the windows, the children’s shouts and fights…” The destiny of this early adept of dance and literature seemed to be all set out for her, given that her father was none other than Ayub Bey, better known as the rapper Grand Daddy IU, a member of the 1980s hip-hop collective Juice Crew. That was until her father did all he could to dissuade her from following in his footsteps, convinced there was no way she could make it in the milieu. An only child, Bey took refuge in poems and political activism, observing, powerless, the way her father treated the women in his life with a certain disdain. To make it, she’d therefore have to fight harder than everyone else. As a fervent militant for women’s and African-American rights, she spent years demonstrating in Washington, using her spare time to write about her own life and her daily routine, which she would then set to music.

Diana Ross, Erykah Badu, Frankie Beverly and the novels of Toni Morrison


Everything accelerated when she was “discovered” by the producer Chucky Thompson, who worked with the rapper Nas and with Mary J. Blige. Bey began to write, without much conviction, for other artists. It wasn’t until 2016 that she finally released her first studio album, inspired by her years of activism. As an artist, she didn’t do things by halves, since the The Many Alter-Egos of Trill’eta Brown includes not only ten tracks but also a book and a digital collage that together form a complex Gestamtkunstwerk recalling the work of Audre Lorde, the queer essayist and poet who took part in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Bey had long understood that she could count only on herself, and so took on the role of a strong, determined, perfectionist woman, her introspective albums tackling themes such as childhood trauma (her mother’s abandonment of her), the rows and doubts, but also the joy and the amorous passion that for her is akin to addiction.


Bey’s music is perhaps easier to understand if one dissects her tastes. She likes the elegance of Diana Ross and the wildness of Tina Turner; the humour of Richard Pryor and the literary descriptions of Toni Morrison; Chaka Khan and Donny Hathaway’s hits; Erykah Badu’s groove; and also the voice of Frankie Beverly, the singer in the group Maze. As for her own music, she suggests three tracks as an introduction to her world: Nobody Knows (2022), Meet Me in Brooklyn (2022), and September 13th (2021).

Ten Fold, a fifth album available on 10 May


This year, Bey is promoting Ten Fold, her fifth studio album, to be released on 10 May. She made the record because she simply couldn’t do otherwise. Where, usually, she masterminds all her projects with a precise theme down to the tiniest detail, this time she needed to escape and forget. “To be honest, I don’t really know what to say about this album,” she admits. “I lost my father in December 2022, so I got busy in order to flee my sadness. And I carried on making music. The producers I usually work with would send me samples and I would write. I just stayed home and wrote.” These past few years she’s been hard it, releasing Remember Your North Star in 2022, a sumptuous album that deftly mixes jazz, soul, R’n’B, and reggae beats, followed, in 2023, by Exodus the North Star, a six-track EP. Her work has been unanimously praised by critics, with its paradoxical blend of colourful sound and dark social issues such as greed or “misogynoir,” a double discrimination, at once sexist and racist, towards Black women, theorized by the African-American researcher and activist Moya Bailey in her 2010 essay They Aren’t Talking About Me…


In addition to all this, Bey has already shown her collages in several galleries and undertaken two residencies at Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). What’s more, she creates her own merchandising illustrations and record visuals, and choreographs all her own music videos. Like in a drama-comedy, the powerful flamboyant queen knows how to appear vulnerable just when needed.


Yaya Bey, Ten Fold (Big Dada), out on 10 May.