In The Cultural Reset's newest Artist Feature, our team sits down with multi-faceted, recording artist Stephonne to discuss the greatest inspiration behind their genre-bending music (including their newest release: (The King's Gambit) as well as their thoughts on the music industry's need to recognize the historical impact and importance of black talent.
Where/when did your individual creative journey begin?
My creative journey started at birth. Music has always been a huge part of my life and was always playing on the hundreds of cassettes, vinyls, and CDs my parents had at home. Showtime At The Apollo, Soul Train, and music awards show were family events and my dad worshipped Michael Jackson and Whitney. My mom would light incense, start cooking and put music on. It was everywhere and has always been my everything.
Tell us the story of how you became a musician/artist?
As soon as I could read, I was reading liner notes on albums and learning about the people behind a record. I started singing in the adult choir at my church when I was 6, writing songs at 10, and going into studios with my own money at 14. I saw Prince, Madonna, Kurt Kobain, Janet Jackson, and Tina Turner (and so many more) and I saw myself in them and the stages they commanded. I also saw how much recording artists/performers meant to my parents and friends. I wanted to mean that to the world too. It will.
Tell us about your artistry? What would you say is your mission with your art?
My art is brutally honest and filled to the brim with emotion. I’m unapologetically sex-positive and don’t comply to gender norms. Being Black and queer are parts of my art but aren’t the totality of it and I don’t really subscribe to genre. My work is meant to be a mirror for the human experience. My work explores all genres (including country) but it is, most importantly, MUSIC. That’s important because music is the universal language of the world. It is one of the most powerful forces in the Universe and I wield that power. All artists do. We change the world and bring each other together with each new work we create. That is what I wish for with every bit of art I’ll make in my lifetime.
I also want to talk about the ugly parts in life that we all try to run from and skip. We need to sit with those and deal with them so that we can heal and stop passing them through generations. A big mission of mine is to use my music to bring awareness to and tackle mental illness and generational trauma.
And who are your influences (message/music style)?
My biggest influences are Prince and Billie Holiday. I remember watching "Lady Sings The Blues" at 7 and after that I’ve looked for everything Billie I can find. This feeling came over me seeing her story and hearing her voice. It was like I knew her and she knew me. The pain, the feeling… everything resonates with me. With Prince it’s very much the same. Purple Rain is when I really said, “that is what I want to do.” Prince wasn’t a prisoner to gender, sexuality, orientation or genre. When I looked at and heard him, I felt freedom and I felt seen. To see his impact on the world as a Black man… That’s when I knew that anything was possible. He and Billie weren’t bound by the circumstances they were born into. They flew far beyond them and let me know that I could too. I needed that growing up in Kansas. Very little felt possible at times.
I grew up on Luther Vandross, The Isley Brothers, D’Angelo, Phyllis Hyman, Michel’le, Mary J. Blige and so many more. The great thing was that we also had Barbara Streisand, Beatles records and records of other genres. I was allowed to explore all music and discovered artists like Bjork, Alice In Chains, Hole, Alanis Morissette, Sarah McLachlan at the public library. It was so important because we didn’t have a lot of money to spend on CDs. I checked out everything I could.
Can you speak on your process when creating projects?
My process has definitely evolved. When I started writing at 10, it started with poetry. I felt like no one listened to me or cared what I had to say so I’d write it down. Shortly around that time, I started to catch and build melodies in my head and I begged for a recorder so I wouldn’t forget them. I heard every instrument, fully realized, in a song I’d come up with but it was just me, my notebook, and memory. Beat making started in my teens and I’d write songs on the guitar but I didn’t know how to play so I would play around with it on my lap and come up with stuff. I took my beats and beats I had bought online to the studio downtown and demo.
In college, I finally learned music theory and during that time I wrote with a friend who’d play guitar chords and I’d write the lyrics and melodies. Melody and lyrics, from 10 to this day, always come together. I’d say that the year before COVID is when I really took my songs fully in my hands and the chords, arrangements and everything were finally me. I finally believed in myself enough to take full ownership of my dream. A new thing that happened was dreaming songs and waking up and demoing them quickly in GarageBand with my MIDI keyboard. After I demo, I send the songs to my band and we jam them out and finalize the structure before we lay the songs down. My engineer/mixer and I take over production from there and put together what you hear!
When do you feel most inspired?
I used to think it was when I was heartbroken. To be perfectly honest, love was always something that felt elusive to me until recently. My journey to self-love, feeling unworthy, racism in the Midwest, and what I thought was a need to be loved by someone else inform the bulk of my material. Lovesickness used to be my stuck point with writing and music. But there is so much more to life. When I started to love myself, I was able to see that. My new songs talk about my relationship with my own strength, confidence and the discovery of living instead of just surviving. I finally love myself and my life and you can hear that now.
People like to joke that I’m a black and queer Taylor Swift and I do write songs about boys but I kind of want to mute that a little bit because I write songs about me first. These songs are about my realizations, my growth and my journey to loving me. Boys can be a vehicle for all of that, but I am the vehicle for my music.
Tell us about your latest release. What was your artistic process for creating this piece?
We all have crushes, right? This song [The King's Gambit] was written about feeling those butterflies in my stomach again but being very scared to see if my feelings were shared. Heartbreak wasn’t something I thought I could take so I just wondered if he felt that same way and we both seemed to keep beating around the bush. It broke my heart even more than just asking him what we were doing. I used to live a very heady life where I held myself, prisoner, with possibility. I was head over heels for someone and we were playing a game (hence, chess) but I realized that I didn’t want to play games anymore. I didn’t want to wonder whose move it was next. It is always your move and you can’t control anyone else’s so make the move that is best for you. That is what I learned from this song. Choose you. Choose clarity. I remember dreaming of this song and waking up quickly to record the melody and write the lyrics down. It took forever to find the chord progression! I did and I felt relief. Putting it down took the situation out of my head and gave me some peace.
Is there anything about the industry you’d want to change as you progress in your career? Tell us about some experiences you overcame.
I want anticipation in the industry again. I want releases to slow down and I want A&Rs to be important again. I want artist development to matter again. We have to find a way to bring back attention span in audiences and the only way is to put value in the artist and the art again instead of releasing music like fast food. No one is benefiting from the current model except the top 1% of the music industry and it’s because suits ended up selling the soul of music and music has suffered the repercussions. I look at what Jay-Z did and continues to do and I’d love to be an executive someday that is really able to move and shape the culture. I want to make sure business is done in the interest of music and the listener.
Have you ever experienced limitations in your career (as a musician) due to your identity?
I’ve been labeled as just an R&B or Rap artist just because of the color of my skin. I’ve delivered music that is undeniably rock, pop and singer-songwriter and it sucks to be put in a box that white artists never are.
Are there any insufficiencies or injustices in the music industry that you’d like to see rectified?
Black music is the mother of all music. That truth needs to be told at radio, awards shows, in the press and everywhere. Give Black artists the respect and play we deserve. Money is made off of Black invention and we are left behind. I am tired of that.
What are some upcoming projects you are working on? When can we expect them? Where can we stream them?
Next up is the Sis: Side B EP (Fall 2021), a couple more singles and then my sophomore album, SIS (January 2022)! SIS stands for summoning insatiable spirits. That is what I do when I write and perform. I go back or forward to a moment, a trauma or a triumph. I summon up my experiences with others and their souls. These songs begged to be heard and exorcised from my mind and heart. These new songs are me getting out of my own way and finally letting myself be truly heard. Follow me on Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal to hear them first and visit www.stephonne.com!
What advice would you give to aspiring creatives looking to break into the music industry?
Be yourself. Following trends and being digestible enough for everyone will drive you crazy. What is for you will not pass you by. You can’t chase the success that others are having because it’s theirs. Create things that you are proud of, that tell your truth and that make it so you can live with yourself and sleep at night. There are so many queer artists that left this earth not being able to be who they really were in the public eye. I am unapologetic about who I am because I refuse to leave this earth unhappy. Choose your happiness. Choose to be you because there is some kid out there like me when I saw Prince waiting and needing to see themselves in the world. Someone needs to see you and hear you. You may not believe that but there is someone who will know it’s okay to be who they are and feel what they feel because you’ll show them that it’s okay.
Connect with Stephonne:
Stream 'The King's Gambit'