Music

The Bay Area Pumps Through Zyah Belle’s Blood, And Her Music

The Bay Area isn’t just the birthplace of R&B and soul vocalist Zyah Belle — it shaped her into the artist she is today. Raised in Vallejo, Belle’s childhood church became her makeshift performance space as she forged her path as a budding singer-songwriter. Growing to become a star in her own right, being in the church choir allowed Belle to discover her creative spirit.

“I didn’t sing solo in the choir until I got older, however, being in church and singing in the choir really influenced my writing today in the sense that I let things flow through me and come to me,” she says via phone. “A lot of times in the Black church, you might hear a church mother yell out the phrase ‘Let him use you.’ They encourage you to be a vessel and to allow whatever it is that you want to say or feel to flow through you. Although I’m not doing that from a choir stand or a pulpit anymore, I’m doing that in the booth, I still reference that same energy today.”

The “energy” for music that Belle acquired in church choir is the same ardor that has led her into releasing her debut album Yam Grier. Following consecutive projects including 2016’s New Levels, 2019’s IX and her 2021 EP Who’s Listening Anyway, Yam Grier is a testament to Belle’s tough-as-nails alter ego, an archetype that opposes the Bay Area’s history of pimp culture. One of the most notable pimp films of the 1970s was The Mack, which was filmed in Oakland, less than a 45-minute drive from Belle’s hometown of Vallejo. Giving a voice to women’s empowerment, Belle looked to female-led Blaxploitation films to find her innermost hero.

“What’s so interesting about Blaxploitation films is how it is interwoven with the representation of women being empowered, women ‘saving the day’ in certain films,” she says. “One thing that is unfortunately linked to Bay Area culture is pimp culture and exploitation of women. Then you have Pam Grier come in and be kind of the opposite of that — [she] wasn’t being a woman that was exploited in these films and represented herself almost as every woman. She was the badass that you could rely on in the movies. For me, it is taking that idea that I’m to be exploited and deciding, ‘No, I do and say what I want. I can be whoever I want.'”

Pimp culture is interwoven in throwback cuts from local rap artists Too $hort, Keak Da Sneak, and San Quinn, but Belle embraced dominant female rhymesayers like Suga-T — also from Vallejo — and Brooklyn-bred Foxy Brown as a mirror of self-confidence. The animated, “hyperactive” rhythms of the Bay Area’s hyphy movement also inspired Belle, regardless of the hip-hop subgenre being puzzling to visitors.

“A lot of what hyphy is in the Bay has that drum pattern similar to what you might hear in Detroit and LA production. I would say that’s the heart of hyphy music,” she says. “If you’re not local and a Mac Dre song comes on, you might say, ‘Who is this guy? Why is everybody dancing so weird to this music?’ If you’re from the Bay or you’ve been to the Bay, you get it, it’s a feeling.”

While hyphy continues to be a cornerstone of Bay Area music since its early aughts in the ‘90s, Belle also credits native musicians across generations, including Con Funk Shun and Sly & The Family Stone, for being her introduction to Bay Area soul and funk. As the neo-soul movement arose in the mid-’90s and early-2000s, Belle leaned into two other hometown acts that have become widely-admired in Black music.

“The soul influence of Tony! Toni! Toné! and Goapele — Goapele really changed a lot in my perspective of music because we didn’t really have many artists at that time from the Bay that [were] doing neo-soul or alternative R&B,” she says.

The Bay Area’s current pop darling is Kehlani, who shouted out Belle during a visit on Sway’s Universe earlier this year. Creating a montage with the clip — along with appearances on SiR’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert and as a member of Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir — Belle commends Kehlani as an influence and contemporary.

“That was really cool because I had encountered Kehlani, about 2013 or 2014 before they ended up releasing their first mixtape Cloud 19. Within their journey, it’s always been a thing about progressing, moving forward and lowkey becoming a pop star in a sense,” Belle says. “To have my name be mentioned and somebody that came to mind was definitely an honor. Although I feel affirmed in what I do, it feels like an extra affirmation to have your peers recognize you.”

Now residing in Portland, Belle still carries the authenticity of the Bay Area with her, whether opening for fellow R&B singer-songwriter Alex Isley on the Marigold Tour, or turning the City of Roses into her personal runway in the “DND” music video. Donning vintage threads in the Riley Brown-directed visual, Belle personifies the Bay Area self-expression as more than an aesthetic — it’s a lifestyle.

“Whether I want to wear an outfit that makes absolutely no sense in Portland, Oregon and be in my own world or wear a t-shirt and jeans, [the Bay Area] has always empowered me to be who I am, wherever I am, despite where I am,” she says. “I don’t have to align with today’s reality, I don’t have to look like people around me, I can be who I am and feel beautiful in that and have a good time. I pride myself on being from the Bay because we’re a group of people who don’t care so much, we just want to have a good time, connect with people and dance.”

With her music having an underlying message of free love, Belle pours her appreciation into the cultural melting pot of the Bay Area, and the gift of rediscovering her musical roots.

“Growing up in Vallejo and being in a smaller city, you really learn the power of community. It nurtures you, it never leaves you,” Belle says. “I’m in the Bay Area multiple times a year, I’ll always be there, especially as long as my family’s there. It will always be significant in my past, my present, my future and reminding me who I am and where I come from.”

Yam Grier is out 9/9 via Guin Records. Pre-order it here.

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