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Yaya Bey on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, New York

R&B Upstart Yaya Bey Wants More for Black Women

With her new album Remember Your North Star, the New York artist realized that her worth isn’t measured by how much she can endure.

“I didn’t know they put a Jamaican Flavors here!” Yaya Bey blurts, spotting the beloved Caribbean restaurant chain as we stroll down Jamaica Avenue in Queens. The 33-year-old spent many of her teenage years on this retail strip, which still teems with mom-and-pop shops where, she jokes, you can buy anything from toolboxes to 99-cent bras. Each sidewalk vendor has their specialty: gold chains and cubic zirconia studs; essential oils and tubs of shea butter; packs of generic socks. “I hope it always stays like this,” Yaya says, her voice buried under the blaring of car horns and a jackhammer. “’Cause all of this is Black or brown.”

The outfit she’s assembled for the day seems accidentally stylish: a long mustard-colored duster cardigan and black mom jeans with a crop top and Chuck Taylors. The two bites of an edible Yaya had this morning have taken her through a wave of moods, landing her in quiet contemplation as she surveys her old stomping grounds. She’s quick to point out that gentrification hasn’t hit many parts of the neighborhood yet, though she couldn’t help but notice the additions of a Starbucks and a Target over the past couple of years. She’s heard that the Coliseum Mall, a popular emporium for clothing, shoes, and mixtapes that she would once rushed to after school, might soon become a Macy’s, too. “I always feel happy when I come out here,” the current Brooklynite says. “But I don’t come out here as often as I should.”

Lineage is a common thread in Yaya Bey’s music. She often sings about romantic and familial bonds, and how the two intersect in her life. Her songs circle grief and reflect on the emotional walls that run in her blood, pairing sensitive boasts with airy rhythms that allow her vocals the space to vent. Yaya’s new album, Remember Your North Star, is a document of the strength that emerged from a period of upheaval, amid continuous attempts to process her own personal trauma. The record is equal parts smooth and sinewy, with analog crackles throughout. When Yaya brags about being “a big fucking deal” over ricocheting synths, it’s her flexing in the aftermath of adversity. She wrote the swaying “reprise” after her very religious and largely absent mother popped back into her life, and evangelized about the importance of being a “virtuous woman.” She sings softly and sometimes raps in a tender tone, conveying varying shades of passion over instrumentals as soothing and sure as a night sky.

In person, Yaya is frank and soft-spoken, savoring pauses. She’s open about the events leading up to North Star. While recording her 2020 album Madison Tapes, she fell into a deep depression and was working up to 13 hours a day at her 9-to-5, smoking weed for relief. Seated in a booth at Margherita, a family-owned pizza spot that’s served the local immigrant-rich community since 1966, she says, “I was in pain. I went through different stages in my confidence. Moments of body dysmorphia. Shame. I felt a lot of icky emotions. And then they passed. But I had to feel them for a while.” Yaya divorced her husband in late 2019 in a rocky split, and after moving from Washington D.C. back to New York, she fell in love with her then-manager, who she saw as a necessary distraction. “I needed something familiar, and he was that,” she says. “I didn’t want to feel alone.”

Mixing business and personal ties—and then severing them—put Yaya in a tight creative spot, having collaborated with both men for years. She’s fought not to let the toxic men in her orbit define her, but those experiences also forced her to sort through the gunk in her mind. She’s tried to make North Star twice, and then life interrupted; Madison Tapes and her 2021 EP The Things I Can’t Take With Me came out instead. “This album came from me fighting for my life,” she says. “It’s a three-year transition that I needed to go through. I was starting my life over.”

Yaya feels more visible than she ever has, making music that inspires some fans to pour their hearts out in her DMs—the concept of inheriting grief comes up often. “I appreciate it, but it’s also like, oh shit,” she says with a laugh. “Some people will tell me their whole life story, and I just be like, Ma’am, I’m sorry, I cannot do this with you. I’m still unpacking my shit.”

Yaya’s parents were young when they had her. Her mom didn’t have the resources to raise a kid and left when Yaya was just three months old. An only child, Yaya grew up in a house with her cousins and father, who was a rapper. She took dance classes at Saint Benedict Church in Queens and started writing songs at 9. While her dad is proud of her now, at first, “He didn’t think I could do it,” she says. “My family was like, ‘Why are you gonna do that? You can’t sing. It’s not gonna work for you.’” Amid doubt, Yaya continued building her confidence as a songwriter through poetry. “I’m an R&B artist, but I’m really hip-hop-influenced, and hip-hop is about bravado that you hide behind or step into.”

Around 2010, Yaya formed a band called Gully Waters. By 2016, she was a solo artist, releasing her debut album, The Many Alter-Egos of Trill’eta Brown, a bluesy portrait of a Black woman’s inner and outer revolution. “It was good, but I made that project with my ex-husband,” she says. “He would be helping me, but like, resenting having to help me.”

Yaya’s history of being undercut makes the grit and liberation of North Star feel that much stronger. Lead single “keisha” is a biting yet warm track that lobs rhetorical questions at a partner Yaya insists is missing out on a good thing: “Yeah, the pussy so, so good/And you still don’t love me,” she offers. In the music video, she plays dress-up in a bright white studio, donning pasties under a fishnet dress, and a bridal gown. Yaya occasionally breaks into the clip with self-recorded video messages about the persistence of misogyny.

Now that she’s in her 30s, Yaya wants to tick more things off her bucket list. She has dreams of being a chef and started having dinner parties last summer. “Cooking helps me be present in a way that music doesn’t necessarily,” she says. “There’s some rest in cooking. There’s no rest in music. It’s just necessary. It’s what I need to do.”

The goal is to get to a place where she can make a living from music alone, which she now feels is visible on the horizon. On the train ride back to Brooklyn, she says she’s surrendering to the process. North Star is proof that self-assurance can be cradling. “I’m out of the survival stage, but I don’t quite know how to thrive yet,” she says. “But I know I don’t have to fight for my life.”

Pitchfork: You’ve said the thesis of this album is about Black women wanting and needing love. People expect us to give all the time, and we’re the least loved.

Yaya Bey: We all know that Black women have a wound around not knowing love or being loved, and that just hit home for me. My stepmom grew up watching her mom really desperate for love, and she was like that with me—she would compete with me for attention from my dad. I was processing that idea while making the album. At this point, I’m like, all my life, misogyny has been the star of the show.

In relationships or in general?

In everything. Although I love my dad, he’s gravely sexist. [laughs] And my stepmom had so much internalized misogyny. I’ve seen women be desperate for men. And all of that has shaped and colored how I move through the world. I went through a stage of like, “Fuck these niggas.” Women, period, are having varying responses to that. You have City Girls and Megan Thee Stallion, and they’re responding to a lack of love and understanding that men are most likely not going to meet your emotional needs, but they can meet your financial needs. There’s songs on the album that take on that perspective and reflect on the shame that I felt in not having firm boundaries in my relationships.

What was your dynamic with your dad like growing up?

We have a weird relationship, ’cause we’re really close, but he’s not like anybody else’s dad I know. He’s a rebel, and he’s a late bloomer. It took a long time for him to mature. But music was the thing that we could bond over. He knows any song—when it came out, what label it was on, who sampled it. So I always knew I could make music because of that. It was always in my face.

What about your mom?

We don’t have a bad relationship. She left when I was three months old, and she’d pop up every three years. This last time she came around, it was this two-month period, but I hadn’t seen her for 10 years. We don’t really have a relationship. I don’t know why.

Growing up, I didn’t have a maternal figure. Me and my grandma have a really rough relationship. I haven’t spoken to her in a few years. I don’t talk to my stepmom. But I think it’s like that because these women are traumatized. When I was younger, I blamed them, but now I don’t. I’m a 33-year-old woman, I know it’s hard out here. I understand why my stepmom is the way she is. The generation that she comes from, it’s harder for her than it was for me; I’m a millennial, so we were having that mental health conversation a lot earlier in my life, where this is a woman in her 50s trying to adjust.

The same with my mom. She was traumatized by people in her community talking bad about her. She had a lot of trust issues, but I understand because life has beaten me up, being a Black woman. I don’t talk to them because I can’t survive with them in my life. My mom would bring me down. And it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t want to love me. She just doesn’t have the tools. There’s a lot of grief in that. But if anything, it helps me want more for Black women.

What have you learned about what it takes to have a healthy relationship in love and with yourself?

Anything that’s for me, I don’t have to chase it. And it doesn’t have to be that hard. And my worth isn’t measured by how much I can endure—I don’t have to endure anything, actually. I had always seen women be congratulated for putting up with shit, that was the system that they were valued by. Especially in the hood. Like the “down ass bitch,” that whole narrative is what I had seen. I got tired of being sad. And it’s OK to want more. And maybe more is not gonna come from this place where I’m trying to get it. That was a hard pill to swallow. But I feel relieved that I don’t have that cloud over me.

The North Star song “meet me in brooklyn” is summery and flirty. It feels like being at a carnival. It feels light.

My dad used to play a lot of reggae in the house. He thinks he’s Jamaican, and I’m like, “We’re Bajan, not Jamaican.” My aunt Wendy helped raise me, and she’s very Bajan, very Caribbean, so there was always reggae, lovers rock, and soca playing. And growing up in New York, the first parties I went to were reggae parties. With that song, I was reflecting on when you meet a guy, and at first, it’s fun, before it gets serious and all the shit happens. My grandmother is from South Carolina, and I grew up very Southern Black, but I also grew up very Caribbean. I’m deeply both of those things, so I wanted that sound on the album. And I wanted it to feel like summer in New York and times where you’re hopeful that this great person you just met could be something nice.

What do you hope for this summer?

I’m really excited. I’m trying not to have expectations and to make the most of whatever happens. I don’t want to get invested in outcomes. I just want to be able to do anything in any space but not necessarily live in that space. I want to float in and out. I would do a song with a mainstream artist, but I don’t want to be, like, gang-gang with anyone. I think that’s limiting. It’s a lotta pressure right now. Am I gonna make a living off my art? I’m in that place where it’s very possible. It’s right there. It’s a lot of faith. It’s a process. I think it’s happening.

Photographer: Eric McNatt. Fashion stylist: Nick Browne. Photo assistant: Sarah Dylan Siegel. Photo direction/production: Jenny Aborn. Yaya Bey in jewelry store: dress from Flying Solo designed by Mara the Label, sunglasses by VADA, bracelet by Isa by Silvia D’Avila, shoes by Reike Nen; in front of candy dispensers: top by ALLINALIU, pants by Samantha Black, shoes by Normandy Alberti, earrings by Isa by Silvia D’Avila; striped outfit: dress by Samantha Black, shoes by Normandy Alberti, sunglasses by Spec_ial