Deja Bryson Interview with The Richmond Standard

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Original Interview:

What got you into singing?

My mother is a huge music lover. She used to work for the UC Berkeley Jazz Festival. She was responsible for assisting artists during the event. One particular show, she met the great guitarist George Benson. They became really great friends. She was introduced to Peabo Bryson through Mr. Benson. Consequently, she met Peabo’s brother, Charles Bryson, who at the time was a songwriter, backing vocalist and drummer for Peabo. Eventually, my mother and Charles Bryson were married and shortly after, I was born. I don’t think I had much of a choice. Music picked me. I don’t have a memory of my first ah-ha moment. I always loved it and gravitated towards it.

What inspires your lyrics?

They come to me in full or they don’t come at all. I can be in my car in complete silence or in the bed at 4 am, and melodies and lyrics just reveal themselves. When I catch that feeling, I tap into my mood and I either grab a voice recorder or make my way into my home studio to get it out. In the moment, I’m not always aware of how I’m feeling or what I’m going through. But when I listen to my lyrics in retrospect, the story of that time of my life is always there. The Sultry Movement was very romantic and I was longing for genuine love and chivalry. At that moment, the clarity of that wasn’t as potent. But a year later, I look back at those lyrics and I say “wow! I was serious!” It’s always my life or my reaction to what’s happening in it.

How has Richmond inspired who you are as a person and artist?

Being from Richmond has had a big impact on my love of Black culture; hair, fashion, my taste in music, and my desire to see our contribution to the world celebrated more and exploited less. I lived on 17th & Cutting as a kid. The beauty of my neighborhood was most definitely the culture.

Hair was a huge deal. I remember seeing beautiful women walking down the street with different colored chunky “Dookie Braids” created with Kanekalon synthetic hair, braided to the middle of their backs and tied at the bottom with rubber-bands. I remember seeing asymmetrical hair styles with blonde or red highlights paired with jumbo gold bamboo earrings. There were girls who wore their hair in Jheri Curls. There were girls who wore cornrows with beads at the ends; girls who wore large corn rows going straight back. There were girls who wore afros. There were girls who wore their hair straight. There were finger-waves, buns, funky bangs and on occasion, very dramatic and long weaves and wigs. We all had “baby hair” that was generally achieved with gel and an old toothbrush.

Clothing was another big deal. Richmond was full of brands like Cross Colors, Starter Jacket’s & LA Gear. I grew up seeing air-brushed baggy pants, ripped jeans, exercise bodysuits, half-tops, large flannel button-up shirts, biker shorts, leg warmers, beanies, funny-shaped hats, gold bamboo earrings, gold rope & gold name-necklaces, funky t-shirts with bright colors, all kinds of sneakers, and all kinds of high-heels. Many of the men in my neighborhood had haircuts with designs and some kind of gold in their mouths. It was common to see plenty of color, personality & flair. This was when we all shopped at Emporium Capwell & Contempo. I was always exposed to street-fashion. I wasn’t looking at Vogue magazine. I learned from my neighborhood that I could make my sense of fashion whatever I wanted it to be. There were no rules.

On any given day, I could be inside our living room playing Nintendo or dancing around and hear one of the neighbors pull up knocking R&B. This was the time when The Isley Brother’s “In Between the Sheets” was in heavy rotation. Keith Sweat’s “Make it Last Forever” was booming. Doc Box & B. Fresh had “Slow Love” out. Michellé, En Vogue, Vanessa Williams, Jody Watley, Karyn White, Whitney Houston, Aaliyah, TLC, Mary J. Blige, LL Cool J and MC Breed were coming through the speakers. You could call KSOL and sing A cappella on-air. Rick Chase was the Charlamagne of that time. That vibe became synonymous with the neighborhood. We were making-up dances outside and we were grooving to all things R&B. That was the soundtrack of my childhood. We shamelessly enjoyed listening to love songs. We carried those heavy cassette tape cases and Walkmans. We had our boom-boxes on our shoulders or in the front yard. The men prided themselves on having loud speakers in the trunk of their cars. You heard SWV during the Super-Soaker fight. Tony! Toni! Toné! was clappin’ louder than the ice cream truck’s song chiming down the block. Jodeci’s vocals carried the mood for the barbecues. We were singing Mariah Carey when we walked to the corner store to get a Ring-Pop. Heatwave’s “Always & Forever” put us to sleep on the ride home.

Right now, I’m that girl that’s huge on street fashion. I’m really into changing up my hair, trying new colors, wearing braids and as many African hairstyles as possible. I use wigs and weaves as a form of protective styling. I’ve been proud of the texture of my hair and I explore new ideas that aren’t in magazines. My hair is a huge source of interest to people. There isn’t a hairstyle I haven’t had. I love ripped jeans and leather jackets. I love anything military style. I love wearing bright colors. I love gaudy gold jewelry. I’ve been fearless in my self-expression in regards to anything artistic. My concept of beauty wasn’t based on Cindy Crawford alone. The people I grew up around were all different shades of brown. Most of us had big noses and full lips. We had nappy hair. We were a little curvy. As a teenager, I went through a phase where I was ashamed of our aesthetic. I only wore perms and I hated my big lips and nose. Like many things though, my childhood roots took precedence as I matured and I did return to that child-like state where I was in love with what I saw around me and what I saw when I looked in the mirror. There were very cool people where I grew up that gave me a base to be creative. I learned to stay down-to-earth because that was the vibe of my neighborhood. My music has never strayed away from my roots in R&B. The foundation of my personality in several ways comes directly from my neighborhood. In 2016, those same fashion statements that I saw growing up, have become main-stream. The sad part is that main-stream doesn’t acknowledge that that flair and that sense of style, creativity and charisma, came from the ghetto.

As with every beautiful thing comes its beast. Richmond was full of crime and violence. Just as much as I heard The Isley Brothers, I heard sirens and gun-shots. I remember being afraid sometimes. Some of the people I grew up with didn’t live too long. I remember “Uncle Jesse,” the poor Black man that we all saw on street corners asking for spare change. I remember that everyone around us was poor. We all struggled. And this taught me to appreciate everything and to do something in my life to make things better. I know what it’s like to feel like you don’t have anything in comparison to the higher echelons of society. I know that many people where I’m from grew up without both parents and that we’re still broken because of it. I know that we feel like we need material things to be cool because we’re the have-nots. We didn’t always feel the love. There were liquor stores and fast-food. There were flashy cars and the allure of the street life. There was welfare and check-to-check living. There was Top Ramen & Kool-Aid for many of those that grew up around me. I was lucky that my mom worked extremely hard to keep that from being our experience, and even more blessed that she moved us away. I was able to experience travel, business and new environments. Because of my mother, I got the best of both worlds. I got a piece of the suburban life and a piece of the streets. My sister & I were exposed to several forms of art, culture and diversity. That’s the other side of me that makes me whole. But it will always be true that I’m from the ghetto of Richmond, CA, where you either turn out to be a masterpiece or a monster. I had to learn how to be in that environment and still thrive. In my opinion, Richmond made a masterpiece of me. And I think if you can survive growing up in the hood, you can survive anything.

What schools did you go to?

I went to Harding Elementary School, Portola Middle School, Adams Middle School, Kennedy High School & Vista High School. I also went to Solano college & attended a prestigious 4-year music program at UC Berkeley.

What would you tell all the young people who want to reach your level of ability? How did you do it? How can they too?

I love working with the youth. They keep you fresh. They keep it real. I don’t like giving people advice on singing. However, if I had to share, I’d suggest practicing scales regularly and singing daily. I don’t realize how much I’ve improved vocally until I watch old videos of live performances. The base of my voice has always been the same no matter how much I have improved. I’ve just gotten more comfortable with my voice, more aware of my limits and I’ve built on the parts that I think are excellent. This development has taken the longest. However, the more I practice and critique myself, the easier and more fun singing is for me. So my advice: Practice and have fun!

What’s your next ultimate goal in your music career?

I want the world to hear it. I want people to sit down and say “This is R&B! She brought it back.” Music is very polarized right now. I want to create a balance for the world. I wanna give people classic love songs reminiscent of the golden age of R&B and Soul. That’s the era that set my soul on fire. I wanna give people that experience again. I also want to be part of the revolution that embraces African-American culture. Our aesthetic is breathtakingly gorgeous. What we contribute to life artistically is imitated everywhere. We have a very special place in this world. I want to be the one to show people everywhere that they can come from a place like Richmond, with its beauty and its beast, and still be classy, intelligent, cultured, talented, appealing, and make a large contribution to the world. I want to empower and encourage people to express themselves fearlessly. I want to inspire them to stack their money, value the family unit and to invest love and effort into the community. I want to do all of those things for the world by doing those things WITH them.

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