Singer and Songwriter Serayah Refuses to Sugarcoat the Independent Artist Life

Singer and Songwriter Serayah Refuses to Sugarcoat the Independent Artist Life

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You may know Serayah as Tiana Brown on the tv show Empire, but once you’re in the recording studio as she's laying down her vocals, she leaves an impression on you that is 100% her own. Her voice is clear as day, slightly unbelievable, and a rarity in an overly produced music industry. “Is that Serayah singing live right now?”, our team was even taken aback, and bopped along while she belted out her single, “Love It”. The song’s lyrics ask and tell us, “Don't you love it? Being hated. Damn, I love it. Being hated.” But, we can’t imagine how anyone could feel anything other than love for the independent artist whose MO is all about getting her creative point across as authentic as possible.

To get the full-on Serayah experience, we picked her up on the way to dance rehearsals, and eagerly acted as a fly on the wall as she and her dancers ran through a 45-minute set. Days later, Serayah and her team invited us into her private recording studio (as mentioned above) and after spending nearly a full work day with the L.A. native, it became so clear that her office hours are round-the-clock. But, even with a jam-packed schedule, Serayah wouldn't trade the creative control she has over her career with any other artist. 

Here's a look at what goes into a self-made journey–the pros, the cons, and the unanticipated truths-as shared so openly by Serayah. 

Tell us about “Love It”. What was it like writing, recording, and filming the video for it?

I record a lot in Chicago because I film Empire in Chicago, and most of my year I’m in Chicago. I do a lot of writing and recording records out there with my producer, vocal arranger, Jabari Rayford, known as Jack Red. Plug that in. (laughs) We did this song last year in 2018, and I literally just had a moment of going into the studio and not really knowing what I was going to do, and I was just like, “Man, I just really wanna talk about something real!” I didn’t really want to conceptually come up with something, you know? I really wanted to talk about what me or my friends were going through and what we always talk about, and that’s just the fake flexing part of our generation right now! A lot of it’s genuine, and a lot of it can be authentic, but then the other side of that is always trying to be on for social media, or for presence, or for Hollywood. So, that’s what we made the song about. It’s empowering at the same time. It’s lifting people up that maybe don’t have money for the Mercedes or don’t have money for that. It’s like, you’re still poppin’ because you’re you, boo!

So, walk us through your creative process. You have a lot of creative control, which gives you such a great advantage and ability to really brand yourself, and be exactly who you are. What does that look like for you? Whether you’re deciding on what the costumes are, what your hair looks like, the brands you partner with…

Yeah, well, sometimes that’s the hardest part! But, I’m so glad I get creative control because I know what I like, I know what I want to see. At the same time, I’m so indecisive (laughs). Just to be honest, and that’s the part that I think takes a little more digging. Like, I literally just came up with a name for my project that I’ve been working on for the past two years because I’m just like... I don’t wanna rush it, I want it to be right. That’s just the type of person I am. If I’m gonna do a show, I want more than one day of rehearsals. For me, it’s all about preparation and really digging deep into, “What does this mean to me? How can I relate to the people out there?” I think the biggest thing for me is, I’ve been on Empire, so the first thing that people see me on, it’s like a really big show. So, people just don’t really know that much about me before Empire. When I do my music, I want to go more in-depth and tell that story and be as authentic and real. Even with what the dancers are wearing, what I’m wearing. We perform in probably Air Max sneakers, while my character on the show performs in heels. You know, she has more the Beyoncé feel, so it’s little things like that that let someone in on my real life and, and that’s what’s most important to me, yeah. Creative control (laughs).

You’re good, you’re so good!

...Deep, deep conversations with Ray. I mean, I could go on and on! (laughs) It’s just weird because I feel like it’s a “my generation” thing, and yeah it is, and the generation under me because I have my little cousin and she’s 17. She just graduated from high school. So, I see first-hand from her! Like, I go to her to play my records like, “What do you think? Is this cool?” I do that, but it even affects the generations a little bit over me and it’s affecting everyone–social media. In good ways and negative ways, you know, with all things. For me, I just try to just focus on my page, my engagement, my fans. Then I click out of it because I feel like sometimes when you wake up and that’s the first thing you’re looking at, you give yourself no time to process your day, who you are, what goals you want to set for the day. You automatically look at someone posting something, maybe that you admire, or that you want. Instantly your day is just like, “Damn. I have nothing.” You know what I mean? And that’s what it could be and I feel like that’s why, when you wake up in the morning that should not be your first go-to. For sure.

I still live with my mom, so me and my mom, when we wake up we’re like, “What are you doing?” We text each other in the other room. We go downstairs to have coffee together. Just that little moment I feel like is so important because even for me in the entertainment, it’s a part of my business, its a part of my brand. So I have to care to a certain extent, you know? And, I do care because I wanna engage, but at the same time, everything needs a balance. I feel like that’s what me and my friends also talk about too, is just kinda like, alright let's keep our energies. We’re around each other, we’re experiencing things authentically, and, you know, we’re not always in your phones. If that’s what it takes to have a little bit of balance, so, yeah.

What do you most want your audience to know about you, and what it takes to be in your position?

I just want people to know that I’m an independent artist, and I say that in all forms and fashions. No production label, except for my own. No streaming label... I invest everything I have into my music, and into my career. So, I say that to say that every day is not peachy. You know? Every day is not always easy, you know what I mean? As easy as it may look, there's a lot of people that ask me, “What does it take? How do you do this? How can I get started at this?” It’s like, if you have a dollar, invest fifty cents into yourself and I really do. I really do believe that, because that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few years that I’ve been trying to put my music out and on Empire. Opportunities start to present themselves and I can speak from that level right now. I finally feel like, okay, opportunities are starting to come about, and I just wanna tell people out there that it’s really, really important that you don’t lose the faith in that. Sometimes when you’re investing in yourself, you’re the only person–or your team, for me. I have two managers and me. We believe in the vision, and you’re trying to get everyone else to believe in the vision. If they don’t, you gotta just keep pushing. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned in the past four years, Now I’m able to tell my story and be authentic. I’ve been through ups and downs and ups and downs and ups and downs with music, with acting, with everything and it’s really not easy. There’s a lot of people doing music now that want to be in entertainment but as an easy route, an easy career. That’s not what it is. (laughs) It’s really just as tough and as difficult! We have our perks, don’t get me wrong, but you go to [school for] eight years to become a doctor or something like that! It takes so much work to become the best at what you do. That’s my biggest thing that a lot of people ask me, those same questions and sometimes I feel like, be real. Because there’s a lot of people, once again, that want to show you the side of all of the good things that come with it and it’s about time that people see, “No, it really takes a lot of work!” That’s why I really admire–everyone admires–Beyonce for Homecoming, because you see, like, okay, the product is fucking amazing, but she rehearsed for six months for a two-hour show. You know what I mean? Like that’s something that you have to be willing to do to be the best that you can be and if you’re not, then it’s not for you. You know? And that’s why I bite the bullet every day when I don’t feel like I have the strength sometimes, and that’s what keeps you pushing. So it’s really like if you want it, you really, really, really have to lay down everything. That’s my biggest thing for people that wanna do it. That’s like the first thing I say.

Photography by Jamie Girdler

Let’s go back to being an independent artist. Tell us about the pros and the cons of doing everything that way?

Well, when you’re independent, obviously you get creative control. You get to move how you want to, you get to have your rollout control of how you look and how it’s presented. And, you know, just everything. You get to control everything that’s about your artistry. But, with saying that, you also have to pay for everything and everyone that’s involved, and that’s an empowering feeling. I’m grateful to be able to do that. But it does come with its, you know, you’re talking about big companies that have millions and millions and billions of dollars to invest into music and to invest into something as simple as merch...

Just small things like that. Obviously, it's nice to have help and to have these orchestrated teams. I actually was signed to Columbia, like two years ago, ‘cause of Empire. Empire was once doing a distribution deal with Columbia and then when they split ways, Columbia dropped all the artists and that was probably the best thing that coulda ever happened to me because I was under too many people that didn’t know what to do with me, The show was still super super poppin’ and they were just like, “How do we promote an actress that’s a singer?” I don’t know why, but that’s how they felt. And they were trying to make me sing a certain genre of music and, I don’t know, for all the right reasons it just really helped me be able to dig deeper into what I wanna say, what I wanna sound like, how I’m gonna be presented. I don’t wanna be in a box. Like, I’m a Gemini. I wake up every day, and I’m like a different person. I wanna wear a dress, I hate dresses the next day, I wanna wear boyfriend jeans. That’s just who I am, so I can’t be in a box and be like, “I sing this type of music.” I love all music, and I wanna be able to express that. So yeah, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me! Now it’s an independent road and it’s been great. It’s been really awesome.

Photography by Jamie Girdler

I just want people to know that I’m an independent artist, and I say that in all forms and fashions.

You grew up in L.A. As a young girl, having dreams at a young age and them having them come true–and you having so much control of that–What does it feel like, walking and driving down the same streets and having that realization, like, “Oh shit, everything I was dreaming about is coming true!”

Um, it’s, it’s really weird. It’s so weird. I was in the car with my friend and I was going to a beauty supply thing that I used to always go to because it’s like the biggest one in the valley, called Wow Beauty Supply. And, I literally have lived all over the valley growing up, but there’s a specific street, Reseda, that I lived on for a long time, in different apartments. It brings back those memories of like, just going to school, catching the bus to Ventura and Reseda. I’d walk down from Ventura to go home. And, you know, I would take night classes ‘cause I was obsessed with being over with high school. So, I took night classes to get extra credit. And I took that at the Reseda Continuation School and I was like, “I’m getting extra credits because when I’m a senior I’m done.” So, I was all about that. (laughs) It brings back a lot of memories. A lot of good ones and bad ones, but the bad ones seem so worth it now, you know? And it’s, it’s like, what you were saying, it’s like being able to ride down those streets and have a different perspective on life, it’s like, Wow.

Once your career took off and everything was happening for you–and obviously you’re so happy and proud of yourself–how did friends and family react? For the good and bad? How does it change?

Um, it changes drastically. I feel like Jay-Z said it best, which is like, people say you change but really their perspective of you changes. I’m the same girl, I swear. I’m still getting used to all the shit myself. So, you know, their perspective of you changes, and sometimes it’s good and sometimes that turns into envy, and sometimes the people that you love the most can be... it can hurt you the most. Sadly, I’ve gone through it and I’ve had my moments with some of my best friends from middle school, doing certain things, it’s like, “Wow, I didn’t expect that from you.” Or, you know a family member’s acting weird. It’s an adjustment, you know? I go into family member’s houses now and I get there and it’s like a meet and greet. I just wanna look crazy and have on my sweats, and come downstairs and eat cereal, but little do I know there are people over here ready for pictures, (laughs) like, I’m like, “Yo, can someone tell me what’s going on?” So, it’s definitely an adjustment and those types of things I feel like are just natural for people, and they’re just excited, and you know,? They don’t get how ostracized and how different they’re making you feel.

So with that happening, who do you turn to to feel like a safety blanket almost, like who are the women empowering you?

Most of the time, it’s my mom. ‘Cause she’s my manager and my parents are teenage parents, they had me at 16, so I kinda grew up with my parents. We’re really close. Me and my mom are really close and I tell her everything, from family to friends. She unbiasedly really does help me through a lot of what’s going on. Even with the business, just keeping my integrity in certain situations, with family and how to adjust, and family wanting lump sums of money all of a sudden, and if you don’t give it to them they don’t talk to you anymore, you know? Things like that, it can start to pile up and for me. I’m that type of person, like, I’d rather go through my day and enjoy my day, and suppress some of the stuff sometimes instead of always showing it. Then one day I’m just like, “Oh shit, I’m about to go crazy!” ‘Cause everything is like adding on top of each other but, she really does help me through that and through a lot of stuff, (laughs) actually. Sorry, mom, I love you.

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