Abiyah really needs no introduction. She is a true legend in Cincinnati and continues to inspire and surprise the music community time after time. It was a privilege to catch up with Abiyah about being a Woman in Cincinnati music.
What are some things we may not know about Abiyah?
As most people know, I’m a pretty open book, but some new things a lot of folks may not know (just yet) is that, at age 51 (turning 52 in July this year), I’ve taken up skateboarding. When I was 18 back in 1987, my good friend in Mariemont, John Becker, showed me how to do a 180, I believe on a Powell Peralta Lance Mountain deck. In 2019, about a week before my 50th birthday, John was in town from San Francisco visiting his mother in Mariemont. I asked him if he could give me an early birthday present and show me how to do a 180 again…in the exact same spot in Mariemont that he showed me 32 years earlier. I landed one. CLEAN. Earlier this year, I decided to get my own deck, a snazzy number from Black woman-owned skateboard company Proper Gnar. John’s brother Charlie was in town from L.A. in mid-March this year, so I took it over to Mrs. Becker’s house so he could show me how to get on the damn thing and at least move. I actually did pretty well, did an entire circle tic-tacing, but most of all, I was determined. Can’t wait to practice some more and master the basics. Y’all know I’m not afraid of ‘falling’, literally or figuratively.
I’m also a big Nancy Drew fan, thanks to my late Nana. During the day, I’m a project manager/data analyst/data tester at a major health insurance company. Combine those two things + my unique sense of style and you have my alter-ego: Fancy Drew - Data Detective! I shared that with my boss recently (who is an empowered woman who empowers women), and she’s like ‘that’s totally your new name!’ and she has since started calling me that when I solve a complex data mystery.
While my love of words is not unknown, as both a poet and songwriter, my love of how those words are SPELLED might be. Yes, I’m a former spelling bee champion. :) I learned how to read when I was four, and combined with a photographic memory, I remembered all those fucking words. I started competing in school spelling bees in the 4th grade in Dayton at Immaculate Conception, and then at St. Charles Borromeo in Kettering (a Dayton suburb) in the 6th grade, until I took that title at the Kettering City Spelling Bee in the 8th grade.
On a personal tip though, I struggle with loneliness. Frequently. It might not seem that way from the outside, but it’s true. Just because I know a lot of people and a lot of people know me doesn’t mean shit, really. I define loneliness as a lack of feeling connected/connection. What that means is that I much more enjoy having one or two people to engage with in anything from friendly banter to full-on meaningful conversation. I can be in a crowded room and still feel lonely. Who else feels me?
After the year we have had, has anything changed about your perspective on making music, or the industry?
Not entirely. For independent musicians, I think the so-called ‘industry’ is and has been dead for some time, given that independent musicians have so many tools and avenues to get the word out about ourselves and our music. However, I have had more time this past year to focus on what is really important with my music…and decidedly what is not.
One thing that has helped during the pandemic is identifying and recognizing toxic people and toxic situations in my life, and promptly removing them. That frees up space in my mind for creativity.
In my day job as a data analyst/data test/project manager, I get paid to overthink. Apply that to songwriting, though, and that’s when problems begin. That has ALWAYS been a problem for me. My prolific producer (more on him and that project a little later in this interview) imparted some words of wisdom to me recently, based on his own experiences. For example, trying not to get bogged down in making one song perfect because I’m looking so far down the road at the entirety of the project rather than vis-a-vis other songs, potential edits before arriving at the finished product, hearing the songs next to each other, changes to mixes after vocals are recorded, etc. I’m known to put the proverbial cart before the horse, i.e., envisioning the marketing plan before i’ve even written one word of a song, so his advice has been very liberating and beneficial. If the pandemic wouldn’t have hit when it did, I don’t believe I would have had the space or time to either a) take on this project or b) to enact these changes in the ways I approach my songwriting, whether that be methodically or emotionally/mentally.
As a Woman in Cincinnati Music, do you feel that gender has ever hindered your path? Do you feel that you have to work harder to get your voice heard?
This was a question posed to me in the previous Women in Cincinnati Music interview back in March 2017, so readers can refer back to that one to see how I let loose. In this space, I would like to share some of the empowering things I’ve done since then, to show that we can indeed do many things (at any age…more on that below), as well as some issues I think women in music still face.
Things started poppin’ performance-wise just a few months after that first Women in Cincinnati Music…in May 2017, I had the honor of opening for the Bounce Queen herself, Big Freedia, on Fountain Square. That was one of my favorite performances in my 20+-year music career because the crowd was SO live! Several young dance crews were in the crowd displaying their skills, and, during my set (with Dana Hamblen joining me on backing vocals), there were several young sisters (~13-15 years of age) at the front of the stage, a little skeptical of this White chick on the mic. When I got to some of my songs mid-set where I’m somewhat rapping, they were entirely on-board and started dapping me up. There is no better feeling as a female performer than having a positive impact on the next generation, or even the generation after that, of girls and women. At least for me.
I somehow fell into the realm of music journalism in August 2017 and February 2018, and ended up interviewing Dave Wakeling of The English Beat and avant-hip hop artist Beans, respectively, for Ghettoblaster Magazine. Who knew I’d be adding that to my resumé?
In September 2017, local alt-soul/electronic vocalist Xzela and I organized a diverse female-focused performance series we called Female Energy. Key to this was that she and I were/are intergenerational (she was 22 at the time, and I was 48). However, we were entirely equal co-organizers, eschewing years of experience in the music scene and in life in favor of empowering other women in music. Our first iteration that month included Darlene, Siri Imani and Aziza Love, Emily Ash, The Night Divided, Xzela, and Abiyah, while our second, in April 2018, included Muwosi, Brooklynn Rae, Halvsies, DINGE, and Lauryn Eylise.
I also managed to score a few music releases in the in-between times: the ‘Boom’ cassingle (yep, an actual cassette tape) with the homie Evolve in 2017, ‘Crylike’/‘Masked’ double A-side single produced by Dave Rohs in 2018, ‘Champion Plaque’ (produced by Possible Address and featuring Ceschi Ramos) and ‘Mirror Flower’ (produced by Warren Harrison) in 2019, and a ‘Mirror Flower’ remix (produced by Eugenius in 2020, Woo.
Took a little road trip about an hour north in November 2018 to appear on Juliet Fromholt’s awesome music program, ‘Kaleidoscope’, on Yellow Springs NPR-affiliate radio station WYSO. She has one of the most beautiful ‘NPR’ voices I have ever heard, and is a stellar interviewer. Check it out to hear some fun facts, including how I got started writing songs.
During the pandemic, I was honored to be interviewed by one of my high school besties (Sycamore Aves, what’s good?), Tevis Trower, for an episode of her Game-Changer Chats. Tevis is a corporate mindfulness guru for C-suite executives, and the author of The Game-Changer’s Guide to Radical Success. She pulled an entire boatload of stuff out of me that I didn’t realize I was ready to share yet, but it was also fun to revisit each other at this point in our lives 35 years later. Watch the video interview.
As many folks in Cincinnati are aware, I’ve been part of the reggae community for a little over 30 years…going to the dancehalls back in the day, Ripley’s every Wednesday, spinning reggae on Fountain Square, etc. This year will also be the ninth year I’ve been an all-vinyl reggae DJ, doing Basement Reggae at The Comet as part of Queen City Imperial Soundsystem (with DJ Spam, another lady on the decks). Earlier this year, the Cincinnati reggae community and Sister Leah Saho honored me with a Lifetime Achievement Award for my positive contributions to the Cincinnati reggae scene.
One of the most uplifting experiences of my life as an artist recently arrived right on time and on schedule when I needed it the most. While I was at the grocery store in January this year, I received a text from my good friend in Detroit, Jaci Caprice. An uber-talented vocalist/producer/videographer and actual factual music ambassador to communities outside of the U.S. through programs like American Music Abroad and Next Level, she is a force of nature and an amazingly kind and generous human being. She wanted to know if I wanted to be part of a Women’s Herstory Month video that American Music Abroad had asked her to create, focusing on the phenomenal women she knows in music, art, the community, and life. Sis, yes!!! Jaci invited myself and 15-20 women, including her amazing mother, to a Zoom call in January to connect, congregate, conversate, and get some screen and video grabs for some of the finished product. Watch the full video. I come in around 7:24 and at the end.
One of the biggest issues I feel women in music still face is ageism. I let EVERYone know my age because I a) don’t give a fuck and b) am trying to normalize that a woman’s age is irrelevant relative to her ability to do something or anything. We don’t have a shelf-life or expiration date. When we call ourselves ‘old’, that just means we’ve given up. I tend to define ‘age’ as simply the number of years of experiences we’ve accumulated. Doesn’t mean women with more years of experiences are better or worse than women with less, and we can and certainly do learn from each other. It seems like many times when a woman musician/performer/actor is mentioned in an article of some sort, her age is mentioned…not so much with men. There also tends to be more usage of the qualifier ‘still’ when a woman ‘of age’ is continuing to do her thing past a societally pre-defined point in her life, i.e., ‘Grace Jones is 74 and she’s STILL headlining festivals!’ (with the subtext being ‘can you believe THAT?’).It’s almost as if this use of ‘STILL’ is a call for us to sit our asses STILL and recognize our place when we’re deemed ‘old’. This isn’t Logan’s Run, muhfuckas, and I’m not participating in your damn Carousel.
What Women in music (or behind the music) do you admire?
Overall, I admire women in music who, in the past, have ‘had’ to take shit (given the circumstances or social climate at the time), but now take NONE. ZERO. ZILCH. NADA. Many times we’ve had to suffer in silence for fear of retaliation, revenge, or retribution.
I could write another several pages on the women below, but y’all have read enough up to this point, and there’s still one question to go. :) This list is by no means exhaustive, and I discover new women in music and behind the music that I admire on practically a daily basis.
Early inspirations, way before I ever even imagined I would be a songwriter, DJ, and performer, were Grace Jones, Debbie Harry, Alice Bag, Exene Cervenka, and Sister Carol. They OWNED their shit then and they OWN their shit now. And the late Wendy O. Williams (Plasmatics). Let me expound on her for a minute. When I was a nine- or ten-year old (1978-79) naïve Catholic schoolgirl, growing up in suburban Dayton, OH, I was OBSESSED with Wendy O. Williams. I don’t think I actually was able to listen to her music until high school nor was I into punk, but at the aforementioned young age, I would always end up seeing Plasmatics records at the record store whenever my mom would take me and my sister. Like, I wasn’t even looking in the Punk section, but I was like who is the entire badass chick with a mohawk and her tits out with black duct tape on her nipples. It was my secret that I was into the Plasmatics, at least the idea of them. Lol
No one should be surprised that there desperately needs to be more female recording/mastering/sound engineers, producers, label owners, artist managers, and other ‘industry’ professionals. Their visibility and existence should be acknowledged, centered, and elevated. Locally and regionally, I’m grateful that we have women like Anna Bentley (sound engineer at MOTR) and Shelley Davis (mastering engineer based in Louisville) out here doing the damn thing.
The young sisters in reggae these last few years have been blowing me away: Koffee (the first woman EVER to win a Grammy for Best Reggae Album…in 20-freaking-20 (WTF) AND at 19 years old!), Sevana, Jaz Elise, Naomi Cowan, Lila Iké, and more.
The legendary Cincinnati reggae sistren of WAIF 88.3 FM: Sister Ivette, Sister Kaya, and Sister Tamar. I have been in awe of these beautiful women for over 30 years.
Cincinnati reggae promoter extraordinaire Sister Leah Saho..
My Detroit sistren in hip hop: Piper Carter, Jaci Caprice, Mahogany Jones, and all the ladies of the Foundation of Women in Hip Hop.
On the local DJ tip: my most excellent Basement Reggae co-DJ DJ Spam (Liz Park), longtime friend and entire badass DJ Apryl Reign, the awesomely-talented DJ Rah D and women DJs every.damn.where.
Look, Cincinnati has always had a plethora of musicians who just happen to be women, and I’ve been so grateful to have known and worked/performed with many of them. They are all HUSTLE MAMAS. Those who feel it know it. Some of them who have had a huge impact on me (they may be surprised to read that! LOL) are:
Tracy Walker: I have been a huge fan of Tracy’s since I first entered into the Cincinnati music scene proper around 2002. I even bought a CD of hers for my mom for her birthday back in like 2003 or 2004; my mom KEPT it in her ride. Super down-to-earth, real, and with a beautiful voice. Her songs are magical, and there are two I request and sing along to every time I see her perform.
Kristen Kreft: Kristen has been killin’ it for a long time. She was born for this. A single mother, band leader (The Perfect Children), author and pro-as-fuck bartender (Rocktails), Kristen can SAAANG. Lawdhamercy. She is on her game 24-7, a great friend, and can’t stop won’t stop.So grateful for her friendship.
Beth Harris: Another entire badass, Beth can also SAAANG, teach stage combat, slang delicious drinks (as former owner of The Listing Loon in Northside), and show ‘em how it’s done. A backing vocalist with Kristen’s band The Perfect Children, co-lead vocalist of The Hiders, and a solo artist in her own right, Beth is one of the most beautiful human beings I know. Her voice will melt you…and you deserve it in the best ways. We were fortunate enough to check out that cutie Trevor Noah at Dave Chappelle’s thing in Yellow Springs in the middle of a corn field last September, too!
Lauren Elyse: I actually met Lauren in 2016 in Chicago. We were performing at a women in hip hop and R&B event and were standing next to each other outside with the rest of the performers for a group photo. She mentioned something about Cincinnati and I was like, ‘say what now?’. We linked when we got back to the Queen City and I was fortunate enough to have her perform at my Comet residency a few months later. She is doing so many impactful things for women in music, and has manifested her entire vision into something for which we should all be grateful.
Luna Malbroux: Primarily a stand-up comedian from the Bay Area, now-Cincinnati resident Luna ventured into the music arena during the pandemic, and I am here for it. During these times, we were able to build on our friendship even further and I’m looking forward to all the amazing things she will do in the future.
Dana Hamblen: Y’all already know one of my best homies. Three bands (Darlene, Culture Queer, Fairmount Girls), backing vox with me, Ditchweed, Devil Nut Mother Hole, (former) vintage shop owner, fashion show producer extraordinaire, and all-around awesome human being, Dana has been a force to be reckoned with in Cincinnati for like ever. Her inimitable style will grab you from jump. Dana, however, is not the sum of her creative parts, at least in my opinion. Most importantly, she is a loyal friend and has one of the biggest hearts you will ever experience. Just ask her to show you.
What is Abiyah up to next?!
Woo, lots of thangs! Basement Reggae Summer at The Comet will be back again June through August in the same format as last year, until the COVID numbers improve. DJ Spam and I love the people and we’re grateful to Dave Cunningham at The Comet for letting us get creative with it during these times. Stay tuned on our FB page.
On April 16, I’ll be doing my first performance of the pandemic and my first livestream ever on acclaimed indie record label Fake Four Inc.’s ‘Fake Four Fridays’ livestream on Twitch at 7pm Eastern.
Also looking to head out of town this year to do some collabs, especially Detroit.
But the big news of the day is…after 21-ish years of doing music and being a member of the Cincinnati music community…I’m working on my FIRST full-length album. EVER. I’ve had a few releases here and there: an EP, a cassette single, several digital singles, but never an ALBUM. I’m calling it ‘Strangers Love Me’, and the entire thing will be produced by Eugenius (Phil Smith).
Some background on this project. The title has been around for a few years. I was at Myrtle’s Punch House in East Walnut Hills in 2018 or so, talking at the bar to local singer-songwriter extraordinaire Tracy Walker after she had finished her performance for the evening. I shared that, in my daily life, it seemed like sometimes strangers seem to love me more than people I’ve known for a long time. Strangers don’t know our baggage. Strangers meet us as the person that we are now, not the person we may have been before. My appearance tends to be a conversation starter, and I seem to be approachable, so strangers engage with me frequently…and I engage back. During the pandemic, this interaction has especially been a (mental) lifesaver.
On to the music part. I’m a weird one. I know this, y’all know this. When people ask me what kind of music I do or what does it sound like…I don’t know, you tell me. Over the years, I think the best way to describe it is ‘curve’, as in ‘curveball’. Someone who was seeing me perform for the first time about eight years ago or so commented that it was like a curveball because, after about three songs into the set, where each one was a different genre, you didn’t know what you were going to get next…like a curveball. For the folks at home, it’s a boundary-blurring curveball collage of new wave, dancehall, indie rock, avant-hip hop, electronica, and punk blended with the fury of a free wild muse.
All that being said, who the hell could make the music for this album that would best represent this entire mess of genres? Does that person even exist? In the last ten years or so, the fleeting thought of an album would sometimes pop in my head and I always envisioned having to have multiple producers because I couldn’t even imagine there was someone like me, with the same influences and perspectives, who was as innovative and creative, who could possibly pull this off. An album with a different producer for each song would have been a clusterfuck of epic proportions; having to manage so many folks, EQing and mixing being different from track to track, etc. And then in walked my dream album producer, who’s been in front of my face all this time.
Eugenius (Phil Smith) is a true gem in the Queen City’s crown. A multi-instrumentalist, a member of punk and indie rock/soul bands, an experimental hip hop artist, he is the real deal. And he is the perfect match to craft the sound of ‘Strangers Love Me’. He has also been one of my closest friends for going on nine years, as well as a frequent collaborator, and is one of the most awesome human beings I know.
Similar to how I can’t explain how my own music sounds, I also can’t describe his. Which can only mean one thing: again, he’s perfect for this project. To give you a little hint, the first track we worked on came back to me sounding like modern Joy Division. Another is a complex layer of dark, brooding, building intensity. And there are many more to come. Phil is known for entirely switching up the music and the mix after the lyrics have been written and vocals recorded. And I’m more than okay with that. Why? Because I trust him. That’s tremendous growth for me, as I have trust issues for days, but I am entirely comfortable accepting that he ‘gets’ me and my artistic direction, as both a friend and fellow musician. I appreciate you so much, Phil.
I’ve always felt like the ‘cheerleader’ in the crowd, or at least inadvertently relegated to that role because no one else would/could take up that mantle, but he’s the best cheerleader, motivating, and it feels like we’re equals. Phil’s advice, encouragement, and calming presence has reduced my creative anxiety tremendously.
I don’t regret waiting this long to do a full-length album. It didn’t really seem like a wait. This is the perfect time and the right time in my life, where I have the hindsight of my experiences and legacy in the rear view, and the promise of a new era of creativity in my future sights. Foot on the gas pedal.
Like Pinky and the Brain…I’m trying to take over the world tomorrow…but in the best and most impactful ways and with the most awesome and caring people possible.