Hadaiyah 'Yaya' Bey, offspring of the golden hip-hop era of the 1990s, grew up in a fragmented existence. Her warm combination of neo-soul and hip-hop blurs boundaries and sounds surprisingly organic and intimate for something entirely fashioned from samples. Her second album Madison Tapes (2020) and latest EP The Things I Can't Take With Me are true-to-life recordings of the two years in which, after much heartbreak, she recaptured her shine.
Written by: Jasper Willems
Photos: Andres Norwood
Yaya Bey is the daughter of Ayyub Cave, better known as Grand Daddy I.U.., a Queens rapper and producer active in the 1990s. Her mother grows up in a broken situation: when she becomes pregnant, her father - Bey's grandfather - wants to dispossess her. Bey's mother is at the mercy of the gender roles of the patriarchy and young Bey inherits many of those same scars. The feeling of being rejected—of not being loved and wanted—seeps through to the love relationships she experiences as a teenager and young adult.
But Bey remains rebellious in her own way. Like her father, she is developing as an artist at heart and is not limited in her approach. In addition to music, she throws herself into poetry, activism, literature, film, visual arts and photography. In 2013, Bey published the collection Job’s Daughter: The Adventures Of Yeezy Trill, in which she records her life path with short stories and poems. Art is her way to better understand the world around her and to break down the cycle of trauma bit by bit.
Madison Tapes, released last year, is being promoted as a full-length, but secretly the album is more like a documentary. Between the minimal living room productions we hear fragments of conversation between Bey, her friends and artists with whom she works on the record. It often involves something banal: a conversation about favorite flowers, for example. April showers ends with a funny chat between Bey and rapper Lowkeyvibes. Sometimes the fragments are substantial: in 'people come and go... let them go' a friend tells how trauma spans several generations and how he is confronted with it every day.
Still, there's something welcoming and casual about it, the subtle way the stolen snapshots merge with the actual songs. The music itself creates the illusion of a small, light-footed band playing in a living room, the opposite of the sharp cut-and-paste in many hip-hop productions. “They're all samples,” Bey responds on the phone, when asked exactly how she composes her music. “I mainly consider myself a songwriter; I see that as my craft. I was married for a long time; I lived in Washington DC. My ex-husband was also my collaborator and if you listen to my work before Madison Tapes, you mainly hear his sound. My sound is closer to hip-hop and jazz, while his thing was closer to blues. The older records are also built much more around the guitar. I often tried to steer the production more towards my own sound, but I couldn't get there. After my divorce, I moved back to New York, my hometown.”
Those who have seen the recent documentary Biggie: I Got A Story to Tell, for example, will be reminded once again: when Bey was born, Brooklyn was not a gentrified place with boutique shops, coffee shops and expensive apartments. It was still a poor neighborhood where crime and drug use were commonplace. When Bey returns, she ends up in another world. She can't afford housing for herself, so she shares a room with a roommate. “My roommate had Logic (an audio software, ed.) and in our spare time we decided to look for samples that we then tried to mix. I wanted to make the music I had in mind.”
Many of these samples are of a melancholic nature: Bey is going through a heavy, depressive period after her divorce. The living and working situation are not ideal for coping with the malaise in peace. “Life seemed at one point to move faster than I could keep up with. Suffering and grief often get you stuck in the past, while the present is constantly moving around you. I was on a sort of autopilot when I was making Madison Tapes. I had my first corporate job, and I quickly learned that I didn't belong in a corporate environment. My working days were thirteen hours long. I came home, worked on the album until 5 a.m., slept for two hours, and went back to work. And I did that every day. It was an intense time, and I had to register it in a certain way. So Madison Tapes' 'making of' became part of the record itself."
During working hours, Bey had to suppress certain aspects of herself and draw boundaries, while by nature she is someone who tries to disprove social roles. Madison Tapes became a natural outlet where everything could and could arise freely. Confessions about nine-to-five stress, social relationships and bad sex are all given space, within both the music and the interludes. On 'i got a promotion, and i still love you' you can hear Bey's processing in near real time: "I've been spending my life on a paycheck / where does my real life start?"
“I like to keep my music stripped down,” she argues, when asked why her songs sound so spontaneous and laid back. “I don't want the music to overshadow my words: what I say and the way I say something. My words must steal the show: the production and the sound must remain small so that the words can make a bigger impact.
As the daughter of a rapper, Bey is insanely good with words, but during interviews she speaks slowly and deliberately. Long pauses, sometimes thinking aloud, but always careful and reserved, as if walking on eggshells. That may have to do with her troubled past and the traumas she had to deal with in her young life. Both Madison Tapes and the new EP The Things I Can't Take With Me are personal documents. Many of her song titles stem from very specific moments in her life. For example, "We'll skate soon" is her ex-husband's last text, and "September 13th" refers to an event on that particular date when Bey realized that a relationship she fought for would never be the same.
She reveals that Madison Tapes and The Things I Can't Take With Me were actually two urgent in-between projects that interrupted a larger album/film project she's been working on since 2019 and is currently continuing. “Sometimes life itself gives direction to my art. I noticed that I wasn't ready to finish my upcoming album yet. There were a number of things that stuck that I wanted to communicate, but didn't want to include in that project. That's why this EP is called The Things I Can't Take With Me. I think we are always working through our traumas. I myself still struggled with a lot of anger and pain and I also came to important new insights. Certain obstacles arose that prevented me from making the music I wanted to make. This was music I had to make to get those things out of my system so I wouldn't carry them around with me.”
That need outweighs everything else. As a fresh addition to the renowned Ninja Tune, she notices that she is still unaccustomed to the business aspect of the music industry. She finds it very difficult to promote herself via social media. On 'what truly is' you hear a friend of hers – a photographer – talk about “intrusion on authenticity”, that small shift between being yourself and projecting yourself. And that is exactly the sore spot where social media causes unrest for many. “I hate it,” Bey says. “My natural tendency is to withdraw into my own world. That's where I feel safest. But out there, you get into situations that expose you to the perceptions of others, and that doesn't feel natural. It disturbs my peace of mind. Normally I think about a certain topic, and suddenly I'm concerned about how that train of thought is seen from the outside again. I hate that part.”
Within her work, however, she circumvents these dilemmas in a natural way. Bey, for example, wrote a long, captivating essay on how the emotional and cultural heritage of black communities from the ghetto is exploited. Her single 'fxck it then', and the accompanying Super 8 music video, is an ode to hood joints, DIY spaces where black communities come together without having to conform to others. A home in the most literal sense of that word. Within her own environment, she collaborates with other local artists with an organization that collects resources to provide shelter and care for the homeless. It's all happening on a grassroots, guerilla level, she says.
Bey herself has a past as a street medic, specializing in treating victims who got pepper sprayed. “When the protests broke out this summer, I started to focus again on mutual aid. I helped organize house parties where people had to bring tools, things that were needed for the community. The homeless shelter in New York is corrupt. The city makes millions from homeless people, so the government will never stop homelessness. As a result, the people in reception centers receive insufficient care. They need clothes, diapers, and hygiene products. When I was still working as a street medic I wanted to help black people against the violence that is being done to us. I realized that this violence was of a systematic nature, beyond the violence of the police.”
While Bey wants to make the world a better place on several levels, she continues to release music that sounds simple at first glance, but has multiple layers that everyone who listens can find solace in. While the context may vary – from the political to the personal – the message is equally powerful everywhere. “I try to create whole worlds on my records. And in those worlds I talk to different people at the same time. At a basic level, talk to the listener, and to myself. But on another level, I talk to people like me. And then one level further, I talk to people I know personally. Sometimes it is things that people in my immediate environment understand.”
On Madison Tapes and The Things I Can't Take With Me, you can hear Bey's gift for making a home anywhere, as long as she can give free rein to her imagination and creativity. “I was capturing my immediate environment at a time when I was starting my life completely over. I mourned everything I had lost. When the ground seemed to disappear from under my feet, I felt a kind of gratitude. Something like 'okay, life's not over, it's still going.' There is joy in life: you can hear it in the laughter and in the jokes.”
“It's a fine time to read between the lines, my dear / It's a fine time to have a change of mind, my dear.”
Order Madison Tapes and The Things I Can’t Take With Me via Yaya Beys Bandcamp-page. You can also buy her homemade prints there. Watch hier the short documentary about Yaya Bey from filmmaker Shelby Zoe Coley.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.