When Iayaalis first began performing hip-hop, she pumped out polemical rhymes with a street-savvy, gangsta attitude. “I was trying to be so hard,” she recalls with a laugh. “Then someone told me, ‘Man, ain’t nobody going to believe that you carry a gun!’ And they were right. I needed to be more real.”
So rather than mimicking the formulas she heard, the Nashville native turned to her own life for inspiration. She peered inward and tried to define who she was: an educated, well-read, middle-class, African-American woman from a good, supportive family. She examined her motivations and concerns: spirituality, artistic expression, and her place as a woman in a Southern black community and in the world at large. “I evolved from trying to understand what hip-hop was to letting hip-hop be a tool to express and understand myself,” Iayaalis says. “Now my music is spiritual because my focus is on the spiritual. But it’s also about expressing myself as a woman, and for it to be very positive yet very real.”
Prior to this particular revelation, Iayaalis had already undergone a personal transformation. When she left Nashville several years ago to study musical theater and visual arts at Webster University in St. Louis, she was a shy, gifted young woman; much of her world view had been shaped by the private, Roman Catholic high school she had attended. In St. Louis, she says, “My sheltered life ran right into the reality of the real world.” She got involved with a fellow student who produced rap records; he introduced her to the music of KRS-One and Gang Starr and gave her a new perspective on rap and hip-hop.
“I found out it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought,” she laughs. “I learned that hip-hop was a culture, and pretty soon it became a way of life that I embraced, and it in turn embraced me. I always had written poetry, so I started writing rhymes and singing them.... Through my writing, I wanted to explore myself and hip-hop more deeply. That’s the thing that keeps me goingputting myself on paper, spitting it out. It’s the thing that motivates me, that keeps me in focus and in a positive state of mind.”
After discovering herself through art, books, and especially music, Iayaalis returned to Nashville in 1994 a worldlier woman. Once here, she fell in with “her crew,” a supportive community of like-minded young African-American artists and musicians who all were drawn to the positive aspects of hip-hop. That’s when she evolved from Donalda Chandler to Iayaalis, her self-given spiritual name. Pronounced “I-all-lee,” it’s an acronym for “I Am, You Are, And Love Is.”
“I’ve done a lot of research into metaphysics and different belief systems, from Egyptian culture to Bedouins to Santeríaall types of cultures and religions,” she says. “The one thing that they all hold as true, the one thing I saw in all of them is, ‘I am, you are, and love is,’ with love being the all-being, whether you call that God or Goddess or father or spirit or Allah or whatever.”
The singer explains that her personal and creative emergence has coincided with the coalescence of a young, artistic community in Nashville. She’s an active participant in two local organizations: The larger group is the Society of Black Artists, or SOBA, an alliance of musicians, photographers, video artists, and visual artists. “Power can come from a group,” she says, “so we’re trying to gather an administrative support system that will help us each individually while moving us forward as a group.” Her smaller support group calls itself Klique Universal and includes six musical actsIayaalis, Utopia State, Floss, Kamou, M.O.C., and Angialong with an extended group of artists, supporters, and friends.
It was when Iayaalis hooked up with members of Klique Universal that she truly started to find her own voice. When she first returned to Nashville, she recalls, it took a while to find a supportive group of collaborators. Gender proved to be one of the most troubling hurdles: When she’d fall in with a crew, men assumed she was looking for sex rather than a creative outlet. Klique Universal was the first group of people that recognized Iayaalis as an artist: “They saw talent, and they believed in it, and they supported it. They’re just very positive people. It’s like a family. We’re not just looking for people to do music with, but people we bond with and share a philosophy with. I came up with a mentality for it‘bros before hos.’ Rap in general and the music industry in general and the world in general are very male-dominated. I wanted a crew with a different mentality than that, and that’s what I’ve found.”
With the help of her friends in Klique Universal, among them producer Reavis “Rev” Mitchell, Iayaalis began to forge a musical identity of her own. Drawing inspiration from English trip-hop artists such as Portishead, Massive Attack, and Tricky as well as such stateside rappers as Digable Planets and the Fugees, she came up with a style that merged sensual physicality with deep spiritual insights and a distinctly feminine point of view.
Indeed, Iayaalis’ strengths as an artist jump out from the tracks on Spin Cycle, a CD collection of artists performing at this year’s NEA Extravaganza. Her contribution, “da sally walker,” updates an ancient black nursery rhyme into a silky hip-hop tune. The song makes a bold statement of female self-realization by transforming the age-old, African-American theme of “ride, sally, ride” into “rise, sally, rise.” While acknowledging her strong sexual drive, Iayaalis makes it clear that a lover must treat her with respect and honesty.
The song’s musical arrangement is just as clever as the lyrics. It starts with the slow, resonant tones of an acoustic bass before the light tap of a reverberating bell sets off a sparse, trippy ambiance. The tune is as modern as any pop take on the bass ’n’ drum movement, yet it has a decidedly personal lyrical flavor and a literate Southern twist.
“When I was writing ‘Sally,’ I was thinking, ‘The niggas can write about their stuff, why can’t a girl?’ ” Iayaalis says with a laugh. “But it’s done in a way that’s not vulgar.” She cites a verse: “Don’t walk the way that Sally walk?/I cannot be your lady!/But if all true turns the tip of the tongue talker/I’m open wide!/And you can ride da sally walker!”
Iayaalis admits the lyrics sound potentially racy, but she also sees a deeper meaning in them. The verse in question “could be about oral sex, but, more than anything, what it’s saying is that a man has to be true. When you flip your tongue and it’s true, then I’ll be open for you. That’s the kind of double meaning I strive for. It can be sexual and still have spirit and values.”
As she gears up for a performance at this year’s NEA Extravaganza, Iayaalis sees the attention she’s beginning to attract as just the beginning of what’s in store for the Nashville hip-hop community. “I’ve thought about taking my music to Atlanta, because there’s a bigger urban music scene there, and it might be a little easier to break,” she says. “But here in Nashville, we have all the resources, no doubt. There’s a large and growing community of creative black artists of all kinds and styles here, and it’s all underground. If one person decided to take a risk and tap into what’s here, if anybody began paying attention..., they’d become millionaires, easy.”
In the meantime, the members of SOBA and Klique International are looking for ways to take their music to the nation without waiting to be discovered. “That’s one of the things we’re trying to do,” Iayaalis explains. “Instead of looking for that one person to exploit us, we have been trying to find ways to do it for ourselves. What’s happening here is so fresh and new. Our hip-hop has a West Coast thing and an East Coast thing, but it’s also got this completely original Southern flavor. I’m telling you, when somebody finally taps into that, it’s going to break wide open.”
Iayaalis performs Friday at the Ace of Clubs. Also on the multi-band bill are Klique Universal members Floss, Utopia State, and Angi.
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