I had the privilege of meeting this soulful and talented woman a few years ago at a Jazz Benefit. Ayanna is intellectual, yet unassuming. She is not like most singers. She’s a singer, songwriter, actress, former dancer, teacher, and has a masters degree. She is intensely personal. Like old school soul singers, she invites you on a journey and her voice takes you there. Whether she is singing original compositions or covers, one thing is evident, all of her being is poured into her delivery.
She has performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and sang coast to coast. However, I did not hear about her for a while. I was delighted when she agreed to perform at Mr. Refined’s 2nd Annual Bougie Brunch. She confessed, “You’ll be my first performance since my cancer diagnosis.” Ayanna recently had a mastectomy after a breast cancer diagnosis. Not three weeks later, she agreed to drive to NYC to perform for Mr. Refined. As she performed at the brunch, it seemed as if her voice became more soulful, dare I say spiritual. As she dedicated Emeli Sande’s Breaking the Law to all black men, it felt like she was singing for all of the mothers and wives that lost sons and husbands to police brutality.
It is an honor to tell her story of perseverance, survival, and loving yourself enough to value your worth in an industry that continues to devalue, denigrate, and objectify women. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Ayanna Lee (no relation to the writer).
Mr. Refined (MR): What is your musical training?
AL: I started taking piano as a young child. I was off and on for years but I quit at 10. I couldn’t focus and over time I lost my skills. I didn’t get any formal voice training until junior high school, in the form of voice lessons, but no classical training. I come from gospel roots. I have a vibrato and a strong belt. Classical training would have ruined my intuitive instincts I think as a singer. I have also trained in jazz. I wish I never gave up piano. Most recently, I continue to study voice, acoustic guitar, and piano. I want to play those instruments proficiently. As a singer, you never stop learning your instrument, which is your voice. You never master it. It continues to grow, change, and develop. It’s a beautiful process.
MR: How did you start singing?
Ayanna Lee (AL): My father was a musician. I grew up going to his late night gigs as a small child in DC and falling asleep. At home, I would stand on the coffee table and sing with a brush as my primary form of entertainment. I would play dress up, play the piano, and choreograph dances in my back yard. My first public performance was at age 9. I sang “Imagine” at my elementary school for a school assembly. From then on, I would get solos in school performances throughout high school and college. Music was refuge.
MR: Why do you say music was a refuge?
AL: I am an interracial black woman. I don’t like the term biracial. My father, a native Washingtonian, was a black musician and my mother was a white woman from a humble Midwest background. My mother left the Midwest to attend George Washington University and never looked back. She managed to get her degrees, teach in DC public schools, and work her way up through the ranks in the field of education. We stood out in good ways and other ways not so great. I remember going to demonstrations in a stroller with my parents. Social justice was a moral value instilled early. Contrasting experiences included having people hurl racial insults in your face, people questioning if I was my mother’s child, people looking down at my father because I was light-skinned, being called “oreo” on the school playground, yet praised for my pretty eyes and “good” hair.
I learned at an early age to edit my behavior based on the social, economic, or cultural background of who I was around and where I was. My parents status as an interracial couple in the 70s was a strain on their relationship. We were stared at. Demeaning comments were often and we did not have full support of my mother’s side of the family. As they navigated the demands of maintaining a partnership as an interracial couple, life happened. The DC music scene was not as vibrant and my dad’s gigs became few. Economic strain was an additional stress. He moved out. He moved back in. Finally, my parents separated for good when I was 8. Singing and dancing was my place of peace. It provided instant relief from my pain.
As a singer, you never stop learning your instrument, which is your voice. You never master it. It continues to grow, change, and develop. It’s a beautiful process.
MR: At a young age, you were aware of how society perceived you?
AL: I learned how to code switch and it became my second nature. In order to be in different environments, I felt I had to adjust my behavior to fit in and not be noticed. The common assumption was that because I was “light” with good hair that I was stuck up and would instantly become the target of judgment. I became tough. My toughness is a survival mechanism, often misconstrued as arrogance or aloofness, contrary to the fact that my heart is so big. My mother’s mom practically disowned her and never accepted me. When my parents separated, like most children I wondered what part I played in the split. I was always worried and anxious about my parents. I thought the best role I could play was to be the peacekeeper.
Also, as an only child, I was alone a lot. My friendship with my best friend made up for what I did not have in siblings. I had her to share everything with and trusted her more than anyone else in my life. Unfortunately, in addition to all that was chaotic in my young life at 5 years old, an older neighborhood boy that I thought was my friend molested me. I felt voiceless and shame about the abuse. I did not, nor did I know how to process this. I felt responsible for not protecting myself. I did not tell my parents. There were times when I thought about it, but became afraid. I became emotional, paranoid, depressed, and acted out in school. The only thing that provided me relief was music, singing, and being with family.
MR: I am not trying to implicate your parents or blame them, but did they notice your change in behavior?
AL: My parents were busy dealing with the fall out of their relationship and trying to uphold a manageable life. We were by no means rich. My parents struggled financially. They were just trying to keep their lives together, be good people, and great parents. They probably assumed it was as a result of the separation. I was also very good at masking and playing the role of being happy. I never told them about the abuse until recently. The experience of being sexually abused is why I never bought into the fast track ways of climbing the industry ladder, which includes exchanging your sexuality and integrity for fame. I was adamantly against it and very suspicious of situations where I felt unsafe and potential to fall prey to undesired male attention. I always felt unsafe, as the abuse sat in my unconscious memory. I could not protect myself as a child, but I refused to be abused by the music industry. My career could have taken off a long time ago if I agreed to do certain things or be okay in certain situations. Living in NYC, I have brushed shoulders with celebrities and been in situations where I could have taken more of a risk to get myself known. But I always knew it would come with a price and I was not willing to pay. When you are violated, you either vow to never be violated again or fall into a cycle of violation that’s familiar. I chose never again.
MR: So you have been propositioned as a singer?
AL: You know how the industry has a fascination with light skinned black women or these days anything “exotic.” Earlier in my career, I worked with and was friends with up-n-coming male R&B artists that eventually received music deals and have careers now. When I decided to leave my native DC for NYC, my offers came with a contingency or not at all. I decided that I had to make it on my own, my own way, with some financial assistance from my mother and other family at times. People don’t get that it takes capital to really produce a project and make moves for yourself. I am glad I was at the tail end of the music deal era. It’s harder, but being an independent artist allows me to be the artist that I want without compromise.
MR: It seems like the only way a female singer can make it is to hyper-sexualize their image. Janelle Monae didn’t, but she was also heavily criticized. What is your take on the current state of the music industry, musicianship, artistry and particularly R&B?
AL: I am having a hard time having respect for an industry that does not value a black woman’s voice and the power that women in general have -the capability to fulfill and decide their own destiny. I have often heard that White music execs sit around tables making decisions about what this artist should say, do, be, and wear. The definition always lends itself to a woman, specifically a black woman, being forced to be hyper-sexualized and take off her clothes. I am tired of this struggle. We have been the focus of a white male patriarch since slavery. We were dehumanized as a people by the fact that the black woman’s womb was the workhorse of the slave trade. I refuse and I can hear Nina Simone’s voice. I personally feel responsible for upholding the legacy of our ancestors and those artists that came before me that struggled so hard just so I can have a certain level of peace. I will not let their struggle be in vain. I will be part of that ongoing legacy that provides a bridge to better our circumstances.
MR: What advice would you give young girls interested in the music industry?
AL: Stay true to yourself. Don’t let anyone define your dreams. It’s okay not to know. It’s okay to be sure. You have to study and practice all the time. You never finish or reach a level. You have to be disciplined and expect to fail. Be kind to yourself and to others. Don’t judge. It’s okay to get up and walk out when your intuition tells you to. Your body is not your commodity. Your talent can stand alone. Don’t settle. Fame is not what it’s cracked up to be. Get in touch with a famous person and have a candid conversation. Keep your family and your friends involved. You need a lot of support.
MR: What does the future hold for Ayanna Lee music?
AL: I leave my destiny up to God and the universe. I spent so much time trying to control and manage the outcome of my career. I thought if I worked hard enough everything would happen, but I was disappointed. I would achieve more and more and expected to feel a certain way or level of accomplishment, but those feelings never came. I got tired of the fight. I released the need to manage and control. I leave it up to the unknown. What is for me is for me because God only made one of me and whatever is mine is mine. I will always sing and perform. I have since I was 5 and I can’t see my life without it. I have been sitting on a lot of music for about 2 years and counting. I am taking my “D’Angelo time” with my next album. I hope to put it out this year or next year, whenever it’s ready! Lol, surviving cancer has taught me to be patient and take in every moment. Life is short and is to be enjoyed.
For more information on Ayanna Lee and her music, visit her website and social media below: