By Russ Green
Sheila D. Yeah and I shared bar food in Brooklyn and talked about her interview with Charlamagne Tha God, the music industry and moving to New York from East Baltimore. She’s tired of being questioned about The Wire and people putting her into a box. This college graduate writes her own contracts while making Music for Robots, and she’s performing Saturday, March 1 at The Howard Theatre.
How did you hear about BYT?
Fat Trel, an artist out of DC, he got signed to Maybach Music. We started around the same time and would perform together. I was kinda the female of his crew and when BYT called him…
Have you figured out your brand, or are you focused on the music first?
We made Sheila D. Yeah a brand from the beginning, so if you’re following our movement you’ll see #Yeah and I drop a mixtape every year. I like to put out good music I think is timeless.
So, a lot of artists are just putting out churn – work for work sake?
Yeah, the funny thing is, I used to be that girl. Before I started doing music, I had every mixtape, I knew about every new genre…always on the internet downloading everything. But, when I started making music I stopped listening to people.
Didn’t I see you battle on WorldStar?
No. It’s not what I do. I make my music for ears and for people to enjoy. I don’t feel like I have to prove myself.
Here’s the thing I find with “rappers.” It’s always a personal experience, everyone wants to define it for themselves. It’s hip-hop, it’s rap, it’s lyricists versus MCs. How do you fall in?
I don’t like when people call me a rapper. In the beginning it really bothered me and as I’ve evolved with my music I don’t identify as a rapper. Because I have so many more talents, the music I make is its own genre. I call it “renegade pop music,” it has a hip-hop influence. I feel like when you say “rapper” it gives someone an automatic identification or connotation as someone ratchet. So, I call myself an artist because it’s my craft.
Did you see that Kanye West interview with BBC? He talks a lot about how everyone wants to categorize artists and put them in a box. He defines himself as a creative.
As a comedian, I’ve found that the foundation of every art form in terms of entertainment is the writing. For you to put out a mixtape every year, that’s a lot of writing. Are you always walking around with a notepad and a pen?
Funny you should ask. Since moving to New York – I’ve been here about 5 months now – I talk to other artists and they all have a different creative process. Mine is to pull a lot from my emotions, my experiences and what I see. If I were to force myself to sit down and write every day I would be doing myself an injustice. When my brain and my body tell me to sit down and write – I write beautiful things. If I sit down and try to force it it’s going to be good but it’s not going to come from that place it needs to come from. I’m actually going out of the country pretty soon.
Yeah, what’s up with Dubai?
I’m going to Dubai just to get out of the city for a little while.
Out of the city is like Jersey, Delaware – you’re going to Dubai. That just doesn’t happen.
Wiz Khalifa had this thing on a track, some lady saying “How naïve of you to write if you haven’t seen the world.” I have a vivid imagination; a lot of what I write comes from what I’ve seen. Not actually being there…
So you go on a journey?
Yeah in my mind.
Here’s what I like so far, nothing you’ve said is black. I feel as a black entertainer you always have to fit in these boxes: women, entertainer, you know. But, you’re creating a station for yourself above that by starting a movement. Why do you define what you’re doing as a movement and why do see it’s important to have that worldview coming from Baltimore?
That’s important for me. I’m actually about to start a non-profit for the kids. I come from a place where people don’t usually get off their block. I want to show these kids from different areas – not just from my area – that these circumstances keep them there. I want to show them that I did it and bring them resources, bring music. Some kids have it in them but their everyday life is so tedious – they don’t have time for music. My Mom told me, “Your experiences are worth your weight in gold.” So, if I have the opportunity to go out of the country – that’s what I’m going to do.
A lot of people put me in boxes especially because I’m a female, because of my appearance. People don’t think I’m able to do what I can do. Immediately when I meet people they say, “Spit 16 bars,” I take offense to that – not cause I can’t do it, but because I’m not going to jump when you say jump. I’m not a slave or a puppet. I demand respect from you and I’ve learned in this industry. I’m sexy, I keep it sexy in my visuals but always to a certain point never over that.
Everything that I see in music right now is about their sexuality. They wear it as a badge. Do you feel like you have to fill that whole vixen portrayal?
No, I run totally the opposite away from that. It kinda offends me at this point in my career when I go to the studio and someone has a vulgar track for me. Obviously if you did your research you’d know that this is what I don’t do.
Do you feel like you have to carry the cross for other female artists?
I don’t want to put myself in a box as some Disney Channel character. I’m not a saint. When you portray yourself like that people in the world try to knock you down. This is me, this is who I am every day. From the music I put out to the visuals I put out – it’s me. I approve it, I style myself. Parents have reached out to me saying, “Thank you. You’re a breath of fresh air.”
You would think that guys would want to see that. Music is made for ears, not for eyes. My album artwork is like cartoon characters, I don’t want people to download my music because of what I look like.
But, I find it’s a double-edged sword. You have the advantage of being attractive so you can very much use that as leverage to build your brand. You know what I mean?
Yeah, and I do. But, I don’t take it to a certain point. Some girls take it overboard and will do anything to get to where they’re going. Some people have tried to put me in a position like, “If you sleep with me, you’ll have this tomorrow.”
So you’re not going to fuck to get to the top?
Hell no! I will work a regular job before I fuck someone to get to where I’m going.
What was your decision point to do what you’re doing?
Divine intervention. I’ve always written poetry and dabbled with music on my own. My best friend from high school, Kyle, he was in a group called Dank and is coming out with a project. If it wasn’t for him, he let me do me. My team I owe them the world, they’ve always stood by me. “Balling Like I’m Diddy” started off as a joke. We put it on the Internet and got 5000 downloads in one day. To get 5,000 downloads in one day and no one knows who you are?
Charlamagne picked it up and then I went on The Breakfast club…
What’s it like to be interviewed by someone doing curls?
I’m not a scared person, I’m not scared of anyone, I’m not really timid… But that interview…I was nervous.
Because it was Power 105?
Just because it was Charlamagne. This was before Guy Code and other shows…he was at his peak not giving anyone justice. He had just made Lil’ Mama cry.
His whole point is being brutally honest.
I think he respects people that are humble and original.
Do you think he’s at a station to deserve to question you like that – to challenge your authenticity?
Everyone is not going to like you. That’s whether you’re a musician, an artist, a creator or whatever. I work for my team and I work for my family.
Tell me about your team – you keep representing them hard.
We call ourselves “Music for Robots,” and we have a studio that we own back in Baltimore called “The Factory.” It’s a really cool creative space to take pictures, hang out, record, do graffiti. My producer WRAB (Wine, Roses and Broken Hearts) he makes all my beats, does my visuals, website.
Is that part of the whole Afro-Futurism movement – like next generation Black culture?
I don’t know. I don’t try to get caught up in this other worldly… People get bored and start movement – I don’t get caught up in that shit. Everyone in my team knows when to stop playing and get into business mode.
I would hope.
When it comes time to get things done, I am completely focused and don’t play any games. We’ve had people see our Instagram and see that we have fun and travel. So they think that it’s play time, like this. When it’s time to do business you better know how to remove yourself from play time. My whole team is really focused and they’re all Black…not ‘cause I chose that I love everyone.
That’s always the Black disclaimer, “I love everyone.”
I don’t get caught up in all the black, white…I make music for everyone. I’m black, but I can identify as 36 different races. I feel racism from every different way, to white people I’m black because I have one drop of black in me. To black people, I’m white because I’m not all the way black. I experience things from a bunch of different ways and that’s why I make my music for everyone. I make R&B, EDM, dub step, wobble bass…every culture could come listen to something I make. I can’t stand when people try to make it about black and white, my mother didn’t raise me like that – I hate that shit.
I feel like the whole thing with hip-hop is you’re not to find what’s real until you do some real digging. Everything about my generation was underground, not on the radio, it’s what was in the cipher. And, now we have social media which lets you build your whole brand before you arrive in a city you’ve got your whole following behind you. How are you using that platform, what you find about it that makes your engine work?
If it wasn’t for social networks, my movement wouldn’t be so prevalent. I remember when I first moved here, when I got off the bus… I was walking down this random street and these kids were sitting on the stoop. One of them was like, “Sheila D!” I thought I was losing my mind for a minute.
You just caught me at the end of a day where…have you ever been in meetings all day and just wanted to sit on your couch?
I have three kids, I’m a husband and I’ve got multiple jobs. So…yes. Why do you think I was so eager to come to New York?
That’s why I’m going to Dubai. The hustle and bustle of New York is ridiculous. The pace just to survive to get to where you’re going – fuck the music.
There are several words you’ve used tonight I like, that I think of as trigger words: movement, relevance, authenticity. How do you decide what the priority is, is it how you feel? Like you spoke about starting a non-profit, is that just being socially responsible or is that something that’s in your heart?
It’s in my heart. It’s my passion. I’m not capable of putting my time into something that my heart’s not in. That’s why I don’t have a 9 to 5. I have a degree, I could go to law school. I don’t have to do this, I choose to do this. I could be making a great salary.
Does that piss your mom off?
My mom has lived her life. I walked across the stage for her…not just for her, it was for me as well. I took care of my responsibilities. I write my own contracts, business plans, because of my legal background. I was traveling and doing music while I was in school.
So you saw the whole TLC thing?
As far as being signed? That’s another as far as coming to NY. When my single popped, I was on MTV and all this stuff. In the industry it’s called “chasing a single.” Once you have a single that’s popping and takes you places…you’re like “I gotta get that single again.” When you’re an artist you should always have three songs. One percent of the world is actually successful in music, in this industry once you stop you might not be able to get it going again.
I got pressured, like I needed to make it. My personality, I just don’t do it for me. And that’s another thing that can hinder your creativity. I’m like, “I gotta get it for my mom, I gotta get it for my team, I gotta get it for my niece.” That shit makes me work ‘til my fingers are bloody…which isn’t healthy. It’s for me ultimately, but I don’t think about me. Sometimes as an artist, you have to be selfish. You gotta be like “Fuck everybody, for right now. I gotta focus on what I need to do to be able to help them.” That was a problem for me for a long time – it still is. The people I’ve seen in this industry, who have cut throats and cut loved ones off…this is rap money, it’s not going to last you forever so you damn sure better know how to invest. These new rappers are getting signed and getting $30K chains and multiple cars and properties…
Which is all fronted for them anyway…
It’s all fronted. You have to maintain it. That’s what you don’t understand.
You’re talking about maintaining the brand?
No. Just cost of living. These rappers that are new, they don’t think about having to live after rap.
What we’re talking now is another level – rich vs. wealth. Every poet is well-read. You have to feel some type of responsibility.
I do. Are you talking about responsibility to the world or to my family?
I kinda feel like your world is your family. That feeds your hunger. You have a thirst for what you do.
And, like every artist I have breakdowns – I still do. It’s crazy because, the people that follow me, the emails I get and the responses I get…people don’t know that the comment you get on Instagram, “You inspire me. I wake up ‘cause I see you doing your thing and it makes me wanna go to the studio.” One of my homegirls told me, “You were doing your thing and you graduated. I’m going back to school because of you.” Little things like that keep me going.
Also, thinking about the latter. “Fuck, it’s hard – I quit.” What am I’m supposed to now – be a paralegal? Research all day long and kill myself for someone else’s company? For a salary where I’ll barely be able to pay my bills? If I’m going to barely be able to pay my bills, it’s because I’m living my life. I’m having a great time doing this. I wanted to be signed so bad.
Is that your bar [for success]?
No, it’s not. It was when I was naïve to the industry, just doing music. But, over the last three-and-a-half years after physically experiencing the bullshit, the snakes in the industry, you learn and make yourself aware. Also, I did the research. I researched the contracts, the law, the industry, I read. I have books that are like my bible. I read to understand royalties, a lot of these artists don’t educate themselves and they’re so eager to be put into a different position that they cut their own throats.
Sounds like you want to own your own label.
When you’re a creator and the business part comes into play…
It wears you out.
It wears you out. ‘Cause all you want to do is create. You come to a point where you’re like, “I have to make money somehow. I put my everything into this.” I had someone come to me before with a contract for a major feature with a signed artist. And, a lot of people when they first started hear, “I’ve got $2K for a feature.” I could’ve used that. But I won’t do it, because I believe in my craft.
Because you’re an artist first.
First and foremost.
I don’t know if it’s lucrative…being an artist first. You’re not afraid of mistakes?
If I was afraid of mistakes, I wouldn’t have done half the shit I’ve done. Sometimes you’ve got to step over puddles, sometimes you gotta wallow in ‘em.
If people don’t take away anything else from this interview, what do you want them to know?
I want them to know…I’m never going to stop. I just want to inspire people.