Music

A Very Sonic Kind of Mind

Jazz artist and soul singer Akenya explores her eclectic background

Natalie Gonzalez

Akenya Seymour lounges on a couch in the back of the Dollop in South Loop wearing purple Converse sneakers and a matching purple crystal necklace. At home in her native Chicago, she smiles and takes a sip of water before setting her cup down as I take a seat next to her.

Over the past few years, Akenya has slowly risen from obscurity, releasing music that traces a peculiar trajectory: a classically trained jazz performer, her vocals have found themselves featured on tracks by now-established names like Chance the Rapper, Noname, and Saba.

Now, she’s building her own reputation in the Chicago scene, with music that straddles the lines of existing genres, while poking fun at the notion of categorization itself. Her playful, bouncy melodies are often paired with abstract lyrics that belie a subtle but insistent sense of darkness. Akenya’s background in both traditional and contemporary music leaves no limits for what she might try next.

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My mom was just very nomadic,” the twenty-four-year-old Chicagoan explains. Her family history reflects her own circuitous path. Currently, she resides in Rogers Park, but she spent the most time growing up in Edgewater. She attended the selective Chicago Academy for the Arts, a high school in River West, and studied jazz performance at Boston’s prestigious New England Conservatory.

Her start in music came when she was a young child. Her natural affinity for the piano and her tendency to sing herself to sleep as a baby motivated her mother to enroll her in lessons. Around seventh grade, she joined the school choir—the beginning of her academic music career.

“I just love sound,” Akenya professes. “I feel like I have a very sonic kind of mind and memory.” She identifies much of her repertoire as rhythmic and “groove-centric,” and cites inspirations like Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, and John Coltrane.

And yet, despite her affinity for music, Akenya makes clear that she was first captivated by the potential of language. “Language was my first love,” she insists. Her early childhood was characterized by an aptitude for grammar and spelling. At first she tried out for both the writing and music programs at Chicago Academy for the Arts, only afterward deciding to pursue music.

In her own writing, Akenya once hesitated to be personal. But lately, she’s surmounted her fear of being vulnerable, especially in her recent work. Now, she’s building a discography that centers around issues of identity and self-perception, as well as how she believes the world will view her. She feels that her recent creative comfort has helped make it possible.

“Coming into a more creative environment helped me kind of figure out who I was and my place in society in some ways,” she explains.

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A resident of the North Side, Akenya splits her time between making music and working at MetaMedia in Evanston—the spin-off of the formative YOUmedia program, which enabled her to meet local creatives such as Chance the Rapper and Noname.

She gestures towards the Harold Washington Library down the street, where the now-hallowed YOUmedia program had its beginnings. YOUmedia bills itself as a “21st century teen learning space,” but for young artists like Akenya, the program meant so much more.

“It was really popping for two to two and a half years,” she remembers. “In terms of literally housing a generation of artists.”

Akenya didn’t start going to YOUmedia until she was a junior in high school, but the two years she spent there changed the course of her life. Participating in YOUmedia and related programs while in high school, such as Lyricist Loft, allowed her to meet like-minded, collaborative artists and develop lifelong relationships. On her first day at Lyricist Loft, a youth-oriented open mic program, she met Fatima Warner, now a close friend of hers and better known as Chicago musician Noname.

“[Lyricist Loft] just started growing and growing. It was 300 people coming, then 400 people, then it was being live-streamed,” Akenya recalls. “Then you had adults trying to get in to see kids perform.”

After peaking during the two-year period that Akenya was there, YOUmedia’s regular production of artists seems to have decreased significantly. She remembers Saba and Pivot Gang as the last artists to take off from YOUmedia after she left.

“I remember I left for college, Chance dropped 10 Day, he blew up, and YOUmedia kind of died out. It all happened in a four-month span of time.”

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She speaks just as mystically of her time in high school, where she built deep, invested relationships with other young artists in Chicago that allowed Akenya to experiment more and develop creatively.

“One thing that was cool about the Academy [compared to college] was that it was a performing arts high school, so there was theater, dance, writing, filmmaking, visual art,” Akenya explains. “My college was a conservatory, so it was strictly music […] which was great in its own right, but I did miss being exposed to those other art forms, because in high school when we weren’t performing, we were going to a friend’s performance or gallery show or whatever.”

These friendships are ones that Akenya has maintained, and they’ve proved to be the most beneficial professionally—she regularly collaborates with filmmakers, dancers, and more that she met at the Chicago Academy for the Arts or before, almost six years later.

“It’s so strange that I’m twenty-four and still working with people I met when I was eight, and eleven, and in high school,” she reflects.

In her recent video for “Disappear,” which was released in July of last year, she hired dancers—“the best dancers I know!”—and writers that she knew personally to help her make her vision a reality.

“It was literally a family affair,” she says.

However, she has mixed emotions about her time at the New England Conservatory. “I’ve worked with the heavyweights of the jazz community,” she says, referring to her collaborations with Esperanza Spalding and Vijay Iyer, among others, “and I’ve also worked with the up and coming hip-hop artists of Chicago.” But despite providing her with the opportunity to work with notable professionals in the field, her academic experience at the Conservatory was not enough to satisfy her creatively.

“I grew so much in conservatory, but it is not an environment for creativity,” the singer-songwriter notes. “It is an environment to refine your skill set and work on your craft.”

But her academic coursework in music definitely works to her advantage. Akenya knows more about music theory than the average singer, which makes her picky about who she plays with. If they make a mistake, she will notice, but she takes care to note that she isn’t mean—just stern.

“I’m the only singer that’s going to bring a chart into rehearsal or the only singer who’s going to be like, ‘It’s like this,’ and get behind the piano to show them what I mean,” she explains. “If I can’t explain it in theory, I can play it. If I can’t show it to you, I can send it to you,” she says. “Having a good ear is the most important thing, but having a good ear can only take you so far if you don’t understand the basics of harmony and form.”

Despite her peculiar musical background, Akenya feels in no way distant from the musical world she’s rejoined in her childhood home of Chicago. She has nothing but positive words for her musical contemporaries, who she more often refers to as her friends or as “weird-ass, slightly socially challenged, creative, quirky kids”—a label she also gladly assigns to herself. She specifically notes her relationships with fellow Chicago hip-hop musicians Chance the Rapper and Noname. In her eyes, Chance is making history by redefining the boundaries of what popular artists can achieve. And in a show of support for her close friend’s success, Akenya is working as Noname’s music director at the moment and preparing to go on tour for her recent acclaimed album, Telefone.

“It’s been awesome getting to work with [Noname] in that capacity and have these milestone experiences together and really watch her blow up,” she says, with a smile on her face.

Somehow, Chicago feels devoid of unhealthy competition to Akenya. Part of it is simple idiosyncrasy: since her music occupies a relatively niche space, she feels that people don’t necessarily compare her with any of her peers.

“I think I stick out in my own right, so I don’t feel like I’m competing with anyone,” she explains.

She notes, though, that even within the hip-hop and rap circles of Chicago, there isn’t as much competition as she has seen in other environments she has been in or is familiar with—“[cough] Juilliard!”

“It’s one giant community,” she says of Chicago.

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As we continue talking, it becomes clear that her complicated experiences at the conservatory, creatively limiting as they might have been, did more than just show Akenya the ropes of music theory—they also helped her build a political self.

During her time in Boston, Akenya built a reputation as not just a supporter but a leader for the conservatory’s marginalized population. Eventually, she became head of the Black Student Union at the school, where she spent her days building a space for students of color who felt ostracized or isolated. “I will definitely say I knew all the black people. All thirty of us,” Akenya laughs. “We were very aware that we were a minority.”

And though her high school focused more on “contextualizing what [students] were learning” through school-wide jam sessions, musicals, benefit shows, and more, she felt that the conservatory did not offer enough opportunities for students to perform. “College was like, you sign up for the ensemble you want to be in, and whatever ensemble you’re in will be the amount of performances you have,” she says. This inevitably led to glaring inequalities in experience, so to combat the lack of performance opportunities, at one point Akenya took matters into her own hands and organized a benefit concert for herself and her peers.

Her engagement went even further than the usual racial divides of the US—even within the conservatory’s community of color, the population was largely comprised of international students, with language and cultural barriers that prevented different groups from interacting. Another reason for the benefit concert, Akenya explained, was to foster collaboration and conversation between the different ethnic and social groups, as well as musical departments, at her school.

“I wanted to bring the school together and just meet people who weren’t in my little Americanized bubble.”

Despite building her political self at the conservatory, Akenya finds it difficult to be explicitly political in her lyrics without being unoriginal or trite—thus, she tends to embrace abstraction in her songwriting. “Sometimes as an artist, you feel a responsibility to reflect on what’s happening in the world,” she says. “It’s hard to come up with inventive, personal ways to express that.”

Still, she feels dialogue is crucial. “Being able to engage in discussion and real discourse with people who share your beliefs or don’t share your beliefs,” she says. “That’s where real change has to start, at a conversation level.”

Personally, Akenya has been fortunate enough to mostly steer clear of explicit disrespect in her musical career thus far. However, she sees a struggle in making a name for herself as not only a singer-songwriter, but as a producer of her own music.

“Jazz especially is so male dominated and white-male-centric, very heteronormative. It can feel kind of icky sometimes. Hip-hop can be like that too—a very male, patriarchal, hypermasculine environment,” she says. “I’ve been lucky to find myself in spaces with more out of the box, sensitive people.”

She confides that she hopes her audience will see her as more than someone with a “beautiful voice”—as someone that is both talented and hard-working, and that creates holistic art from start to finish.

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Now, Akenya looks to the next two or three years as a time she can really come into her own as a musician. She’s particularly aware of her place and image in the music industry, and hopes to capitalize on her current popularity by dropping her album sooner rather than later. “I’m on people’s radar right now,” she says. “I don’t want to fade into obscurity.” Since her last (and only) project Overcome was released almost seven years ago, Akenya has begun to experiment with production, vocal layering, and more meaningful and refined lyrics. Remembering Overcome, she laughs. “I was a child when I made that. I was seventeen,” she remembers. “God, that’s so long ago. “

Akenya hopes to release her new album, titled Moon in the Fourth, later this year. Its name is inspired by her astrological charts. She explains that “having a moon in the fourth house” makes her deeply emotional and sensitive. The album, therefore, deals with themes such as love, depression, and confusion, and struggles with aspects of identity, history, and ancestry.

“I want to explore the depths of what I can observe and understand and materialize,” she explains, her restlessness and creative appetite seemingly omnivorous.

But Akenya also never loses sight of the studiousness that’s brought her so far. When proffering advice for musicians, she emphasizes the need for passion and rigor to operate in tandem. “Study your craft,” she says. “Learn as much as you can about what you do.”

“It’s fine to put out stuff that is an experiment, or trial and error,” she continues. “But I think people don’t spend enough time studying and contemplating [music].”

Akenya will be performing alongside Noname on her Telefone tour on select dates this year in America and Europe.

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