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V Books: Hanif Abdurraqib Tributes A Tribe Called Quest In 'Go Ahead In the Rain'

Essayist and poet Hanif Abdurraqib has captured the authentic feeling of fandom in his latest book, 'Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.'

A Tribe Called Quest were already icons when founding member Malik Taylor, the rapper known as Phife Dawg, died in March 2016 from diabetes complications at the age of 45. When the group capped their career by releasing their final album We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service that November, they completed one of the greatest comebacks in music history. Fans who had grown up listening to Tribe shape the sound of hip-hop in their ‘90s prime rapturously received their final work critically and commercially. Essayist and poet Hanif Abdurraqib, author of acclaimed collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, has captured the authentic feeling of fandom in his latest book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.

Go Ahead in the Rain is an efficient summary of Tribe’s history, from their origins on Queens boulevards through their occasional contentious live reunions in the ‘00s and into their finale. But the heart of Go Ahead in the Rain is the author’s own relationship with the group and their work. The book’s cover calls it a “love letter to a group, a sound and an era,” and entire chapters are written as letters to principal figures such as Q-Tip, Phife, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

Abdurraqib ambitiously blends the universal and the personal: the first chapter traces the roots of hip-hop and jazz back to rhythms preserved by enslaved Africans in the Americas, and the author crystalizes those centuries of history into a story of his father rebuking a micro-aggressive middle school jazz teacher. Tribe’s albums, infused with the jazz from their own parents’ record crates, were among the few hip-hop works approved by Abdurraqib’s parents in an era where media scaremongering around N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew made the genre taboo.

Go Ahead in the Rain further functions as a pocket history of a hip-hop golden age, illustrating Tribe’s importance through collaborators and rivals. It’s illuminating for fans of the group, but even hip-hop novices will be moved by Abdurraqib’s book. It’s a tribute to A Tribe Called Quest and a tribute to the power music has to grow with the listener. It’s a book for anyone who has secluded themselves in headphones, pressed play, and heard themselves singing back in someone else’s voice. VIBE spoke to Hanif Abdurraqib by phone from his native Columbus, OH about grieving for Phife, paying tribute to Tribe, and the deep cut that gave his book its title.

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How did your work on this book begin?
The work on the book began when Phife died. At the time I was working for MTV News, and I had to write a quick elegy to Phife. I thought about how uniquely specific A Tribe Called Quest was in shaping a part of my identity that I've held onto for most of my life: my comfort in the weird, or comfort in the absurd. Or comfort in the things that don't feel quite right to everyone. I found myself wanting to celebrate that, even more by the year of 2016.

Because our new normal, especially around news cycles and political violence, is understood as a low, kind of consistent hum that has interwoven into our everyday lives, it can be forgotten that 2016, at least for a lot of folks, was really draining. It was especially violent, and especially heartbreaking in numerous ways. And I think 2016 saw another reshaping of the current political protest movement, and what I saw as a shift in people's very clear demand to turn their attention towards protecting those they love, right? Protecting their people first.

I think Tribe's album coming out, they spoke to every corner of this. I don't know what I was expecting in 2016 when the album dropped. But I think what I took away with this album was, speaking not only to a singular political moment, but speaking towards the whole of these moments we've been living in for a while.

So do you see this book as preservation of that Tribe myth?
Yeah. It all came to the forefront for me because in the weeks before the last album came out, I was in a high school doing a reading to some 15 year olds. And they had really no access point for A Tribe Called Quest.

I needed to write about what A Tribe Called Quest meant to me, as someone who was young, and who for a while could not have a lot of rap in the house, but could have A Tribe Called Quest in the house. How they catered toward an era before theirs. How they catered towards jazz, and sounds that, at least in my house, my parents could appreciate and welcome in. N.W.A. wasn't getting in the house.

And so, I wanted to write my way to an understanding that what I lived through was real, because I think if I didn't do that, I would take it for granted.

Take for granted your own memories of your relationship with Tribe?
Yeah. And take Tribe for granted themselves, right? When someone dies, musicians particularly, the question that comes around is “how good a job did people do to honor this musician while they were still here?” I saw myself asking that after Phife died, and wanted to start that path of reconciling that.

Because I loved Phife. Phife was immensely important to me. Not just as a rapper, but how he sat in the makeup of A Tribe Called Quest, and how he was in some ways rebellious, and hard to control, but magical all at once. All those things meant such a great deal to me, but I didn't articulate that nearly enough when he was still alive.

And with this book I am thinking, what can I do beyond the grief to honor a group I love? In doing that I wanted to also be clear in saying, yes, this is about Tribe, but it's not only Tribe. It's Native Tongues, it's Mobb Deep, it's N.W.A., it's Wu-Tang. It is inside an ecosystem in an entire era that truly shaped me, and deserved my returning to it in a state beyond grief.

So you returned to the sound of that entire era, not just Tribe?
Because so much of Tribe is at the beating heart of what has happened in hip hop ever since they became prominent, they've been pace-setters for the genre, and particularly for a lot of production techniques that exist and are still being utilized now. I found myself returning to hip-hop from '87 to '96 primarily, because I think I had to do that in order to make sense of the A Tribe Called Quest album trajectory. How do we get from People's Instinctive Travels to Beats, Rhymes and Life?

You have to immerse yourself in the music happening around Tribe. I'm a Beats, Rhymes and Life apologist or whatever. I don't think it's as bad as people suggest it is. I also understand that it's not their seminal work. But in a way, that album was made in response to what was happening around it in hip hop. I write about this in the book, that album failed for some as a Tribe album because it was the first one that wasn't setting trends, but it was responding to trends.

Listening in this context, listening to bridges I wasn't getting to hear before was important. It was important for me to listen to Mobb Deep, and see how Mobb Deep is kind of like A Tribe Called Quest in a funhouse mirror. It was critical listening that I had never thought to apply to this particular musical lineage.

In the book’s conclusion you mentioned quite a few modern acts that you see as sort of descendants of Tribe: Anderson .Paak, Joey Bada$$, Isaiah Rashad, Danny Brown. Is there any one common thing that they all share with Tribe?
I think that, even beyond what they share with Tribe sonically, all of them are invested in risk. Tribe made a template for risk taking. Risk taking was the idea that failure is an impossible thing, right? When you look at old interviews of Q-Tip, especially around the making of The Low End Theory, at no point did it occur to him that there would be failure. There's that iconic Q-Tip quote where a reporter asks him if he was afraid of a sophomore slump. And he responds, "Sophomore slump? What the f**k is that? I'm making The Low End Theory." It's like, I can't even fathom a sophomore slump because I'm making the most important thing I've ever made.

I think that there is something about that energy that's on Malibu with Anderson Paak, where he was like, "Why are you talking about anything else? I'm making the most important thing I've ever made." Especially for him, someone who was homeless, who is actually trying to build a legacy that will sustain him for a long time. I see that urgency in him, and in Danny Brown and Isaiah Rashad, where even their misses are coming off the back of a really big swing.

I think the overarching critical response to Beats, Rhymes and Life and The Love Movement felt like some kind of drop-off because failure is fine if you're taking a big swing in the process. But if you're kind of just coasting and you still kind of stumble, it's not as appealing. It doesn't look as sexy.

What is the difference between We Got It From Here versus their last two records, in terms of the swing, the effort that they're putting forth?

I think We Got It From Here is more monument than album. They spent a career climbing the mountain, and We Got It From Here is them chiseling themselves into the mountain one last time.

What's amazing about We Got It From Here is that it's so angry. A lot of people don't think of Tribe as an angry group, at least not explicitly angry. Even though The Low End Theory is teeming with political commentary, it's also balanced by the very basic tongue-in-cheek nature that comes with being in Native Tongues. We Got It From Here balances anger and grief in a very uncanny manner. When you spend an entire career, an entire life playing to the very intricate subtleties of the sonic landscape Q-Tip was shaping, and the very aesthetic landscape Tribe sat in, lengthwise you just run out of fucks. When Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were murdered on back to back days of the year, when the American political system sold people yet another bad cheque. I was so heartened by the unbridled anger that exists on We Got It From Here, because I think so many other groups would have chosen a lot more gentle send-off.

They put out an album that viscerally responded to the absurdity of the times we are living in. And that's what they chose to ride off into the sunset, very literally. The last music video “The Space Program” ends with three of them walking off into the sunset. In the grand kaleidoscope of black emotion, anger is one of many that America wants to reckon with least. So to see that with a face and with those songs was beautiful.

One of the most compelling ways the book works is the way that you continuously tie yourself to the group, and I think one of the through-lines of that relationship is that, in a lot of ways, they were underdogs in the same way you were. They're willing to be weird and absurd. After some of the accolades and success that they've had, do you still see them as the weird and absurd group, or do you think that they've taken a more central codified place in the culture?

Oh, they're more central in the culture. The things that made them weird are the things that now make people beloved. They were one of the handful of groups that were pushing their shoulders up against a seemingly immovable door of weirdness, and whimsy, and not always wholesome but somewhat trying idea of black liberation. And then that door got open and they were one of the first in the room. Now the room is overcrowded, but they’re still the ones who got the door open.

I don't think of them as underdogs, because their legacy is so built on several moving parts that are still driving the culture forward. But I do think that in a certain time in my life, when I most felt like an underdog, I relied on them to chart a course for me.

How did you decide which portions to write as letters addressed to individual people?

I think all of the time about if I'm doing a good enough job of very plainly saying, “I love what this person has done for my life. I have lived a better life because of the way this person I do not know has enhanced it.” Which on its face is a kind of silly thing. But I wanted to make that sentiment stand up. The way that I found I could do that was to somewhat foolishly enter into a conversation with the central growing heart of this whole affection I have.

I did want to talk to Tribe as if they were responding to me, because for me it feels like we've been in conversation for our whole lives, and I wanted to represent that on the page. The only way I knew how to do that was to write those letters to them as if they would respond, or I might be getting something back, or as if I am responding to something they've told me. Some incredible secret that I've carried for a long time.

Have you sent a copy of the book to Tip, or Ali, or Jarobi?

No. Cheryl Boyce-Taylor has a copy. I might send one to Ali, and then I think I'm just going to let the chips fall where they may, you know? I know this sounds a bit ridiculous on its face, but I didn't write this for Tribe to read it. And I didn't write it intentionally as a strict biography that placed me as an expert on Tribe, because they're experts on themselves.

I wrote this book particularly for people who are fans of a single artist, and have spent any time in their life trying to untangle what it means to honor someone and all their complications, and all they've meant for your own complications. How to best articulate the way you see yourself reflected in the songs you love. That's who the book was written for.

What was it like to get clearance to republish some of Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s work in the book?

She read an excerpt and approved it based off the excerpt, which was really kind, because I was very nervous. I think she's an incredible poet. And it felt irresponsible to write about Phife as a writer without also writing about the fact that he came from a writing mother, who undoubtedly influenced his relationship with the sound, and with metaphor, and with punchiness, and with his clever maneuvering of language. So it felt really irresponsible for me to write about all these glowing things about Phife's skill set without also stressing that that skill set wasn't born out of nowhere. And so, yes, she read an excerpt and gave us permission for the poems. I was incredibly thankful for that.

I'm currently in the process of trying to track down Ventilation, Phife’s solo album, after reading your discussion of it. It's been a while since we've heard more, but there were announcements that Phife had another solo album ready to be released. Do you have any expectations around it if it does ever come out?

My opinion around posthumous releases has changed as I've gotten older, because I've seen so much music come out that seemed as though the artist maybe would not have wanted it in the world. And I've become more immersed in the creation of my own art, and I know that so much of that creation comes down to the final moments.

Last night I sat in my living room and laid out all the poems for my next manuscript on the floor so I could see them, and adjust them, get them into place. If I were not here, if I were not living, I would have to trust someone else with that. And who else has that particular vision but me who wrote those poems, and has a feeling for where they should move, right?

And so I don't know how done Phife's rumored solo album is. But if it's not done, if it's not like mixed and mastered, I maybe don't want it at all, because I don't want to remember anyone I’ve loved by the half-finished art they left behind.

How did you decide on Go Ahead in the Rain as the title?

I loved the lyricism of it, and I love the finality of it as a title. I love the idea of water in that which can make a person clean. I like the imperative of, go ahead into the unknown. That song is like a deep, deep cut. I like that it was asking of a reader. I wasn't necessarily interested in a known entity. I'm interested in what's most lyrical and speaks to what the book is asking.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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An Ode To Jay-Z, The Ultimate Rap Dad

Rap, throughout its history, has always referenced parenthood in some form. Most often, it was to extol single mothers for their goodness while deadbeat fathers were berated and called out for going ghost. In recent years, as the social media landscape has blown open the avenues of communication, famous rap dads, in particular, have become increasingly transparent about their lives as family men. Where years ago there seemed to be endless bars mourning the demise of the father, artists are now using their platform to balance the scales. They’re showing themselves to be present and intentional.

Few albums make me think more about the concept of parenthood, and legacy, than Jay-Z’s 13th studio album, 4:44. It’s a stark and blistering work of memoir, heavy on confession and self-examination. When 4:44 finally dropped, I, like many others, was filled with wonder. How was it that Jay had managed to so fluidly deconstruct everything I’d been wrestling with for the last few years? Though the specifics of our experiences differed greatly, the central ideas dissected on 4:44, especially those concerning fatherhood and family life, had been swimming around my brain for some time.

***

Hip-hop saved my life. And it was fatherhood that set it on fire. This bears explaining.

What hip-hop has done for me, is what it has done for millions of fatherless and heart-wounded kids—it provided, at the very least, the shading of a better life. If it wasn’t for hip-hop, and the value I ascribed to it, it would be impossible to know just how far I’d have settled into the more lamentable aspects of my environment. Forasmuch of a goon as I was growing up, something always kept me from becoming too emotionally invested in harsh crime. I dabbled in mischief like an amateur chef knowing he would only go so far. I saw in hip-hop, in the art of it, something worth pursuing with tenacity; something like a healthy distraction. So I committed to finding my lane.

Though there were brief stints dedicated to developing my modest graffiti skills and footwork, it was the words that flowed and came without struggle. The school cyphers sharpened my wits and compelled me to feed my vocabulary daily. Only my wordplay could save me from getting ripped to shreds in a lunchroom battle. I read books and scoured the dictionary for ammunition, I listened to stand-up comics who fearlessly engaged the crowd and proved quick on the draw. It seemed fruitless to know a billion words if I couldn’t convert them into brutal attacks. I had to break the competition down and render them defenseless, stammering for a rebuttal. There could be no confusion as to my superiority. So instead of joining the stickup kids or depositing all of my energy into intramural sports, I put my soul and mind into the task of taking down all manner of wack MCs. That’s why I say that hip-hop saved me.

But fatherhood was its own saving grace. It showed me that the world did not revolve, nor would it ever revolve, around my passions. Fatherhood put an extra battery behind my back as a creative, sure. But it’s more about being a consistent presence at home than chasing any dream.

***

As an artist and writer, I cannot so much as think about fatherhood without considering some of the material that deals with feelings comparable to those I felt after I became a father. Songs that contextualize very specific emotions over the drums.

In his 2012 track “Glory,” Jay-Z, someone who had long been vocal about his strained relationship with his father, reflects on the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy, his first child with wife Beyoncé. Produced by the Neptunes, “Glory” was released on January 9, just two days after Blue was born. From start to finish, it carries a sort of gleeful melancholy that resonates on multiple levels. While it is, in essence, a comment on the exuberant joy attached with welcoming a child, “Glory” is also a note on death and mourning.

Before Blue came along and flipped the script, Beyoncé had suffered a miscarriage. The pain the couple experienced left them fearful of not being able to conceive. The dual purpose of “Glory” is made clear from the outset, and with blazing transparency. “False alarms and false starts,” offers Jay, laying the groundwork for what immediately follows: “All made better by the sound of your heart.” The second half of the couplet establishes what was, as we come to learn, the most pivotal moment in the rap mogul’s life up until then. The moment where all is made right, where the sting of loss is eclipsed by the possibility of new birth. Jay continues in this mode, shining light on the redeeming gift that is Blue and, also, how the child is a composite of her mother and father, yet more still.

The opening bars of the following verse are equally striking as Jay, addressing Blue, touches on the death of his father from liver failure. Jay is signaling here, leading us somewhere but with the intent to shift gears. Instead of dwelling on his father’s shortcomings like one might expect him to, Jay breaks left, resolving that deep down his father was a good man. What begins as an indictment of a cheat who walked out on his obligations, ends with a declaration of forgiveness and generosity. But Jay soon directs the focus back to his blessing and how hard it is not to spoil her rotten as she is the child of his destiny. It becomes apparent that this is a man at his most self-actualized. A few more welcome digressions and “Glory” closes the same way that it begins, with the final line of the hook: “My greatest creation was you.” This points to something that I, too, came to know as fact. That no matter what I do, and regardless of what I might attain—power, wealth, the esteem of my peers—nothing is quite comparable to the happiness and the terror that comes with siring a child. “Glory” succeeds as it casts aside any traces of bluster and bravado, making room for Jay to unearth lessons that were hard-won yet central to his maturation. And what is the purpose of making art if not to bust open your soul and watch it spill over? Shout out to the rap dads raising babies and doing the work to shift the narrative.

Juan Vidal is a writer, critic, and author of Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation.

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The Cast Of 'SHAFT' Talk Family Traditions, Power And The Film's Legacy

Back in 1971, Richard Roundtree became the face of the legendary crime/blaxploitation film SHAFT. His influence in the role paved the way for a new generation of black detectives filled with a gluttonous amount of swag, clever one-liners, and action-packed scenes. Samuel L. Jackson followed suit in the franchise’s 2000 installment as he took over the streets of Uptown Manhattan and Harlem filling in for Roundtree’s original character.

Fast forward to 2019, and SHAFT’s legacy has risen to higher heights, incorporating Roundtree and Jackson together with an extension of their detective prowess. Director Tim Story created a familial driven movie centered around three different generations of SHAFT men. Roundtree plays the grandfather; Jackson plays the dad—and Jessie T. Usher plays the son. All three embark on a mission that’s laced with dirty politics, Islamophobia, and highflying action in efforts to solve a seemingly homicidal death.

The dynamics between all three are hilarious and dotted with lessons learned from past paternal influences. On a recent sunny Friday afternoon at Harlem's Red Rooster, the trio shared some of the traditions and virtues the paternal figures in real life have taught them. Most of the influence passed down to them was centered on working hard.

“People say to me, ‘Why do you work so much?’” Jackson said. “Well, all the grown people went to work every day when I got up. I figured that’s what we’re supposed to be doing—get up, pay a bill, and take care of everything that’s supposed to be taken care of.”

“For my family, it was cleanliness and masculinity,” Usher added. “The guys in my family were always well put together, very responsible especially my dad.”

In spite of the SHAFT men's power, the film's story wouldn’t be what it is without Regina Hall and Alexandra Shipp’s characters. They both play strong women caught in the middle of the mayhem created by the men they care about. Both are conscious of the power they exhibit as black women off and on screen, yet are aware of the dichotomy of how that strength is perceived in the world.

“It’s very interesting because I think a lot of times as powerful black women we are seen as angry black women,” Shipp says. “So it’s hard to have that voice and that opinion because a lot of times when we voice it; it becomes a negative rather than a positive. In order to hold that power, it has to be poised. It has to be with grace, I think there is strength in a strong but graceful black woman.”

“People have an idea of what strength is and how you do it and sometimes it’s the subtleties,” Regina adds. “Sometimes our influence is so powerful and it doesn’t always have to be loud I think a lot of times how we navigate is with conviction and patience.”

VIBE chatted with the cast of SHAFT about holding power, their red flags when it comes to dating, and why the SHAFT legacy continues to live on. Watch the interviews below.

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Meet Zhavia, The Musician Who Refuses To Be Boxed In

If you haven’t heard of Zhavia before, that will likely change very, very soon.

The 18-year-old Columbia Records signee is readying her first major EP 17, which is scheduled for June 14. A native of the Golden State, Zhavia catapulted to national consciousness after making it to the top four of the inaugural season of FOX’s singing competition, The Four, which features Diddy and DJ Khaled as judges. Since then, she continues to rise and tantalize audiences with her powerful, chill-inducing vocals.

The singer-songwriter—who tells VIBE she’s hopeful that her forthcoming EP will be “inspiring” to her ever-growing fanbase—dropped the project’s latest single “17” on May 31. Produced by hip-hop hitmaker Hit-Boy and co-written by RØMANS, Zhavia explains that the retrospective song is more personal than her previously-released tracks, such as the trap-tickled “100 Ways” and “Candlelight,” the stand-out single that showcases the vocal prowess of the petite blonde ingenue.

"’17’ is a song that I wrote about my life story, and how I got to where I am right now,” she says. The track details hardships such as a lack of resources to thrive in her childhood home and staying in a motel in order to accomplish her musical goals. “I just wanted it to be something that [fans] can relate to, whatever it is that they're going through.”

“I saw it in my dreams, I knew that life would change for me,” she croons on the new single. “This is reality, look at me now.”

Zhavia’s humble beginnings start in Norwalk, Calif., as a daughter of two musicians who introduced her to numerous genres. In fact, her mother was a member of a metal band called Xenoterra, and Zhavia’s impressively-versatile vocal range could be attributed to this Chex Mix bag of sonic stylings.

“From doo-wop to punk to R&B, metal, rock...” she says, listing of the types of music she was brought up on, which helped her in honing a unique style. Her own tunes feature an R&B and hip-hop flair and sprinkles touches of other genres throughout, in order for her to remain true to her roots.

“I feel like for the most part, [my music will] always have that R&B feel to it, but I'm always gonna have a lot of different vibes for people to pick and choose what they like,” she explains.

Zhavia's urban-tinged musical affinity was palpable during her time on The Four, where she put her spin on hits such as French Montana and Swae Lee’s “Unforgettable” and Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” Although she was unanimously selected by the show’s four celebrity judges to advance after a stellar first-round performance of Khalid’s “Location,” she admits she initially wasn’t planning to compete.

“When I was younger, I had wanted to go on a [singing] show, but I had made up my mind. ‘I'm gonna try to do it myself,’” she chuckles. “But, the people that were having auditions, they happened to be at the studio that I was recording at when I was making my own songs. My manager told me, 'Just go sing for them.'”

After showing off her impressive pipes, she was convinced to join the show, and was further influenced to compete after discovering that The Four appeared to focus on R&B and hip-hop-leaning artists.

“I was like, 'Okay, that sounds like me, they'll probably accept the style of music that I do,'” she continues. “I feel like on other singing shows, it's a little more pop, or towards the pop genre. Also, the panel that they had [DJ Khaled, Diddy, Meghan Trainor and Charlie Walk] seemed really relevant, and I could tell it was legit. I figured I'd just try it out, and it led me to where I am now.”

Since placing fourth on the show, Zhavia has proven that her star power was built to last longer than 15 minutes. Other than her forthcoming EP’s release, her gifts have found her among the company of some big names. She can be heard on the soundtrack for Deadpool 2 in the song “Welcome To The Party” with Diplo, French Montana and Lil Pump. Recently, moviegoers were treated to her rendition of the Disney classic “A Whole New World” with Zayn Malik, for the live-action version of Aladdin, which plays during the film’s end credits.

“I think it's been amazing, and it's definitely a lot of exposure that comes in a unique way,” she says of working on big projects with even bigger industry names. She continues by stating that she’s had a blast “putting her own twist” on songs she didn’t pen and doing material “totally different from what [she] would normally do.”

The pressures of Hollywood and the entertainment industry could be difficult on anyone, however, young stars under the U.S. legal age in the limelight may find themselves succumbing to various pressures, temptations and burnout. For Zhavia, she makes sure to keep a level head and a positive attitude in order to persevere in the industry as she matures.

“I feel like it's not that hard to stay focused, because I've wanted to do this my whole life,” she says affirmatively. “It's what I live for. For me, one of my number one priorities besides my family is music. I don't really go out, I don't party, I don't do none of that. I just work! [Laughs] I think for me, it's just focusing on myself and what I wanna do, and what I wanna get done.” She’s also hoping to keep surprising people throughout her career by coming up with genre-bending songs that show off her style, personality and abilities. Let her do her, and watch her as she goes.

“I'm not gonna be put in a box to do just one type of music or one style of song,” Zhavia affirms. “I don't want people to get used to one thing, you know? That's kind of a hard thing to express to the world. I feel like it comes with me coming up with more music, and to keep creating music for people to listen to and get to know me.”

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