If a woman makes the world work for her, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a difference? Women have always created spaces for themselves with little to no credit. Mya Harrison knows the scenario too well. The singer is the founder of Planet 9, an independent label she founded in 2008 that released her 2017 Grammy-nominated album, Smoove Jones. It stood as the only album next to Lalah Hathaway’s self-titled live album by a woman in Best R&B Album category. While others have dismissed the notion of awards, it was confirmation for the singer, who seemed to be under the radar for some time.
“The Grammy nomination was confirmation because you will hit those lows when your own family is asking you to transition to another career because it’s expensive to make music.” Mya explains. It’s her 20th year in music industry (!), but she isn’t without headaches from industry gatekeepers. Her upcoming single was made more than six years ago, but it’s sample of Mint Condition’s 1991 jam “Pretty Brown Eyes” recently got clearance. “It’s timing, back then I wouldn’t have been able to pay for it with what they were trying to charge me,” she says. “But when I got that Grammy nomination, people were like, ‘Ok, we’re gonna give it to you for 75 percent off because we weren’t sure about you in 2011.’”
The proverbial blade-like shade isn’t unfamiliar to the singer. During the peak of her success, mismanagement from her former label and rumors bred in misogynoir almost flipped her world upside down. But it’s clear as day her assertiveness and certainty about her career was misconstrued as attitude and cattiness, female stereotypes that today’s movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up have condemned. With an iron fist in a velvet glove, she bounced back with ease. “You have to really be so deep into something that you just love it, you’re not thinking about anything else,” she says matter-of-factly. “You want people to feel the way you did when an artist you looked up to created magic.”
Mya continues to do this simultaneously through music and film. She’s currently the star of 5th Ward, streaming on the Urban Movie Channel. Founded by Robert L. Johnson (BET, RLJ Entertainment) the drama series follows Mina Kennedy raising her sons in the embattled heart of Houston while facing poverty, gentrification and crime. With the spirit of past troubles in mind, Mya breathes life into the series that also shows strong performances by Carl Anthony Payne and Scarface. “There’s a low point Mina hits that we always judge others on as far as what they do to survive, but when other people’s mouths and survival is at stake, it no longer becomes about you and what people think about you,” she says of her character’s life. “You have to throw your whole entire self in the trash and go do what’s necessary to take care of your seed.”
Mya shares with VIBE her return to acting, enticing new music and the importance of staying to true to yourself.
What convinced you to join the cast of 5th Ward?
Mya: I asked to see the script first and I actually connected with the storyline, the characters and real-life scenarios. It’s a drama, but I also spent a lot of time in the Fifth Ward, witnessing that whole neighborhood. I’ve done a lot of recording there because my independent movement started there with J. Prince and I modeled my label after his.
But in that process, I got to see what the work he does for his community. I have a strong connection with that place since it’s very reminiscent of where I’m from, D.C., which used to be the murder capital of the U.S. for a while. The inner cities of America have many obstacles young men and women face. Fifth Ward is all about that and how you actually navigate through that. I’m playing a single mother, and while I don’t have children, I have brothers I had to look after when I was growing up. My character’s husband is killed two years prior; and I catch a charge because I am present at the scene where my current boyfriend gets busted. I have two sons that I have to take care of and I have to figure it out. With a record, it’s hard to get a job. You see that struggle and you see that journey with Mina and how she’s going to survive. The church disowns her and everything.
What did you learn from that character?
Hope is everything. Once you’ve lost that, you don’t really have much. You don’t really have much faith. But also understanding that when family is your seed, you’re willing to lose yourself in order for them to gain. That’s a place that she hits and we always judge other people as far as what they do, or how they go get it, but when other people’s mouths and survival is at stake, it no longer becomes about you and what people think about you. You have to throw your whole entire self in the trash and go do what’s necessary to go and take care of your own seed. I now understand the lengths mothers go in dire circumstances.
Another aspect of your storyline I enjoyed was your character’s dominant voice.
Sometimes we get caught up in love or being with someone to fill whatever void we’re trying to fill, or just getting involved with the wrong person who we think is the right person. Often there are secrets, often there are things we even know about and we take that risk for whatever rewards it may bring. It’s really interesting to experience that whole arc.
Does that make you want to jump into more meatier roles?
I’ve always wanted to jump into meatier roles. Being a woman and growing in this business, 20 years this year, you see that life teaches you many things. There’s a time and a place. You have to live life to be an actress/actor to cultivate yourself, understand people and at times, take some very uncomfortable situations to understand that. You have to understand people, how to tell their stories, connect, or make it your own if it’s not your own already. I think it’s just a seasoned place that I’m in now. I’ve done the workshops, I’ve done studying, but I think life prepares you to take on the more meatier roles. You cannot be prepared enough.
Were there any parts of the plot, or your character that are biographical?
Yes, actually. I don’t have kids yet, I mentioned that before, but I do have a family that I take care of. At the beginning of my career, my mother was hit with breast cancer. She also filed for divorce at the top of my first single release (1998’s “It’s All About Me” feat. Sisqo), but she wouldn’t check herself out at the doctor’s until she got the divorce.
Watching my family deteriorate, not knowing what was going to happen to the house we grew up in, what was going to happen my mother made me torn. At the time, I’m still trying to prove myself to a record label that’s predominantly rock and rap (Interscope Records) while being the only R&B artist there. I was torn between the opportunity of a lifetime and how I was going to take care of my family.
I had to step up to the plate and be the father, not so much the husband, but I had to be there for my mom emotionally and financially while having to put a smile on my face as a teenager. I was forced into adulthood immediately.
I’ve always had that intention in mind which is why I’ve never stopped. I’ve never taken a break because the life of my mother is more important than any other kind of cars, status or validation. My siblings too because I was not the “ticket.” I was in the position to be able to make something for us. That’s always been heavy on my heart to make sure all the sacrifices that she made, she gets the return for it. That was biographical, stepping in her shoes, but also being the caretaker of my family was biographical because it still gets difficult, especially as an independent artist where you have to fund everything. I have that hunger and passion so I channelled that too.
You talk a lot about giving back and helping the community in various ways like the Vegan challenge. What made you want to do that?
To have some accountability to where I’m trying to go. I have to do this publicly if I’m going to stick to it, because I don’t know about that. I was like “deep sigh.” I had done veganism. I had done it for three years, but I wasn’t really healthy the way that I thought I would be because there’s a lot of junk food that’s vegan. It’s so good. I love rice and pasta. I love bread. You can have a lot of that stuff as a vegan, but that wasn’t helping me out. I started connecting with other vegans and started seeing what their social pages look like and what “raw” was. I learned and I got to actually meet a couple people and they started educating me. I was all ears. I said, ‘Ok, Mya. You need to do better. Push yourself.’ So I did.
During the meditation before the new year, I said what is it going to be this year, because it’s always something every year. And I said, ‘Well I wonder what raw veganism will do for me, but start slow because if you just jump into it you might fold.’ That’s what I have learned about myself. Start slow, baby steps. So I was like, ‘Let me do this with folks. C’mon y’all. Help me out. Please kick it off,’ They did and I grew. By the end of last year, I was 28 days, a month raw vegan. My family thinks I’m crazy and weird.
Going back to your independent journey, how was it getting the Grammy nomination for Smoove Jones? What was it like to see that people were realizing you were always still working?
Music makes me love life and without it I don’t know if I’d be happy. The Grammy nomination was confirmation because you will hit those lows when your own family is asking you to transition to another career because it’s expensive to make music. Your own voice can tell you ‘Does this mean my time is up?’ You have doubts because of the return not coming or you feel that maybe you deserve something, but no, you keep going. It may come 50 years later, but you can’t seek everybody’s approval. That’s one thing I’ve learned. You have to really be so deep into something that you just love it, you’re not thinking about anything else.
I do everything I can to make it. I also wear the hat of business manager to separate what I want to do as an artist. My mother is my business manager so I have to get clearance. It’s a different dynamic. If she says no, I’m listening, but that also hurts me creatively. I know that I can’t give everything to the fans as far as what they want, when they want. They’re also learning to since I’m casting them as interns. They get to see firsthand all the paperwork involved just to put out one song.
But you want people to feel the way you did when the artist you looked up to created magic. You couldn’t even articulate it. It happened to me when I was four-years-old, watching my dad sing in church. I didn’t know what it was but I knew it was so powerful, it was moving. I wanted to make people feel that way and I wasn’t able to with my cute singles as a teenager because they’re cute. Like I said, life shapes and cultivates you.
People haven’t even gotten the best of me yet. My soul can’t rest until I have given the true vocals, the true artist, the true stories, the true lyrics, the true me.
I can’t rest at night until I know that’s going to happen. I can’t even be in a relationship right now, it’s like tunnel vision. It’s crazy, but natural. I’m not willing to settle for anything else until I do what I know I’m capable of. Regardless of situations and pitfalls, they all happened for a reason. I don’t make excuses anymore. It’s about getting there so I can give that magic to take people higher. That’s all.
So I’m not sure if you knew, but Stokely Williams from Mint Condition dropped an album last year and it was really good-
That’s one of my favorite groups and they were one of my inspirations for my new single! Them, Prince and The Isley Brothers. It’s a song I recorded in 2011, but it’s timing. Back then, I wouldn’t have been able to pay for it with what they were trying to charge me. But when I got that Grammy nomination, people were like, ‘Ok, we’re give it to you for 75 percent off because we know it might do something now because we weren’t sure about you in 2011.’
But you have such a long resume!
2008 was the beginning of my independent journey. I had three albums in Japan and one mixtape stateside. The numbers are lower when you’re an independent artist. When the people you’re working with still have the major label concept and big checks, that’s their priority. They won’t take you or your project as serious. If the the work is really good, they feel as if they deserve, which they rightfully do, the bigger check. That’s a song that’s just been sitting there because I couldn’t afford it. Now I can because it’s 75 percent off. Why? Because of that. Some of that music I’ve recorded in 2010 or 2014 has just now seeing the light of day. I have archives. It’s crazy.
I thought it was really interesting Stokley put an album out last year and it went overlooked. Many veteran R&B acts and those don’t really get much light until there’s some type of validation. Tank did an interview with Vulture and he mentioned how heads at Spotify were surprised at his streaming numbers. As a veteran R&B artist, what’s your experience been like with streaming?
Streaming is amazing. If you can get on the right playlist, you increase your chances of getting noticed, increasing your streaming time and spins which calculates into revenue. You also have to sacrifice and put a budget together so you have to skim off the top. I’ve downgraded my whole life. I live in a box, literally a studio apartment because I’m like, ‘No, don’t invest in a house in California. You’re here to work. Don’t invite friends over. You preserve your budget. If you want to hire a PR this is how much it’s going to cost. That’s rent. That’s a mortgage. You live simply because you’re main goal is this. You don’t need to be dating. You don’t need to be having parties. You don’t need to be investing in furnishing. This is not going to be your life but right now you need to take the steps and start over from zero, from the bottom and then work your way to the top.’
It’s like that every single, album or project phase. You cut where you can cut. You sacrifice what you can sacrifice and you preserve so that you can invest back into yourself where it matters. If it’s in marketing or in radio or press, that’s what’s going to take you. Or even a music video because that’s also streaming. You have to figure out where to invest to propel your forward because it’s expensive. Radio is expensive. PR is expensive, marketing, management. Life is expensive.
Everything is expensive so I live like a bum on purpose to serve my purpose.
I’m engineering my own projects, keeping studio costs down. I don’t wait on anybody because I know that’s what I have to do without the major label budgets. Now it’s second nature. I know it like the back of my hand but it’s taken 10 years for that to happen.
I draft my contracts. I do my own metadata, producer deals, negotiations, executive production, engineering, mixing, whatever I have to do, but it’s fun because now I can share the wealth a little bit more by training fans. They’re getting checks. I train them to do road management, I have them on the road doing photography. They know the whole process of what it takes to do that. Some of them are out on the road with me, I do background checks too. The hardcore fans, they submit their resumes and a lot of them are very, very talented. There’s one kid in Mexico who does not speak a lick of English. I mean, he has a translation app but we do 50 emails to get one thing right. He did the graphics for the Smoove Jones cover. He’s designed all the flyers for tours and he’s just living the dream. He’s being hired by other people now. That’s what makes me happy. He’s not doing it all for nothing.
You said ten years. Who was Mya ten years ago and who is she today?
I just stepped into my independent phase (2008) unsure of life, of my craft as far as my profession goes but I never gave up on myself. I have tunnel vision as far as arts are concerned. I’m very creative. I know when I’m focused and when I’m supported. Even when I’m not, I’m still going to make it happen.
Solid. I’m solid now. I still have my days where it’s very overwhelming, very tiring. I don’t eat for three days at a time when I’m on a deadline because that’s my priority. That is my food. That is my life, but I still have my priorities straight. My mother, my family, my future family maybe, my community. I know that with what I learned, I need to share the wealth like I have with my foundation in D.C. To have the gift of music in my family, that always moved me. I didn’t know what fame was.
Fame was not something that was my cup of tea ever, especially when I learned about what that does.
That’s not something I really cared for. I’m usually a shy person and refrain from attention, but I’ve always loved the arts. That’s what’s always drove me because this industry is a scary place. Materialistic things were never my thing. It’s nice to get cute and do videos and whatnot but it’s also something that’s never driven me. My family, making sure the women in my family receive the reward at the end of the tunnel for all their sacrifices. We have yet to go on a vacation. All the women in my family, my aunts, my great grandmothers, my grandmothers, my mother, they’ve all sacrificed their entire lives. It hurts. Their dreams, their passion.
I couldn’t imagine having to give up what I love to do and they have. I want them to reap those benefits and kick their feet up. That’s what I want. That’s what I have to provide. That’s the driving force, not the fame. It didn’t bring anything except a bunch of stuff I wasn’t ready for. But I’m solid as a woman. There’s really nothing now that can break or shake me.