Sydney Bennett is coolly propped up in a sturdy wooden bar stool at The Breslin, a swanky New York City gastropub located inside The Ace Hotel where her band The Internet is crashing for the week. But if she had her way, she’d be recovering from last night’s sold-out performance–which flowed till the wee hours of the morning at Brooklyn’s Baby’s Alright–and holing herself up in her hotel room: relaxing under a mountainous comforter and 300-thread count sheets, nibbling on a room service platter of breakfast necessities and sipping an iced coffee. But this trip isn’t for leisure purposes; it’s all business as she and her crew embark on a press run adventure through the metropolis, chock-full of media interviews, photo shoots, and live shows. Not to mention, nearly 24 hours ago, the R&B and jazz hybrid band dropped their long-awaited third album, Ego Death. But instead of resting her limbs in preparation for another day of chaos, she’s up bright and early, sans her five comrades. For the front woman this is a first. Just like today’s event, for which she graciously cleared her afternoon schedule.
At a quarter to noon, her publicist finalizes last minute details on her agenda for the day. It’s day three of the five-day jam-packed excursion and she’s surprisingly relaxed, silently thumbing through her iPhone and waiting for details on the game plan, as the photographer, Ian Reid, scours through possible locations. “I’m down for whatever,” she nonchalantly interjects, shrugging her shoulders with a smile. Her first solo cover shoot is just like her rise to fame: impromptu, unrehearsed, and off-the-cuff.
Through the bustling Midtown streets, she explores the city on a six-block walk to Madison Square Park to test out a few shots and grab a bite to eat before she delves into model mode, something she divulges that she’s not too fond of. “I’m still learning to take pictures,” she laughs while the photographer snaps candid photos. Standing on street corners, waiting for cabs to whiz past, she blends in with the millions of New Yorkers strutting through the concrete-laden city, wearing a white t-shirt affixed with her band’s logo, a black lightweight utility jacket, dark wash denim, black suede shoes and an unpretentious gold chain. She even stops to chat when a homeless man greets her with gibberish nonsense. There’s no heir of superiority in her strides or pesky entourage hovering over her; she’s seemingly in her element as she goes unnoticed to by-passers. In broad daylight, she flies under the radar as your average, everyday chick, but by night she’s at the center of the spotlight.
No one walking past would have guessed that she’s Syd tha Kyd, one of the hottest rising stars on the music scene at just 23 years old. And from the outside looking in, she likes it that way. A child born of musical lineage, hailing from the South Los Angeles neighborhood of Crenshaw, she never dreamt of being a so-called “singer.” While her shy nature didn’t allow her to enjoy socializing with her peers at school, she did find her calling in music. Building her own in-home studio during her junior year of high school at Hamilton Music Academy, Syd dove deep into acquainting herself with every aspect of what it truly meant to be a producer, in every sense of the word. She was sure that music was in her future, but the smooth singing crooner we know today wasn’t a part of the plan–until 2011. “I didn’t feel comfortable singing over a two-track. I can’t sing. It was going to be like some American Idol stuff,” she recalls as her first thoughts when her friend and The Internet band mate Matt Martians encouraged her to sing on their first album, Purple Naked Ladies.
The world’s interest grew in Syd as she as became the lone gal of hip-hop collective, Odd Future, with (team leader) Tyler, The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, Hodgy Beats, Left Brain, Domo Genesis, Mike G, Matt Martians, and a few other non-musical members, including her younger brother Taco. The calming center of the often-perceived radical group, she acted as both their producer and DJ, recording a lot of their early music at her house, which she refers to as the “Trap.” While the guys partook in stage diving and moshing, she conducted the vibes that left audiences in a cult-like trance, shouting demonic phrases that the group used to add shock value to their presence. But even with Tyler’s cockroach eating mannerisms and inverted cross-wearing ways, people were fascinated with the petite chick in the background with the dope Mohawk. Now, Syd is playing the front, something she wasn’t totally comfortable with at first. Emerging from behind the keyboard and turntables, she’s got nowhere to hide anymore–just a mic in hand with the world as her stage. And unbeknownst to most, she could actually carry a solid tune. The sweet music she crafts with The Internet is a stark contrast from Odd Future’s riotous and offshoot rhymes. An Internet album reaches past the off kilter, soul-derived tunes that acts like The Weeknd, Jhene Aiko, and Miguel put the masses on to.
Earlier in the week–Monday night to be exact–the band played their first live set of their latest studio effort. Syd offered an attitude that undermined her past loner ways during an effortless and casually cool performance at Madiba Harlem’s My Image Studios. With swaggered steps, she confidently made her way to mid-stage, toting an ice-cold Corona (a little liquid courage), and serenading an intimate crowd. Hips and hands swayed to the suave beats as she placed the crowd under her hypotonic cruise control of a curse. Giving an applause-worthy performance, Syd’s demeanor read unbothered as she freely interacted with fans and fiercely projected her soul-soothing thoughts to those within ear-shot while her band mates cranked out smooth backing vocals and live instrumentation, keeping the groove in motion.
No glitzy studio set up or designer outfit changes were needed for this shoot; Syd herself is a statement piece. She is openly gay, opts for a tomboy sense of style, has an angelic voice, and proudly makes use of the pronouns “she” and “her” in her lyrics without hesitation. A triple threat, in every sense of the word, and a real force to be reckoned with, her unapologetic delivery would have once been described as unlikely for an “R&B chick.” The provocative term of endearment came to play with Biggie’s 1993 hit “Just Playing (Dreams),” where he pledged his affinity for sexy female singers who rocked jeans that “fit as tight as a glove.” No longer just the honey-singing good ol’ rhythm and blues, the formula of women in the music industry was now composed of hyper-feminine and oversexualized images. Many female artists, especially in R&B and hip-hop genres, even shied away from revealing their sexual preferences for fear of not being accepted. But instead of echoing those same sentiments, Syd channeled her frustrations of not having a female voice into singing her truth:
If I told you that you rock my world, I want you around me
Would you let me call you my girl, my girlfriend, my girlfriend?
(“Girl” – The Internet Feat. KAYTRANADA)
She’s even voiced her opinion on the lack of out-of-the-closet female artists for not claiming their sexuality. Syd is the new normal–a testament to the fact that the taboo nature of LGBTQ sexuality is slowly but surely being unchained. Ask her about her game with the ladies and she’ll insist, “I’m very laid back. I’m kind of shy when it comes to women so I don’t really approach them. I’ll just admire them from a far and if they happen to say something to me then maybe I’ll find the courage to say something.” But for a woman whose queerness has mass appeal, she doesn’t want to just be that gay artist for gay people. For Syd, her sexuality shouldn’t matter. Still, it’s hard not to be fascinated with the dichotomy: the look vs. the voice. Her unexpected syrupy vocals, laid back t-shirt and jeans, and forward lady-loving lyrics have given birth to a new breed of R&B. For the first time in her life, she’s at the center of attention and she’s surprising herself at how fast things are moving.
VIBE Vixen: You were a child born of musical lineage–your mother an aspiring DJ and Uncle was a reggae producer. Did that influence your passion for music?
[My Uncle] Is reggae producer and has produced for some of the biggest people. Last time I went to Jamaica, which I had to have been in like eighth grade, it was a really cool experience. I got to sit in the studio all day for about five of the seven days we were there visiting. I already knew that’s what I wanted to do. I would just walk into the different rooms and play drums for a little bit, go in one room and watch them record songs.
Aside from your family were there any other early on influences you had music-wise?
Erykah Badu and N.E.R.D. I grew up on a lot of neo-soul and reggae, too. Not too much reggae, more neo-soul. So Steel Pulse, Third World, Maxi Priest, and all those guys, but then I would switch it up and listen to Musiq Soulchild, India Arie, and Jill Scott. Those were first influences from my parents. As I started to discover music on my own I found N.E.R.D, and they were really big for me.
A lot of this generation cites N.E.R.D has a group that has influenced them. What drew you to them in particular?
What’s funny is that when I first heard them I wasn’t blown away like you’d expect. My older cousin was living with us at the time, and I had the only computer in the house, it was in my room. He used to get on Limewire and download all Lil Wayne and all N.E.R.D [laughs]. Everyday I would get on my computer and see new songs and listen to them. I think “Am I High” was the first song that I listened to. At first, I didn’t get it. I didn’t like it. I did not, not like it. I just didn’t get it. I listened back to it a bunch of times because I really wanted to understand. I came to love it and downloaded their whole collection like within that first week.
Do you think people have that same connection with The Internet, especially since the sound is so inconsistent with Odd Future’s?
I think Purple Naked Ladies might have been a lot more like that. Feel Good was pretty easy to like. I don’t think it was anything that made you say, “What is that? I need that.” But if you heard it you’d be like that, “Oh, that’s nice.” I think this one [Ego Death] has more attitude along with the chords that I feel like most people can get into.
From Odd Future to The Internet you’ve always been the only female in the group.
Yeah, I grew up hanging with guys mostly. Most of friends are guys. Obviously, I’m a tomboy as well. I don’t know. [Silence]. It’s actually funny because I never thought about that before. It’s the second time I’m in a group with all guys. Wow.
What were the dynamics like? Were you ever uncomfortable?
No, I’d say with Odd Future it was a different dynamic for sure because we more so came together on some business, common ground type of situation. We all had this common goal and knew we could get there together easier than we could by ourselves. With [The Internet] we hang out all day everyday regardless. They’re like my best friends so it’s a little bit different. I’m a lot closer to them just in general. They’re like my confidants. Like while we’re sitting here right now I just saw my bass player get out of a car and walk inside. He’s like the guy that every time I’m in L.A. we go out and he’s always texting me about a new chick he’s dealing with like, “OMG, she said this, what does it mean?” [Laughs]. So I still get that out of my guy friends, which is dope.
Sexual objectification of women in the male-dominated music industry is nothing new. However, you straddle an interesting fence where you’re transparent about your sexuality, but it isn’t doesn’t overshadow the music.
I’ve always been conscious not to take advantage of my sexual orientation because I don’t think it’s fair and it shouldn’t matter. I don’t see the big deal. Coming up I never really acknowledged it. It’s like I don’t need to for one, and two it’s like, “Why do I have to?” We’re all just people anyway. I wanted people to find me through my music. Not, “Here’s this gay new artist, if you’re gay you should listen to her.”
The “Cocaine” video in a sense was your coming out to the public.. How did the video come about?
We honestly just wanted to make a really trippy type of video. I don’t know. We weren’t consciously trying to be like, “Hey ya’ll, Syd’s gay,” or anything. Matt came up with the concept. I honestly can’t even tell you the purpose of me and the girl making out or anything [laughs]. We just did it.
Literally seven months later, Frank Ocean wrote a letter to fans about his sexuality. Did you all talk about it?
No. Frank and I aren’t that close–we were at one point. But he’s been living in London for the past couple of years. I remember when that happened. It was like a “good for him” type of thing, but we never talked about it.
On the topic of sexuality, you said you hate the world lesbian?
I wouldn’t say that I hate it per se. I think people would be mad at me for that. It’s just, you know, certain words just sound funny to you. It’s one of those.
[Laughs]. Yes, exactly. There are just certain words that sound weird, and I don’t know why. I’m not ashamed in the least bit of being gay or being a lesbian. I just prefer to call myself gay for some reason.
You are basically the new normal. Do you feel a responsibility to be a role model for females?
I’m flattered. At the end of the day I represent myself first and foremost, and I’m not going to ever purposely try and misrepresent myself. In doing that I hope that I please all of those who do look up to me or whatever. I’m a good person. It’s not conscious on the effort side of being a role model, but I am flattered.
You were vocal on Twitter about the release of Ego Death; even hinting that you may have shed a few tears. Does this feel like a new start, even though it’s your third album?
It definitely feels like the beginning. Yesterday was kind of emotional for me. I’ve done all this before with Odd Future when Tyler was the one going and doing all the interviews. It was cool to see that and be apart of it, but it also cool too because it was like, “Cool I don’t have to do anything.” I could go to my room and go to bed or whatever I felt like. It’s very interesting going from being in the background, and now I’m going through it again and starting over and it’s my band and I.
Is it nerve wracking being the front woman of The Internet, and now having all eyes on you?
Yeah, it’s definitely nerve wracking. It’s something to get used to. I’m still trying to figure out how to take good pictures [laughs]. I’m just now starting to find my voice now as well. It’s been interesting having to live up to the records. We’ll release something and then I really have to practice those songs really, really hard to be able to translate them properly when we perform live. It’s been tough, but it’s been fun. I’m feeling a lot better this time around. I’m feeling a lot more confident this time around.
So what has been biggest challenge through your journey?
Well, there are a few. There are creative challenges I have with getting stuck and feeling lame and learning how to deal with that.
Lame in what sense? People clearly love what you’re doing and what you represent.
With the last album I was really a beginning songwriter. I wasn’t that good yet. Songwriting is one of those things where there are some people that have words circling in their heads all day, and I’m not one of those people [laughs]. When I write I really have to focus and really let go to be able to come up with stuff. So becoming a better songwriter over the past two years has been a journey and a process in itself. There have been times where I’m like, “Man, I f***ing suck. I can’t write right now. Why can’t I finish this song?” but you just learn how to get around those hurdles. You look back on who you were two years ago and you always feel lame like, “Damn, why didn’t anybody tell me?” [Laughs].
Is that the same notion you have with singing?
I have so much respect for singers that I don’t feel worthy of that title yet. So, I’m just a vocalist. I’ve only been singing for four years now. I’m just getting to a place where I feel like I can call myself decent. One day I’ll probably refer to myself as a singer, I’ve done it a few times recently and it’s not been as weird, but just out of respect for people like Jill Scott, Esperanza Spalding, Erykah, and all these amazing singers I look up to, I just don’t want to put myself in their box.
You’re taking on a lot of new responsibilities and growing into your own in front of the world. What’s the biggest difference you see in yourself today?
I’m happy. I was really depressed back then. I’m not anymore.
Honestly, till this day am not sure what it was because I did not have a reason to be sad. It started in ninth grade. I would start crying for no reason. I don’t know what it was. I was a loner though so that might have had something to do with it, but I don’t think so. I wouldn’t be thinking about that kind of stuff when I was really sad. I would just get really sad out of nowhere and not be able to control it. I struggled with that for a long time and it made touring [with Odd Future] really difficult because they didn’t know how to handle it. Instead of being like, “Hey, are you okay?” they would just kind of avoid me. I don’t blame them for that, but it also didn’t’ help. That was part of the reason why I ended up getting off tour with them–just my own problems. I’ve been good for the past two years now though. Not really sure what changed.
Was it the newfound fame?
No. I really believe it was some sort of chemical imbalance because I was diagnosed with like manic depression, at one point. I took antidepressants [while I was on tour with Odd Future]. The first couple of tours with The Internet I was on them too. I’ve been off for like a year and a half now. I’ve been good, very appreciative of life.
Appreciative of even your talent you sort of downplay? What will it take to get to that point that you consider yourself a singer?
Just practice. There’s no substitute for practice and experience. My voice classes have been helping a lot. I also find that practicing outside [of my classes], rehearsing with the band has been helping out a lot and doing shows, too. Doing shows is the best practice I think because that’s where it counts. There’s an audience in front of you so there’s a different level of added pressure, but to some it’s less pressure having people around. I’m starting to get very confident in my abilities to the point where I’m not nervous before shows.
It seems like slowly but surely you’re growing a stronger sense of self.
Over the past year, making this album, I’ve had more time to focus on myself. I’ve been able to sit and figure out who I want to be and how I want to be seen. It’s little things: making sure I get my haircut every week [so that I feel confident], getting some earrings, buying a necklace, some new shoes, it’s just the little things. I’ve gone through a few phases in the past year where I was wearing really baggy jeans and then skinny jeans and then tennis shoes and now dress shoes. I’ve even bought diamond earrings and stuff–just trying to find what I really like. I’m getting closer and closer everyday to finding who I want to be.
A humid haze settles in the air as Syd takes a seat in one of the park chairs, slipping off her jacket. Having skipped out on the hotel’s room service breakfast, her publicist grabs her some grub to keep her energy up. Eagerly chowing down, she recaps last night’s show that cut into her beauty rest. While Syd once battled with a serious case of pre-show anxiety, she assures that notion now is a thing of the past. “Before, I would go crazy inside. My anxiety would get out of control and I would have to meditate and be by myself. Over time it gets easier,” she adds. “I won’t take any photos of you eating. I hate that sh*t,” the photographer assures her. He points his lens towards her as she chews the rest of her food, pointing out that she smiles a lot. “Yeah, life is good,” she replies, trying to hold back her grin by covering her hand over her mouth.
Sure enough Syd tha Kyd has found herself in a strangely sweet position as superstar in the making. And she’s still adjusting to it all. Her demeanor remains that of an unknown teenage kid with a knack for neo-soul and mixing and mastering tracks in her studio at her parents’ crib in Crenshaw. It’s both intriguing and endearing, like a scene out of She’s All That, where the teenage, female nerd is still dumbfounded that the jock is digging her. Fame and fortune are not her driving forces; she wants to make music that moves people–literally and figuratively. Just like her band, Syd is riding her own wave with a spirit that feels like a pussy riot of a rebellion that will spark one of the dopest musical revolutions. Forget a conscience, she’s doing what feels right.
I have to live up to the pace at which things are moving.
Although her melodies are mature, a sweet innocence lies at Syd’s core. “If you hang out around her enough you’ll realize the masculine demeanor isn’t all there is to her, she’s still a girly a** girl,” Martians says. Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, Tayla Parx, recalled co-writing “Special Affair” with Syd, as a “chill, hangout session;” her Mom cooked food for them while they hung out on the balcony talking and laughing the day away. “Whatever comes to her when we’re writing, she’s going to talk about it,” Tayla says. “One time though, it was a curse word that came up in a song, and she was like, ‘Naw, I don’t want to say that because my Mom is going to hear it.’ That’s the only objections she’s ever had when we’ve worked together, and she wasn’t even totally against it, but it was cool to see that innocence within her.”
Syd has accomplished a lot in a short amount of time– sold-out shows, to traveling the world with Odd Future, to releasing three solid albums with The Internet–and has kept it real during the process. As far as any of us know, the she has everything under control. However, Syd is still comprehending the space she occupies as a modern-day, groundbreaking talent and a young woman surrounded by males.
Back at The Breslin, Syd opts for a clothing change, reemerging in a long sleeved, emerald green Ralph Lauren t-shirt. She appears to be on cloud nine as she floats between a space of awaiting a number on the Billboard charts (Ego Death placed No.9 in their first week with little promotion), and being a complete unknown to strangers on the New York City streets. In an hour, she’ll be whisked away in a car service with the rest of The Internet to perform at Central Park’s SummerStage concert alongside the internationally known Basement Jaxx. She’s living a life most would kill for, but even still, this journey hasn’t been a cakewalk. Like a coming of age story, both frightening and fun, she relishes in the limelight, reluctantly.
For this generation, Syd Tha Kyd matters. Beyond being gay and beyond toying with the genre of R&B, her fulfillment comes from staying true to herself, which inspires the small, yet growing loyal fanbase that appreciates her for that. The Syd you get on the albums and on stage is the same Syd you get in person: a serene presence with a healthy side portion of humility. With a soul-derived vibe like her favorite artist and kindred spirit Erykah Badu, and a work ethic like one of her biggest influences, Pharrell Williams, she connects the dots for the youth that have been force fed rules in every aspect of life: who to be, what to wear, how to act. Vulnerably peeling back the layers of her cool, Syd is the answer–the new type of “R&B chick.” Martians agrees, “With Syd, I think her voice is one we haven’t had before. She has this weird dynamic. There hasn’t been an artist, ever, that is this dynamic,” he says. “She appeals to all demographics, all sexes and men and female both can relate. Her music brings people together.”
The truth of the matter is that even with the praise, Syd harbors second thoughts of her newly publicized talent, being her own biggest critic. Compliment her vocals, and she’ll graciously shrug it off and add a sincere thank you. Call her a singer, and she’ll giggle and explain that she’d prefer to be addressed as a vocalist. Syd hasn’t acknowledged just how much star power she possesses. It’s as if her subconscious and conscious have yet to conduct a meeting of the minds for a self-actualizing memo that fame is knocking on her door. But if anything is certain, just like the ever-evolving genre of R&B, Syd Tha Kyd is a work in progress with a promising future. “It can go anywhere,” she assures.–Ashley Monaé