‘what I do is for people, it’s for [the] listeners’
Talking to Shamiya Battles, it is easy to forget that she is relatively new in the music industry, having only recently released her second single, ‘Air’, on Spotify earlier in August. On one of the hottest days of the year, Shamiya barely breaks a sweat describing her music, not in terms of genre, but as feeling and interrogation. Listening to ‘Be Myself’, which has already gotten nearly 300 000 streams as of writing this article, it is clear that Shamiya’s music is more dialogue than monologue. Her singles are conversations with ‘the Self’- an identity which is seemingly always threatened by internal or external forces. When asked about this potent theme, Shamiya herself readily admits,
I feel like I’m always searching for myself or I’m trying to remind myself of who I am and what I’m not just because you get it from everywhere else if you don’t know for yourself… who I am will just be pulled left to right.
Is that a profound anxiety for you? That your identity will be torn apart?
‘The Self’ is a thematic tool often used by young writers who are still developing their craft. It is a comfortable lens through which they can explore more complex techniques and work on narrative structure but the way Shamiya deals with ‘the Self’ shows maturity and a multifaceted approach at such an early stage. On ‘Air’, the speaker talks about ‘the Self’ in relation to their wider place within humanity, faith/higher power and blackness. The speaker questions the way they take up space and all those associated consequences, creating a song that leaves the listener asking the same questions. The mark of a good songwriter is not just to create lyrics that are easily consumed, processed and embodied by the listener but also to elicit some sort of response from the audience. This is how Shamiya builds a relationship with the listener; asking questions and leaving them to answer for themselves. She has no interest in coming to resolutions herself, revealing that it’s not in her nature, and therefore her songwriting approach leaves for a more intriguing listen every time. These are introspective songs, they deal with ‘the Self’ after all, but they are relatable enough and incorporate external factors to the point where they become universal. Shamiya’s music is ‘for people’ in the sense that it is intensely human. Who can’t relate to crises of identity?
‘Where are you? What’s Going On?’
As with many conversations, many actors enter into dialogue when it comes to Shamiya’s music; her friends, her fears personified, etc. When asked about some of the influences outside the world of music, the West Norwood-born artist is quick to reference God as an entity which often ‘enters into the conversation’ during the songwriting process.
I’m a Christian, so God is a big part of my life and He is the person that I speak to when I’m scared, when I’m happy, when I’m nervous and obviously those emotions are expressed through my music
RnB and its associated genres have a long history of religious-spiritual influence. Marvin Gaye infamously grappled with his familial issues through songs about God, ‘the father’ and the ‘spirit’. For Shamiya, the presence of God acts as a guiding influence; someone to work through anxieties, to seek direction and answers in times of distress and uncertainty. Listening to her two singles, the presence of a higher power reflects this process. God is somewhat of a liminal figure, dipping in and out of the songs as the speaker is left searching. On ‘Be Myself’ in particular, Shamiya briefly considers surrendering herself to God in the hope that she will find solace in this and recognise herself once again. But ultimately the speaker rejects this in fear that it will not be enough. In this sense, faith is a partner rather than a cushion to fall back on. It allows the speaker to ask further questions about where they situate themselves in the universe and in relation to the material/natural world around them on ‘Air’.
In 1971, Marvin Gaye famously asked the world, ‘What’s Going On?’ Partly rhetorical, partly earnest, Marvin felt the presence of God waning and waxing through his life. Shamiya has never felt let down by Him but on occasion she finds herself asking those same words, ‘where are you? What’s going on?’
‘Here are a bunch of musical rules. Now, go break them.’
Although there are religious and emotional connections between ‘Air’ and ‘Be Myself’ Shamiya is adamant that the two aren’t intentionally connected. She muses over the idea, coming to the conclusion that it must be the process that links them together. Written around a year apart, both tracks began life in Shamiya’s bedroom, playing with chord progressions that matched her feelings that evening. In essence, these sessions act as freewrites. They happen at night, in the loose and emotionally disarming witching hours and they allow for Shamiya to express herself unedited and at her most earnest. She will usually record her song ideas as voicenotes, looking back days later sometimes surprised by her own free form thoughts and emotions. ‘Just me and the keyboard, singing’- that’s how Shamiya describes her songwriting process; it is as intimate as it is pure and rarely does she bring anyone into the process early. Her guitarist, Mateus, is brought in as far into the songs as possible and Shamiya does all her other production and instrument work herself (apart from a few basslines). Don’t get it twisted: Shamiya is not opposed to collaboration. She speaks often about how much she would enjoy working with other like-minded artists citing her relationship with Mateus as an exemplary case, ‘The way he plays, he just gets my music’. Shamiya is committed to her vision, working on songs until they are roughly 70% done before she will consider bringing in another musician to work on the track so she can give them as much musical direction as possible.
I just know for certain that I do not want to compromise my sound
Retaining creative control is just one challenge that artists face. Shamiya is finding that the music industry can be a difficult place to navigate as an independent black female artist. There is a great deal of pressure on artists to consistently produce content for their fans whether that comes in the form of music on streaming services or being an entertaining social media presence. The CEO of Spotify even came out recently and declared that artists should be putting out a record every year much to the dismay of the majority of the music community. In such an oppressive environment, Shamiya is always thinking about her future and how to navigate expectation and her own ambitions. She maintains that she has never been interested in making ‘a hit’ and that she never wants to let the ‘business-side’ of things run her art. Speaking to Shamiya it is clear to see that she is determined to do things her own way. Her songs are her vision, her production, her direction and her creative output. Independent artistry was once a rarity but it is now, thankfully, becoming more and more common. It is still somewhat of a counter narrative. There is so much social currency placed on the idea of ‘getting signed’ and breaking into the industry but Shamiya is kind of fighting against the grain. Talking casually about her influences, she admires jazz artists and those who incorporate elements of jazz into their work, such as We Are KING and D’Angelo. The artists who she looks up to broke new ground themselves and were forced to deal with great opposition to their vision. People, like the CEO of Spotify, are laying down the rules and Shamiya is breaking them.
‘I would just love to make great art, great art that matches the sound.’
Shamiya emphasises how far she still has to go in terms of her developing her performance craft. Having only performed her own material twice to varying audiences, she says she is yet to figure out how best to deliver her songs to make it worthwhile for those who come down to support. This somewhat extends to her recorded visuals. Despite being centre stage of the two shorts she has released, she admits that she felt a great deal of performance anxiety around the two projects to the point where she was considering leaving.
Even filming that little visual I was so exhausted afterwards, not because it was tiring physically but just because of the energy I have to use to be like, ‘Ok, Shamiya, come on, you can do this’. It is exhausting.
It is no surprise that performing such sensitive songs is emotionally taxing but she hopes that fans will be along for the ride when it comes to her figuring out the best way she can express herself on stage. What has become clear is that audience engagement is hugely important for her. Shamiya tells us about a gig she did last year in Shoreditch with her guitarist, Mateus, where she performed a very stripped back, intimate set which allowed her to feed off the energy of the crowd that she could very clearly see. She has by no means settled on a style and will continue to experiment with set ups with audience engagement at the heart of it.
For many artists, this time has been extremely difficult and Shamiya is no different. With live gigs on ice for the foreseeable future and self sufficient artistry at a premium, there is a pressure on artists to find creative ways to maintain an income and retain social currency. Shamiya confesses, “I’m not the most ‘post every day on social media’ type of person.” The primary way she has stayed in contact with her fan base during these last few months has been through her releases and she has no intention of stopping there. She has promised more music in the next few months with shorter gaps between releases to make sure, at all times, that her work speaks for itself.
Shamiya Battles has an air of destiny about the way she talks about her career. Everything is everything. There is a conviction, with a healthy amount of trepidation, that is evident from her creative output so far and puts her in a powerful position to break into the major leagues. Shamiya is beginning to take up the space she has carefully curated for herself and it certainly feels like we are on the cusp of seeing her bloom into a prominent force in the UK scene.
Check out her singles 'Be Myself' and 'Air' on Spotify- https://open.spotify.com/artist/3NTdPQSh0JSz5c5AGngQyE?si=3vatDwK_TTWll305tZxgag
Also, check out our short review of 'Be Myself' and 'Air'-