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Going Inward: Cheyanne Zadia Givens on Home, Style, and Her New Album Vacants

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As Baltimore as egg-custard snowballs with marshmallow, Allen Iverson courtside getting his hair braided, marching band practice, and three services at a Baptist church on the Westside on a Sunday (bible study included), Zadia brings a new bright fusion of poetry, live instrumentation, and spiritual incantation through her debut musical project, Vacants. And I am as full as Westside rowhomes were before gentrification, death, and drugs after having listened to tracks like “Henny On The Pavement” and “Live Alive.” 

The yellow album cover image for Zadia’s airy ode to her native West Baltimore features a plant-overgrown, fallen-over vacant home, shot by local photographer Shae McCoy who also captures the artist in a jumpsuit ensemble, wearing a single chain and Yeezys on her feet. This casual curation provides the cultural enrichment that Baltimore needed after a season of loss for the arts due to COVID-19. Whether you’re putting your slippers on to check the mail, at a vigil, or at the basketball court, my recommendation is to bring your ear pods or Bluetooth speaker for the homies with you to bump this on Bandcamp. 

Zadia recorded Vacants in her home and released the album on June 19, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing both the East and West Baltimore tours that she has done for the album where culture icons including Ari Lennox, Blaqstarr, and Lawrence Burney showed up in support. Zadia personally invited neighbors to hear in areas from Reservoir Hill to Chester and Jefferson saying, “Come on over, we don’t bite.” 

I’ve known Zadia—or as I affectionately call her, Chey—for nearly five years, during which time I’ve watched her baptize herself in friendship, family, God, art, culture, and love. An artist and curator known for many projects and initiatives including the Alpha Female Fest, Zadia is a soft-spoken woman who was gracious enough to invite me to her home and onto her very comfortable, mustard-yellow sectional for this socially distanced yet intimate conversation about Vacants, family, style, and growing up in Baltimore. Masks off.

 

Cheyanne Zadia Givens recording Vacants (photo by Asia Kenney)

Alanah Nichole Davis: Yo, What does Zadia mean? How do you describe your role in Baltimore’s creative landscape?

Cheyanne Zadia Givens: It’s my middle name. My full name is Cheyanne Zadia Givens. Originally I was named after my aunt Lady Bird whose name is Zaida but at birth, my parents misspelled the name [laughs]. It was supposed to be spelled Z-A-I-D-A, just like my aunt and just like you see on Vacants it’s spelled Z-A-D-I-A. Real name, no gimmicks. I’m a dot connector, tastemaker, curator, artist, poet, designer, and musician.

Looks like in Guyana, Zadia means “God’s Gift” or “Ornament of God,” which is befitting for such a good-spirited person and gospel-inspired project like Vacants. There is a heavy influence of religion throughout the tracks on Vacants, can you describe your relationship to the church and music?

My first creative expressions were through singing and acting at our church, I’ve been singing all my life really since I was like 2. First in the church choir and then in my middle school choir on the Westside. I come from a very musical family and we were all conditioned to sing. When I was younger I didn’t need an alarm clock because my mother would bust our bedroom door open and wake us up to singing.

I would love to get into the topic of intersections, which intersections of identity do you stand?

I try not to separate or label myself. But some things are just inevitable… I’m Black, period. I’m a woman, period. I am a lesbian, period. I just don’t like to put myself in a box because I didn’t grow up in a box. I grew up relating to everything outside of the norm. I’m just Chey, I’m just Zadia. 

Why Vacants for the name of this album? When did you start producing this? 

There are 18,000 vacant homes in Baltimore City. To me, that is a reflection of our city, our education system, wage gap in our city, gentrification… It’s a reflection of us internally as citizens of Baltimore. It’s crazy that there are 18,000 vacant homes in Baltimore. We have a huge homelessness problem here and people are being arrested for being on the street. It’s just something that I wanted to share while also bringing to light the massive opportunity for us to do better. I’ve always had the idea for this type of project, I just didn’t have the name Vacants yet. I came up with the name this year, but the concept of the album is something I came up with in 2012 or ‘13. Some of the songs on the project are actually from 2015, a lot of the songs actually. And it’s crazy that they feel relevant today. 

 

Cheyanne Zadia Givens performing with Al Rogers, Jr. and Josh Stokes (photo by Asia Kenney)

The cover art for Vacants is wildly good! I love it! Who freaked this cover art?

The cover art for Vacants was created by Mikea Hugley and the photography was done by Shae McCoy. My love, my partner Asia Kenney, did some of the photography for this project too. It’s crazy because we finalized it all literally three hours before I dropped Vacants on Bandcamp. We went back to the drawing board once or twice, but Mikea killed the graphic design.

There are a few other voices on Vacants, who are they? Why drop Vacants now?

I just chose to feature my friends, for real, I ain’t really got no picks. I just know that my friends, like Sannison or Al Rogers Jr., make music and I like the music they create. Al was one of the first people to put me on a show. I hadn’t even had a project out, but he was like, “Yo, you’re performing.” I’ve always created music on my laptop for my own personal enjoyment and I only showed my close friends, but I didn’t have the courage nor did it ever really occur to me to put some shit out there for the masses. I feel like that’s such a vulnerable thing. But Al put me on the show and the crowd was crazy. People actually loved it. And that showed me that music was something I should be doing, that my purpose is to connect and create the opportunity for connection. I feel like I do that with Vacants and the topics therein. I thought it was important to include my friends. A few of my friends had actually given up on music for a while and I felt like this project was an opportunity to get them back in their bag. When I say “in our bag” I mean I want us all to express ourselves in a way that I think a lot of people need to hear. 

Where are you from? Take me through a day for you there in the summer as a child in Baltimore.

Baltimore born and raised! Summertime over West was like me and a whole bunch of family. I spent most of my time running around neighborhoods over West, like Beechfield and Irvington. My family is all over those areas for real, but I also spent a lot of time in Brooklyn, which is in South Baltimore. We used to have big-ass sleepovers with all my cousins and friends from the neighborhood after playing in the creek, riding go-carts, and dirtbikes in the alley. There would literally be 50 of us asleep on my mother’s floor sometimes. When I went to Brooklyn in South Baltimore where my aunt used to live, we would get free breakfast from the school program and we were always big on going to church on Sundays. 

How important is family to you? How has that shaped the way you show up in your creative community?

I grew up in a really, really big family and it was always loving. My mother has a lot of siblings and my family is really close-knit. I feel like that plays a big part in who I am when it comes to community building, because I grew up in a connected environment where there were a lot of kids in one space. I learned to share resources early because I’m a hand-me-down kid. I remember being pumped that I would get clothes from my older cousins and I would immediately think of ways I could put the items together to wear to school. It didn’t make sense for my mother to go out and buy a shitload of new clothes when my cousin just had the latest Jordans, Adidas, or Nikes and all I had to do was clean them with a toothbrush. A part of me never really desired much because we always had what we needed among family.

 

Cheyanne Zadia Givens (photo by Shae McCoy)

Growing up we all have that best friend or posse, who was yours?

Mines was Sha, her mother used to think I was an angel for real. We kinda went down two different paths. She was more into the streets and stuff. I had family members that were into the streets so I tried to stay away from it. 

Smalltimore! I met Sha in high school. What high school did you go to in Baltimore and what was your experience there?

I went to Western High which is the oldest public all-girls high school remaining in the United States. When I got to high school I got into fashion design pretty heavily. I started designing my own clothes under a brand I created called Wvrdrobe. I still have that brand and I power my events for tastemakers, like Alpha Female Fest, #1914Affair, and Delicate, under that brand. It all started in the early ’00s when I would sell clothes at school straight out of my bookbag. I would sell them before the fashion shows at school and then the second I graduated from high school I realized I needed to take my brand seriously. So I think it was about 2011 or 2012 when I did my first pop-up shop for my line.

What were those pop-up shops like and who performed at them?

They weren’t typical shops. The pop-up shops morphed into other events like Lyrical Warfare and 1914 Affair. Performance artists like Soduh, Butch Dawson, A$AP Ant, and Poetic Style all took part in events I’ve produced and they all really shined and were at the forefront. It was clear that this type of event was something Baltimore lacked and we needed more events like it in Baltimore City, cultivating and creating a platform for artists in Baltimore. 

How have those pop-ups evolved? What can we expect from them now?

Even amid a pandemic, I’m finding ways for Baltimore artists to connect. When I dropped Vacants I came up with an idea for an East and West Baltimore tour. We’ve been to Lake Montebello, Dovecote Cafe, Belair, and Erdman… all over! Definitely more stops coming soon. People that were featured on my shows back in the day have their own platforms now, like my guy Rickie Jacobs and his Car-cert series where I performed my song “Henny on the Pavement” from Vacants. In my live performances, I’m accompanied by vocalists and producers like Bobbi Rush, T. Ali, Josh Stokes, Mike C., Prettiman, Al Rogers Jr., and Ayefinney. So, just like everything else in my life, it’s a family affair. Shout out to one of the best people in Baltimore City, Brandon Woody, who is the only musician on the project, he plays live with us too.

We have virtual artist talks coming up since my annual #1914Affair is postponed due to COVID-19. We’ll be live on the Wvdrobe Instagram talking to artists like Mikea Hugley and Davon Carey and we will even be releasing some new merchandise. 

Who inspires you? What people have instilled creativity, style, and culture in you?

After my hand-me-down phase, my personal style became heavily influenced by my brother and sister. My brother was always icy. I remember stealing his clothes and trying to hurry up and put them back before he got home from work. And my sister, she was always into fashion. I would say that passion for clothes and dressing nice and looking well came from my siblings. Clothing really introduced me to the whole music culture. Pharrell definitely played a part. He was always different when everyone was wearing 992s or New Balances and I would come back with something fresh from New York and everyone would be like, “What are those, we like that.” Pharrell as an artist showed me that you don’t have to look or sound like everybody else. He did that in such a comfortable way, as himself. That gave me permission to be myself and to wear and do what I like to do.

 

Zadia and her uncle (photo by Shae McCoy)

As an artist, I know how much love or the lack thereof affects or inspires my work. Are you in love or in lack?

I’m definitely in love musically and romantically with Asia Kenney. Those two things are completely separate but they both fuel each other. I love music and have always loved music and it took me a long time to realize that music was my first love. Before I knew my mother’s name I’m sure she played music for me while I was in her stomach. This is why a lot of the tracks on Vacants are in reference to my family. I’m very passionate about friendships, which aren’t really friendships because if we are friends we are family. If you met my mother then we are family now.

How do you and your partner Asia lift each other up in your creative practices? What is home for you both?

Asia is amazingly talented in her own right. Our relationship started with her supporting what I had going on artistically in the city and that was awesome for me. I’m so appreciative of that type of partnership. But I could always see that she has this talent that people needed to see. I felt it my duty to encourage her to put her work out there. She’s done so much work on her own but we also come together, it’s like this beautiful see-saw of us supporting each other creatively. It’s her turn, then my turn, and so on. We have an amazing dynamic that thrives on us creating. We enjoy each other and that’s key. We have a beautiful home together—our current home is across the street from our former. I would sit in my window in that old apartment where we could probably only fit five people at a time and tell Asia, we’re going to live there one day. That’s manifestation at its finest. On our first night in our new house, which I like to call “The People House,” we hosted a big Christmas party and we didn’t even have furniture. We’ve at times filled our space with nearly 100 people, it’s huge. It’s filled with local art, it’s warm, and most importantly it’s here for friends and family to come to. I’m responsible for designing it.

OKAY, I want to play a game. I just made it up… it’s called Baltimore Blitz:
What’s your favorite snowball flavor, and do you like toppings?
So right now I’m fucking with egg custard and butterscotch mixed with roasted marshmallows on top. I get that one from Quality Snowballs in Hampden or there is this Black-owned spot on Security Boulevard.

Where do you go to get the best chicken boxes?
Kims or Royals up the village on the Westside.

Best mall?
Back in the day we used to go to Westview, we used to play at Jeepers when I was coming up, or we would go to Security Square Mall.

The best club from the early ’00s?
Club One was pretty lit, Club One went up for real. But it got demolished and turned into a parking lot. It’s the parking lot where they have the farmers market at.

Solo Sisqo or Dru Hill?
Oh shit! Dru Hill because I grew up on Dru Hill but I do like Sisqo too. 

Patterson Park or Druid Hill?
Druid Hill Park, but Beechfield park is slept on too. I had a lot of experiences there. I broke both of my arms at that park playing baseball… we would have memorials for friends that passed away. It’s not as big as Patterson or Druid Hill but it holds a special place in my heart.

Marching bands or fashion shows?
Oh, that’s tough! Ima have to go with fashion shows… but wait, I love marching bands too… I’m undecided [chuckles].

When it comes to Bmore Club, “Hey You Knuckleheads” by Diamond K or “Slide To The Left” by K-Swift?
Hmmm, “Hey You Knuckleheads!

 

Cheyanne Zadia Givens performing (photo by Asia Kenney)
Cheyanne Zadia Givens recording Vacants (photo by Asia Kenney)

The word n***a is laced throughout your music. Where does the N-word sit in the African diaspora and why should we as Black people feel empowered to use it?

It’s a term of endearment but it was a word that was used against us to make us feel less than we were, and just like with everything else Black people take things and we innovate in order to make it our own. By doing so we empower ourselves. For example, Christianity was used traditionally during slavery to build conformity among slaves. But now Gospel, which is of that religion, is one of the most powerful forms of music and has heavily influenced my project Vacants. Though it stemmed from religious practices that were meant to condemn, we flipped it.

Racist white people can’t really do anything with us, with Black people. There is nothing we can’t take and empower ourselves with. So when I say “my n***a,” I’m really saying my loved one or my friends, same way with the word “dummy” is used in Baltimore. They didn’t give us proper education in school, they didn’t teach us to read correctly. We naturally learned numbers from being hustlers to get money. They wanted us to be dummies, but instead of us falling victim to that we infuse these words with love. What’s up, dummy? What’s up my n***a, it’s all love.

A lot of folks pride themselves on never having been out of the 410/443 area codes, how has travel outside of Baltimore changed your perspective?

A lot of my homeboys have never been on a plane but I encourage them to travel. My family is situated all over the world so even from a young age because of our diverse heritage, race, ethnicity, and agency over things like land ownership with my family in the south… my mother and father both made sure I was well rounded and traveled. It started with trips to the Bahamas every summer, visiting my sister in NY. I’ve been to Mexico, Atlanta, Vegas, and even Bali with Asia. Each experience opened my mind to new ways of life. I make connections when I travel. Traveling gives me the opportunity to come back to Baltimore to share my experiences and viewpoints with people who may not have the privilege.

What’s your favorite song on Vacants?

It’s hard for me to choose one because it’s like one song, honestly, it’s like one rolling experience. But I really, really, really love “Protection,” which is the closing song featuring Sannison. It goes, “All I need is my protection, you keep aiming cause I let you, you keep hating not reflecting. It’s OK dog it ain’t nothing, where I go this 40 Glock go, where I go this 40 Glock go.” This song represents peace and inner understanding to me, family love, my Bible. “Henny on the Pavement” is a song that just poured out of me right here on this couch in January. It was like the second week of January and I had already lost like three loved ones, including my good friend Dee Dave. I was reflecting on all the loved ones that I have lost. Not really questioning God, but like questioning life… It’s crazy how someone can be here today and gone tomorrow. 

That first couple of weeks in January was agreeably wild, I remember seeing Dee Dave on the couch for the artist talk that Devin Allen, who’s also featured on Vacants, and I produced. Dee was just telling us all his plans for the year. He was set to fly to Atlanta to record some new tracks and we all got that news that he was killed. We were all in shock. As you say in the track “Live Alive,” you’re tired of saying RIP. So live alive, Dee Dave! Leave us with a quote. 

Stay low, keep firing. It means stay grounded, stay rooted in the grass… keep doing the work. It’s not about the accolades. The work is more important than the praise.

 

Photos by Asia Kenney and Shae McCoy

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