Where many fans have voiced their longing for a return to great R&B music, Shay Leonia has emerged. Recognized by a quintessential 1980's hairstyle and funky lipstick color, Shay is obviously not concerned with assimilating to the traditional outline of an R&B artist, stylistically or musically. While her songs do implore the listener to delve into their own experiences with love and life, they invoke a warm familiarity of a time when music made people feel more than surface-level lyricism.
Inspired by an eclectic array of greats from Michael and Janet Jackson to Stevie Wonder, George Michael, Led Zeppelin and even Barbra Streisand, Shay's music manages to pay homage to her predecessors without sounding dated. Initially pursuing a career as a dancer, Shay received a scholarship to attend The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. As she studied to become a "triple threat" in the world of musical theater, she found herself in a unique predicament, leading her to sing on the subway trains for money. "I would sing my favorite SWV songs, and sometimes people would join in and sing along." With the guidance of an acquaintance that believed in her abilities, Shay would discover her calling to create music for people to connect with.
Though Shay has nailed down her own unique sound as an artist, she also excels at writing for other artists. "I always love learning from other people's creative processes," says the New Jersey native. "I've worked with so many talented individuals, but being in writing sessions with DJ Marley Marl and Mad Skillz really made me sharpen my pen-game." In between writing sessions, Shay performs with her band throughout New York City, showing off her eclectic taste in the music that has shaped her sound.
Shay is currently working on her debut album while putting finishing touches on several other projects she is tied to. The MUTE Magazine and Slyde App featured artist maintains a driving work ethic, dedicated to giving fans the kind of music that lets them know they aren't alone.
"Don't you understand the way you are? If you're not the first to change, then neither will the stars." - Shay Leonia
(the following are excerpts from a blog published on Medium.com)
I Was Raped by Someone Famous and Kept it a Secret
“Nothing Comes Easy”
Summer into Fall of 2009...
On a whim, I sent a message (on MySpace) to a rapper, let’s call him “Ryan”, who’s music I’d been a fan of for some time. To my astonishment, he responded and even threw in a compliment about the song I had posted. I couldn’t believe I was speaking to him, it seemed surreal...
“Gotta Believe It”
Even though he seemed genuinely impressed with the song I had on my page, I knew I had been working on better songs and wanted him to know I was steadily improving. I continued to converse with him, asking him about his unreleased album when he dropped a bomb on me.
“You should come listen to it… the album, I’ll play it for you.” he said.
I flipped. I danced around my bedroom and texted my friends who knew who Ryan was and would be impressed that he had invited me to listen to his unreleased music. I knew this could also be my chance to play him some of my music...
I put a lid on my excitement and squeezed out a cool, “Sure, yea, lemme know when.” not realizing that he would respond by saying, “You can come through now. I’ll send you my address.” It was 1am.
I sat in my room, still needing to hop in the shower and make myself presentable to be in the vicinity of someone famous but I was torn. My gut told me “NONONONONONONONO” but I just kept repeating my mantra, “Be willing to go anywhere at any time… how bad do you want this? You don’t know what other opportunities this could lead to.” I took a deep breath, told myself to “Man up” (I hate that phrase) and got dressed.
“Be On Time”
I tried to keep my cool as I approached the landing of the stairs, then turned to see his kitchen table completely covered in composition notebooks filled with his rhymes. I immediately felt inspired and grateful that I was getting this once of a lifetime opportunity to learn from someone like him; someone who loved music so much...
(The album) included features from some of my favorite artists, and I began to ask him what it was like to work with them. He lovingly referred to these gods, in my mind, as “That’s my sis,” or “Oh yeah, that’s the homie,”. He reiterated about his plight to get the album released amid resistance from the label he was signed to, leading him to release a slew of mixtapes until they’d cave. Ryan seemed to be an open book that I could learn so much from, and then he offered to play me more unreleased songs. It was 4am.
My eyes were dry and desperate to close for some sleep, but Ryan was wide awake, pacing back and forth building on ideas he had for us to work together and for me to return next time with my own music for him to hear.
“You’re so beautiful… With your blue eyes. You should be my girl. You wanna be my girl?”
I thought he was kidding at first, so I laughed…uncomfortably. Things had just taken a drastic turn with zero warning; I’d gone from feeling like a respected musical peer to his prey. When I laughed, giving him a chance to admit to a joke that didn’t exist, he lost it.
“See, this is why I can’t open up to nobody! This is why, y’all bitches say you want a man who’s sensitive, who’ll be affectionate, but then when we get real you don’t want it! That’s the reason I don’t tell nobody shit!”
I sat stunned… too tired to even remember my own name, alone in the home of a man who’d recently spent 10 years in jail for shooting someone and was displaying the behavior of someone who was severely institutionalized. I hadn’t said a word that could be misconstrued as me being interested in him romantically, and yet his ulterior motive had been revealed.
I waited for him to calm down, which he did fairly quickly, to tell him that I needed to go home because it was so late and I needed to work the next day. “Nah, you’re staying here.” he told me. Ryan insisted he’d stay on his couch and I could sleep in his bed, just to catch enough of a nap to make it safe for me to drive home...
“For Some P*ssy”
I woke up smelling semen. It was all over my back. I didn’t know where I was at first and needed a few seconds to remember that I’d agreed to take a nap in this man’s bed. Ryan hopped off of the bed still holding his penis, and went to go clean it off in the bathroom that adjoined his bedroom. I was disgusted, and I tried to figure out if I had enough time to escape, but instead I was completely frozen. I couldn’t move. He returned from the bathroom naked, still stroking himself with a proud look on his face, smiling at me as though we were in a loving relationship and he’d just satiated my desire for intimacy.
Ryan got back in the bed and began to cuddle with me, saying “sweet nothings” to me that he received no response to. I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t say anything, too scared that I’d disrupt any logical thoughts from entering my mind on how to get out of the situation. He pulled down my pants and began to grab my butt as I winced, begging myself “Not yet, not yet, I still haven’t figured this out! How do I get out of this!?!?” Ryan got behind me and chanted, “Just the tip, I’m just going to give you the tip… okay, just a few minutes,” as he began to go deeper in me.
I lay there stiffened as he continued to rape me, my brain stuck on “buffering” mode not knowing what to do. My ex-boyfriend before this encounter used to rape and hurt me, and so I already knew the consequences of being attacked by a man; pain I’d do anything to keep from feeling again. But my previous experience in this type of trauma had only led me to blackouts, so my memory was of no use and no help. Once the flatline in my mind began to beep again, the only message that I could decipher was, “Just let it happen, it will be over soon. You can leave safely if you just let it happen.”...
Denial helped me mute the trauma of what had just happened to me, and so I returned to hustle mode, trying to see if I could continue to have a working relationship with this man who I thought could open doors for me. I invited him to meet at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, but he declined, insisting his days were busy and only had his nights free. Ryan told me to come over again, this time to solely focus on my music and see which people at the label might be down to hear it. So I returned, in the middle of the night, determined that this time I would not let him take advantage of me.
I sat back down at the computer with my songs in tow, playing each one for him with no feedback. I only felt Ryan’s heavy breathing in my ear, at which point I turned around and said to him, “I’m not here for that.” He began to mock me like a parrot, “I’m not here for that… I’m not here for that.” he laughed and repeated. But each time I’d try to leave, he’d lure me back by talking about what I wanted for my career. And we kept discussing it until once again, he swore he’d sleep on the couch and I could just take a cat nap in his bed. But there was no such thing as sleeping in his bed alone, and I already accepted that it was my fault that I hadn’t learned the first time. I took my “punishment”, let him have his way, and went home to a long shower.
“Who Can Get Busy”
Ryan eventually released the album which got him a few minutes in the spotlight, long enough to go on radio show interviews to discuss the importance of building in the community and treating women with respect. After all, he loved his mother and had a daughter now. I stayed connected with him on social media, hoping he’d remember that I was actually talented and deserved a shot at greatness. But he quickly became a D-list celebrity and couldn’t even help himself let alone put in a word for me. I hadn’t quite yet learned that music careers aren’t built that way; no one person gains you access to fulfill all of your dreams, only theirs.
I reflect on who I was 8 years-ago and wonder how differently things may have been had I spoken up about the rape. Did me not coming forward lead to the harm of another woman at his hands? All I knew was that in a world quick to think that rape is so black and white, I’d never be able to face arbitration knowing that I had willingly gone to his house twice, and that I had laid down in his bed twice…
But not even once, not for a second, did I
to be raped.
Get help 24/7: 1–800–656–4673 or visit https://centers.rainn.org/
Q: Do you feel your experience has changed the way you make music?
A: My music is an expression of who I am, and the trauma did change me, but I don't know that it changed the way I make music necessarily. I know that shortly after my run-ins with men who took advantage of me that it would take me awhile to go back out again and network. I was so new on the scene that I didn't trust myself to know how to sniff out liars. It was easier in my mind to miss events and opportunities than to risk being hurt again. But I've developed a strong scent for bullshit now and have gotten way better at listening to my intuition when I feel that something's "off".
Q: What is your favorite experience to date since you've started doing music?
A: Oh wow, there are so many! I may have to go with the night we headlined SolVillage at SOB's in New York. I spent so many years feeling like I wasn't good enough to hold my own on the R&B scene, but there I was, being introduced by Eric Roberson! With the support of my vocal coach, Sharla, and background vocalists, Tony Haris and Hannah Kay, we perfected our set for 2 months before the show. Tony even taught us choreography so we could pull off a "Rhythm Nation" tribute to my idol, Janet Jackson. We even wore shirts that said "White silence is consent!", "Stop killing us!" and "Am I next?" so that we could take a stand against the injustice that's so prevalent in our country. (P.S. Black Lives Matter!)
The room was completely packed with people who love and support me, and they made me feel like I deserved to be up on that stage. It was just one of those times where you feel affirmed. Seeing everyone there took me right back to how I felt as a kid with my mom in the audience, cheering me on while I sang Doris Day. Moments like that are when I feel like I'm making her proud, and that I'm ready to level up again for whatever's next in my journey.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years in the industry?
A: I want to be traveling the world, meeting the people my music has impacted. My friend Maya Azucena is a Grammy-winning artist and activist, and her career is such an inspiration to me. She works worldwide with young girls, teaching them about domestic violence and instilling confidence in kids, encouraging them to embrace what makes them unique. Then she goes and sings her heart out in arenas holding thousands of people, even taking time to learn songs in the language of the country she's in. Maya is a superhero to me, and I'd love to be able to follow in her footsteps in my own career.
What 3 words do you feel represent you the most?
"Genuine" is one I'm told a lot, and it's something I'm honored that people feel from me. I don't really know how not to be myself, but I've also reached a point in my life where I don't want to be anyone else. "Goofy" is another one. I'm an absolutely ridiculous human being, and that's fine with me. "Humble" would have to be the last. Humility is one of the biggest factors in what's helped me advance so much. It provides me the awareness that I have so much more I need to learn, and that when people who have done more than I have are willing to share their knowledge, then I need to shut up and listen.
What can your fans expect when they see you perform live?
A better show than the last! We're always finding ways to improve our set, get tighter as a band and explore more avenues in my music. It keeps things exciting!
What is your favorite aspect of being an artist?
We put on a show last night to celebrate the anniversary of a couple that had their first date (and first kiss) at our show 3 years ago. We even learned a song to surprise one of them who's father had passed earlier this year. It meant so much to me that we were able to sing that song for him to honor his dad's memory. Things like that, connecting with people through music... I live for it.
What can your fans expect from your upcoming album?
To say I've taken my time perfecting this album is an understatement. I've been making music for so long, but this will be my first time actually releasing a body of my work. I hope that when people hear it, they'll feel like it was worth the wait, because I've definitely put my all into making a strong first impression.
What is the funniest experience you have had as an artist?
My band rehearsals seem to be a recurring laugh-fest! Especially with Tony and Hannah, I feel like we need our own reality TV-series. They are two of the funniest people in existence, which is so helpful when I get stressed about the expectations I put on myself. I don't know what I'd do without them!
If you had to give advice to anyone who went through what you did, what would you suggest?
It's tough, because reporting a rape is a very personal decision with severe consequences. It may seem easy to just advise someone to report it to the police, but look what happened to Nelly's accuser. The repercussions that came down on her are the same exact ones that prevent so many survivors from coming forward, especially when they're starting a brand new career and haven't gained credibility. It's one of the reasons I never reported my rapist. Only 3% of rapists ever go to jail, and that number keeps us quiet. But I'm hopeful with all the survivors coming forward in Hollywood, hopefully next we'll be able to name people in the music industry.
My advice would be to talk about it with someone, even a professional. As survivors of rape, we carry so much shame with us because it's how the patriarchal system has conditioned us. What did we wear? What did we say? At what point did we mess up and let them think we wanted sex? We need to talk about it for so many reasons, but also so that we can gain allies from the men who don't realize how prevalent this epidemic is. I'm in the early stages of starting an organization that will be breaking the silence on the issue in the music industry. My dream is to spread the message worldwide that no, it's not done by all men, but yes, it happens to all women. The system sucks but it won't change by itself.
How can our readers find you?
Sign up for my newsletter at www.shayleonia.com and you can find me on Instagram & Twitter: @shayleonia or Facebook: http://facebook.com/shayleoniamusic.
View our latest issue of We Are Jersey Magazine fearturing Shay Leonia by clicking here .