Queer pop and soul songstress, Be Steadwell, is an artist to have on the radar. The vocalist, from Washington, D.C., plans to invade the industry not only through music, but also with film. On the eve of her movie screening, Be took some time to talk to us about her journey so far, the inspiration of the queer community, and her future hopes for her career.
How is your MFA thesis Vow of Silence coming along?
It’s going to be great. Vow of Silence is music driven. I don’t want to call it a musical because that’s not what it is, but music is a big narrator. It was kind of a leap of faith because this is a film in which the protagonist does not speak at all. So I was like ‘I don’t really know if this is going to work.’ But I think it does work. The fact that she is silent, you’re really just depending on her expression, her body language, the people around her, and how she reacts to them and how they react to her. It makes you want to know her more. It makes you more observant. And the actor who plays the protagonist is amazing.
All of my love and energy for this project is growing and continuing which is a surprise. I’m almost done with the rough cut. I’m really excited about seeing it to come together. We’re going to screen it in May for DC Black Pride.
How did you get started?
I always loved and felt connected to music. I didn’t start really singing in front of people until I was 14. I grew up on Sara Vaughn and a lot of jazz standards. I tried out for jazz band at my high school as a singer, and I got in. I was just really shy and my voice was really small and girly. Then in college I sang in an acapella group. I sang bass and had a solo and everything. But that was a group thing. After college I just needed a space to write and sing so I was in the Lost Bois, which was a hip-hop duo with my friend. Then I needed more space to write and sing, so I started writing on my own and making videos.
How did film come into play?
When I was in the Lost Bois, we decided to make music videos because we wanted to be able to share our music. I had always been a multimedia-type artist. I had done photography and sculpture and installations and things like that, but it wasn’t until I started making music videos that I got into film. It was just perfect because it was this great marriage between music and imagery and texture and rhythm and I totally fell in love with filmmaking through music. As someone who loves music so much I just never considered going to school for that because I wanted to keep it a love and not a job, so I decided to go to school for film.
What is your vision? What do you hope to bring to the industry?
What I like to bring to the table with music and film in general is sincerity. Some people make music in a very mechanical way. They’ll write music and sing as though this is the way songs are built, then they just perform it. To me, when it’s motivated by a story and by feeling and you’re sincere about needing to tell the story and needing to express the feeling, people respond to that.
When you talk to young kids, like a young kid who wants to be a rapper, it’s weird almost, because they immediately are talking about girls and cars. And it’s like, ‘that has nothing to do with your life.’ How can that be good if you don’t know anything about what you’re talking about? I think it’s especially hard for artists of color. White people, generally speaking, have access to all genres, they can do folk, they can do rap, they can do hip-hop and they just have more examples of people like them being expressive and different. Whereas a young black kid who sings R&B can only imagine singing about drama and love. As opposed to the political implications of where they are. Creativity and sincerity. That’s really what I want to inspire, if I can.
How did vocal layering become a signature style in your music?
I never had the patience to learn any instruments well. I learned them enough to play around and sing to them but the voice was always the instrument that I felt most comfortable with. Because my voice is simple, in a way, I can create songs with just that. I do want to work with instruments yet. I think the voice is the most relatable instrument, for obvious reasons. It touches people more than a guitar or a piano, just hearing the human voice. So, it was a matter of convenience, but I do want to stick with that. For now, at least.
How is directing? Is it different from producing music?
Well, making a film is a very team oriented and detail-oriented thing. Thus far as a musician, I’ve created almost entirely by myself. With film, it’s much more expensive, you have to plan every detail and you have to employ a crew that you trust. You have to find actors that are good. Making a film with a budget, a cast and a crew, the process is huge. But the actual writing of a script, it’s not that different from writing a song: there’s structure, poetry, movement, imagery.
Who influences and inspires you personally and professionally?
I listen to less jazz now and more soul and folk and R&B, but I feel like the way I write lyrics is still very much like a jazz standard. It was always a collage of different stuff. Growing up there was a lot of 90s hip-hop and R&B like Bone Thugs, and Mariah Carey, and then Michael Jackson. Now, I’m more influenced by underground artists; artists who are not celebrated widely like Beyoncé.
Did you always intend to focus on people of color and the queer community?
I just like to speak from my experience and that’s what my experience is. But also the lack of visibility of queer people of color, queer women, black queer women, in film and in music, it’s such a gaping hole that I feel like you don’t even have to be good. You just have to say something and people are like ‘ugh, thank god, finally,’ because we’re so hungry. I’ve watched so many bad web series (I won’t say any names) because I want to see these characters. The script is terrible and the cinematography is terrible and the sound is terrible but I’m like ‘well, it’s a woman who looks like me kissing a woman who I think is cute’.
There are other people who like my music and who are supporting but the queer community is the reason why I can keep doing what I do in terms of support because we know. I don’t have the nicest equipment, I don’t have a big budget for production and stuff, but people are so excited to hear my music and see my films because what else is there? It’s really nice to make something that people need, in terms of artistically.
Where are you comfortable with your celebrity taking you? Is there a certain goal you are aiming for?
I love to just share and write music, all the time. If that means that I do a show at a college every week and never have a music video on MTV, I’m cool with that. I don’t need to have some level of celebrity to feel accomplished. I really just want to keep doing it, and not have to work some bullshit job. That’s the goal. And I’m getting closer; I’m getting there. And I’m pretty happy.
What are your current projects?
Vow of Silence is the main thing right now but I did recently enter into a production deal with a producer for an EP. So I guess within the next year I’m going to have an EP. That’s going to be very different because I’m actually collaborating with him; I’ll write songs and he’s going to produce them. And I’m going to be in the studio as opposed to recording here. It’s going to be a real album, not to say that the others aren’t. It’s basically a step toward being more serious about music.
Vow Of Silence premieres on Monday, May 19 at Busboys and Poets on 5th and K Streets NW, Washington, D.C. from 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. For more information about the film and Be Steadwell visit www.besteadwell.com.