For any artist trying to further hone their art, one has to take every available opportunity to put themselves out there and improve from each experience. If the opportunity isn’t there – a dedicated artist will make one.
“Dedicated” is the word that best encapsulates both first and the lasting impressions of Zia Jenaye, a featured singer-songwriter at SocialWorks’ OpenMike event this Saturday (August 19 at the Dusable Black History Museum and Education Museum). At just 15 years old, she already has a catalog of recorded music and a list of experiences that any up-and-coming artist would aspire to claim. But for Zia, her aspirations aren’t measured by the number of songs streaming or recognizable industry names she’s worked alongside. While she speaks about her connection to music and performance as her destiny, she doesn’t seem to have a particular destination in mind right now. Her only goal is to keep improving and evolving as an artist. She believes that in order to do so, she has to create, sing, and perform every chance she gets.
Sometimes those chances come when she’s being interviewed.
“Actually,” Zia pauses in the middle of her response, “do you want me to sing for you right now?”
Then, via video call to an audience of one, she glides into her song “Feeling A Way.” Her voice, like a ballet dancer on a flight of stairs, gracefully climbing and descending scales. Her vocal prowess and lyrical sentiments showcase a maturity that only comes with extensive practice and intensive focus, both of which she values dearly. But there is another element here that brings it all together – not just to her voice, not just to her performance, but to Zia Jenaye herself – her humility.
She excitedly shares stories of the cool things she’s done in the last five years, never missing an opportunity to credit her family and friends – especially her parents – as the spark that ignited her passion and as the driving force for her to achieve what she has thus far.
“This all really started when I was 10. My mom was always singing around the house. My dad was a music producer,” Zia says. “I remember when my Mom first recognized my talent. We were sitting in a circle around each other at my auntie’s house, taking turns freestyling. A beat came on and I created a whole song on the spot – words and melodies – and my Mom had me record it right then and there.”.
From that night, music became a primary focus in Zia’s life, and she and her family would proceed to do everything they could to help develop Zia’s talent.
“First, I was in a group with my sister, Aaliyah” she recalls with a warm smile. “We would find beats on Youtube and write to them, and we’d perform for the family. After we’d do our thing, our family sat around and talked about the performance. Gave us feedback. I really liked it. It gave me a taste for learning how I could keep getting better”.
With that taste, Zia was determined to keep going. As her sister’s interests went in another direction, Zia started writing songs by herself. She found the more time she invested in her music, the more it surprised her.
“As I was growing, my music was evolving, from the context of the songs to the process of writing them. It became more personal, more powerful. I remember really wanting to get out there and showcase everything I had been doing”.
For all the drive and passion in the world, it’s still difficult for someone so young to uncover and act on opportunities for aspiring singers. Zia and her mom brainstormed ways to get her out in the world through live performances and by sharing her recorded music. Her father was constantly on the phone with restaurants looking for live music, or anywhere that was hosting open mic nights.
“I think my first performance that wasn’t just for family was at a barbershop on the West Side of Chicago”, Zia says through a big grin. “I was so happy to perform anywhere. I played at Afro Joe’s Coffee Shop in Beverly. I performed in a songwriter contest at Uncommon Ground in Lakeview.”
Zia advanced through the first two rounds of this contest and was invited to perform in the semi-finals. As nice as it would have been to win for her songs and performance, an opportunity appeared that conflicted with the contest, and Zia and her family decided they had to take it.
“I put a reel of me singing one of my songs on Instagram, and boosted it for promotion. Next thing I know, I had a message from producer/songwriter Tristan Rice and he invited us to come to his studio in Los Angeles and work on a track with him.”
Rice is a songwriter/producer with several notable collaborations, with artists like Brandy, Jason Derulo, and Ashlee Simpson, among others.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but it was so much more collaborative than I thought it would be. I got to pick out a few beats, wrote some melodies, and he wrote some lyrics. It was actually my Mom who came up with the idea for the song. We put it all together, and we made a song called ‘Feeling A Way”.
Now with years of a few experiences and more than a few songs, Zia’s taste for music and performance grew into a hunger. Her parents continued to spearhead looking for any and every way to get Zia in front of a crowd.
“We’d go to open mics and I would get up and sing. If people weren’t paying attention, or if they couldn’t hear me….my mom would bring me around to individuals and small groups in the crowd after and tell me to do my thing. I had to get really comfortable really quickly because I went from singing and dancing on a stage with backing tracks to dancing in front of people singing acapella. It was a great way to help me practice managing my nerves, I can tell you that,” Zia laughs.
Eventually, looking for opportunities led Zia and her family to SocialWorks’ OpenMike.
“How did we not know about this!?” Zia recalls her mom saying excitedly to her when they discovered an OpenMike event in November of 2022 featuring an artist workshop led by Taylor Bennett, brother to SocialWorks Founder, Chance the Rapper.
“It was so cool. I learned so much. I got to see so many talented people. It just clicked that ‘these people are where they are now, but they are from where I am from’. It inspired me. Made me believe “I know I can do this”. That was the first time I performed at OpenMike, and I received feedback about my music and performance that helped me improve. It was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to be involved with.”
To say the least, Zia made the most of that opportunity, earning a very special invite. This Saturday, Zia will be a featured artist at SocialWorks’ OpenMike night, hosted at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center.
“It’s a huge honor to be invited to perform [at this OpenMike]. I’m a young Black woman, doing my thing. I want to inspire others. I want to showcase young, Black, beautiful talent.”
Even at 15, Zia may be one of the more experienced performers on the stage that evening – if only from the wisdom gained from the unique experiences she has had so far; each the result of an opportunity she has taken or made for herself (along with the relentless support of her family). With this wisdom, she only wants one thing out of this week’s OpenMike.
“Just have the experience. Learn from it. Then, you have something to keep building off of, getting better. You have something to prove only to yourself – not anyone else. Then, there isn’t any such thing as failure.”
Zia Jenaye performs at OpenMike presented by SocialWorks, this upcoming Saturday, August 19th, at the Dusable Black History Museum and Education Center.
You can find her music on all streaming platforms, and follow her on social media for upcoming performances and releases.
She is releasing her first EP this month on all streaming platforms.