Entertainment and Food
If there is an exact opposite of color blind, where the person sees the world in hyper-color, as if everything from trees to rocks to grass lawns appear created by paintbrush, that is the proper term for singer-lyricist Deja Bryson.
We recently asked the Richmond native, who is set to perform at Yoshi’s in Oakland on April 10, to describe how growing up at 17th Street and Cutting Boulevard in the 1990s influenced her artistry. When you hear her sing, you might be able to guess right away that she’s from Richmond, where musicians have an almost innate ability to inject something the world hasn’t seen into their art.
As if our question was a blank canvas, Bryson painted the portrait of a culturally rich neighborhood filled with “color, personality and flair.” In great detail, she recalled the music that permeated her block (The Isley Brothers, Keith Sweat, En Vogue, Whitney Houston, Aaliyah, TLC etc.) and the fashion that colored its people (Cross Colours, LA Gear, air-brushed baggy pants, gold bamboo-shaped earrings, exercise bodysuits etc.).
And don’t get Bryson started on the myriad hairstyles — she’s tried every last one.
“I remember seeing beautiful women walking down the street with different colored chunky ‘Dookie Braids’ created with Kanekalon synthetic hair, braided to the middle of their backs and tied at the bottom with rubber-bands,” she told the Richmond Standard. “I remember seeing asymmetrical hair styles with blonde or red highlights paired with jumbo gold bamboo earrings. There were girls who wore their hair in Jheri curls. There were girls who wore cornrows with beads at the ends; girls who wore large corn rows going straight back. There were girls who wore afros. There were girls who wore their hair straight. There were finger-waves, buns, funky bangs and on occasion, very dramatic and long weaves and wigs.”
It was a time “when we all shopped at Emporium Capwell & Contempo,” she said. When they made up dances outside while entranced by R&B.
“On any given day, I could be inside our living room playing Nintendo or dancing around and hear one of the neighbors pull up knocking R&B,” Bryson said. “I was always exposed to street-fashion; I wasn’t looking at Vogue magazine.”
It doesn’t appear that Bryson is calling the 1990s a golden era. This is an artist who identifies the gold in every person and culture, let alone era. When describing Richmond, it takes a while before Bryson addresses the darker sides of urban environments.
“As with every beautiful thing comes its beast,” she says. “Just as much as I heard The Isley Brothers, I heard sirens and gunshots. I remember being afraid sometimes. Some of the people I grew up with didn’t live too long. I remember ‘Uncle Jesse,’ the poor black man that we all saw on street corners asking for change. I remember that everyone around us was poor. We all struggled. And this taught me to appreciate everything and to do something in my life to make things better.”
Bryson isn’t forcing her optimism. She someone who seems keenly aware that when mixing together all colors in the rainbow, the color you’ll see is black.
“The people I grew up around were all different shades of brown,” she said. “Most of us had big noses and full lips. We had nappy hair. We were a little curvy. As a teenager, I went through a phase where I was ashamed of our aesthetic. I only wore perms and I hated my big lips and nose.”
She matured quickly, however, and aside from a well-honed voice she’s also developed a reputation for wearing a variety of African-influenced hairstyles.
“I’m into changing up my hair, trying new colors, wearing braids and as many African hairstyles as possible…I’ve been proud of the texture of my hair and I explore new ideas that aren’t in magazines.”
Today, as Bryson clutches a microphone before paying audiences, she seeks to inspire her surroundings as they inspire her.
She was born for this. Her father, Charles Bryson, is a former songwriter and backing vocalist and drummer for Peabo, while her mother used to work for the UC Berkeley Jazz Festival. Bryson’s mom became close friends with famous guitarist George Benson, who introduced her to Bryson’s father.
“I don’t think I had much of a choice; music picked me,” she said.
Bryson attended Harding Elementary, Portola Middle, Adams Middle, Kennedy High and Vista High. She then went onto attend a prestigious UC Berkeley music program. She says she loves working with youth. She has this message for young vocalists who aspire to sing at her level:
“Practicing scales regularly and singing daily,” she said. “I don’t realize how much I’ve improved vocally until I watch old videos of live performances. The base of my voice has always been the same no matter how much I have improved. I’ve just gotten more comfortable with my voice, more aware of my limits and I’ve built on the parts that I think are excellent.”
But a gig at Yoshi’s is hardly the last stop for Bryson. She want to make it big by bringing R&B back to the mainstream with a refreshed fury.
“I wanna give people classic love songs reminiscent of the golden age of R&B and Soul; that’s the era that set my soul on fire,” she said. “I wanna give people that experience again. I also want to be part of the revolution that embraces African-American culture. Our aesthetic is breathtakingly gorgeous. What we contribute to life artistically is imitated everywhere. We have a very special place in this world.”
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