LEFT OF THE DIAL For Zakiya Harris, creativity has often grown out of loss. An Oakland native, Harris grew up singing in choirs, but "never really considered it a feasible career route," she says. It wasn't until college, when several people close to her passed away within the span of a couple years, that she began to pour herself into songwriting. "The music just started coming," says the singer, teacher, and community organizer.
More than 15 years later, music acted as a lifeline yet again, and the result is Adventures of a Shapeshifter, Harris' debut EP as a solo artist, out June 14; she'll celebrate with a release show that same night at Oakland's Awaken Cafe. With a mix of pop, hip-hop, electronic elements, and African-inspired percussion laying down a base for Harris' soulful voice — it's no surprise to hear her say she truly found her musical footing in Brooklyn, around the time The Roots were taking off — Shapeshifter's liveliness and joy hardly hints at the fact that, had the singer's world not been totally shattered the year before, the record might not exist.
First, the nonprofit organization Harris ran lost its funding when she and her husband were a year and a half into buying their home in West Oakland; the organization collapsed, and the couple eventually lost their home. They divorced soon after, a split that took Harris away from the band and musical circles she'd been part of with her husband — notably, the established hip-hop crew Fiyawata — for the last 10 years.
"I was a wife, a homeowner, and a businesswoman, and then overnight everything shifted. All of a sudden I was a statistic — a single black woman, a mother, and I didn't have a job," says Harris. "Music was my solace, the place I went to express all the challenges I was going through, and try to channel all that energy into something."
Zakiya Harris. Photo by Luke Abiol.
She recorded the bulk of the EP in a makeshift home studio — quite literally, using ProTools in a closet in her new apartment, she says with a laugh. "I got beats from different producers and just sang my heart out." This was in the early days of Oakland's Art Murmur, and Harris began performing these songs to the crowds that would gather on First Fridays. "I did a residency in the streets," she says. "I was rebuilding my fan base, and I met a lot of new musicians, allies, local promoters that way." Other East Bay bands like The Seshen and Bells Atlas became friends and collaborators; Harris eventually recruited the musicians that now make up her band the Elephantine.
As for the EP, Harris says it's something of a coming-out for all of her identities, a statement about what it's like to be a mother, musician, teacher, organizer, and businesswoman. It's been a big few years: She has her hands in several nonprofits, co-founded a technology program for low-income youth of color, and was recently named director of the Bay Area Hive Learning Network, a social change laboratory.
"I went to law school, I became a social entrepreneur, and I've also been doing music my whole life," she says. "This project is the first time I've been able to represent all my roles authentically. For a long time I felt ashamed of it, like I wasn't doing my music family a service or my business a service, or being a mom. This record is about me realizing, we can do what we love, and we can be bold about it, and not feel ashamed about it."