Spotlight: Zami Inez

Meet Zami Inez, our Artist of the Month for June and Black Music Month! She was one of our Open Mic Industry Picks from Spring 2023 and since then has been working on new music and perfecting her craft. Learn more about her and be sure to stream her new single, “Sticky Stagnancy,” out now.

Can you introduce yourself and share some insights into your background? Describe your journey into music and the experiences that have shaped you as an artist today.

Hiii! My name is Zami Inez. I consider myself a human first, artist and singer-songwriter second, and I’m deeply fascinated with the constantly evolving nature of healing. I was born near Woodstock, NY, lived in Massachusetts for a bit as a small kid, and eventually settled in Philadelphia at the age of 8, which is the city I have since claimed as home. Some of my earliest memories of music live in the back of my moms 1998 forest green saturn, where you would find me buckled into a car seat, with the windows all the way down, being serenaded by the voices and stories of Amy Winehouse, India Arie and Nora Jones, in the those cherished moments before entering into the world of a kindergarten classroom.

Words always drew me in, and I found myself gravitating towards artists that used vulnerable and personal songwriting to express themselves. I had a lot of conflicting identities that I struggled with growing up. Being biracial brought on a lot of confusion for me, especially attending predominantly white private schools where I was one of a handful of black students in my whole grade. I felt isolated and alone for a lot of my upbringing, and desperately craved a tool for emotional release.  

I wrote my first song at 12 years old as a submission to get accepted into IMA – The Institute for the Musical Arts – a music camp and summer retreat for girls in Goshen, MA. The song was called “Letter to You” and while it had nothing to do with my feelings at the time, it was the beginning of a long, powerful, and introspective journey that songwriting would take me on. It was there at IMA, that I began to learn my role as an artist, the history of women in music, and how my existence could fit into all of this rich art, pain, and power. By the end of my first summer, I had written my second song, “Empty Space” that I performed with a band. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but IMA really shaped who I am as an artist, and this song marked the journey of me using music as a means of making sense of life, love, and everything in between. 

My experience at IMA, in line with my mother’s obsession with FAME, was more than convincing enough for me to audition for and eventually attend the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) where I was classically trained in the vocal music program. At CAPA, I had the privilege of being introduced to the world of musical theater which has further shaped my love for music and stories. I found bits of myself in each of the characters that I played, my favorite to this day being Mimi in our junior production of RENT. Throughout my high school experience, I would have classified myself as an occasional songwriter, where I would get inspired and sit down to write maybe one song a year. Every chance I got, I would perform in recitals and would accompany myself on piano or guitar. The first time I remember performing an original song, I was 16 years old, fresh out of my first heartbreak and the passing of both of my grandfathers (life-changing events always seem to pile up like that). I performed a song called ‘No Time to Heal’ and completely broke down at the piano in front of an audience for the first time. I remember that moment feeling quite freeing, like all of the emotions I had been holding so close were now out in the open for everyone to see, and I could actually move through them easier. Ever since then, I welcome moments of emotion during performances and in life. 

After auditioning with an original song and swearing I wasn’t going to get in, the continuation of my music journey was made clear when I was granted a presidential scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. During the beginning of my time and experience at Berklee, I still had not come into any understanding that I was an artist, let alone that I wanted to be one, and I found myself pretty lost in the intense waves of what a music conservatory can bring. All of the toxicity, comparison, and competition really got to me and made me shut down. My entire first year of college, after honing in on such a joy for writing and performing in high school, I found myself in a place completely unable to express my experiences and emotions. I felt creatively burnt out and numb. I barely sang and I was afraid to post myself on social media. It was not until studying abroad in Valencia Spain, my sophomore year, and being sent home because of the COVID-19 pandemic that I was able to create space away from that environment to explore who I wanted to be as an artist. I turned to writing on the same 3/4 size guitar my dad taught me my first C chord with, in order to get me through the challenging emotions of the time. I often say that being sent home from Spain was one of the best things to ever happen to me and to my art. I decided to drop my double major that I was absolutely miserable in, and solely focus on my passion for writing music. My intuition was screaming at me, that this was the right path. I finished my degree in Songwriting in 2022 and walked in the first in-person graduation that Berklee had since the pandemic. It was the best decision I could’ve ever made for myself to spend that last year and a half really focused on the craft, the nuance, and the details of what Songwriting can mean for me.

It still wasn’t until I moved back to Philadelphia after college on my own, that I really grew into the artist I am today. I was confronted with building my own community for the first time in many years, and as a way to discover more about myself, I started writing songs not just about love but about my deepest thoughts and feelings, my struggles with anxiety, and my process of unlearning unhealthy patterns. I found myself reaching inward and using music to express my overall healing journey, even in its messiest times. While a lot of my songs still revolve around ideas of love, I feel like there has definitely been a shift in the way I write. I think my writing comes from a place of power now, not so much yearning, but knowing who I am, and what I deserve. My most recent release, ‘Sticky Stagnancy’ broke a cycle for me, and was one of the first times I felt like I firmly expressed power in my writing.

My time in Philly was where I began to come into my understanding of not only music as my personal healing, but music to heal others through sharing my authentic story. I am understanding that part of my purpose as an artist is to reach from a deep, vulnerable, and important place that I think has been lost in many ways with modern art being so polished. I feel really blessed to feel like my life is able to dictate my artistry, and it’s been really amazing to look back and see my growth as a person reflected in these thoroughly personal songs that are like little time capsules into different versions of Zami. 

Over the past few years, I have performed a lot in New York and Philly, did my first west-coast show, and have built an absolutely beautiful community of east-coast artists and creatives. I had the privilege of beginning the recording process for my debut project in Nashville, and in the presence of friends, have been able to work through my fears regarding recording music and putting it out into the world. This project is a culmination of songs and lessons that came out of my first year and a half of moving back to my home city and will be out this year. I am so excited to share these songs and all that the time period taught me. In search of some new scenery and perspective, I recently made a move to London, where I have been living for the past 4 months. This brand new journey has further prompted introspection through change and yet another search for community and true self. I am discovering new things about myself, my fears, and my writing every day, and am grateful to have my life and my growth be the thing that fuels my love of music.

What does Black Music Month mean to you as an artist?
Berklee has a pre-orientation and mentoring program for Black students called BSI (Black Student Initiative) which I had the privilege of being involved in during my time in college. In the program, we talk a lot about Black music being the foundation of ALL modern music, and how that is often not something that is taught in classrooms, let alone by other musicians. There is such a deep history of Black artists throughout history not being given the credit or recognition they deserve, despite pioneering American music and creating so many of the sounds we hear in jazz, rock, country, pop, hip-hop, and R&B… the list can go on and on. We still see these dynamics play out every day in the modern music industry. To me, it feels simple… Without Black music, we would not have music as we know it. Black Music Month allows a space and a time for the voices of Black music’s past, present, and future to be honored and taught. I think this month is deeply important for creating a more inclusive and multicultural industry, where Black artists can feel free to express themselves authentically, outside of the traditional genre confines we have found ourselves bound to for so much of history.

How does your culture impact your music and your artistry?

Being a biracial Black person, the duality of my identity impacts my art in every way. As someone with African American heritage as well as a European family lineage that can be traced back to the Mayflower, I feel hyperaware of the impacts of colonialism and slavery on my existence. Unlike many other cultures and ethnicities, not a lot of Black people in the United States have the privilege of knowing their origins, and that can feel very violating and confusing. Music of all genres has continued to be an art form and a means of expression, that throughout history has had a hand in building community, emotionally releasing, and healing the trauma and oppression that we have been subjected to. It has been amazing to learn about the history of music and to see the ways that artists throughout time have carved out space to talk about their traumas, as well as to rejoice in joy, love, beauty, and fun. I carry this history with me and believe that telling my story authentically, from my perspective, is a liberation practice.

Which black musicians have had an impact on you and why?

I have named a few of my all-around inspirations (Lianne La Havas, Joy Oladokun, Jensen McRae and India Arie), which these days seem to all be black women from various backgrounds and genre mixes. When I showed an interest in music at a young age, my mom told me I needed to know Black music’s greats and downloaded all the albums of Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, and Prince onto my iPod. I see the ways these artists have also influenced my sound with their cross-genre rock-leaning nature. Recently I also have really gravitated towards more Black British songwriters like Rachel Chinouriri, Olivia Dean, and Corinne Bailey Rae as well as artists like Dijon who have had a cross-national upbringing. All of these artists influence me differently, but I find their genre exploration and personal songwriting to be very inspiring. It is a beautiful thing to have access to the artistry of Black artists from around the world and to be able to see the ways that our stories and our histories intersect.

Let’s talk about your musical inspirations. What drives you to create music, and how would you describe the unique sound and style that define your creations?

I have always been inspired by powerful women that are emotionally driven and that tell beautiful stories through their words. At Berklee, in a history of rock class, I learned for the first time about the origins of folk music coming from Black women and it completely changed my perspective on how I wanted to classify my sound. Women like Ma Rainey and Odetta were storytellers and shared their own deeply personal experiences, and in turn, that made them powerful artists that crossed the boundaries of genre boxes. For so many years, I felt like I had to fit into the role of being an R&B artist because that’s the way so many black women were classified even if that’s not the natural genre they fall into. In truth, I have always been drawn to the songs of women who broke the confines of what R&B looks and sounds like. I look up to and am inspired by artists like India Arie, Lianne la Havas, Jensen McRae, Joy Oladokun and so many more that bring in the worlds of folk, pop, and rock into their sound. In my personal definition of genre, I want to pay homage to the origins of all music that has influenced me, from classic rock to 80s pop. 

When it comes to my music, I have to give credit to the fact that I feel like most songs actually come from a place outside of myself. I did not grow up religious, but my mom always urged me to find some type of grounding spiritual practice. She didn’t care what it was. I feel like as I’ve gotten older, I have been able to find comfort in the understanding that this world is so much bigger and more magical than we can ever imagine. Most times I don’t go looking to write a song, it just comes to me. That has been one of the most beautiful things about stepping onto this path of being an artist. We are able to be vessels for healing… or fun, or understanding or laughter or sadness or power… whatever it may be. Some songs have come to me in times when I just needed to cry, or I needed a deeper understanding of a circumstance or situation in my life. I try my best to simply follow what I feel called to do, and that has to be the biggest driving force of my growth as an artist.

Dream collaborations can be powerful. If you could collaborate with any artist, who would it be, and what aspects of their artistry draw you to them?

My dream collaboration would easily have to be Lianne La Havas. Since I was 13 years old, I have been completely inspired by her overall artistry, her vibe, and the way that she’s crafted her career. There is no need for comparison, but I would love to build a career like hers. I feel like she just stands in her power as a songwriter, and as a human and shares her story in such profound and beautiful ways. Her production style has always felt so real and authentic, and as I record more music, I am learning and understanding that I want the recording to take on the essence of a live performance. I feel like she has been able to do that with every single record that I’ve heard of hers. It’s so hard to know someone through a screen, but I’m just really inspired by her energy as a performer and the way she’s so selective in her approach to the music industry. To find some time to pick her brain about what has inspired her songs, and to eventually write something together is one of my biggest dreams. I feel like she has her own unique sound, and I strive to bring that into my own artistry every single day. To not feel worried about what the external is doing and sounding like, but to just stay authentic to my voice and the songs that come to me. We also have the same birthday, which feels kind of special to me for some reason, so maybe there is a Lianne La Havas collaboration in my future.

Visualize your ideal performance. If given the opportunity to open for any artist, who would you choose, and what makes them the perfect match for your performance?

I have this picture on my vision board… I’m not sure who the artist is exactly, but it’s a person sitting with crossed legs on stage with a huge crowd in front of her. When I envision my ideal performance it would be something like this, that still feels intimate even though there might be hundreds or thousands of people in the crowd. No matter how far I bring this career of mine, I still want every gig to feel like an intimate house show where people are fully engaged and present. I’m able to sit and sing and the words are heard, received, and understood. I would want a crowd of 1000 people to feel like they’re in my living room, like we’re kind of just sitting on my couch maybe having some tea and talking about our lives and our shared experiences. 

An artist that recently came into my worldview is Joy Oladokun. I find her modern folk sound to be so powerful, positive, and inspiring. I ugly cried for half of her show in Philly last September and then again the next night in New York. She was able to achieve that feeling of intimacy and closeness even in a large crowd. If I ever got the opportunity to open for her, I would be beyond honored. She is an artist who expresses herself freely and vulnerably especially in live performance, and I feel like I do the same. I think some of the electronic elements and dynamic time changes of my music would pair really well with her sound, and would make for an all around really uplifting and healing show.

Share some wisdom with us. What’s the most valuable advice you’ve received while pursuing your musical dreams, and how has it influenced your journey?

One of the biggest lessons that I have had to learn in pursuing my musical dreams is to honor exactly where I am and to trust that every single thing is working out exactly as it is meant to. A mentor and professor of mine always shared with me that if I want it to happen, it can and will. It seems simple, but it is something I carry with me every day. If you want it to happen, it can happen, and it will happen. I think throughout the course of my college experience, I didn’t get a lot of positive reinforcement, and this was one of the first times that I actually heard a professor tell me that it is possible to achieve the big, bold, scary, terrifying dream of all dreams. It will mostly likely morph and change and take on different lives, in different spaces, and to include different people… but if you want it to happen, it can and it will. I tell myself every day that I am enough exactly as I am, and I believe that finding peace in the present moment is what will bring you to where you are meant to be.  When I was younger I used to carry a lot of doubt and insecurity, and my music journey has really helped me to solidify a clear understanding of self-worth. While of course, there are still moments of doubt, the sentiment really keeps me going, and I feel like I doubt myself less because of it.

How did you become involved with Music Forward, and in what ways has Music Forward helped you along your musical journey?

I was asked to participate in one of the open mics about a year ago at this point.  I believe they reached out to me on my website which I had recently designed myself, so it was really exciting to feel like some of the fruits of my labor were paying off. Before then, I honestly had no idea what the program was, but as I researched Music Forward I learned that it is an absolutely amazing organization that is doing really beautiful work to uplift the voices of young artists. During the open mic, I was really struck with the diverse range of artistry that was being showcased. I remember the experience of sitting in my apartment and feeling like I was singing to myself, and it was really lovely because I was able to tune out the fact that I was on camera completely. It felt like I was singing alone like I do many nights, and then I opened my eyes after finishing the song and there’s people looking at me and cheering me on and supporting me. I felt really at peace and at home in the environment and felt very seen and validated for my art. They then asked me to come back as an industry pick, so I did another open mic with them, which was also an amazing experience and I’m so grateful to have received that recognition. I am now, of course, so grateful that I was asked to be featured as artist of the month for June. This platform is something that I am so deeply thankful for.

Looking ahead, what are your future aspirations in your music career? Can you share specific goals you have for the future, both artistically and professionally?

Right now, I am getting really excited to finish and share my first full project as an artist. It is a culmination of songs that have helped me to heal, and I hope they do the same for everyone who listens. The recording of this project has been such an emotional process and has reinforced my sense of self in a way I never thought possible. I hope to organize my first event as an artist in the fall, once I get back to the United States and to continue to bring together, and collaborate with the different corners of my creative communities. My next milestone goal would be to open for an artist I admire on tour, to experience the touring life and to travel and connect with humans far and wide. I dream of sustaining myself as an artist, living a creatively free life, and giving back to the spaces that have invested in me.

Honestly, most days my heart feels heavy with the weight of the world and I believe we all need healing. I’m still not sure what my role is in that, but I know that music has something to do with it. I hope to build a platform to share my story, my art, and my life. I hope to keep making songs that feel important to me and important to my personal journey. I find it necessary to my calling as an artist to use the platform I build as a way to both show that healing is possible, and to urge others to do this work. It’s hard sometimes to come to an understanding of what we as individuals can do, when the world feels like such an overwhelmingly violent place, but I do genuinely believe that introspection is the first step. We can’t heal our communities, let alone our cities, let alone our governments, without first understanding how to heal ourselves from the generational trauma that we all are products of, no matter the identity or background. It’s hard to express goals of money, status or fame, without recognizing the pain, the suffering, and the poverty that is occurring on the very same planet. I hope to continue to expand my community all over the world, and to show that there is a new way of living.

Lastly, let’s delve into the essence of music. How does music personally move you, and what emotions or experiences fuel your creative process?

Music is everything to me. Emotion. Spirituality. Connection. Music is me. It has been the easiest and clearest way for me to make sense of my own emotions, and for me to process what is going on around me. Music can change absolutely anything and I believe that. It has been used in social movements throughout history to inspire, and to show unity and power. Bettering myself fuels me to keep writing, and keep chipping away at the layers of who I felt like I had to be, so that I can uncover my true self. The songs I have written in the last several years have allowed me to shift my perspective to one of gratitude. I am grateful for this life. I am grateful for these songs. I am grateful to have been given this gift in this medium. I am grateful for wonderful programs like Music Forward for seeing and uplifting artists. I’m grateful for my friends who inspire me. I’m grateful for the shows that I have attended that changed my life. I’m grateful for my guitar. I’m grateful for all the music that has found me, and that has touched me in such deep and profound ways. Music is a very emotional experience for me, and always has been. I really hope that never goes away. It is not lost on me the privilege that it is to create art and focus on building a music career. I want to do this. I want to succeed in spreading healing and finding my voice for everyone who hasn’t been able to. I pray for the world, and I feel like music is going to have a huge part and healing it. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be able to share my story and to walk in this journey of unraveling what the gift of art means to me.

Be sure to follow Zami on Instagram and listen to her new single on all streaming platforms.

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