Kalamazoo native Yolonda Lavender is pulling double duty these days.
The neo-soul singer and songwriter with two albums to her credit — 2009’s Soul Artistry and 2013’s The Genre of Me — became the executive director of the Black Arts and Cultural Center in January. It might seem difficult to run a nonprofit arts organization and pursue a solo singing career at the same time, but Lavender finds both aspects of her work exhilarating. “I’m basically driving the vehicle, and I’m loving it,” she says.
What do you do at the BACC?
I manage the day-to-day operations, organize events and activities and manage our staff and volunteers. My schedule has been crazy as of late. We’re just coming off of the Black Arts Festival, and I was heavily involved in that.
You recently opened for Grammy Award-winning artist Erykah Badu at Miller Auditorium. How did you get that gig?
Kevin Lavender, the CEO of my label Truth Tone Records (and her cousin), co-manages me and found out Erykah Badu was coming to Kalamazoo, so he sent my press kit to Smash Productions (the show’s promoter). After the initial contact, I didn’t think anything was going to happen, so I kind of let it go. But on the Thursday before the (Friday) show they called and said they would love for me to open for her.
I’ve been trying to find balance between being the director of the BACC and being Yolonda Lavender the solo artist. So this opportunity was like, “Here’s your balance.” It felt so right because she was in Kalamazoo, and I was born and raised in Kalamazoo. Plus we were in Miller Auditorium, and I have so much history with Miller Auditorium. My high school graduation was in Miller Auditorium, at which I sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” My graduation from Western Michigan University was in Miller Auditorium. So it just felt right.
How do you create your music?
It’s always different. With the last song I recorded, I picked the beat first. The beat tells me what the song is going to be about. So I just listen for the mode until I get the vibe. Then I decide whether I’m going to write a chorus or if the song is going to be me singing all the way through with no chorus. Once I figure that out, I start writing. When I finish writing, I go into the studio. The producer records me singing over the beat, mixes and masters the vocals so that it sounds high-quality, and then the track is ready to be delivered to the world.
How do you prepare yourself before a performance?
I literally have to remove myself from the world around me.
So you have, like, a Beyoncé/Sasha Fierce thing going on?
(She laughs at the reference to Beyoncé and her alter ego.) No, no, I’m still me. I’m still Yolonda. I mean I physically remove myself from the environment. I isolate myself in the dressing room or somewhere and listen to music.
Who are some of your favorite music artists?
I was raised on gospel music. My mama didn’t allow us to listen to secular music, and I remember washing the dishes to nothing but gospel music. Later on, I began listening to Motown, Jill Scott, Jay-Z and Erykah Badu. I listen to a lot of old-school and underground artists. I usually know about new artists before everyone else does.
What was the most impressionable moment in your life?
I’ve had so many moments in my life that were all equally impressionable, but I’m going to say opening for Erykah Badu because it’s still super fresh in my mind. It was such an honor, and it was the largest crowd I have ever performed in front of. One of the songs I performed is called “Happy,” and after the show Erykah Badu told me that she liked that song, especially the lyrics. It was crazy to know while I was performing, Erykah Badu was intently listening to the lyrics of my song.
What’s an ideal day like for you?
As soon as I wake up, I have my time with God because if I don’t, the entire day wouldn’t go right. After that I spend most of my day at the BACC, taking care of things that need to be done. I really like to cook, so if I have time, I’d cook myself something. My schedule has been so busy lately that I haven’t had much time to work on music as much as I would like during the last few months. But an ideal day for me would be to have my time with God as soon as I wake up, handle my duties at the BACC, come home to cook and work on music.
What keeps you up at night?
Having so many ideas and wanting to do so many things, whether for the BACC or musically. New ideas are always popping in my head. I keep a notepad on my nightstand, and sometimes I just pop up at night and grab it whenever a new idea pops in my head.
What is your perspective on life?
I love volunteering at the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission because I feel like you have to put back into the world what was given to you. There have been so many people who opened doors for me, so who would I be if I didn’t do the same for other people? I’m all about community uplifting and being a service to people.
— Interviewed by J. Gabriel Ware