In my Top Music Videos of 2014, I wrote that I want every movie that I see to be a music video. Be Steadwell – or B Steady, when she’s making music – seems to agree. While holding an MFA in film, Be tells me that her draw to film stems from music, her first love. “I think film really creates a space for music to be even more powerful.”
Be and I sip tea on a sunny East Oakland patio, the house of Be’s friend, where she is staying during a series of screenings and concerts in the Bay Area in mid-June. She’s showing her film Vow of Silence, her MFA thesis at Howard University, that evening in downtown Oakland. “Music is the narrator,” Be says of the film, which is scored with her original music. “All the best moments in film are kind of about music,” she tells me. As someone who is drawn to movies primarily for the strength of their soundtracks –Drive, Lost in Translation, The Hours – I could not agree more.
While it might at first glance seem that Be, a songstress who describes her music as “sincere,” and me, a trap-loving cynic, might have little in common, we see eye to eye on many things. It might be due to the fact that we both grew up in D.C., a city people claim no one is from (our high schools competed in sports), or the fact that we both consider ourselves retired rappers. It might be that we’re both writers, or that we prefer songs to albums, or prefer dating women to men.
Be calls describes her blend of genres “queerpop.” Pop, she explains, because it’s “simple,” “earnest,” “accessible” and “catchy.” And queer, because she’s intentional about conveying a complex vision of love and gender. “The act of love between women is political,” Be tells me. “It’s a resistance against the hetero-normative idea of what love looks like.” But at the same time, she doesn’t want her music to be dissonant or combative. “I really just write simple songs about being in love and about being heartbroken.”
Be first realized she could write songs at age thirteen, after applying to a summer writing workshop at UVA for poetry. The program admitted her, but they placed her in songwriting. Until this point, Be never thought of songwriting as something she could do. She didn’t play an instrument or read music. By the end of the program, she had recorded two songs. Afterwards, songwriting was no longer this “big, scary, mysterious thing that you needed all this training for.” It became accessible. Today, when not performing with a band, Be expertly loops vocals, a skill at which she is entirely self-taught.
Be first started performing regularly in high school, where she was a vocalist in her school’s jazz band and did musical theatre. High school also introduced her to the other half of the hip-hop outfit that she would form after college – the lOst bOis, a “fierce determination to challenge the sexist, racist, and homophobic hot-mess that is mainstream music.” Be originally viewed the group as a way to have fun and be silly. “I’m not a great rapper,” she admits. “I can write, but my flow is not the best.” But her claimed deficiencies in this arena apparently did not bother the public. The group garnered popularity on YouTube and began receiving offers to tour nationally. But when her partner got another job and didn’t have time for the group anymore, Be realized that if she wanted to keep doing music, she needed to go it alone.
In 2010, Be did the “Song a Day” challenge, which she found healing and therapeutic. Whenever she found herself frustrated or sad or excited, she tells me, “creating a song around the experience validated all of my feelings.” And Be has stayed committed since, having created four studio albums, one EP, and one mix-tape. She’s among the minority of independent artists who is able to support herself on her creative output alone.
Be is proud to call herself an independent artist. She has no desire to be Beyoncé and she shares some qualms with the pop music industry that challenge my thinking. Throughout our conversation, we often return to the unification of music and visual culture, something that drives Be creatively, but also something she finds problematic when applied to the aforementioned “hot-mess that is mainstream music.”
“Music videos today,” she tells me, “are just advertisements for music.” She speaks of a circus effect, in which cheap visuals, often relying on the objectification of women, feed the industry. “People like a song because it reminds them of watching Beyoncé fall on a bed.” I nod without admitting how much I love Beyoncé, without admitting that I am most definitely one of these people. Be explains that you don’t see big concerts anymore where the artist is just sitting and playing music. “I don’t know what Eric Clapton is doing these days,” she says. “Is it just him with a guitar? Or does he have fireworks and smoke?”
Be has noticed this phenomenon on her YouTube page, on which she gets significantly more views when she’s in the video versus just an audio track. “They want to see if you look good,” she says, “see how your hair looks.” I shrug, “pretty sells.” She nods, saying she has issues with this aspect of the music industry. She doesn’t like being looked at or being the center of attention. For that reason, she prefers to make her shows a more collaborative experience, inviting the audience to participate. You can see hints of this on her YouTube page, on which her videos often begin conversationally.
I ask Be if she finds it frustrating to be in industry in with which she has so many qualms. “I have faith that people will come back to sincerity in music,” she tells me, “And that’s kind of what I do.”
Be sure to check out the following B Steady tracks!
“I’m Not Going to Move to New York”
“Ghosts (Made In Heights Cover)”
By Anna Dorn
Photograph provided by Be Steadwell