A New Generation of Women Lead the Bay Area Music Scene
Catch these 10 don’t-miss acts when you can. They’re taking the local, national, and international scenes by storm.
Photo by Michelle Shiers
The Bay Area — and the East Bay in particular — is a musical hotspot. From its vibrant hip-hop and R&B scene to rock, experimental, folk, and reggae, there’s something for everyone. In 2018, female-identifying folks are the ones leading the charge in making music from the Bay Area reach speakers nationwide, and even internationally. If you haven’t been keeping up with the locals in the past few years, here are the women in music you need to know.
Lalin St. Juste
Lalin St. Juste leads six-piece electro-soul band The Seshen, but also sings in other projects as well as her own solo material. Her vocals and electronic stylings are reminiscent of Little Dragon, funky neo-soul paired with her stunningly sublime crooning. Mechanical drum machines pair with live percussion and varied electronic textures, topped off with glimmering pop melodies. In The Seshen, St. Juste sings to danceable beats and channels Afro-futurism, while her solo music is more mellow and introspective. But her unique voice speaks for itself. In her songs, she explores identity, reclaiming narratives, and intimacy in relationships and with ourselves, inspired by the likes of Erykah Badu and Nick Drake. Besides music, St. Juste has voiced interest in creating a therapeutic songwriting camp for young girls.
Listen to: “Oblivion” by The Seshen
Equal parts danceable R&B and heartbreaking slow jams, Rayana Jay is a pop star in the making. Her vocals echo the rawness of Amy Winehouse at times, the sultriness of Anita Baker at others. Love is the root of all the music she makes, from romantic love to love for her people — her song “Sunkissed” is an ode to “black skin, black men, black love,” she said in an interview with The FADER. Originally from Richmond, the 23-year-old possesses an old-soul wisdom beyond her years. Most recently, she dropped a triumphant new song titled “Undefeated” (part of a project by ESPN’s The Undefeated and Morgan State University), an anthem for black female athletes and resilient women who face sexism and racism on and off the court. And earlier this year, on Valentine’s Day she released an EP, Love, Rayana, a short but sweet three-song love letter.
Listen to: “Magic”
Oakland musician Tia Cabral creates atmospheric pop with the spellbinding quality suggested by her musical moniker, Spellling. With a loop pedal, she makes a simple guitar, synth, and vocal combination soar beyond the usual limits of a single person. Her 2017 debut album, Pantheon of Me, is a collection of 13 sprawling songs, her haunting voice the anchor in what often feels like a yawning abyss of nonlinear direction. She sounds as if Solange took a walk through a haunted house, became possessed by a ghost, and emerged through an alternate dimension via the distorted speakers of a laptop. Cabral is also a visual artist, a quality discernible in the guiding forces of moods and shapes in her music.
Listen to: “Walk Up To Your House”
If you don’t know Thao Nguyen by now, where have you been? The singer-songwriter is originally from Virginia, but is now based in San Francisco, and has collaborated with everyone from Andrew Bird to Joanna Newsom to Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs. Her vocals blend a bit of country and folk with pop and blues, singing as well as playing banjo, guitar, and piano in folk rock band Thao & The Get Down Stay Down. Last year, she released a documentary called Nobody Dies, which chronicles a trip she took to Vietnam, her parents’ homeland, in the summer of 2015. It’s an intimate look at her experience as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees.
Listen to “Nobody Dies” by Thao & The Get Down Stay Down
Maya Songbird makes witchy dark disco and sometimes refers to herself as “Satan’s mom.” She grew up in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, a refuge where she and teenage friends could learn to express themselves. In her music, she champions liberation, self-love, feminism, and sexual empowerment, her scintillating melodies punctuated by club-ready funky beats. After quitting her corporate job in 2009, she first entered dance floors across the country with her debut single “Lust,” which started racking up downloads and remixes from top producers immediately. In her lo-fi dance music, she also often makes references to the occult — her 2016 EP is titled Queen of Darkness. She’s in touch with her dark side, often dressing goth in all-black outfits. Whatever you do, don’t call her an R&B singer — as a black woman, she’s often been categorized as R&B by those who don’t take the time to actually listen to her music.
Listen to “Wicked Attraction”
Before she went solo, Hannah Van Loon was a member of Trails and Ways, a dream-pop-meets-indie-rock band composed of members who met at UC Berkeley, traveled to Spain and Brazil, and then returned to the Bay Area with more worldly musical influences under their belts (namely, flamenco and bossa nova). Now, as Tanukichan, Van Loon has gone more shoegaze. Her debut album, Sundays, released earlier this summer, is all fuzzed-out guitar, wispy vocals, and gentle drums. She’s started to gain national attention with big publications such as Pitchfork taking notice. That may be in part due to the fact that she recorded Sundays with Chaz Bundick of Toro y Moi. Her songs are quiet and comforting, but also inspiring — the atmospheric reverb is better fitted for gazing pensively into the great beyond than merely one’s shoes.
Listen to: “Natural”
Azuah has one of those powerhouse voices that needs nothing but a simple acoustic guitar to accompany it. She weaves alternative folk with soul, her expressive, deep-chested vocals reminiscent of R&B greats such as Amy Winehouse. On her debut single “I Don’t Care” she declares in the most beautiful, soaring melody, “I don’t care” amid echoey harmonies and even an electric guitar solo. She’s shared a stage with Lalin St. Juste for a showcase organized by Women’s Audio Mission, an Oakland/San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to closing the gender gap in creative technology careers. This is just the beginning for Azuah, but she’s already been making rounds in the East Bay and S.F. music scenes, from First Fridays to SoFar Sounds.
Listen to: “I Don’t Care”
Rapper Ruby Ibarra describes her sound as a “’90s hip-hop vibe with elements of raw poetry.” She was born in the Philippines, but her family moved to San Lorenzo when she was just 4 years old. Growing up listening to Tupac, Eminem, and Wu Tang Clan, she discovered rap in her formative years as a way to express herself. In her own music, she switches between rapping in English, Tagalog, and her family’s Waray dialect. On her 2017 debut album, Circa91, she touches on themes of colorism, colonial mentality, bridging multiple identities and nationalities, and being raised by a single mother. “Us,” a song featuring Rocky Rivera and Klassy and Faith Santilla, is an anthem for her fellow Filipina women: “Island woman rise, walang makakatigil / Brown, brown woman, rise, alamin ang yung ugat / They got nothin’ on us.”
Listen to: “Us”
Indie rock musician Jay Som (Melina Duterte) started out recording lo-fi bedroom pop in her bedroom studio. She made her debut in 2015, when she dropped nine DIY tracks intended to be demos on to Bandcamp. The songs quickly gained traction online, so she ended up repackaging them into an album called Turn Into. Jay Som has cited influences ranging from Tame Impala to Carly Rae Jepsen, shoegazey guitar riffs and sticky melodies injecting her gently lilting vocals with energy. Last year, she dropped a new album called Everybody Works, which became her breakthrough. It’s an intimate collection of slow-burning songs that make you stop and remember to be patient sometimes. “Take time to figure it out,” she urges on her catchy singalong lead single “The Bus Song.”
Listen to: “The Bus Song”
Oakland rapper Kamaiyah is perhaps the most obvious choice on this list, having collaborated with stars including Drake, ScHoolboy Q, and E-40. Inspired by 90s artists such as TLC, Missy Elliott, and Aaliyah, her fun, husky-voiced debut single “How Does It Feel” back in 2015 received love from publications including Pitchfork and NPR. She’s toured with YG, was named as one XXL’s 10 “2017 Freshman Class,” and even starred in a Sprite commercial alongside LeBron James earlier this year. She’s currently working on a debut album, Don’t Ever Get It Twisted — originally intended to be released in 2017, but delayed by a series of setbacks, including the loss of her brother. In the meantime, she released the mixtape Before I Wake, soon to be followed by a second mixtape called Woke. Having recently dropped a single with ScHoolboy Q ("Addicted to Ballin"), expect a lot more from Kamaiyah in the remaining months of 2018.
Listen to: “How Does It Feel”
Photo credit: Rayana Jay by Amir Clark, Thao Nguyen by Maria Kanevskaya, Maya Songbird by UrbanShutterBug, Tanukichan courtesy of Jacob Romero, Azuah by Norm De Veyra, Ruby Ibarra by Donna Ibarra, Jay Som by Ebru Yildiz, Kamaiyah by Emilio Sanchez.