Every month I will highlight a Black artist, form of entertainment, business, or social media personality to help to spread awareness of Black Excellence. Be sure to check here on the 2nd of every month!
The month of June is known nationwide as Black Music Month; a period of time designated for the country to acknowledge the many, many musical contributions of black artists to popular culture. In honor of Black Music Month I sat down with one of my favorite black artists that I know personally, singer and songwriter Stephanie Zandra Peyton, and talked about her contributions to popular culture and the world. The two of us discussed how she came to where she is now, what drives her songwriting and of course her debut album Heart Cries, which you should DEFINITELY be on the lookout for very soon. But for right now let's see what the dovely songbird has to say in her interview below.
M Haynes: Hey sis! How are you?
Stephanie Peyton: Hi! I'm excited.
MH: Excited? Well I'm glad but I know you're probably used to this by now, giving interviews and stuff.
SP: Actually I'm not. This is my first time giving an interview just about me. I mean, I've given some about other stuff like this theater group, the Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, that I'm with. We used to go to elderly facilities and do stuff for them, and I talked about that.
Is that what you're doing now? What all have you been up to recently?
Yikes. (laughs) Well I do still do stuff with the Youth Ensemble, I've been off and on with them for about 14 years now. I perform with Circle of 5th, a band here in Atlanta as well. We've performed at Jr. Crickets, BQE Lounge, Whispers, and Couxum's. My passion is always music and vocals, but I also teach second grade at the LEAP Academy.
Tell me more about LEAP.
Well LEAP Academy is a private Christian based school. As a teacher I'm responsible for the education and cultivation of these kids: teaching them Math, Reading, basic literary skills, history and biblical facts. I give them a strong foundation and a stronger connection with God. We do all types of stuff, like we learned the Lord's Prayer in English and Spanish, and I even get to teach them some of the stuff that the history books leave out.
Well you know most history books are lily white (laughs). They'll have you thinking that the Pilgrims and Native Americans were best of friends. But I have a great boss and she knows that kids need to know their history, so she lets me teach it. Like they can tell you everything about John Lewis, Emmett Till, and the March to Montgomery and ask questions about it. I get to teach them real history from my own and donated books, plus I get to add faith and spirituality into it because I tell them that it is our duty as Christians to love people in spite of, and not keep that taught hate going.
That's really great! I find it interesting that you mentioned how you taught them about Congressman Lewis and the March to Montgomery, and you have some experience with that, right?
(laughs) Yes, Yes I do. So at the age of 10 I was presented with the opportunity to be in "Selma Lord Selma" by a woman named Carol Mitchell-Leon. I auditioned during summer camp and found out I got the part when my dad pulled me out of Spanish class (laughs). I got to work with amazing actors like Jurnee Smollett and Clifton Powell and even met two of the "Big Six" leader's daughters: Hosea Williams' daughter and Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter.
How was that?
It was a wonderful opportunity! I learned so much. So many people don't know the story of these resilient girls Sheyann Webb and Rachel West* or even Jimmie** and I was so glad that both "Selma Lord Selma" and the newer "Selma" told their stories. Even as a child I could feel the power and the history on that bridge and in that town, and all the blood, sweat, tears, skin and everything else that people lost for just the right to vote and everything it represented. It was great.
Could you see yourself doing more acting?
Yeah. Acting is another passion of mine and something I like because it doesn't come as easy to me as people think. I was in a play recently called "Out of the Box" where I had to play the villain, Society, and I had to try to get everyone to conform and do what I told them to do. Since I never play the bad guy I had to push myself and get pushed by others, and that made it a lot of fun.
Since you were already a famous actress long before you came to Alcorn, what made you come there and pursue Vocal Performance?
Well, honestly I had my heart set on the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, but it just so happened that Dr. Donzell Lee and Charles Tucker*** came by my school as representatives of Alcorn's music program. So me and a couple classmates asked some questions about the program and what they did for fun. When Charles told me that they played spades for fun I was like "Nope. Can't do it." (laughs) My music teacher got all of us to sing for them and like an hour later they told me that I was the only one of the three students to get a full scholarship. That same day, I got a rejection letter from U. Arts and my father told me that "Well, you need to tell Alcorn that you accept."
God knew what He was doing. Looking back at my experience at Alcorn I wouldn't have gotten the same experience at U. Arts. A lot of people try to say that I didn't get the same education as a PWI but the devil is a liar. I learned so much at my HBCU; I practically grew up at Alcorn.
(laughs) You're not the first person to say that. Did you ever worry or wonder about your future since you were a music major?
Well yeah. I pretty much had to double major in that and Music Education so I could get the degree...that my momma lost somewhere in the house (laughs). But after graduation I worked at a furniture store and started doing plays as an apprentice. Even though I didn't get paid I went to rehearsals everyday and showed up the people cast, so people were asking me to dance and sing their parts some nights and even the music director saw enough in me to give me a shot. And that's the thing; you have to always be on regardless of your situation; you never know who's watching. That's the nature of this business; you're always being interviewed. Whether you're center stage or in the shadows; the spotlight is always on you. I'm glad that I did what I needed to do because I'm doing what I love. I have no regrets; maybe disappointments here and there but no regrets.
And with all this acting, teaching, and performing you're still able to work on your own music?
Yes. LEAP Academy especially gives me the opportunity to do a lot. I had great teachers when I was younger and I get to pay that back to my kids. Plus I can teach my kids harmonies and write my music sometimes, as well as get a check (laughs).
(laughs) Since you're writing at school does any of that show up in your songwriting?
My kids, coworkers, and the kids' parents all seep into it. One time I was having a conversation with one of my kid's parents and she was telling me about her divorce and how she and the kids deal with it. She even kinda broke down about her own confidence. I wrote a song about not feeling good enough after that, and that's kinda what happens all the time. My album, "Heart Cries" is pretty much about the cries of the women's and men's hearts around me. I've written songs about being depressed when you're pregnant and about having to decide would you rather live through pain or sleep possibly forever at three years old. Those are serious heart cries and I think that as artists we have the blessing to be able to let those people know that someone gets you and that someone is there for you.
"Heart Cries" sounds like the perfect title for what you're doing with the album.
Funny thing: My producer Brian Williams got me with a lyric organizer Joana to help organize my thoughts, and he did a hashtag #HeartCries along with a picture of us, and it was just perfect. The album is just everything I and others want to say but might not be able to say the right way. Like "Good" is a dedication to my dad, brothers and uncles but it's a celebration of a good man who does what needs to be done, because we don't have enough songs that celebrate that. Then like "Nervous"**** is just about those butterflies that you have when you first get to know someone. I have a lot of different songs that all fit as the stories that people's hearts tell about what's going on inside them.
I'm certain it will be a great album. Where do you see yourself going after this album? What is your endgame?
I see myself just on stage with a spotlight: singing and being great and being HAPPY. I would like to have awards, but it's not necessary. I want to be that type of famous where you know who I am but I can still close my door, snuggle up to my man, walk around my house in a bathrobe with my child's hair however without people in my business. I want that Jill Scott fame; not Beyonce fame. No shade to her because she does it and does it well, but I don't want that. More than anything though I wanna be fulfilled. My mentor Ariminthea Bloodworth passed a couple weeks ago and the last words she said were: "I got it. Let's do this". I want that. I want to know that I did what the Lord said and when it's my time that I can just be like "Let's go."
I think we all want that peace of mind. So do you have any last words you want to leave with the readers?
If you know that God has called you to do something, not just preaching but ANYTHING, don't let anyone talk you out of it. If you don't know what He called you to do ask him and you'll find out. Get with Him and work that thing out.
* = Sheyann Webb and Rachel West were Jurnee Smollett's and Stephanie's characters, respectively, in Selma Lord Selma. They were two young girls who regularly skipped school to attend civil rights demonstrations and met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both girls, 8 and 9 at the time, saw some part of Bloody Sunday and later wrote the book Selma Lord Selma that the movie was based off.
** = Jimmie Lee Jackson was a young activist from Marion, Alabama whose death at the hands of Alabama State troopers helped to spark the March to Montgomery. His death was a plot point in both Selma Lord Selma and Selma.
*** = Dr. Donzell Lee was at the time, one of the professors in the music department at Alcorn State University. Charles Tucker was a student in the department.