There's no artifice at all in Maya Azucena's music, nor in her persona, for that matter. For someone who is seemingly on a collision course with fame, she's surprisingly down-to-earth. Reached on her cell phone, the singer charmingly explains that the reception may be choppy because she's on the train from New York to Connecticut, on her way to a recording session. You couldn't exactly picture a pop diva like Mariah Carey riding public transit interstate, but then, you probably couldn't picture Mariah doing a song like Azucena's "G*hetto," a show-no-shame anthem that resonates with a feel-good positivity not often associated with the inner city.
The Flatbush, Brooklyn native's debut album, Maya Who?, is the type of independent effort that stops you in your tracks, spins you around, and makes you say "Damn!" Its energetic mix of uptempo party jams, blues-tinged soul breakdowns, and funky, edgy R&B is compelling, sure. But what really grabs you are the lyrics. Azucena comes across as a completely real character in her songs, someone you not only believe in, but you're rooting for to win in the end.
"I'll be riding through the canyons/and I'm still riding on the range/and I'll be searching till the showdown/with the murderer of my brother Brown," she sings in "Still Searchin'," contrasting the bravado of a vengeful desperado with the delicacy of a songbird. The song will be featured in the upcoming Vivica A. Fox movie, Motive. Another of Azucena's songs, "Git Yo Self Up," was recently used in a campaign against breast cancer. Clearly, she has a gift for inspirational music.
Despite Azucena's obvious commercial potential, her material isn't garden-variety R&B, for the simple fact that she's not feeling that style. "I have to say, a lot of that stuff bores me," she admits. "Run of the mill, that's what I'm afraid a lot of R&B has become." She feels more connected with the vibe of hip-hop because of "that energy, the passion, a raw edge to it. I feel I can relate to that more."
Blessed with a talent that extends beyond music, Azucena is also an accomplished actor. She's the leading lady in an upcoming indie film, Au Pair Chocolat, to be released in 2004. Although "acting is in my blood," she says, "music is my calling." With acting, she adds, it's someone else's idea, whereas with music, "you can fulfill your own vision."
Azucena's something of an "It Girl" right now in her hometown -- she's received tons of press, from the Times to the Voice -- but she's set on widening her sphere of influence. She recently headlined a week in Vegas. She's selling CDs in Denmark. She has dates booked in London. Her meteoric, seemingly unstoppable rise recalls that of both Goapele and Ledisi -- both talented singer-songwriters too good to be overlooked even though they recorded on independent labels. So Bay Area music fans can be excused if they think they've heard this one before.
They actually may have. Azucena performed at local clubs Mingles, Mission Rock, and Storyville during a swing through the Bay Area last year. And she's looking forward to headlining Saturday's "Luminaries" independent talent showcase at La Peña in Berkeley (9 p.m., $12 door, 3105 Shattuck Ave.), which also features Bicasso (of the Living Legends), the 808 Band, Boogie Shack, and DJ Sake One of ((Local 1200)). She's down to support fellow independent artists, because, she relates, "finding yourself is the most difficult thing." So who is Maya? A soul sista who sings, as she says, "from the perspective of someone who relates to struggle."
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