Stepping Out of the Darkness 

Sh8peshifter’s new album pulls together threads of hip-hop, soul, R&B, ambient textures, spoken word, and electronic dance music.

click to enlarge Zakiya Harris writes and performs as Sh8peshifter.

Photo by Bethanie Hines

Zakiya Harris writes and performs as Sh8peshifter.

Sh8peshifter calls her new record After Darkness. The songs on the EP portray a woman searching her soul, and the world around her, for the light that makes life worth living.

"Darkness represents the womb and the earth," said Zakiya Harris, the woman who writes, sings and performs as Sh8peshifter. "Fruits and flowers begin in the darkness of the soil. We begin in the dark wombs of our mother's bellies. Every night, we go through the cycle of darkness, waiting for the light of the day. The light of life, the light of a seed bursting into bloom from a sprout, the light of a new day — they all represent where I am with my life right now. I'm coming out of the hibernation of my own personal darkness — as a black woman, a mother and an entrepreneur. The body of work on this album is the soundtrack of that movement. It represents me coming into the light of my own power."

The arrangements on After Darkness explore an expansive blend of genres, pulling together threads of hip-hop, soul, R&B, electronic dance music, ambient textures, spoken word, and Latin grooves. The music is complimented by the poetic, emotional lyrics Harris brings to the songs. It's an impressive evolution from the work on her first album, 2014's Adventures of a Shapeshifter.

"The songs on Shapeshifter had more of a childlike quality to them," Harris said. "I was still honing in on myself as a solo artist. I was in groups before. I made an album as Fiyawata, with my ex-husband, and I played in a band called Elephantine, with Kevin McCann, who produced After Darkness. [Some songs were co-produced with Anjalo Russel, Geoff McCann, and Corey Tawoo.] We have some unreleased tracks and Kevin and I have performed locally for years. For this project, we had a chance to hone in on a sound that we both feel comfortable with. When we play and record as Sh8peshifter, we're right at home in terms of the sounds and genres we use. They represent the history we have together."

"Abracadabrakaafrika," the album's opener, was one of the first tracks the duo completed. It opens with a galloping electric guitar hook, before morphing into a hip-hop rhythm, accented by expansive keyboard textures. It's a powerful affirmation of the life force, and Harris delivers the tongue-twisting lyric with a rapid-fire combination of anger and humor that drives home the unforgettable hook: "Black woman is God!" She enlisted a remarkable collective of artists, musicians, choreographers and dancers from Oakland for the video created for the song. The quick cutting between Harris as Sh8peshifter, and the other participants, suggests an intergenerational community, gathered to celebrate the divinity within.

"I had a lot of input from my friends," Harris said. "The choreography was worked out with Rashad Pridgen. The video was directed by Queens D Light, from the House of Malico, a queer women of color artist collective. Shy Hamilton did the cinematography and Lala Openi did the editing. All of the women in the video are artists, creatives, teachers, healers, and mothers in Oakland."

The song's lyrics present an encyclopedic survey of spiritual and cultural traditions. "I'm familiar with mythology, ancient and modern, from around the world. I'm also a priestess in the Yoruban tradition of West Africa, and a priestess of Oya, the goddess that represents change."

Other outstanding tracks include the smoky R&B of "Open My Door," a song that questions the predilection for continually engaging in relationships that are harmful to the spirit; "Give and Take," a ballad that reminds us to stay grounded, no matter how good or bad the situation may be; and "Runaway," a new wave dance track with a bright vocal that says it's proper to run away from danger when you see it coming. Harris compliments her compassionate messages with vocals that shift through multiple personas — young girl, soul singer, wise old woman, and spiritual guide.

"I let the essence of the music provide the inspiration for my vocal approach," she said. "I like to do different things with my singing. My inflections are a manifestation of who I am as an African-American woman who was born in Virginia and grew up in Oakland. I listened to Too $hort, MC Hammer, and watched hip-hop music videos on MTV. I went to Rutgers University and got exposed to the African diaspora on the east coast, hanging with Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, and Nigerians. I worked and traveled, soaking up music in every situation. I fell in love with Afro-futurism in the work of (novelist) Octavia Butler and Sun Ra. All the experiences that got me excited and inspired are embedded in what I do."

Harris said the six songs on the EP took about two years to complete. "I have a couple of jobs, so I was working more than full time. I'm also a mother, so we did the recording whenever we could fit it in." While the music gestated, Harris created a one-woman show — The Embedded Experience. It's a performance ritual that brings together music, spoken word, and dance to demonstrate how afro-futurism, art and technology can come together to generate cultural and spiritual change and resistance to the powers that be. She's also been evolving her Sh8peshifter persona to help other people in need of positive change in their lives. She leads three-day workshops based on the tenets of her recent book: Sh8peshift Your Life: The Creative Entrepreneur's Guide to Self-Love, Self-Mastery & Fearless Self-Expression.

"Everything I do, on and off stage, supports other people, typically women, giving them an opportunity to tap into their own personal power. Shape shifting means being like water. Water makes up the majority of the planet and our bodies. Water in nature always finds its natural momentum. It can take the shape of any form that tries to contain it, but the container can't confine it. That's what we have to do now as humans on this planet. Flow beyond the old paradigms, the boxes we've been put in that limit us, and keep us from bringing our gifts to the world. You can't change the world without taking a creative approach. I've been able to do that in my own life. Now I can share that journey with others as well, especially in my music."

After Darkness is available on all streaming platforms and on the artist's website, Sh8peshifter.com. Harris also curates The Sh8peshift Experience, an intimate multi-sensory program that invites participants into a sacred, shared space designed to provoke thought, healing, wellness, and creative transformation. More information can be found at Sh8peShiftYourLife.com.

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