Sharaya J doesn’t look or sound like any other artist that’s out right now; and that’s a good thing. In an industry where artists seemingly come from a cookie cutter mold, it’s refreshing to have artists willing to express their individuality. It should come as no surprise that Missy Elliott, an artist who has never been afraid to be different, is the one mentoring Sharaya. She’s also launched the BANJI movement to encourage others to express themselves and not afraid to be different. YouKnowIGotSoul caught up with her and discussed her origins as a dancer, learning under the tutalege of Missy, what she hopes to accomplish with the BANJI movement, and what’s coming next.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I read you started your career in the dance industry. How did you get your start there?
Sharaya J: First of all I never took a dance class before in my life, but I think it was something that I had done as a child. I was in Jersey City just doing the local thing, but once I decided that I really wanted to become a mainstream dancer, I ventured into New York a little bit to see what was going on and how I could get in the scene. I randomly ran into a dance crew called “Next Level” and I asked them if I could be a part of their crew. From there you just kind of get more involved with everything and you become a member of that scene first. Once I was able to become a member of that scene, then an agency called Clear Talent group which was originally in LA, they were opening in New York City. I went in for the audition and they signed me.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about how that transitioned into a music career.
Sharaya J: The funny thing is, I’ve always been very into the music and artistry. At the time, I was always writing, poems and raps. My father was part of a real Hip Hop group and I was always around the studio. I ran into Missy Elliott mainly because we had a mutual friend. Missy has always been very into the dance industry and so we had a mutual friend who introduced us. We were all just hanging out and dancing and she was like “Yo, are you an artist?” I told her I was dabbling in it as the next venture from my dancing career. She kind of was like “Well let me take you under my wing and really make it good stuff.” From then, we just started collaborating together.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I read you guys originally linked up in 2010 so it’s almost been 3 years since then. I know for a lot of new artists, they expect to come out right away but it took you longer than that. What was the process and journey like for you?
Sharaya J: Well it was really 2008. *Laughs* So it’s been more like 5 good years, but to be honest, when I initially got with her, I didn’t completely know what it entailed. She really has a true formula and there’s a method to her madness. She was like “Listen, we have to get in there, get isolated and focus on what we really want to bring out of you.” The great thing about Missy is that she sees something in a person already. You have to have that something already. Once she sees something in you, all she does is refine those things about you. She kind of just put me through a boot camp. It was no joke. It was rehearsals even if we didn’t have shows. It was just rehearsing, writing every day and just working on my freestyles. It was hard work. She was dropping wisdom on me every day just to make sure I was really prepared because she wanted to make sure that when I came out, it was right and it wasn’t just for a quick second. She wanted me to have longevity.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Was the long wait frustrating for you at first?
Sharaya J: Absolutely. It’s a tough journey because there are moments where you feel like “I think I’m ready!” and she’ll be like “Not yet. You still have to make sure this is all together.” You have to sit back and genuinely remain a student and trust her judgement because she does have so much experience. Of course there were days that you’re ready to get out there, but I thank God that I was able to just wait it out because timing is everything and now at this point, I feel like I’m more prepared and very well-versed on so many things that I wasn’t 4 or 5 years ago.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What has been the biggest difference from now and 5 years ago? How did you know this was the right time?
Sharaya J: It was just a feeling. I think before if I had those feelings before, it was just being anxious and excited to go. But this time around, it just felt right. The beginning going into 2013, it just started to feel right. I just felt very comfortable and I kept saying “It’s now or never. We gotta go now.” And for the first time, she said “You’re right!” It was really genuinely just a feeling and it felt right so we just went with it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your musical influences.
Sharaya J: I grew up in the 90’s era. I’m very influenced by those artists because that’s the reason I fell in love with Hip Hop. I definitely look at the people like TLC, Salt-n-Pepa, Missy Elliott, Aaliyah, Biggie, Wu-Tang and Onyx. I just appreciated their movements and how they just moved together in a squad. I can appreciate that and that’s something that I wanted to include in my movement and music. The idea of women being appreciated for their raw talent and those artists were just superstars to me. You love those artists and their music. I’m also influenced by my father too. Trust me, he was a huge influence in my life because I watched him do it. I sat him and watched him go in the bathroom, lock himself in the studio for hours with a beat and a pad and I didn’t really understand it, but subconsciously it was embedding something inside of me to make me fall in love with music.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Of course you have the BANJI movement going on. Talk about how that concept came about.
Sharaya J: Like I said, I was very inspired to kind of develop a movement when I came out because I feel like as an artist, God blesses and gives us something so that we can be a blessing to other people. When I was coming out, I was thinking “What could I do to empower the people?” I was already trying to play around with some ideas. The funny thing is that me and Missy had set up some meetings with some record executives and they came over and they heard the record. I did a performance, some dances and had a whole meeting. The next day they gave us a call and I remember Missy being on the phone with them and she came up to me and said “They like the record. They think you’re an amazing performer. All you have to do now is wear less clothes and put on some heels and get a weave. Then you’ll be good to go.” I was really taken back by that because I thought that the great thing about artistry is the opportunity to express yourself creatively and who you are at your core. I would have felt better if they were like “The records were alright” or “She needs more stage presence”. But just the fact that those things they said didn’t matter when it came to music. It’s about the music, it’s about raw talent. It kind of hit home in a way. I remember being in my room debating about that situation and that movement. While I was in the room, I was actually playing around with the word BANJI anyway. That’s a word that’s out there already. I remember writing down on the paper “Individuality”. Then it was just something that happened and gradually, I wrote down a word next to everything. I wrote “Be Authentic Never Jeopardize Individuality” because that’s what I was inspired to do. Then I called Missy and was like “This is what I want to do for the people. I want people to respect you for your uniqueness, not change it.” She loved that idea and she was like “That’s a great idea. Let’s roll with that.”
YouKnowIGotSoul: Do you think the whole movement has been successful so far?
Sharaya J: I think so. We just dropped it out of nowhere. We didn’t really do too much to gear people up for it. To see how attached people are to it with just something fresh and new whether it’s subconsciously or consciously, people are ready for something new. They’re ready to bring that individuality and authenticity back. A lot of things are very watered down now and everybody is following trends. I’ve always been encouraged to be a trend setter because each and every person has something to bring to the table. I think people have embraced it and they want to embrace it. I’ve even had parents hit me on Twitter and say something like “This is great for my child because I try to encourage my children to be a true representation of themselves. They don’t have to be like everybody else to be cool.” I think that’s very important that each of us should live by.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Of course you just dropped the video for “BANJI”. Talk about the concept for the video.
Sharaya J: “BANJI”, the music is a Jersey club beat. I grew up on that kind of music so I really wanted to use the record as an ode to the fact that I did grow up in Jersey. It was kind of a perfect match for me because that was authentic to what I used to listen to. When we went to shoot the video, I was like “Of course, let’s find some spots in Jersey City that I used to actually hang out at.” I was like “That would be cool for me because that’s the best representation of me.” That was an actual store that I used to buy candy from as a kid. That was an area that we used to hang out at. I wanted it to be raw and a raw showcase of talent. I didn’t want all the bells and whistles. I just wanted things that showed pure creativity and just straight dancing. The dance moves are inspired by Jersey Club grooves and we just wanted it to be creative too. We wanted to show people that we could still be creative. We didn’t have to pop bottles or buy airplanes. Those things are great, but we could stick to pure talent and really make a statement.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s talk about your music a little bit. Due to the affiliation with Missy Elliott, a lot of people are going to compare your music to hers. What do you think your sound is and what do you want people to get from your music?
Sharaya J: I think naturally they will make comparisons, but I don’t look at that as a bad thing mainly because Missy is my mentor. Of course it’s like a teacher and a student. When they teach you something, you naturally pick up similarities. And if I had to be compared to anybody, why not Missy? That doesn’t make me feel any kind of way. Of course that will happen, but one thing she taught me and that I try to do is to make sure that I feel any music that I do. I always want to make it authentic to me. I’m a dancer so the music is going to be uptempo because I want joints that I can dance to. I want the clubs to start moving again. I do love Hip Hop too, so there is a real raw Hip Hop root in some of my records as well. I just think that I don’t shoot to do any particular kind of music, I just stick to whatever happens organically. If it feels good to me, I’ll roll with that.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What’s coming up for you?
Sharaya J: I’m actually working on something else. It’s a surprise. I’ve got a lot of joints that I am going to share with you guys and I’m just excited to just show the raw and the different facets of me. I want to show people that the BANJI movement represents. We definitely have a lot of stuff coming up. Hopefully it will get people connected back to that real place in music when we were fighting to be creative and fighting to stand out.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Who are some people that you’ve worked with aside from Missy Elliott?
Sharaya J: We kind of keep everything in-house. She has her own producers so we run it like a boot camp. We always call it a camp and we run it like that. Missy is like the sergeant and she’s got producers underneath her. Right now I’m the only artist she’s working with so we’re like a little family. Of course we always get Timbaland’s input on everything we do too, so we just got our own little family. We just got our own little crew over here.