Baltimore’s been in an understandably weird state since the heat of the April uprising has waned. On one end, things seem to be getting worse as 109 homicides have been counted over the three months since Gray’s death. Summers are always hot here but this one feels darker, considering what we’ve just come out of. On the other end, a shift of consciousness (or at least an elevation) has sparked within the city’s creative circles in the form of Freddie Gray tributes and social commentary in music. On April 27th when cops and local teens squared off in West Baltimore, sending waves throughout the country and eventually the world, Joy Postell was in Los Angeles watching scenes from her hometown played out in dramatized loops. That same day, she released a video for her acoustic track “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and soon after came back to Baltimore for a first-hand experience of what she’d only witnessed through news, texts and phone calls.
Since her return in early May, Postell has been making her rounds throughout the city’s downtown scene, collaborating with local artists and seemingly playing a show every week. We recently caught up outside her of place in Sandtown, West Baltimore, walked around and talked about her return to Baltimore, what she learned in LA, her own racial struggles and her battles with self-doubt.
What was life like for you growing up?
Joy Postell: I’m originally from Jersey City, New Jersey. I lived there until the summer before third grade then I moved to Baltimore. I feel like if I have a home, Baltimore is definitely it. It’s where I could show you around, it’s where I know all my friends. My mom raised me as a single mom. My dad left when I was three. She’s white and he’s black. They met in the gospel choir in New York City so I come from a musical family. My mom’s a vocal coach now and does gigs. She always paid the bills from gigs when I was growing up. She taught music at juvenile homes, did music therapy, taught chorus, etc. It’s abnormal for me to not do music.
I really excelled at musical theatre in middle school. I went from company, to supporting role to lead role. Then I tried out for Baltimore School for the Arts for acting and didn’t get in. It discouraged me a lot. I went to high school and only sang to myself or close friends.
What made you start singing again?
JP: Well, I always wanted to do music but the fear was holding me back. Self-doubt and telling myself that it was unrealistic. I thought because I didn’t live in LA where people know the person from High School Musical or something that I couldn’t do it. Then when I moved there it wasn’t even for music. It was to go to school and get away from Baltimore because I was over it. I was just there fucking around, enjoying the weather and not being productive as I could have. Then I decided I wanted to sing again and started recording with this group Rhyme Disciples. That showed me that I could still do it so I started doing vocals on this little mic my mom gave me.
Then, my mom ended up being a vocal coach for Chaka Khan’s grandchildren and their mom helped set up this recital. My mother was like, “Chaka’s gonna be here, you should sing”. I didn’t want to but she convinced me. We did this gospel song that my father wrote and I just sang the bridge. Chaka got up like, “Wooooh Woooh!” I thought it was so weird (laughs) because I didn’t practice at all and my mom really had to bend my arm backwards for me to do it. I walked off the stage and she comes up to me and says, “That was so great. Are you recording and writing anything? You need to!”After that, my mom told me that I should really think about getting back to it but there was still some self-doubt that no one outside yourself can make you do something.
So a year later, which was last year, I really started to record heavy and a group called Warm Brew found me on Twitter. I started recording with them and even though I don’t really associate with them anymore, they were a crucial part in me getting my shit together. None of the songs we did ever came out but they saw something in me. That’s when the hunger came.
Did you enjoy LA?
JP: Yeah. I know that I always have a place to stay there. Like, I have people I consider family there and not everybody can say that; it’s such a snaky city. But the locals aren’t like that. It’s the Hollywood people that come from other places thinking, “Oh, this is how you have to act in LA”. I went from South Central to Venice Beach to Hollywood to get the full experience. It’s such a wide scale of people doing different things.
Did living there make you view Baltimore differently?
JP: Yeah. I came back with a whole new appreciation for Baltimore. And I came back to hearing people talk shit about Baltimore and it made me upset because it was obviously from people who’ve never left and are speaking of one reality within the city. There’s so much talent here and that’s what took me by the most surprise when I came back. There’s a lot of talent in LA but there’s a lot of image too; If your image is on, your talent is secondary. In Baltimore, if you got it, you got it. I’m seeing the beauty in the struggle. People here work really hard. Even the weakest person in Baltimore has something strong about them just from living in this environment. The history is in the soil. I came back a week after the uprising and witnessing that was amazing.
How did that affect you even though you weren’t here?
JP: I felt a lot of things because I got to view it from the media perspective so I was watching like, “WHAT THE FUCK?!”. But then from talking to friends and my mom, it was like only a fraction of this is happening. It scared me to be honest but at the same time it was so necessary. Anybody that’s ever lived here knows how overlooked this city is; they just go from Philly to DC and Baltimore doesn’t even exist. Even when people go on tours, they don’t stop here.
This project that you’re working on right now will be your first body of work. How’s that coming along?
JP: I have a vague vision of what I want it to be; it’s gonna be a story line. When I write, I naturally tell stories. It’s gonna have a lot to do with being black in America. Not everyone wants to hear about real life shit all the time but I want to be that voice for people who don’t have one.
As a bi-racial person, do you ever feel conflicted?
JP: It’s fucking weird. Especially since I don’t have a father. My mother is my mom and my dad. From going to a predominantly white school then going to a predominantly black school then back to a predominantly white school again--because Baltimore is so fucking segregated. The most asked question growing up was “Are you adopted?”. Like, no bitch a black person and a white person made a child, I know it’s shocking. Even now it’s conflicting with hate being so trendy. Hate is hella trendy. For so many of my friends hating white people is a thing right now and it’s not gonna solve anything. You can’t hate. It’s just as bad as people hating us. It’s hard. I’ve been called a nigger because I look black. When you look at me you don’t see a white person. I’m still working through it. I’ve gone in the house and told my mom that I hate white people. She understands but she’ll be like “Look at me. I’m not like the people you hate.” She’s living proof.
The media really wants us to be in a race war to distract us from capitalism. Everything is being sensationalized. Every time you look…WHITE MAN…BLACK MAN. It’s a matter of approaching these issues but not getting caught up in the fuck shit. It’s so easy to hate.
Sometimes I find myself hating white people but the more I read and watch things to educate myself, I’d be a fool to not realize that it’s bigger than all of that. The most dangerous white people are the ones who don’t give a fuck about who they’re fucking over, regardless of color.
JP: It’s weird because no one is born racist. White people are born privileged but they don’t choose to be white. You don’t ask God to make you white or black. I have a problem with white people who don’t accept that they’re privileged. Me and my mom talk about that all the time. That’s a huge issue if you can’t recognize that. It’s more about using that privilege as a positive even though you didn’t choose it. You have it so what are you gonna do with it? It’s like black people with money who forget where they come from. Especially living in LA, those motherfuckers are terrible. Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights…they don’t give a fuck. South Central is right down the street and they don’t give a fuck. It’s easy to forget and smile. That’s why I’m happy I came back.
How was witnessing the racial breakdown and social order in LA? It’s much more complex than Baltimore. It’s overwhelmingly black and white here, racially.
JP: It’s hella diverse but it’s hella segregated. So you have these colorful communities but they stay in their hubs and don’t fuck with eachother. The Colombians don’t fuck with the Mexicans. The Mexicans don’t fuck with the Salvadorians. The Latino communities are really segregated and that’s a whole different set of issues. That was the most intriguing thing to me because Latinos run LA. It’s interesting how that comes into play. The state fucks Mexicans over in such a crazy way. I didn’t know how much they go through just to get here. They’re dying to get to a country that treats them like shit and gives them a kitchen job. So because of how boxed in they are, they start to feel resentment towards other groups of people. They don’t like blacks. Living there really showed me how we can all be pawns; the lack of unity is where our problem is.
Since you’ve come back, a lot of people have been into your artistry. You’re getting booked for shows all the time. How’s that make you feel?
JP: It makes me feel happy. I feel like people just want to see the city win. I wanna show the city in a positive light because I’ve noticed since I’ve come back that a lot of people are making music that perpetuates all the fuck shit. Like when I was in LA, all people knew was The Wire. I’m tired of it. Everywhere has The Wire. I just wanna show that everything here isn’t negative. It just needs positive representation. Not shit that celebrates being from a place where the homicide rate is high. That shit isn’t cool to me. Lower the homicide rate. Don’t profit off of that.
I think it’s important to have representation of all the realities here because negativity is some people’s reality. Sometimes it may be easy to just call it negative because, yeah, killing people is definitely negative but seeing an artist come out of that and tell those stories can be encouraging for kids in that environment. I appreciate the range in narratives. Some people do it as a trend, though.
JP: I feel like if you come from that place, tell your story but tell people they don’t have to do the same thing. I know it’s harder to take the other route when everybody around you is going one way.
What can we anticipate from you in the near future?
JP: I’ve gotta hella features dropping soon before my shit comes out. Some sprinkles of singles and covers but mostly working on this project. I definitely wanna start working with more artists in Baltimore too. I like Butch Dawson. I like :3lON—his stage presence is amazing. Abdu’s stage presence is fucking amazing. I like watching people that make me feel like I need to go home and practice.
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