Kalamazoo's Yolonda Lavender Releases First Album In Four Years

Mar 16, 2017

Credit courtesy of Yolonda Lavender

In the past four years, Kalamazoo musician Yolonda Lavender has been busy. She became the executive director of the Black Arts & Cultural Center. That’s in addition to being a poet, an activist, and involved in countless organizations in Kalamazoo. But Lavender is finally getting back into the recording studio.


She recently released an album called Back 4 The 1st Time. Lavender says a lot has happened in those four years:

“Things in my life gave me the urgency to re-introduce myself as an artist. And so this music is lots of new and different stuff that people might not expect from me. And then the back part of it is that I wanted to be intentional about recreating some songs and pieces that I had from when I first started like in 2010.”

Poetry And Reinventing Old Songs

Back 4 The 1st Time opens not with a song but with a poem, called "Reflections." Lavender says it sets the tone for the whole album. Though she says she's made poetry before or incorporated spoken word pieces in her albums, this is the first time she's put such poems in their own stand alone track.

"Reflections" smoothly leads into the next track, a remake of her song "Happy" - about being grateful for what you have. Lavender says like many of her old songs, she feels differently about it now.

“I’m looking at the state of our country, the government. You know, all of this stuff that every day it’s like ok there’s all these horrible things. But you know what about the good stuff and how can we make a decision to be happy still,” she says.

Lavender also leads into her melancholy song "Thursday Blues" with a poem called "Red Wine Crimes." It talks about a woman sitting down with a glass of red wine, contemplating calling or texting an old flame. Lavender says unlike her previous albums, this one is meant to be very personal and yet relatable:

“I’m putting everything out there again based on just like my experiences over the last few years into this music, this poetry because I feel a responsibility to do at this point in my life to do so. Because I know that somebody else will be able hear something or relate to a lyric and you know maybe bring them hope or they can cling to.”

Local Collaborations Galore

The album cover by Marissa Trierweiler and Keyon Lovett

Lavender also wanted to use this opportunity to experiment with new styles and collaborate with local artists. She brought a jazzy feel to her song "Philaphobia" with Kalamazoo’s Jon Godlee.

Then there’s the African tribal stylings of her song "Sink or Swim" with Kalamazoo M.C. Kidd O and Grand Rapids producer Mozaic of Michigan.

Jay Jackson of the Kalamazoo band Last Gasp Collective helped Lavender producer her song "Let Go."

She even had Marissa Trierweiler design her album cover. Kalamazoo's Keyon Lovett did the coloration.

Lavender says she’s already thinking about her next collaborative project with Kalamazoo singer/songwriter D.C. - also known as Kandace Lavender. Yolonda says she and D.C. had been friends for years, only to find out that they’re related: 

“So the church I was born into, her father came and became the pastor of that church. And so we’re like, ‘What? These people with the same last name as us. This is crazy.’ And so maybe a few years after they had been here we found like a common uncle in Cleveland - where a lot of her family is from and I found out some of my family is from too. So yeah we already kind of…once they arrived here in Kalamazoo from New Jersey - we created a really strong bond, friendship and were already claiming to be cousins because it’s like who else has this same last name.”

Finding The Time To Write

Yolonda Lavender says with this new project with D.C. she’s not waiting another four years to record. She says she’s finally found a balance between her music life and being the director of the BACC:

“So one of my goals actually in 2016 was to make sure that I was carving out time to be an artist, because I feel like that just adds to and helps and propels everything that I do at the Black Arts & Cultural Center. And so finding time to write is like waking up in the middle of the night and I have an idea that just won’t let me sleep and so I just jot it down. Taking specific time on the weekends, like no I’m not going to do anything else I’m just going to like lock myself in the basement and just write the entire day. When I just feel like maybe I need to step away from something at the time and I feel an urgency to write, I feel motivated to right - I try to go on that instinct.”

An Erykah Badu Tribute Concert

Next Saturday, Lavender will perform a tribute concert to neo-soul artist and activist Erykah Badu.

In honor of Women’s History Month, Lavender says proceeds from the show will go to female-run organizations like Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative, African dance group Rootead, and Read and Write Kalamazoo - a creative writing program for kids.

Lavender says Erykah Badu’s unique style has had a huge influence on her. About two years ago, Badue held a concert at Western Michigan University’s Miller Auditorium. Lavender was her opening act.

“Meeting her, the question that I asked was, ‘How do you maintain being who you are and not having to change or you know do a certain kind of music or whatever in the music industry -which is basically like you do what needs to happen for that moment or nobody listens to you basically. And so her response to me was that she just is herself and that she maintains unapologetically being that. And then the authenticity of that is what shines through and is the reason why 20 years later she’s still doing music that’s relevant to people, that people want to listen to.”

Lavender says she was surprised to learn that Eryka Badu is also a doula - a kind of coach for women during childbirth, not to be confused with a midwife. 

“You make time to be able to be all of who you are,” says Lavender.

She says she wants to make the time to do all of the things she values, just like Badu.

Don't Put The Album On Shuffle

Lavender says she hopes people will relate to her new album and she has one request - listen to the songs in order. 

“I tried to be intentional about the flow of the album and just the ups and downs and the way that things go. So I just want people to be able to experience it," says Lavender.

You can hear Yolonda Lavender’s new album called Back 4 The 1st Time here. You can also catch her on Saturday, March 25th in her tribute concert to Erykah Badu. It’s at 10 p.m. at Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative on Portage Road.