Tahj Lakey, TC ’21, is a singer-songwriter. He is an Ethnicity, Race, and Migration major and an Education Studies Scholar. During his first three years at Yale, he was part of Shades of Yale, an a cappella group on campus. He has also been involved in the Urban Improvement Corps, a tutoring and mentoring organization run through the Afro-American Cultural Center. Currently, Lakey serves as the Vice Polemarch of the Nu Gamma chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Incorporated.
Adriana Arcia: What is your medium?
Tahj Lakey: The medium that I am most drawn to is music. I like to express myself through singing. I’ve been singing for a pretty long time. I have an uncle who’s a professional drummer so we’ve always performed in our family. And I sang in church as well. But I would say coming to Yale was the first time that I’ve seriously considered music.
AA: What genre would you describe your music as?
TL: My singing voice is definitely an R&B/Soul/Gospel kind of tone. And I can rap a little bit. I’m hoping to be a versatile artist. Honestly, I’m just trying to make a vibe. I love things that have interesting sounds. I like genre-bending music. Some examples are: The Internet, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Kaytranada. Those are people who you can’t really box in because they just make vibes.
AA: You mentioned that you started singing in church. What really inspired you to pursue music? Was it always a part of your formative years?
TL: I got my start with music in second grade when I went to a Catholic school. One of my teachers pointed out that I could sing, so I began singing during mass. But even at that time, singing was just something I enjoyed. I was always really self-conscious about my voice even though I had a voice. Anytime I had a microphone, I would get nervous and sing off-key. Fast forward to high school, it was the same thing.
AA: What’s your worst performance been?
TL: Define worst. Because I’ve had some lows in different ways.
AA: Most embarrassing.
TL: At my high school, we had a Día de los Muertos festival every year. One year for the festival, a teacher brought his band and asked me to perform. Mind you, my school is about 78% Latinx so the audience was majority Latinx. And that’s important because it’s a Día de los Muertos festival. It’s gonna require some “I gotta do it” because I’m the Black kid singing La Bamba, you know? So my friend Sam, my teacher, and I all practiced for La Bamba and this other song, Blue Moon. But the night of the performance his whole band was there and we had never practiced with the band. We get on this stage and the band is literally breathing down my neck. When they started playing, I couldn’t hear myself. There was no mic-check and at that time I didn’t even know what a mic-check was. So, it just went terribly. I was off-key the entirety of Blue Moon and I knew it was bad. La Bamba was actually good but the first performance just messed me up mentally. And I cried in the car afterwards.
There was another time while I was in Shades. We were at this African American History Museum and there were a bunch of older Black folks in kente cloth. You know. It was a real Black event. We were singing “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke and I forgot the lyrics. It was maybe 10 seconds but it was just so bad. I’m staring at the crowd and they’re staring back at me. So I’ve definitely been humbled a lot.
My reason for continuing, though, is especially being in Shades, I’ve seen how much growth I could have in such a short timespan by being surrounded by people who are better than me.
AA: What was your favorite performance?
TL: My favorite performance while in Shades was in Philadelphia. We did a concert at the Convention Center and it was such a crazy stage with 600+ people. It was towards the end of the tour so my voice was a little egh, but it was like a sexy egh. And it turned out to be the best vocal performance that I’ve had.
The best performance in my life, though, was in sixth grade. We had a talent show. My stepdad and I wrote a rap—but really he wrote it and I delivered it—called “Stand Up, Stand Out” to Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Goes On.” Honestly, the rap was so hard because my stepdad can write. He had me going crazy for this little sixth grade audience. I was the second to last to perform and at the time in sixth grade, everyone affectionately called me TJ. So when the beat came on, you heard everyone like, “TJ, TJ!” So I’m hype. I got a shirt airbrushed with “Stand Up” on the front and “Stand Out” on the back. The song starts and I’m doing my thing. Everyone was supposed to be sitting criss-cross applesauce. Then everyone stood up and went towards the stage, so it felt like a real concert. I remember giving high-fives. People were throwing glow sticks on the stage. I literally peaked. I’ve been chasing that high.
AA: How did quarantine affect your musical growth and your projects? Did you start something new?
TL: I went into quarantine like, okay, I’m not in Shades anymore. I knew that I wanted to make my own music but didn’t know what I wanted to write about. I didn’t know the artist that I wanted to be. So I was like, okay, I’ll learn an instrument and just kind of play around with that. I bought a bass and started learning different bass lines and songs. I definitely had the intention to make music and have a project by the end of the summer. But what came of this summer was introspection, reflection, and writing. I realized a lot of things and was able to put some of those things on paper. And I’ve been writing songs from that. I feel like that time was necessary because I was just with my thoughts. You know?
AA: Do you have anything that you’ve written?
AA: Can we hear it?
TL: Is this an audition? (Laughs)
AA: Why don’t you first tell us what the piece is about?
TL: So far, I have two solid songs written. I still have to make the music with my suitemate Caleb. The song that I will sing a little bit of came from a conversation with a friend. They told me they were coming to Los Angeles, so I asked them what they planned on doing when they got there. The conversation sounded like a song…like a Robin Thicke vibe. After that conversation, I wrote the chorus and worked on it with my stepdad for a little while.
Should I just do a cappella?
AA: Yeah, whatever works for you.
TL: You’re coming to LA /What you trying to do? /I got a list of things /And maybe if it’s cool with you, I’ll take you down on the 405 /Getting Randy’s Donuts we can feel the vibe /I’ll take our time, no forgetting. Roll a wood in the city /Of angels.
So, that’s the chorus.
AA: That was really good! What has been your biggest challenge on your music journey?
TL: Confidence. I’d always been around music and sung but never took it seriously. I didn’t know how to read music coming into Yale. I didn’t even plan to do music coming to Yale. But Shades blew me away. Shout-out to Xavier Washington. He made me want to audition. And Tyler. Confidence has always been a thing. I was comfortable singing with people around, but never with a mic because with a mic I can hear myself. But then coming into Shades, we were singing in a mic all the time so I got pretty comfortable. After my first performance, I got better at not being super nervous with performances. But then my confidence was shot because everybody was better than me or at least that’s how it felt. Everyone in the group was so phenomenally talented. And everyone knew everybody was good so praise wasn’t something that was always directed towards me. So I was like damn. I’ve definitely grown into my own voice, though. While in Shades, I started asking questions like: What’s a harmony? What’s a third? What’s a fifth? And I practiced a lot. Through practicing, I’m overcoming those feelings. And now, moving to a stage where it’s solo music is another thing with confidence because it’s my own now. Who knows how it’s going to be received? I want to be my own artist and make my own music but I also want to be good too. You know? So yeah, that’s always been my struggle.
AA: How do you measure your success?
TL: Honestly, with music, so far it’s always been a personal thing. When I started Yale, I didn’t know what a harmony was. Now, I can sing a harmony. Before, I’d have to do a trick to find it. But I can hear it now. That’s success to me, because I didn’t know how to do that before. Even vocally, my falsetto has always been trash but I’ve been working on it and now I can pull it out in a much better way than I could when I came to Yale. As I make music, I’m going to make it for myself and try to make a better song the next time.
AA: What does it feel like when you’re singing or performing?
TL: The music that best encapsulates the feeling that I get is gospel, specifically worship music. For instance, Mali Music has a live performance called “Glory to the Lamb.” I get chills from it. I feel like he’s an anointed singer. When I’m digging in with certain songs, that’s the kind of feeling. I’m just kind of sitting in it. And it doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t sound good to other people, because it feels good to me. Sometimes when I sing, I hum or grunt. Part of that is a tonal thing, but part of that is also how it feels naturally. I also feel pretty vulnerable sometimes. Sometimes I’ll wrap my arms around my chest…it’s just a warm feeling. The music that I sing the best sits in that place too, such as “A River,” or “Tennessee Whiskey.” I think that’s the touch to my vocal style—just a little hurt. Just a little bit, like I’ve been through a little something.
AA: Do you want to sing Tennessee Whiskey?
TL: Used to spend my nights out the barroom /Liquor was the only love I’ve known. But you rescued me from reaching for the bottom And brought me back from being too far gone /You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey /You’re as sweet as strawberry wine /You’re as warm as a glass of brandy /And honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time.