When the six women members of "Ladies Night" started playing together, their intention was to be a black party band. But after a few shows, singer Yunoka Berry recalled, they realized that what they were doing was bigger than what they had planned.
"The mission of the band became bringing awareness and a platform to the voiceless," Berry said in a recent interview. "Black women everywhere are marginalized and when you begin to break the intersection we cross; it shows how apparent it is that we are ostracized. This band is about showing no matter what you look like, your dreams can be realized. It's about showing up and being loud and Black on purpose."
So the band rebranded itself as The Onyx, an all-black female six-member music ensemble with a mission to solidify unity among women of color and to provide an artistic outlet for the female voice to be heard. With Berry, Dan'Nelle Emerson, and Maya Vilaplana on vocals, Rhonda Kinard on bass, Richelle Scales on keyboard, and Genesis Valentine on drums, The Onyx just released its first self-titled EP on September 6.
"While I identify as a woman, I didn't feel like 'Ladies Night' fully represented the members of our collective," Kinard said. "The onyx gemstone represents protection. It transforms negative energy into positive energy. It aids in strength and stamina, and while it is known for being black, it comes in a variety of colors, just like us! Our mission is to disabuse folks of the notion that blackness is a monolith. We want to celebrate and uplift our Black and brown cisters and sisters whether they identify as black American, Afro-Latina, trans, gay, or straight without shading anyone else."
Musically, The Onyx sound is effervescent, a combination of funk, soul, hip-hop, and R&B, with subtle hints of "world musics" ranging from reggae to afrobeat that reflects the unique sounds of Oakland's diverse population.
In the album's title track, Black Girl Magic, a sensual keyboard lick is followed by a hypnotic snare before the perfectly blended vocals even begin. The harmonies could be coming from a gospel choir, but the hip-hop interludes give it a feel of grit and determination true to the form. By the end the song, the energy makes it impossible to resist dancing to it. The soft-spoken Stronger Soul shows another side of the group with a slow, driving tempo and deep harmonies that builds to a beatific crescendo of bass, drums, and keys. The group's diverse influences shine through in every song it does, which makes it difficult to categorize them, an asset in today's cookie-cutter world of contemporary music of all genres.
"I grew up singing Cuban boleros with my dad while he played the congas and my sister played the clave," Vilaplana said. "Music was always in my life and has served as my connection to both sides of my cultural lineage: Afro Cuban and Jewish."
Valentine's musical heritage was entirely different. "My first drum teacher was my cousin Miguel who taught me at five or six, and I haven't stopped playing the drums since," she said. "I try to incorporate my heritage and influences in my playing whether that be gospel, rock, dancehall, soul, and reggaeton."
The cohesion and support band members give to one another is felt by anyone who has seen them perform live. They bring a contagious enthusiasm to every show, and like the music they play, their energy onstage brings a sense of empowerment.
"Growing up, I certainly didn't have many people in the media that looked like me or that I identified with," said Genesis Valentine. "I'm a Black woman, an Afro-Latina that loves rock music, and music scores from movies, and I'm a bit of an awkward Black girl, but at the same time really cool and down to earth. These are traditionally characteristics that mainstream media didn't portray a Black woman as. Latina women didn't look like me, so it always felt like I was forced to choose one of the very few ways in which a Black woman was 'supposed to be.' What I love about the Onyx is that we are all different, we all come from different backgrounds and we are layered individuals and there are so many cool and interesting quirks about each one of us that makes us so unique."
The term "black girl magic" has been overused by corporate interests trying to market and package anything that Black women do, making it problematically close to the "magical Negro" tropes of yesterday. What is often overlooked is that black women came up with the term to describe themselves with no mind towards mainstream acceptance. Sonically, spiritually, and politically, The Onyx reclaims the origins of the term with a purely Oakland flair.
"I feel the Onyx has a special power in all of the settings in which we perform," said Vilaplana. "When we sing to a Black audience at the Black Joy festival we are affirming and delighting in something we all already know, which is that we are magical beings, and we are also discussing Black love beyond heteronormative ideals. We sing, 'Love is love is love is love', and we make the audience sing along. When we sing to a room of white progressives in Berkeley, we are defining our space, we sing 'no shade to you ... but you know that I got that magic.' I love our boldness, because it's only possible when we are all up there together."
"When someone is looking at us as a group, they have someone that they can connect and identify with," Vilaplana continued. "There is not just one way to be Black, there is not one way to be a woman, there is not one way to be human. The idea of 'empowerment' shines through in our music with lyrics like, 'I walk with a twist and my hips don't lie, kissed by the sun with my diamond eyes, hair in the sky and my fist up high, I'm rarity.' We are unapologetically ourselves and let our own light shine."
Kinard chimed in: "The Onyx is unapologetically Black. That's a bold political statement in the political environment that we live in today. I think that folks are both captivated and energized by the music we make. I think that women of color feel seen and affirmed by our music and message."
With all the outside pressures already placed on the backs of Black women, The Onyx faces an even greater challenge as Black women in the white, male-dominated world of rock, as well as the Black male dominated worlds of hip-hop and reggae. Even as the positive energy can be felt in its music and seen on the stage, that message comes with hard lessons for some.
"The Onyx is making people begin to have conversations and sometimes uncomfortable conversations around race, gender, and media," Berry said. "I think we are defying a lot of odds. We are breaking molds and stereotypes just showing up being ourselves. Outside of the entertainment aspect, I think our existence makes folks reflective. We are very reflective and intentional about everything. The images we put out there, the songs we sing, and the venues we play. I think we are still building that following but women in general really gravitate to us, young and old. Black women, specifically. It's so affirming to hear my sisters say, 'I see y'all sis', because this who we do it for."
Valentine concluded: "Like the line from the famous Marianne Williamson poem, 'As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.'"