Five years ago, when everything in Zakiya Harris' life seemed to have turned upside down, "shape-shift" became her mantra. Amid the Great Recession, the Oakland singer-songwriter and entrepreneur's eco-justice nonprofit, Grind for the Green, lost its funding. She went through a divorce that led to the dissolution of her hip-hop duo, FIYAWATA, which she had started with her ex-husband. Then, the bank foreclosed on her home. Finally, to make matters worse, a bike accident left her badly injured, and resulted in a scar on her upper lip that still reminds her of that difficult period.
"This isn't to be dramatic, but [my solo music project] was born out of the darkest night of my soul," Harris said in a recent interview at the Impact Hub, which she co-founded. "Music to me is something that comes from really big life challenges."
Today, Harris' life looks quite different: In addition to running the hub with her six business partners, she is a co-founder and chief education officer of Hack the Hood, a nonprofit that teaches computer skills to underserved youth. She also founded Earthseed Consulting, a company that works with diverse communities on environmental issues, and is a locally prominent solo musician, dancer, and bandleader of her new group, Elephantine, which recently completed a residency at the West Oakland talent incubator Zoo Labs.
Getting back on her feet when virtually all the major facets of her life had been uprooted took some serious self-reflection, Harris said. To cope, she poured herself into her spiritual practice, which also set the foundation for her music project. In 2014, she emerged with her first solo release, Adventures of a Shapeshifter, an eclectic, seven-track EP that speaks to themes of adaptation and resilience through celebratory, percussive rhythms, soulful vocals, and moody electronic production with plenty of experimental flourishes that at times evoke the improvisatory qualities of jazz.
"I'm from East Oakland, so it's gotta have that 808 trap knock," she said of the project's production. "But I'm also inspired by Afro-Futurism, so I like juxtaposing electronic sounds with very ancient, traditional rhythms."
In her breathy rap-singing on "Preevees," the project's stand-out track, Harris rhymes, Zakiya, daughter of Oya/Medium of change/About to rearrange. A tense, surging synth riff moves slowly over rapid hand-claps and a pulsating drumbeat that evokes the hip-shaking grooves of West African and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. As vocal samples build on top of each other, creating a web of off-kilter harmonies, Harris' repetitive verses become ritualistic and chant-like. Searching/Reaching/Asking/Yearning/What to do, she sings during the hook, her voice ascending.
The track's lyrics allude to the spiritual beliefs that helped Harris maintain her peace of mind during that uncertain time in her life five years ago. She's a follower of the neo-pagan revival of Ancient Egyptian theology, which is often referred to as Kemetism — though she clarified that she doesn't have a formal name for her own spiritual practice, which also incorporates elements of the Yoruba faith, a polytheistic Nigerian religion with a rich folklore that emphasizes reverence of the natural world. Harris describes her own beliefs as the "worship, honoring, and elevation of life." Her spirituality, she said, gave her faith that things would eventually fall into place once again.
"I'm really into the 42 principles of Ma'At," she said, referring to the Ancient Egyptian goddess of truth, justice, and order. "A lot of those teachings are metaphysical and they talk about energy and how nothing is by coincidence, everything is connected. ... I knew because I was connected to something greater and that everything happens for a reason, that was going to carry me through."
She continued, "During that time, I should say, before all that stuff happened, I wasn't really a happy person. I had achieved the American dream, went to college, got a job, got married, had a kid, bought a house — and I was miserable. I did ritual and asked the universe, 'I want to be happy.'"
Embracing change is the only constant in life, Harris said. It helps her maintain a positive outlook in the face of adversity — a major theme through out the Shapeshifter EP. On "Shay Shay," she sings, The mystic/And the gifted/We're shifting/Can you feel it? Fittingly, the song's undulating keyboard melody and zooming guitar riffs convey a sense of perpetual forward motion.
In contrast to the rest of the EP's minimal, electronic production, the track "Shape Shifter" is big and soulful. Its bombastic harmonies show off Harris's vocal chops and those of her backup singers, and its ecstatic organ riffs add a retro, gospel feel to the project's otherwise synth-driven sonic palette. The song is the most akin to her work with Elephantine, which began as an outgrowth of her solo project in 2012. That year, she hosted a solar-powered concert series called the Grow Sessions outside of Betti Ono Gallery in downtown Oakland during the First Friday art walk. She performed the first tracks off Shapeshifter there, and enlisted vocalist Tossie Long and producer Kevin McCann to perform live with her. Before long, vocalist Solas B. Lalgee, guitarist and keyboard player Geoff McCann, and percussionist Hassan Hurd joined the lineup. The members of Elephantine serve as Harris' backup band when she performs her solo material, and they're also currently recording their first EP as an ensemble.
Both in Elephantine and in her solo work, Harris writes lyrics that not only deal with her personal evolution, but larger changes that she believes are underway as people become more aware of social inequality and environmental issues. As she put it, "masculine" ways of thinking currently dominate our society, prioritizing profit no matter the cost. She believes that soon, however, a paradigm shift is imminent, and that her music, social justice work, and green approach to entrepreneurship are all a part of building a more equitable world.
"Now, we have to reinvigorate our magic, bring our magic forward like never before," she said, referring to herself and other social justice-minded individuals. "And we have to do it in 2016 in a world that we have to still navigate."