In the summer of 1997 Café Aroma, the now-defunct coffee shop in Detroit’s West Village, held a weekly poetry series I hosted, where poets would gather to share their work. One night, Shoni Davis walked in with a guitar, zero performance experience — and truckloads of passion. She asked to sing two original songs. Her songs were unrefined, but showed promise. Many saw it.
At that point, she’d been playing for a year, “tinkering around with a guitar,” she says. And she remembers the night at Café Aroma, the first place she dared to play her instrument publicly, as “terrifying.” She also calls it “thrilling.” For months afterward, she made the Thursday commute from her native Pontiac to the café, just to partake of the vibe.
Her fear of playing publicly soon evaporated. She practiced, and developed gradually and for a while fronted West Grand Boulevard, a 12-piece Motown band. It’s difficult to imagine her, with short dreads and a jeaned figure that lends itself more to Rachelle Ferrell individuality than Supremes elegance, singing songs from the Motown catalogue. “I didn’t wear gowns, but I did wear sequins,” she says. “The hair was pushed up all over creation.”
Still, her prowess increased, she transformed; she cobbled together her own band, and inverted her name to reflect the soulfully alternative sound that resulted from the years of development. The first time I saw Shoni Davis perform as Inohs Sivad was at the 2002 NAACP Freedom Weekend. She opened the Hip-Hop Summit. She is not hip hop, but she complements the culture the way Dionne Farris did in 1994. You get the sense that she understands it, and her music is a good alternative for hip-hop heads when hip hop’s constant boom-bap booms too much.
The release of her first album, Is, this past spring confirms Sivad’s growth and her standing as a Detroit artist to watch. Aptly titled, the album is the sum of myriad emotional parts. “When I started writing, I started out of depression,” she explains. “Growing up was overwhelming. I needed a creative outlet and I chose music. Or, I think it chose me.”
Her album, although wrought from sadness, is a hopeful project. “I chose the more positive pieces, because that’s how I like to view life. But my original pieces? Whew! They were dark! All minor chords.”
Sivad’s depression stemmed from having to withdraw from the University of Michigan and move back home during the mid-’90s after her mother suffered two serious automobile accidents in a six-month span. Sivad helped her on the road to recovery. When mom’s health improved, Sivad returned to school, but never finished. She’d been interrupted, disrupted, had misplaced her focus.
“I felt lost,” explains Sivad, “I had an idea of what I wanted to become. My identity kinda hinged upon school, having a bangin’-ass job and a man, all that. When I left to return home, my priorities shifted, and my perspective changed. Even if I had a degree, there was no guarantee that I’d have the things I wanted to have. That was one of the things that caused me to sink into depression.
“If I’m feeling down, I put myself on a timetable. Like, ‘OK, you’ve got a day-and-a-half to get through this, and then you need to get it back together.’ You’ve got the shit, and then you’ve got joy, and the in-between. How you deal with it all depends on where you wanna view life.”
She got herself together, picked up the guitar, wrote those first songs and ventured to Aroma to sing them.
Her new songs are much more refined than the ones she sang back in the summer of ’97. They have greater texture and depth. They have spirit and personality, and play out in a range that spans soul, jazz and alternative rock. She writes to specific personal issues, as evidenced on songs like “Chocolate Brother,” a tune indicative of her reserved-but-sly sense of sexuality. She sings about a man she wanted, but never got.
“Really simple,” she says, describing Mr. Right Then, “no pretension. None of the things or ‘isms’ that divide men and women. Short brother. Brown. Clean-cut. Had a conservative, ethnic feel. Well-groomed, manicured, and he wore twists. He never gave me the time of day.” She adds, “I would have done him right.”
Sivad, it appears, is a pervert’s nightmare. In her world, the brain gets laid before the body. With no psychological strokin’, you won’t get past her overcoat, much less her panties.
“I’m intellectually stimulated first. The real turn-on is the mind,” she coos. “I don’t discriminate with culture, or within the culture. I prefer brothers, but I’m open culturally. In fact, this current brother I’m dating is something of a mutt. He’s adorable.”
Her first gig fronting her own band was at the Detroit Art Space. The group hadn’t really gelled, and she’d just added a violinist. Her father, Leon Orr, played sax. He was 73. It sounds awkward, and may have begun that way, but her fire was lit. She allowed her family, who had never known her to be musically inclined, to listen to a six-song demo she recorded partially at home and partially at Funk Lab Studios in the Book Building. The family flipped. She moved to Detroit, built a management and publicity team, and put out Is in its full-length version.
It’s a well-executed album, with hints of Farris and Des’ree. For Sivad, promoting Is has proven taxing. After meticulously developing her creative skills, handling the business of music now saps her creativity. Parlaying her street buzz into radio spins is one of her biggest headaches. When this writer suggests that radio basically sells advertising, and not music, Sivad gasps.
Still, Is is Sivad’s way of showing what results when we embrace life’s positive and negative aspects with passion and resolve. It may be her way of calling life for what it is. A mind fuck.
See Inohs Sivad Friday, Aug. 8, at Club Tiffany’s (440 Clinton St., Detroit). For info, call 313-962-4894.