I’m SO excited to finally be able to share a little snippet from my next release, Heated Harmonies, with you all!
Zalayah is a character who has lurked through many of my novels from the beginning. So for her to have not only grown up through my work, but also now have a story of her own is… everything.
So without further ado, let’s get to know her a little bit!
(Note: Sample is copyrighted, unedited, and subject to change.)
I was in love.
Not with a person, but with a sound as I leaned against the balcony of The Black Market listening to the latest track from an up-and-coming artist named Grayson, better known as Gray. While his lyrics were dope, his delivery on point too, I couldn’t help but close my eyes as the mellow bass roared through my chest, practically setting my soul on fire.
The arrangement wasn’t complicated, the instruments used easy for a musician with a trained ear like me to pick out. But it was its simplicity that made it special, setting the perfect mood, giving the perfect vibe without overshadowing Gray’s talent. Exactly what I was hoping to do with my next album.
Against the advice from the label, this album would be my first time writing every single song by myself. It would be my first time having a real hand in the production. And it would be my first time going outside of the box I had been in since I was a teenager.
While it had been fun as a kid to be presented as the quirky, colorful, girly-girl with enough of a voice to sound good on any pop beat the label could get their hands on, I knew I had completely outgrown that scene. I no longer related to the teenage world, no longer had any inclination of what they were even on in high school or college since I had never attended either in a traditional sense. I could only pretend to relate to what they were going through, could only pretend that I was experiencing the same growing pains as I entered adulthood.
But I wasn’t. That wasn’t my truth. Hell, that had never been my truth. And now it was time to create a new image which included a new look, a new vibe, and most importantly, a new sound.
I hadn’t brought my whole team to The Black Market with me since I didn’t want to cause a huge scene, only a bodyguard and my assistant. But that in combination with my plain jane incognito look was all I needed to get from the balcony to backstage so that I could chat with Gray.
I watched from afar as my assistant grabbed him by the arm the second he walked off the stage, whispering in his ear before his face lit up, surely in response to her name drop. And I plastered on a smile the second he approached, his arms extended as he stammered, “Yo… you’re… it’s really…”
My cheeks flushed with heat as I adjusted my hat, looking around to make sure people didn’t notice the exchange when I told him, “Oh my God. Don’t embarrass me. I just wanted to… compliment you. I like your sound. And your bars were fire. But if you don’t mind me asking, who is your producer?”
He tossed a hand over his shoulder as he answered, “My brother Gabe back there. He’s the truth. Probably the only producer I’ll ever work with.”
I nodded, appreciating his loyalty as I peeked past him to find two guys in a discussion, unsure of which one he had referenced. And since I couldn’t figure it out, I asked, “Would you mind, introducing us?”
“No doubt, Zalayah,” he replied with a smile before yelling over his shoulder, “Yo, Gabe. Come here right quick.”
I watched intently as one of the guys – Gabe – excused himself, his hood hanging just slightly off the back of his head as he shoved his hands in his pockets and headed our way. The closer he got, the sillier I felt for being so underdressed since… Gabe was fine as hell. Smooth, chocolate skin, nice athletic build, cushy full lips curved into a grin as Gray said, “Somebody wants to meet you.”
I wasted no time extending my hand as I said, “Hi. I’m…”
“I know who you are,” he interjected, his expression turning more and more standoffish the longer he looked at me.
Still, I tried to remain cool when I replied, “Oh. Uh… I was just telling Grayson here that I really liked his sound, and he told me you were the producer. Is that something you do full-time?”
He turned his head to the side, releasing a heavy sigh before turning back to ask, “Why you wanna know?”
“Well I’m looking for a new sound, a new vibe, and…”
Again, he interjected, “So, what? Those mega-producers ain’t cuttin’ it for you anymore, superstar? Or you just out here tryna do some community service by hangin’ where the real niggas be at?”
My face scrunched as I snapped my head back and repeated, “Community service? I really, really liked the tracks I heard, Gabe. Your name is Gabe, right?”
“Gabriel,” he corrected with another heavy sigh as if the question had irritated him.
In fact, everything about me seemed to irritate him as he looked past me instead of at me, hinting that he was ready for our conversation to be over. But I was on a mission, and I wasn’t about to let his rude ass distract me from the ultimate goal.
So I kept my voice as sweet as I could when I said, “Well Gabriel, I think you’re a talented producer, a talented musician. And I’d love to get you in the studio to see if we could maybe… put together a track or two.”
“Not interested,” he replied shortly, almost dismissively as he looked past me once again.
I turned around to see what had caught his eye – of course it was a girl – before turning back to say, “Not interested? Do you know who I am? What I could do for your career?”
To my surprise, it was that that garnered his attention, his smirk annoyingly attractive when he finally gave me his eyes and replied, “There it is. I knew there had to be a real person under all that sweet shit you pretend to be on.”
“And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?” I snapped, unable to take his arrogance any longer.
I wasn’t used to people challenging me, wasn’t used to any conversation even getting to this point since most people would’ve jumped at any opportunity to work with me. But it was clear Gabriel was on a completely different wavelength than most when he let out an astonished, “Wow. The little pop princess says fuck. Learn somethin’ new everyday.”
My instinct was to throw every “fuck” in the book at him just for his obvious attempt to poke at my character. But instead, I took a deep breath to regain my focus when I told him, “Look. I don’t know… how we got here. But I would really appreciate it if you could lay a couple tracks for me.”
“And like I told you before, I’m not interested. Thanks, but no thanks,” he said, turning to walk away.
But I caught him by the arm, catching up to him to ask, “Why not?”
He glanced down at my hand that was still attached to his arm, shaking his head before he looked at me and answered, “I don’t need your handout, ma. This music shit is just for fun. Save my boys some money instead of wasting it on weak ass industry niggas like you do.”
“So that’s what this is about? Money? My label will compensate you thoroughly even if we don’t use the songs,” I explained, trying to ignore the sting of his little attack.
But he was sure to let his intentions be known when he gently removed my hand and replied, “Yeah? Does your label even know you down here scouting people out? Or did they just send you on a mission to find some new shit to copy before it blows up?”
I crossed my arms over my chest, feeling the most defensive since our short conversation began. I mean, it was one thing for him to take little pokes at my persona. And in a way he was right; I wasn’t always the super sweet chick my team had made me out to be for public consumption. But for him to take a full blown stab at the work I had put in to stay afloat, that was a low blow.
“Copy? I don’t copy anybody. My music is all original,” I told him, knowing if there was one thing I made sure of, it was that.
Still, Gabriel found a way to stab at my character once again when he replied, “Yeah, originally designed for radio play. Originally made for any artist with even a little bit of range. Originally created by someone who can probably sing ten times better than you do.”
That was the final straw. I could take criticism on the persona I was already preparing to revamp. I could take criticism of the label since that really had nothing to do with me. But criticism on my vocal ability? That wasn’t happening.
So I held nothing back when I snapped, “You know what? I don’t even know why I wasted this much time with your SoundCloud ass anyway.”
“Hatin’ on SoundCloud like you aren’t down here tryna recruit a bunch of SoundCloud niggas. Yeah aight, ma. You got it,” he replied sarcastically, his laugh annoying me even more since I knew he was right.
But it wasn’t my fault that some of the most talented musicians just hadn’t gotten their opportunity to make it big yet, meaning they were stuck with the task of promoting their music on their own. It wasn’t my fault that some of the people who were far more talented than what was played on the radio hadn’t gotten picked up by a label, meaning it would cost an arm and a leg to get even one spin on the radio outside of local hour. It wasn’t my fault that my career had popped early on and had remained that way for the last eight years, saving me from having to deal with the likes of SoundCloud.
Okay, maybe I was a little responsible for that.
Still, I released a heavy sigh, regaining my composure once again to ask, “Is there somewhere I can actually listen to your beats without you being around to talk shit?”
His smile was full, his perfectly white teeth envy-worthy when he suggested, “How about I just give you my SoundCloud link? Or is that too low budget for you, superstar?”
I rolled my eyes, pulling my phone out of my pocket and clicking on the app so that I could ask, “What’s your screenname?”
But again, he only laughed. “I don’t really have a SoundCloud, ma. I told you. This shits just fun for me. I ain’t tryna be in the industry. I know all too well that shit ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, so I’m good on that.”
There was an obvious disdain for the industry in his tone, though it didn’t make sense considering how disinterested he originally claimed to be. But I also knew there was a lot of truth to his statement. On the outside, the glitz and glam of it all probably looked like a dream to most. But from the inside, I knew it was a lot of work, a lot of tongue-biting and side-eying, a lot of… selling little parts of yourself – little parts of your soul – to satisfy others who really only saw you for the money you could make them.
I had been a willing participant in that game for most of my career; had played the naive little singer who foolishly believed in the label executives to have my best interest at heart no matter how suspect their moves seemed to be. But the second I became privy to everything happening around me, became privy to the snakes I was feeding with every note I sang and every tour I sold out, I knew it was up to me to shake things up if I really expected to save myself from being like every other artist who only got hung out to dry; starting with finding an exclusive producer for my next album.
So this time, I decided to completely change my approach, stepping up to Gabriel and running a hand across his chest as I bit my lip to ask, “Not even… for me?”
His grin was crooked and his laugh was shaky, which I thought was a good sign until he replied, “Wow. You really doin’ this, huh? Is this how you got to the top too?”
“Fuck you, Gabriel,” I snarled, pulling my hand away and storming towards where my bodyguard and assistant were standing.
But I didn’t get far enough to miss Gabriel asking, “You tryin’, right?”
I rolled my eyes, refusing to turn around and defend myself since I was completely embarrassed. It wasn’t even like me to put myself out there in that way, especially to a stranger. But I suppose I was so desperate for what seemed to be exactly what I was looking for, I was willing to go above and beyond the usual. Though I instantly regretted it when I heard Gabriel call after me, “Nice to meet you, superstar. Hope you don’t get your shoes too sticky on the way out!”
And I could only mutter to myself, “Ugh, never again,” before telling my crew, “Let’s get out of here.”