For Eriana Willis-Smith, singing is a window to the soul.
Hailing from Dartmouth, she took the stage at the Nova Scotia Music Festival Saturday, offering her audience her mix of R’n’B and soul songs. As an African Nova Scotian artist, she wants her music to encourage others like her to follow her path.
“I just want to be completely vulnerable and completely relatable,” said Willis-Smith. “I want to just be an outlet for girls who look like me. I really want to be a role model.”
Willis-Smith has deep roots in the Halifax area including North Preston, home to some African Nova Scotian families going back generations.
It was at the St. Thomas Baptist Church in North Preston where she started singing, when she was six or seven.
As an adult, she sang at NSMW as a member of the African Nova Scotian Music Association on the Engine Room Pub’s Black Vibes Stage. Willis-Smith joined other artists including rap duo Bucky Blanks, Ray D and Advocates of Truth.
“As long as I can touch at least one person that’s awesome,” said Willis-Smith.
But Willis-Smith sees being a trailblazer for other African Nova Scotian artists as vital. She says the music industry often prizes a certain look that is not always inclusive of musicians like her.
“It’s not just looking for specific talent, [it’s] looking for style,” said Willis-Smith.
Her fellow NSMW performer Lyris Daye, who performed Friday as part of the Emerge by Youth Art Connection collective, echoed Willis-Smith’s point.
A Nova Scotian of Guyanan descent, Daye started singing as a child. She launched her career at a local venue called ‘The Hub’ in the Halifax Regional Munipality.
Daye said she has experienced small, subtle acts of discrimination or prejudice because of her background, both in the music industry and elsewhere. She chose not to reveal specific examples, saying instead “it’s not for me to remember or bother.”
“It’s definitely noticeable for any black girl who has a passion to do anything, but it doesn’t stop me,” said Daye.
Instead, she chose to focus on her music career and trying “to get our name out there.”
Daye took the stage at Great British Grub in Truro, singing R’n’B as part of Emerge. Their show featured solo acts including other genres such as rap and hip-hop. One other artist was Wavelord (Wave Longley), whose energetic, bouncy rap lyrics contrasted with the more chilled-out style offered by Daye.
“It would definitely make my family in Guyana very happy to see someone from their [kin] reach out and do great things,” said Daye.