Of Self and Faith: A Talk with Dima and The Good Company

 

written by Isaiah Wilson

photography by Leopoldo Macaya 

Memorial Park has sort of an abandoned vibe to it. A beautiful park, spacious and covered with arid canals and pools without a pool. Once again for an interview, I am pleasantly in the midst of a full band setting up to perform when I was expecting just a photo shoot and conversation. It’s the opposite of Eastern Western’s performance- which was in a confined space between racks of kitchenware and tools. We interviewed and shot Dima and The Good Company in the center of a park, on what appears to be a stage with exposed outlets pushed off into the foliage and wood chips. The band mates are ordering pizza before they decide to perform, debating on what to order. They felt like the only source of life in an arid park.

It’s a unique space for a musical performances and has a charm to it even for the windy, unloving evening we decided to shoot and interview. I had to assume someone in the band had some type of warm connection to the park. Vocalist Dima tells me that drummer Shawn and keyboardist Matei use to post up and jam out playing jazz music for fun.  Pursuing her studies as a Psychics major, Dima mentioned how she would spend breaks hanging at the park on the hill. “I was just spend my time just reflecting,” she says, “asking ‘what the fuck am I doing here?’” Apprehensive about what she wanted to do, she took a break from school and doubled down on her pursuit of music. Through connecting with drummer Shawn Tran, Dima began performing shows with a group of fellow talented, young musicians named The Good Company.

 

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Dima and the Good Company are a local r&b/jazz band based in San Jose. She performs vocals with guitarist Thomas, drummer Shawn, bassist Matteo, and keyboardist Matei. Dima is the oldest, turning 20 today, and the rest of the band is 19 with the exception of Matteo, who is 17. They are heavily influenced by r&b and soul, which seems to be a synthesis of lo-fi, contemporary jazz, and r&b. A kind of youthful re imagining of modern jazz and hip hop rooted instrumentals that is akin to BADBADNOTGOOD or Robert Glasper’s project, combined with vocals from an artist whose domain consists of new wave r&b.

Dima’s solo work has a lo-fi nature to it that crashes uniquely into The Good Company’s own playing, forged from years of playing together. There is no fat to be trimmed, every member of the quartet offer there own important compontent; Notably Thomas as the guitarist adds an almost psychedelic touch to the solid jazz sound. He notes that he doesn’t have one of his pedals on him, which he seemed a bit bummed about. Though they are in the beginning phase of crafting their signature sound as a group as a full band, there seems to a be a connection once they perform together.

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This was my second time getting to see the collective perform. I was fascinated by the mix of musical styling that all converged when they played at  a backyard show “Still Here”- a collaboration between Snaughty San Jose and Word is Bond. Sometimes a group of musicians have intangible underpinnings that make them work. They stood out as a band, even among the more seasoned local talent that day like Jawstruck and Barely Funktional.

Something is impelling about the band, they just seem to have a intagible bond with or without their instruments. As Leo photographed them, he mentioned how funny they are all and good natured. It could be a combination of their youth and the relationships they developed whilst creating their sound. Despite their raw talent, no one in the group takes themselves too seriously. Mateo and Matei bring up how Shawn got hurt during the Jawstruck’s performance at the Still Here show. “I got smacked in the face,” drummer Shawn Tran tells me. Shawn got cracked in the head against a rock during the show. He seems to attract misfortunes like that. When they were performing, Shawn fell off his chair in the midst of drumming. He fits the role of the energy and comedic relief of a drummer, but he seemed to turn it off and be pretty stoic when discussing music.

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Shawn comes off as the adhesive of The Good Company. He has known Dima the longest and seems to be the link that brought the band about. As both a classically trained drummer and hip hop producer, he seems to be the bridge between his old musical colleague’s jazz and Dima’s lofi influences. During the interview, he came by a bit later to close up at the coffee shop he works at. Shawn seemed the most excited to start performing, probably as means of release. But he was the most open about discussing the local scene. Shawn shares the sentiment of a need to create collectives and building more foundation on the bedrock of seemingly endless local talent. “There is no cohesion,” Shawn tells me solemnly. His call for cohesion, probably explains why he comes off as savvy about the scene. He continues by giving shout-outs to all of the local organizations and collectives that nurture young creatives such as MACLA, LITD, and other groups.

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Each of them have a sense of maturity, as if they’re lucid of their youth and potential. This trait seems explain their willingness to create movement in empty locales, such as Memorial Park. Whether it’s unique covers, jazz-inspired renditions of Dima’s solo work, or the decision to randomly show up at a park and put on a full performance for a photographer and writer. They seem to be persistent to uplift the Bay Area music scene and the fellow local musicians by keeping at DIY. Dima has a bit of a qualm of people who drone on about boring San Jose is without contributing to make things happen, “People wait to be entertained” Dima says. It is a sentiment she recognizes, telling me she is just now learning about San Jose and the Bay area music scene. Now she performs with good company and even writes about local acts. Part of her arc about her perceptions of San Jose and the music scene seems to align with her own identity.

Dima’s brand of lofi indie r&b that gives the intimate feeling of live performances from a bedroom, especially tracks like “voicemail”. I want to use ‘brand’ loosely. Dima seems to have a disregard for ideas of branding. She less concerned about a grandiose end goal of fame or acclaim, and more so about her development of her voice and delivery. Her energies seem to be preoccupied with the infinite possibilities of the human voice.

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She would record her music using actual voicemails on Motorola touch phone. Sometimes when you just create music despite the circumstances and lack of resources, those lack of resources become as essential to the composition as. Contemporary acts like Teen Suicide, Steve Lacy, Cyberbully Mom, Castlebeat, and even acts closer to home like Mild Monk and Riley McShane implement that DIY aesthetic in their music as opposed to using it as a crutch. Dima utilizes that and it creates a strange synthesis between unpolished production for a genre of music that usually is dependent on strong production and engineering.

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But she isn’t a stranger to duality. Born in Jordan, she comes from a Muslim upbringing, both her parents practice Islam, her Filipino mother converted. Her family immigrated to the United States when she was an infant, giving her the weakest connection to her Jordanian side of the family. She talks about how she a bright kid, talented writer, which explains the pleasure she seems to get from communicating and exchanging ideas. She is talkative, sometimes getting lost in her own trade of thought. It makes sense she would spend her free time alone in a park thinking.

This kind of passion of communication, developed her interest in mathematics and music. Dima subtly implies both are byproducts of her Muslim upbringing. “I have a love for math and music because you know, they’re universal languages.” Dima says. Communication is also a thematic element that is in her musical lyrics. As a daughter of a immigrant, she struggled with connecting with her family. “Being the most American out of all them…I had like an accent when I spoke Arabic.” she says.

“It was just kind of hard going back home every single time, so I used music to impress them. Show something about myself where I didn’t have to communicate it.” When she explained it, it sounded more like a communicative crutch for her more than a creative outlet. She felt there was a limit to how her family on her father’s side viewed music, which inadvertently effected her view.

“They [her family] don’t think there’s anything in the arts,” Dima said. This is to say her family did not see a future in her pursuing a stable career as an artist, not the arts itself. This is a sentiment I’ve heard echoed among some of my closest friends who come from immigrant backgrounds. She talked about an expectation of pursuing medicine of mathematics, something practical. Dima seemed to understand this and recognize the mentality of pursuing a path that leads to the most opportunity.

Beyond a cultural and language gap, there is certainty a divide between immigrant parents’ pursuit of economic stability and growth and their children searching for self-actualization. Songs such as “sick and tired” allude to these issue.

As a student, she would be the first to recite from the Koran because it was the equivalent of singing. She described Arabic as having a “flow” to it, almost melodic. And such examples are apparent in the Koran itself. “If you ever heard somebody recite out the Koran, it sounds they are singing.” She further explained the distinction, one that is based of ego. “It’s not looked at as music, because it’s an expression of faith and not an expression of yourself.”

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Her perception of music evolved when she visited her mom’s side of the family in The Philippines, “I saw the love for music there,” Dima said, “There a rich culture and they’re super supportive. It was a really great balance because I didn’t have the greatest support in Jordan with music. I got exposed [to music] by my uncle who was super good at playing guitar, when I was like 9.”

“Every morning when we were there, he’d just whip out the guitar and we would just do a bunch of karoke songs,” she tells me. “I fell in love with doing that everyday.” Dima talked about how she would sneak in her brother’s room and to play his guitar, after he found a liking to guitar after his trip to The Philippines. “I didn’t not even know what the fuck I was doing. I just wanted to play it…it’s like a kid in a candy store. I was thought music was cool I wanted to do it so bad”

She admits that her musical influences in her upbringing were not especially unique. She grew up loving Beyonce, Paramore, and a lot of radio alternative rock. As she got a bit older, Lorde also played a role in her confidence in her own voice and The Love Club EP seemed to invoke her confidence in pursuing music beyond a bedroom hobby. “I really didn’t like my voice because it was different,” she says. Describing that Lorde inspired her to hone in on her unique vocal styles rather than suppress them. “She doesn’t have the greatest voice,” Dima says as she mimics Lorde’s droning delivery and starts laughing.

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To continue my point of her duality, Dima’s music has a contrast of being self-aggrandizing to spiraling to self-depreciation. In her more pop styling tracks like “Poppin” or “Let’s Ride” there’s the recently prominent genre of braggadocio style to r&b one that is more honest candor of being a young woman. When she showed her friend “Let’s Ride” a good pop style song, she asked Dima whether or not she would actually right something real. It’s a self-awareness to her own youth, growing pains, and her enjoyment in figuring out identity, something that can be echoed in a lot of contemporary acts.

In the same breath, she releases tracks like “Sick and Tired” sort of delve into the darker subjects of isolation and depression. She describes a sense of loneliness, what seemed like deep seated issues combined with the angst of becoming a young adult and attempting to nurture a state of peace and comfort. And even tracks like “Crazy” explores topics of her insecurities and relationships manifesting into anxious, intrusive thoughts in her head.

That state of peace seems to come from the therapeutic process of creating music. Her writing process is playing lofi instrumentals and writing lyrics over them, akin to what a lot of hip hop artists do. Dima definitely cascades a line between just singing and rapping in some of her more pop-laden tracks. She writes songs in short bursts, about a half hour. A point hits for her when she feels like the lyrics become muddled in overthinking. I had an impression that she is attempting to write more instinctual and the ‘overthinking’ and imagery of feeling stuck is letting her own anxieties and insecurities impede her music.

“I just wasn’t in the greatest mindset,” Dima describes her head space roughly a year ago “I never really had an outlet to express myself until I turned to music. Because it was something I didn’t want to take seriously.”

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She released her first track on Soundcloud hesitantly, knowing it would be a commitment from then on out. At this point, Dima did not share her musical content with too many people. Her esteem seems to be sort of the center of her internal conflict that reflects in her music. Throughout the interviews she downplays her own talent, not for self-pity, but more so because she is lucid of her potential and her promise. Also because like her music, her concern is about the introspective and personal progression, not so much the audience. She tells me that The Good Company comes from the idiom that you are only as good as the company you surround yourself with. It seems she put herself in a sink or swim scenario with her band, so that she can continue this commitment.

Any good band has a solid camaraderie. It could be the fact that these artists’   When I get to talk with them, they’re all eating pizza and messing around with their respective instruments.  They have all known each other since high school, with their bassist Matteo being the youngest, a 17 year old recent high school graduate. Each of them are talented musicians, all preoccupying themselves with different bands and projects.

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“We were jamming intermittently throughout high school. Then we linked up with Dima through the drummer [Shawn].” Matteo says. He notes Bootsy Collins and Thundercat as his influences, along with classical jazz. Matteo has an earnestness about him, a combination of honest candor and youthful appreciate for music. As a fellow bass guitarist, I noticed how much he grooved during live performances.  He will be joining band mate Matei at prestigious Oberlin college after the summer.

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It is interesting to see a fully formed band with such understanding and respect for classical and contemporary music. Thomas mentions his love for Andy Jones and Oscar Peterson. He and the rest of The Good Company praise the work of Woo Park, Hiatus Kaiyote, Christian Scott, Robert Glasper, which makes much more sense. Matteo has the hopes of finding a larger scale circle of musicians once he leaves for college “It was the community of people that are very support, very high-functioning, very supportive.” Matteo says. It may have been because he was the youngest, but he had an earnest nature about him. While the band performed I noticed how intently he would bob his head to the bass groove. As a fellow bass player, I identified with his love for just performing with people of equal interest in music. And I sensed that with the rest of the group; their diligent practice and passion shows.

Matei described his college experience so far as being somewhat isolated, but within a circle of fellow artists. It came off as almost nomadic. “Kind of a utopia, kind of a kung-fu temple,” Matei adds “Ridiculous talent everywhere you look…People just working together in non competitive environment.”

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Matei has the desire to return to The Bay after school and build the same art environment that is cultivating his talents at Oberlin, possibly in San Jose. It seems each member of the band are searching for creating a world  or musicians and artists to have a sense of autonomy and cooperation. While The Come Up is more about a platform, Dima and The Good Company seem like they are in search for a deeper community.

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There is a juxtaposition between Dima and her good company. Shawn recently got accepted into USC’s School of Music and Matteo and Matei will be pursuing music at Oberlin’s prestigious college. There was an implication Dima secondary education would be in the realm of STEM while most of the Good Company all spent their time in school pursuing music and doing pretty damn well considering. But it seems they find solace in their desires to create. And Good Company seem to really have developed kinship with other musicians and vocalists in other projects like Zero Creek, making a small scene of younger artists.

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The Good Company is performing covers, and recreations Dima’s song for a live setting (and possibly recording some of her future studio work), whose production varies pretty greatly on her tracks. And the access to talent like Good Company has only expanded Dima’s options with what she could perform and write. She opened up about her thoughts of singing in Arabic in some her songs. Her phone is filled with tons of unreleased demos and lyrics, “When I saw all I do is make music, I mean all I do is make music” she says.

When listening to her music for research I picked up on her songs covering love- and anything but love- sometimes refer to women. When she performed a song live she mentioned it was a song about her sexuality. Identifying as bi-sexual, she struggles revealing this truth about of herself to her parents. She is more nervous revealing this to her father, assuming her mom probably has figured it out already.  “Moms know,” she laughs. “I wanted to show it [her upcoming album] to them as a way to come out”. This aspect of her life adds layers to what inspires her lyrics.

I only got four years until they get fed up with me…I’m disappointing them and everything they believe. I’m suffocating in a house I’m supposed to find peace” she says in the song “Sick and Tired”

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Even in moments of true frustration, she still continues to be her true self in her music. What’s refreshing with acts like Sza, Kali Uchis, Cardi B, and Kehlani’s, all of which she quotes as contemporary influences, is that it offers a need for musical narratives of young woman of color who deal with issues of mental health, sexuality, and carrying generations of social issues that have either appropriated or cast aside. Dima is humble, but it seems she adapted a musical persona where she is unapologetic about her identity as a queer WOC who can be haughty and insecure in the same track. And ironically, while the subjects she delves into our at the center of social discussion, her music is as introspective as it gets.

 

After the interview, I was hesitant to discuss her sexuality on the off-off chance that more than three people actual visit The Come Up website and this reaches to her parents. She mentions she is actually nervous of her parents reading this or delving into her music, but also thought it was more important I tell the story I believe was the most crucial about her. She messages me “There’s a lot of influence that goes towards my art and not mentioning all of that seemed incomplete to me low key.” Dima is concerned about honest, complete creation above anything else. At this point of her life, it seems that what she prioritizes in creativity and in her interactions with people.

Her creative playground has grown with her collaborations with The Good Company as well as the connections she has made performing and knowing local acts. They are playing plenty of shows and garnering word of mouth, both as separate entities and collectively. “I’m getting there with them,” Dima says, referring to how close she feels with them. For Dima, music is beyond just an outlet and a means of creation. It is her means of language. She mentions the friendships she’s built and the talks she can have with fellow creatives. She mentions how she influences and inspired by her contemporaries like Young Tsukune, a talented young local musician and Come Up alumn, as a source of local inspiration as well dreamawake and Ritty Bo.

“I have a lot to learn and that’s something I’m proud of. I look for new opportunities for me to grow.” Dima was raised with the belief that music was somewhat of an expression of ego and religion was a expression of faith. As a young adult, it seems her music and her lyrics is an expression of faith in herself. The band are all figuring it out, but they’re in each other’s company.

 

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Outside your wheelhouse: An interview with Kiva Uhuru

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In the age of social media, people are developing their own personal brands. It is rare to find a musical artist’ without a Soundcloud, Bandcamp that showcases their talent. If you live in a city and frequently check out local music shows, someone is bound to show you their Soundcloud and Spotify. No matter how the music sounds, it’s exciting that people are willing to put themselves out there and share their music to strangers.

And having an online presence certainly helps when we are looking for artists to perform for our future shows.  But if when you’re trying to find out where to find great local music, the open mic scene in San Jose is another great way to meet amazing performers and artists. That is how I met Riley (The Come Up co founder), Meridian E and Marley Hale, (who both performed at our first show) and it is also where I met Kiva Uhuru, a multi talented performer who will perform at The Come Up 2 Electric Boogaloo later today.

Kiva Uhuru is a talented 20 year old guitarist and singer-songwriter who doesn’t have any recording works, except for some Youtube videos someone else posted of her performing. It is apparent her time and energy has been spent on building her craft rather than developing a brand around it. She has a strong soulful voice that has an aggressive presence even when she is crooning an R&B style song. And because she spends so much time performing live, she has developed an intelligence for playing for an audience and making unique events out of her showcases. When she is not performing, illustrating, or writing poetry, she is pursuing her education as a Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Major at The University of Berkeley.

Meanwhile I had to look up how to spell  enginerng  engineering. I’ve known Kiva for a few years. She even performed at one of The Come Up’s Sofa Session shows. So I had chance to talk to her about her craft, balancing work and school, and her plans for her music in a Q&A style interview.

 

The Come Up: What was growing up in San Jose like?
Kiva: It was so boring until I graduated high school. I didn’t see much of the city at all and pretty much split my time solely between school and home, which was in South San José. I was a part of the nerdy,  flamboyant misfit troupe most of my life: either loitering with other moody outcasts, or trying out radical ideas and personalities on-line. Graduating to the art scene on SoFA Street was both the obvious natural progression as well as a welcome shift in scenery.
The Come Up: What person(s) inspired you to pursue music?
Kiva: Honestly, the people who inspire me to pursue music are actually the people who tell me they enjoy my music and my sound. I would be playing music and performing at open mics for the rest of my able bodied life just because I enjoy it so much it’s almost compulsory. My favorite musical influences are to thank in part for sparking that desire, but the encouragement of others keeps me pushing for a bigger stage.
The Come Up: We recently interviewed one of our other performers Reign, who goes to an art school and is pursuing film. Being a high school student going to an art school, committing to music is within his wheelhouse. I was doing music and film in high school too. But you’re a Engineering student at Berkeley, which is famous for its rigorous academic coursework. How do you balance academics and your artistic endeavors, when they seem so juxtaposed?
Kiva: I think the most honest answer I can give is that there is no balance, it’s a lot of burning the candle at both ends, playing catch up, and hoping I land on my feet when I don’t practice either skill enough. However, just like Reign, I’ve been doing this since high school. The main difference is that the stakes are higher, and my enemy is not how different my interests are, it’s that there are only 24 hours in a day.
The Come Up: What’s the difference between the Berkeley music scene and San Jose’s?
Kiva: Not to knock Berkeley’s music scene, but since SF/Oakland/Berkeley are so close together, and arguably have fully articulated scenes with multiple very heavy hitters in every genre, from open mics to underground hip-hop to the DIY scene; the magnitude of options produce heavily fragmented microcosms that can feel really isolating. One has to work hard to be a known entity, and then break into each microcosm almost one by one. However, if you do befriend someone who’s been at it for a while, 100% or the time they will connect you to right people. It’s hard to navigate in the beginning when it’s hard to parse who’s in it for community and who’s in it just to be looked at for a moment.
On the contrary, San Jose is smaller but so much more open and accessible. If fact, with no business cards or spreadsheet of musical contacts and spotty attendance across the board, I feel like I may be one of the least community oriented of the frequent open mic-ers in San José (but I’m working on it.)
The Come Up: We originally met at Caffe Frascatti when you were performing an Open Mic. When and why did you begin performing open mics?
Kiva: A teacher at SJHS actually had me open for him at Frascati when I was a senior and after that I was sorta hooked. I really love performing, I love to jam with other musicians, I love coffee and being outside late at night. It was a no brainer.
The Come Up: You also busk as well right?
I do! It’s a great way to get rid of any lingering stage fright or other forms of being self conscious.
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The Come Up: It is unique and awesome that you are known more for your live performances. Is there a reason you focus more on live music?
Kiva: I have a fear (or distaste) of recording so deep it may have subconsciously contributed to ending my last relationship (he was a sound mixer/master/producer.) Beyond that I just enjoy the ephemerality of performance and feeling immersed in a moment with the audience.
The Come Up: You once did an improvised song at Cafe Stritch’s Go Go Gong Show where you made an amazing song out of words people said in the crowd. *Do you remember the words that came from the crowd that you used?
Kiva: I do not recall, especially since I’ve wheeled that party trick out a handful of times since. However, I do remember the contents of the song were absolutely foul and shan’t be repeated.
*(Full disclosure this was a leading question. I know exactly what that topics she sang about that night and out of respect for Kiva’s privacy I will keep it to myself.)
The Come Up: I guess that’s a skill you develop from performing live and busking. As you know, we have comedians who perform between musical acts during The Come Up. Do you have any interests in comedy?
Kiva: I do, I’ve been gaining speed as a comedian, much more slowly since it’s a secondary interest, and because it’ll become a lot more feasible after I turn 21.
The Come Up: Do you have plans on releasing any music in the future?
Kiva: My goal for 2018 is to have an album by 2019.
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The Come Up: What topics or subjects inspire your music?
Kiva: Heartbreak, self-doubt, desire. I like to take things that have happened to me and stitch them together with the thread of the common, cliché singer-songwriter themes.
The Come Up: Your musical style reminds me of Alabama Shakes, Hiatus Kaiyote, Hozier, and other soulful musicians who carry their music with raw, emotionally potent vocals and lyrics.
Kiva: Damn, thank you. Each of those artists are big influences.
The Come Up: What do you regularly listen to (or watch) that inspires your songwriting/composition?
Kiva: I read poetry, share stories by the campfire, and search for new music to cover to update my “toolbox” for writing my own songs. I’m mostly inspired by my own feelings and personal events, so I might watch a home video, have a little cry if I need to, and then start trying to pen something together.
The Come Up: I hated when people ask this question when I was a student. I still get this question and I still hate being asked it. So I’m going to ask you this question.
Kiva: I’m ready.
The Come Up: Okay fast forward to your senior year. You earn your degree. An engineering degree from one of the top schools in the country. Where do you go from there?
Kiva: I’m still considering moving to Ireland and working on music and film there, I just applied to a consulting accelerator, I might try to challenge Jeff Bezos for the throne in hand-to-hand combat over a waterfall. It’s really just about wherever the opportunities open up first.
The Come Up: You’re definitely an inspiration to me for your dedication to your studies and your many creative projects. What message do you have for young artists like yourself?
Kiva: First of all, thank you. In means a lot to me to know I inspire you, I can’t thank you enough for your support and for putting me on. Like I said earlier, part why I do this is because amazing, wonderful folks like you believe in me. To the young artists: never forget where you came from, practice humility, especially because you are asking to take up space, and use your singular, unique voice because it is your most abundant resource and simultaneously the most valuable.
The Come Up: Any advice for other artists who are also students?
Kiva: Do what you just to stay sane and to keep close to the whetstone, but don’t drop out. You’ve come too far to only come this far.
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Kiva will be performing tonight at The Come Up 2: Electric Boogaloo tonight March 2nd at Uproar Brewing at 9pm. You can catch her at open local mics in the Bay Area.
As always, all photography was done by the enigmatic Leopoldo Macaya.