African American Studies


Stephanie McKay is a successful, well-known soul singer and songwriter based in the Bronx. She was born on June 2, 1967 in East Harlem. When she was two years old her parents moved to Co-op City in the Bronx because it promised a better, more secure way of life. Both of Stephanie’s parents were from Norfolk, VA, and they moved to Harlem when they were about 20 years old. Her mother worked as a legal secretary and her father worked as a taxi driver before becoming a labor organizer. Stephanie attended elementary school in Co-Op City. At the age of six she began attending the Ruth Williams Dance School in Harlem, where she first found that she had an interest in and talent for dance. During this time the neighborhood was mostly Jewish, Italian, and Polish rather than black and Puerto-Rican. When her parents got divorced, Stephanie went to live with her mother in the South Bronx, where the neighborhood was predominately black and Latino. During this time McKay began attending the Children’s Program at the Alvin Ailey Dance School in Lower Manhattan, began some informal singing training, and was first exposed to hip-hop. She danced throughout her high school years at Harry S. Truman School before suffering a career-ending knee injury.

Luckily, McKay had a tremendous natural talent for singing, and so with little formal training she successfully auditioned for a girl group called The Promise. Although the group broke up soon after, McKay’s experiences working with highly talented singers and songwriters completely changed her career path. She returned to school (U Arts in Philly) to complete her dance training, and then successfully auditioned for dancing and singing parts throughout Philadelphia and New York. In the mid-90’s she formed a band called the Bako Babies while taking private guitar lessons at the New School. Subsequently she joined the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, a 12-piece band that played Latin, soul, swing, and other types of music. She was a member of the group for 6 years, and she solidified her singing and songwriting technique during this time, all while incorporating her dance background into the BFE live performances. From here, it was not difficult to transition into a solo career. McKay’s influences ranged from Latin music to reggae to hip-hop to R&B and soul, and she stayed in touch with that musical background by focusing on telling stories about the people and neighborhoods around her through her music. Her first album was recorded in Bristol, England. McKay had moved to England because she was working with a poet and songwriter there, and then one of her singles was heard by Geoff Barrow of the rock group Portishead. He expressed interest in working with her, and so the first album was a collaborative effort between McKay and Barrow. Now back in the Bronx, McKay is now an established solo artist. She has also worked with Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Kelis, and many other famous musicians, and now supports herself entirely through her art.

In the interview, McKay shares insights on a number of topics, including the plight of women in the music industry, the nature of the music world in general, the revitalization of the Bronx in recent years, the importance of black music, and the social and political future of blacks in the United States.

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McKay, Stephanie.mp3 (92086 kB)