Zyah Belle’s quest for fame

Local soul singer targets video games and Los Angeles

Zyah Belle gets into the game.

Zyah Belle gets into the game.


Check out Zyah Belle at 8 p.m. Friday, July 8, at Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub, 2708 J Street. Tickets are $12-$15. Learn more at www.zyahbelle.com.

Of all possible themes, Zyah Belle chose video games for her sophomore EP, New Levels.

There’s the title (an obvious reference for gamers), the cover (an image of a video game controller), plus every song title borrows from terminology: “Cheat Codes,” “Game Over,” “Restart.” She even worked with producer Rayintosh to create sci-fi-sounding beats to go with the video game motif. It’s a finely crafted blend of future funk, hip-hop and R&B.

The concept might seem strange, though, since none of the songs are actually about video games. Belle doesn’t even play that often, but she likes to think of her life as though it were a video game.

“It helps me look at my life like just this beautiful thing that I’m experiencing,” Belle says. “Each time I’m reaching a new level, it doesn’t mean I don’t get hurt and need a potion pack.”

The album was released online on June 21, but the release party takes place Friday, July 8, at Harlow’s.

The video game idea came to her before she wrote the songs. She’d been contemplating the hero’s journey, a device found in nearly every novel, movie and, yes, video game, where the story’s hero must overcome a series of obstacles to reach a specific goal. For Belle, who’s been seriously working on her music since 2012 with modest means, the journey arc is her career and the monster is fame. She plans to move to Los Angeles in August.

“It’s something that has to happen in order to get where I want to be,” Belle says. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to be famous, but I would also be kidding myself if I didn’t say it scares me because it is a monster. You look at celebrities; you see people go absolutely crazy. Will I be ready for something like that?”

However, Belle doesn’t sing about fame any more than she references Super Mario Bros. Video games act as metaphors describing particular aspects of Belle’s life.

For instance, “Quick Save,” which references a common feature that allows players to return to a specific point in the game, discusses the emotion of wanting to revisit a favorite memory over and over again.

It’s no coincidence Belle is thinking about fame so much—her ascent in the local scene was rapid. In 2012, she sang at Pangaea Bier Cafe’s open-mics. When those ended in 2013, she got gigs wherever she could, singing with backing tracks or a cappella. People took notice of her relentless schedule and impressive voice. Musicians, producers and others sought her out. Now, she writes with Emmesha “Meesh” Dinkins and Matthew “Shuteye” Payne.

She released her debut EP Cigars in 2014. By 2015, she left behind the solo gigs in favor of performing with different bands, such as the Funkshun and Current Personae. This year, she won her first Sammie, and on New Levels, Belle’s voice sounds more confident than ever.

“I went from singing a cappella and not having many resources at all to going, ’Hey who plays an instrument and wants to play?’ and having so many people to choose from,” Belle says. “That’s why performing at Harlow’s is one of the most emotional things because it wasn’t that long ago where I was like, ’One day, I’m going to perform there.’”