Instrumental: Sinzere’s Voice Sets Her Free

When Sinzere was very young, she didn’t vocalize a lot. In the first few years of her life, after her mom brought her home from the hospital, she didn’t say a word. But it wasn’t long before she found something else to do with her voice—singing or rapping along to her favourite artists for hours in her bedroom. She didn’t fully understand at the time that what she was doing was practicing her instrument.

Then, she had a eureka moment.

“I was 12,” the Calgary-based rap and soul artist says over the phone in early February. “I would always sing Mary J. Blige. A lot of Mary J. Blige songs and Mariah Carey songs. I hit a certain note and my mom looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God, you sing like Whitney Houston.’ That was the first inkling where I was like, ‘Oh, OK, this is an instrument. This is something.’”

Looking back now, she realizes that she was discovering her identity through her voice. 

It’s difficult to hit play on any of Sinzere’s releases from the past few years—Blackout, Highkey, Buy Back The Block; but really, any and all of them—and not have your attention instantly hijacked. Her voice is indeed something. Her flow is sharp like a razor and packs punches like a heavyweight champ. It’s hyper-dynamic, too, with Sinzere moving effortlessly through numerous cadences, timbres, and deliveries often on the same track. She’s relentless over the high-energy bounce of “Active,” shadowy and dangerous on “Shake the Building.” Her natural presence is a force, sure, but all talent wanes without attention. So, since she took the mic at her first live performance and realized the might she wields, she’s taken a deeply devoted, craftsperson’s approach to her voice and music. 

“That whole entire room, when I took the microphone, they rocked it,” she says. “It was an experience unlike anything else I’d ever felt prior. And the crowd reaction was different from any other artists that grabbed the mic that night. And so I just knew—that night, my first time ever touching the stage—the power of my voice.”

Sinzere has been putting out music at a dizzying pace these past couple years, and she’s gearing up to release more—her debut full-length Tabula Rasa, recorded at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, will come out later this spring. 

Whose voices did you look to for inspiration when you were developing yours? What drew you to them?

I would definitely say Mary J. Blige. She’s the queen of R&B, hip-hop, soul. She has a very raspy kind of deep, soulful tone. And I always enjoyed the pain in her voice. Notorious B.I.G. I would discover later because when he was popular, I was too young to listen to his music. But he would be a rap vocalist I would go to. He just had the tone and the depth and this confidence and wittiness that I love.

How did you arrive at your flow and delivery? It’s so sharp and powerful—when I was listening to Blackout and Buy Back The Block, it made me think of a sword.

It’s so interesting you say that. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Wu-Tang series at all, but I would say it’s a combination of things from those MCs from the golden age of hip-hop. It’s a combination of how seriously they took their craft, and spending that time to sharpen their skills—countless hours of rehearsing and countless hours of writing and countless hours of discovering the depth and the dynamic within my vocals. Countless hours of studying the greats that came before me and those who came after me who are greats in their field, and keeping myself open but dedicated at all times.

You were drawn to poetry growing up—what poets were you into and what drew you to the way they used their voices?

One poet I would mention is Maya Angelou. Her poetry spoke to me more because of her Black experience—it’s the experience of a Black woman, and the caged bird, what she represented through her poetry, and her life. Writing poetry was a way for me to express myself. I had trouble with identity when I was younger, and poetry was one of the ways that I was able to get the thoughts in my mind down. It gave me a great visual representation of who I was at the moment and who I wanted to be.

What do you do to keep your voice in shape? You were talking about dedication and craft, and I’m wondering what that looks like day-to-day when you’re sharpening your skills.

You have to be mindful of how much you’re speaking, how you’re amplifying. So you got to be cognizant of how loud you are, you have to do your best to minimize how much you’re speaking. Obviously, vocal exercises, vocal warm-ups, breathing exercises, and rehearsals. Steaming the throat. Meditation I find is grounding—it’s very good for centering and making yourself present, which is, in turn, very good for strengthening the vocals as well, I find. So when I’m going into the studio, and I bring myself to the present moment, it really helps me to tap into the fullness of my voice.

How would you describe the relationship between your written words and your voice? What’s the process like for you, making words come alive?

The process for me is the higher power that be—God, whatever. God will invoke me with a feeling, with an energy, with a vibration, and send that down. And then I’ll get to writing to a beat, and then I’ll sit with it. Before I even go into the studio, usually, I sit with that song, and I go through it, I go through it, I go through it, and I feel out each line and every word as much as possible. The feeling I felt when I wrote it is what I try to bring into the studio when I’m vocalizing in the booth.

How has your voice evolved between when you started rapping and singing and now?

I’m a lot more confident. There’s a lot more control and a lot more presence.

What are you using your voice for on Tabula Rasa?

I’m giving you parts of me you’ve never heard. I’m singing. I’m rapping. There’re a lot of rhythmic vibes in there. I’m using my voice as an instrument, making my own sounds. My cadences are unlike anything you’ve ever heard from me. Most importantly, the story I’m telling, I think it’s really impacted the emotional performance I’ve given on this album.

What is that story?

The liberation of my people. The theme is institutional racism and Black liberation. And from the first song, which is titled “The Mission,” it’s an ode to Harriet Tubman, in recognition of the 13 missions she went on to free her brothers and sisters and family members from bondage. It’s speaking to and paying homage to her story and all she’s contributed to our ancestors and their freedom. And from there it goes to stories of Africans of antiquity, so we’re talking about ancient civilizations, we’re talking about the ancient African tribes, and all that they’ve contributed to the world. We’re talking about colonialism and the effects that colonialism has had to this very day.

Hip-hop has such a rich tradition of speaking truth to power. How do you feel about your place in that tradition?

I can honestly say now that I feel grateful and blessed. I’m grateful to be able to exist in this space and to have the knowledge I have just by learning and unlearning for so long. And that I can bring that to our tribe and to our people. I’m humbled. 

How does the literal act of projecting your voice make you feel?

Free. Free from restraint, free from judgment. Free from this man-made world.