Behind the Music: Crystal Rose

Rose/Photo credit: Chadwick Christopher

She grew up in a nomadic world that posed many obstacles and hardships, but one constant thrived in the life of a young Crystal Rose: a love of music.

“I moved around a ton as a kid,” she said. “I attended nine different schools from kindergarten through 12th grade … but spent the majority of my childhood in a children’s home in Hot Springs, Arkansas.”

Those schools were in places like Orlando, Florida, and Springfield, Missouri, where she also attended college, and in Kansas City, where she attended UMKC and where she generated the nerve and inspiration to pursue music as her calling.

Rose, who just released the three-song EP Arena, recently answered questions from IN Kansas City about her upbringing, the music that filled her girlhood, and her dedicated and flourishing journey into Kansas City’s music world.

What are your earliest music memories?
When we were in Florida we lived in the sticks in the middle of the Everglades, where families were predominantly Spanish, and, like my family, Haitian. It was a poor and under-served community in the middle of nowhere, and this Spanish woman would come to our neighborhood once a week with a truck of donated dry goods—mostly snacks like graham crackers and Cheez-Its and stuff like that.

She would teach us Christian songs in Spanish, and if we stayed the whole time she gave all the neighborhood kids food to take home. One song has stuck with me all these years; I think it’s because the melody is so simple and easy to remember. It went: “Alabare, alabare, alabare a mi señor (I will praise my lord).”

How did your time in Kansas City shape you?
I vividly remember going to middle school in Kansas City. We grew up poor in the ’hood, I mean like “no heat, running water, or electricity” poor.

Going to school in Kansas City toughened me up, for sure. The kids at Westport Middle School were not messing around. There were fights every day, weapons brought into school, drugs. If you didn’t hold your ground, you’d be taken advantage of.

Westport was pretty diverse racially, but it was my first experience at a school where I wasn’t the minority. It was for sure a culture shock. That’s where I learned that I was “too white.” And at my previous schools, it wasn’t that I was too black; I was simply black, which didn’t help much.

Most of the time I couldn’t see beyond my environment, but at some point I realized there was more out there. I skipped school often and walked around the city to neighborhoods I had never seen. I wanted to see beyond my block.

I remember sneaking into a blocked-off area on the Plaza during a St. Patrick’s Day festival. I’m sure everyone was wondering why these random-ass kids were party-crashing and why we weren’t in school. For the most part I’ve always been curious and searching for more.

Was there an initial big music experience in Kansas City?
There were tons of musically inclined kids at school. If the entire class wasn’t breaking out in song, a few kids in the back were or someone was banging a beat on the desk—that sort of thing. I found music at an early age, but I was generally a shy and insecure kid. I envied those with the confidence and pride to share their gifts. But they also nudged me to step out of my shell.

One year during Thanksgiving break in college, I came to Kansas City to visit my family. My two sisters and I took the city bus to the Plaza so that I could busk for a bit. It was freezing cold, but I remember how exciting that experience was: people stopping to hear me sing and dropping cash in my guitar case.

I haven’t really made this connection before, but I think that experience played a role in why I moved back to Kansas City as an adult—after swearing as a kid that I would never live in Kansas City again. I tell people I moved to Kansas City because they had live music and Springfield didn’t.

What was your music education like growing up?
I always signed up for music class and choir when they were an option, but other than that I didn’t really have any one-on-one teaching. My music teachers noticed that I took a special interest in singing, and I would receive solos and was sort of expected to carry sections periodically. In high school I participated in chamber choirs, mixed ensembles, and all-women’s choirs.

Was music prevalent in your house? How did your family influence your music world?
My family loved music, but not in any profound way that I can attribute to my love for music. My mom and grandma sang around the house while doing chores. For a good chunk of living with my family and living in the children’s home, I was allowed to listen only to Christian music.

But obviously when you tell a kid they can’t do something they’re going to want exactly what’s forbidden. I loved contemporary Christian music and gospel when I was a kid. But when I lived with my relatives, I always had the radio on and was jamming to Mary J. Blige, Christina Aguilera, and Destiny’s Child. Pop and R&B were a sort of escape into an alter ego.

Who else inspired and influenced you, and why did they affect you?
Kirk Franklin’s music moved me in a different way: It was therapeutic. His music gave me permission to lament at a very young age, which was refreshing because I felt like I wasn’t heard or understood as a kid. When I was down, I would lock myself in my room and put Songs for the Storm on repeat.

And I can’t forget Jonny Lang. I discovered him in high school, and his song Only A Man changed my perspective on music in a way that’s hard to explain. I do know that after hearing that song I began to seek out every live version of all my favorite songs whereas before I only enjoyed the recorded versions.

What do you remember about your first music performance? Where and when was it?
I guess it was singing the National Anthem at a Drury University basketball game. I don’t remember much. The gym was large and there were tons of people. I felt really small, but the way my voice reverberated in the room was magical.

What contemporary artists do you most admire?
Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus because they continue to share themselves in a holistic way. They don’t limit the ways they can present themselves to the world. They let themselves shift and grow, they explore the seeds within themselves; and they water them without shame. They do what they want, and that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to keep myself in a box because of numbers or others’ expectations. If I want to explore different looks and genres, I will do just that.

What artists do people compare you to?
These days I get Sade, Tracy Chapman, Emily King, and Jasmine Sullivan.

Describe your music for readers who haven’t heard you yet.
I think my music is personal, vulnerable, and straightforward. There are no frills, really. I aim to emote my passions, my pain, and my hopes through my music. I tend to write big hooks, and my verses tend to sit in the valley. I think my new EP Arena would fall under some sub-genre of hip-hop, pop and experimental. Think lush colors.

But I really just try to make it and let others decide on their own; I don’t want to get hung up on a sound.

What do you like most about Kansas City’s music community? What could it use more of?
The Kansas City music community is so supportive, specifically between the artist and musicians. If you need help with anything, there’s always someone willing to lend a hand. We’re all learning from each other and passing on info and resources.

I think we could benefit from more knowledge directly from the industry so that we can grow and move forward—so if you want to, this time next year you’re not just playing the same live shows you’ve played the last three years. Maybe you’re playing out of town; maybe you’ve started an LLC for your band or found an investor; maybe you’ve become an ambassador for a brand, leveled up your live performance, started creating and selling merch, participated in a songwriting conference, found a publisher, graphic design help. There’s a lot of information online, but a lot of it is outdated or from people trying to scam independent artists.

You are a woman of color working in an industry that is predominantly white and male. What challenges does that pose for you? Have things changed much since you started, for better or worse?
I try to be careful about connecting unfortunate experiences with the fact that I’m a woman, even more so the fact that I am a Black woman. That being said, I do have those unfortunate stories. The vibe I generally get is that my opinion and input is not taken seriously, producers and sound guys insisting on their ways, like they just know better, always. It is a challenge to advocate for yourself and your ideas while leading a group of men.

If you don’t communicate what you want, it will never be yours. And I am really a solo artist because I hire musicians. I try to spend more time figuring out what I want in my music so that when I invite musicians to work with me, it is true to my vision.

I don’t know if things have gotten better. But I have been fortunate enough to find some musicians who respect my genius and do their best to help me make it a reality instead of hijacking the show. I’m not saying I have only surrounded myself with “yes men” because I’m definitely not; my ideas get challenged. There’s a balance to it all.

This doesn’t happen at the rate it used to, but people—typically, white people—always expected me to make R&B or gospel music simply because I am Black, and I hated that. I eventually steered away from soul and R&B influences in my music because I didn’t want to be boxed as a gospel or R&B singer. Somewhere along the line, I believed that artists in those genres got stuck and then shelved, unless they were white. Nowadays I just try my best to let any and all my influences come through in my music. Seems like the healthiest thing to do.

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