“BANJI” is a great deal more than a high-energy hip-hop anthem by rapper/dancer Sharaya J. It’s an acronym the charismatic east New Jersey native created meaning, “Be Authentic Never Jeopardize Individuality”–the mantra of her well-received movement promoting uniqueness, self-respect and freedom of expression.
The protégé of Grammy-winning mega star Missy Elliot, Sharaya’s work as a professional dancer and choreographer landed her gigs with such celebrity recording artists as Sean “Diddy” Combs and Ciara, among others. However, it wasn’t notable accolades on a resume that attracted Elliot to Sharaya; it was her fearless use of colored ink to write her path while encouraging others to do the same.
Sharaya J shows her true colors to SoulTrain.com in this edition of Sound Check.
SoulTrain.com: Sharaya, you wear dark-colored clothing with bright makeup and accessories. Is there a reason behind that, besides you liking how it looks?
Sharaya J: I don’t think I particularly try to purposely wear dark-colored clothing, but I do purposely like to wear bright makeup and items. I like things that pop and make a statement.
SoulTrain.com: The video for “BANJI” is colorful, and I think the lyrics to the song are also. How long did you go over the words before they stood out like you needed them to?
Sharaya J: I’m a perfectionist; anytime I record it’s going to take me a few times because it’s never quite good enough for me, I guess. I’ll attempt it a few times before I feel like I got the right take. Sometimes I’ll do it twice, and maybe it’ll be perfect the second time. But particularly for “BANJI, ” I probably did it over…six times! It’s faster, so I wanted to make sure all my lyrics came out clearly with nothing mumbled. When I sat down to write it, though, the words came to me quickly.
SoulTrain.com: It does move quickly for a song with a message. But was your intention to have people dance now and listen later, or listen now, dance later?
Sharaya J: I think my initial take on it was get an up-tempo beat to get people to dance. I feel like people aren’t really dancing like they used to. I’m a dancer so I come from that place. Any music I do will be geared toward getting people to dance. But I put “BANJI” together as a package deal; I wanted them to listen and dance at the same time.
SoulTrain.com: You have quite the stellar live performance resume. But when did you realize you had the ability to bring stage presence into the recording studio?
Sharaya J: Oh! I’ve always been fascinated by the stage and the arts! When I was young I used to do things creatively with music, rap and poems. I entered so many monologue competitions. When I got into the studio for the first time I was able to find my character and who I was as an artist. And I really truly did after I started working with Missy because she helped me refine those skills that already existed in my creative mind.
SoulTrain.com: Did you realize all this right away?
Sharaya J: It was still a gradual process because I had to learn who I was behind the microphone, along with who I was and wanted to be when I was writing. And with delivery I always want to give dimensions to each one of my records so the consumer won’t get bored with the same flow or same voice on every record. I want to keep the listener interested, also keep them on their toes.
SoulTrain.com: How did you know “BANJI” was ready to be heard outside of your circle?
Sharaya J: We took it, put it on a CD and rode to it in the car! That’s our method; if that music feels right to you when you’re in the car, then you’ve got a hit! My producer [DJ Jayhood] told me, “Sharaya, I never heard somebody make our Jersey club joints into an actual song with complete verses and a hook!” He was really excited about the record, and so was I, and so was Missy.
SoulTrain.com: What did you learn about your song you didn’t realize initially?
Sharaya J: After I sat back and listened to it a bunch of times, I focused on the hook. We kept saying, “Banji! Banji!” We were excited about that part later because when we’re making records the idea is to make something that will stick in your head, have something that becomes sort of hypnotic. Listening back I realized it was something so minor, and I love that part! But sometimes it’s those little things that make a record.
SoulTrain.com: In the video there’s a dance scene that takes place in a little grocery store. Was it as fun to film as it is to watch?
Sharaya J: Yeah! That was a good time! That’s a bodega in my old ‘hood that we actually used to go to when we were kids to buy snacks and quarter juices! So it was cool just to go back to my old city and having everybody around. It was hilarious also because the space was so small, and with so many of us dancing I remember one of the dancers saying, “There’s not enough space for this.” And Missy was like, “Y’all better squeeze in there! And make sure you do the choreography full-out!” So we had 8 dancers squeezed into that little area. It was a blast!
SoulTrain.com: I like to see visionary artists and good film directors use symbolism. Did the scene in the store symbolize you have a lot to offer or that you’ll open yourself up to anyone willing to come in?
Sharaya J: I think our goal with that scene was to allow the viewers to see I’m a relatable artist. I do shop at the bodega, we did have good times right there in the hood, and that pretty much was my whole idea. I wanted it to seem real and authentic to who I was. We didn’t particularly go in trying to have that scene symbolize anything, but what I do know is it relates to those people who know about that life. It can encourage people who are from that to feel like there’s a path they can go to still make it out.
SoulTrain.com: Being a well-regarded choreographer, Sharaya, tell us your thoughts on being able to tell stories using physicality.
Sharaya J: That’s a very important part when you’re doing choreography because your steps are supposed to tell a story, for sure. They go hand-in-hand; your music should say something, but your steps should say something also.
SoulTrain.com: What were you hoping to accomplish with the choreography in the “BANJI” video?
Sharaya: My goal was to use authentic grooves that we used to do to those types of records. I actually went to the parties they do in Jersey City just to see what they were doing, to see what grooves they were doing that make sense with records today. I took those grooves, went back to the studio and matched them with some hardcore lines and formations. I tried to make sure it was a real mesh of that feeling of Jersey clubs. I wanted it raw but with a clean look.
SoulTrain.com: Sharaya, what do your steps say about you?
Sharaya J: I think that they’re fun, and I think that I’m fun. I think incorporating Jersey grooves is a testament to the fact that I love that I was raised there. I appreciate that part of my life. And I think they show I’m creative, and that I want to try and be creative. I try to push myself. If I’m not pushing myself Missy is pushing me to be creative or just to think outside of what we think is normal.
SoulTrain.com: Give me your thoughts on people being mistreated, even murdered, because they choose to express their individuality.
Sharaya J: That’s a sad issue. I think we were pushier to express our individuality and uniqueness. We were purposely made different! In my life, I’ve always done things that show I walk to the beat of my own drum. I try to encourage that mainly because that’s where you can find your real happy place. When you get in tune with that place, anything you do will be amazing just because you’re happy inside. When you feel like that inside you express it to your greatest potential. I do think it’s sad people feel like they have to walk around hiding who they are, or not be as colorful as they want or as expressive as they want. That’s why I created “BANJI” and the movement, because there’s so many people out there fighting to fit in, or they think they have to fit in. The reality is each of us is made different to bring something different to the table. You can do that. That’s okay. That’s BANJI.
–Mr. Joe walker
“The Word Heavyweight Champion” Mr. Joe Walker, a senior contributor for SoulTrain.com, staff writer for Muskegon Tribune Newspaper, and feature writer for City Locs, is an award-winning entertainment and news journalist and columnist published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. Former Editor In Chief of XPOZ Magazine, his work has graced the pages and covers of Notion Magazine, Kalamazoo Gazette Newspaper, Real Detroit Weekly, and MLive.com. He loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker, connect with him on Facebook, and also visit ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.