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Durham Diva

he "neo-soul" movement has been in full swing for a few years, but now Durham is getting in on the action-in a big way. YahZarah, a Durham resident and former NCCU student whose debut album, Hear Me... is set to hit stores later this month, heralds the arrival of a new force in the Durham scene.

"I'd rather have my voice promote the track than the track promote my voice," she said between spoonfuls of a throat-soothing gelato. "So much music is overly done now."

YahZarah is not the only R&B artist who feels that way. In recent years, performers like Erykah Badu and D'Angelo have successfully challenged the pop-R&B establishment by eschewing its over-produced, keyboard-heavy conventions. With critically acclaimed albums, Badu and D'Angelo helped to reintroduce the spirit of great artists like Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin into today's music.

Hear Me... takes their ideas one step further. A sparse drumbeat and a subtle yet funky bassline carry songs that serve as showcases of her songwriting and singing ability. And YahZarah's talents are formidable. A classically trained singer, she once considered pursuing a career in opera before moving from Washington, DC, to Durham four years ago. In the summer of 1998, YahZarah successfully auditioned to be a background singer for Erykah Badu and joined her on the Lilith Fair tour.

Working with Badu encouraged YahZarah to avoid compromising her art for the sake of popularity. "She always tells me, 'For as long as you can keep it your own, keep it your own,'" she explained.

And with Hear Me..., YahZarah has crafted her own gem, one rich in its delicacy and sly in its delivery. "I hope people smell a little bit of the stank I'm putting on the music," she said with a grin.

But she faces an uphill battle. While the mainstream music press usually covers outstanding independent rock acts, black artists who are not signed to major labels are often ignored-especially in a genre that so highly values slick production. YahZarah professes that her strong religious faith and personal integrity won't allow her success to be based on anything but talent. "We have deeper things to speak of," she said. "There's more to black folks than smoking, partying and f---ing."

The 22-year-old's obvious maturity should help her keep creating good music: "When music started becoming more of a business and less of an art is when things started getting watered down."

But YahZarah, a worthy, gifted newcomer, has bucked the trend-her distinctive and courageous sound prove she's nothing short of potent.

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