Listen and take into consideration advice from those whom you respect, and don’t place too much significance on the negative opinions of strangers. If those you respect have productive criticisms, it is likely constructive, and they are telling you because they realize your potential. When we allow the negative remarks of strangers to impact us, we give our power away.
As part of my series about the “Young Social Impact Heroes”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aya Ito.
Born in Tokyo as Aya Brittany Ito Smith, Aya Ito started singing before she could talk. She grew up in a household where Michael Jackson, Anita Baker, Sade and George Benson blared. She spent much of her youth listening to, and drawing her inspiration from icons such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey and Japanese idol, Utada Hikaru.
Though music was always her passion, Aya received a full ride academic scholarship to the University of Chicago, where she double majored in Romance Languages & Literature and East Asian Languages and Civilizations.
Today, the multitalented musician enjoys singing in English, Spanish and Japanese, describing music as “medicine for the mind.” Her latest single, “Don’t Take My Life,” shines light on individuals from all walks of life and acts as a powerful anthem for the times. With riveting lyrics and a soul-moving music video, the single is a compelling call-to-action and plea for equality and unity. The relevance and compelling nature of the song led it to make its television debut during the broadcast of the 91st Annual Bud Billiken Parade Special, the largest African American parade in the United States.
Aya’s excitement for change and giving back to her community is more prominent than ever. She has worked with nonprofit organizations, such as Polished Pebbles, to help mentor young girls of color. Aya also works with LINK Unlimited Scholars, where she is paired with an African American high school freshmen in Chicago to help mentor them throughout their four year high school education, assisting with college prep and more. Aya also volunteers with Feed The People and Brave Space Alliance to provide meals to those in need.
Her life’s work has led Aya to create music that is both profound and honest. In her upcoming album, she embodies soulful sounds over enchanting piano licks. Her R&B style combined with smooth jazz and an angelic voice, lures the listener into a space of self-discovery, love and freedom. The album is expected to be released in late 2020.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/8fa2d24aa4274ff0fc930cccb683508d
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
There is so much I can tell you about my childhood, but I will try to keep it concise. I was born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and Black father. We moved to the US when I was two years old. My mother made sure that we stayed in touch with our Japanese roots so we grew up bilingual and were also given Japanese math, reading, and writing homework everyday. As music also constantly played throughout my home, from Michael Jackson to George Benson to Anita Baker, I fell into a natural admiration for music and singing — my mother would tell you I could sing before I could talk! But my home life was not always the most stable. After my parents got divorced, my mother moved back to Japan, leaving my brother, sister, and I in the US with our unemployed father and his contemptuous girlfriend. We were constantly moving from place to place, many times evicted, and on a few occasions, homeless. I often used school, music, and the company of friends to escape the issues I faced at home and I did my best in school so that I would never be in a situation like that again. Music eventually became my escape and my own little world, so to be able to pursue it today as a full-time career, I really do feel like to work is to live, for which I am forever grateful.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
A musician’s life is always full of surprises. I have dozens of interesting stories, but I will pick one for the sake of time *chuckles*
Last December, someone I had never met, but had connected with on social media through the artists’ community on Facebook posted that he was looking for a singer to do a Christmas pop-up. I thought it sounded fun and was a great way to spread some joy during a time that is cold and depressing in Chicago. Between the two of us, we were able to round up some musicians to join and play instruments. We got on the blue line holiday train and performed “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey. The next day, someone had posted the video and it went viral. Various media outlets wrote about it and shared the video. It was even on the news, which for me at the time was absolutely mind-blowing! This video was also the reason I was contacted by Smashtown Records. They have definitely been a boon to my career.
Can you share with us a story about the funniest mistake that you made? What was the lesson or take away that you took out of that story?
Forgetting the lyrics to a song! I ended up making up words and at times just sang gibberish and hoped no one would notice. I learned that if you make a mistake with confidence, who’s to say there was ever a mistake? *winks*
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
There is no way I would be where I am without the help of my godparents. They took on many parental roles. They have always supported me, and continue to be there for me when I need anything, but one of the most significant inspirations is their kindness and selflessness. I also had two teachers in high school who really helped me get through tough times: my choir director and my IB coordinator/AP European history teacher. They were people I felt I could trust and I didn’t feel embarrassed talking to them about my difficult reality at home.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
Practice, practice, practice. One can never practice enough to develop his/her craft. Smashtown Records also put together an amazing team to help jumpstart the project. Communication has been vital in making sure this project succeeds.
You are currently releasing music that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your team are trying to change in our world today?
“Don’t Take My Life” was written as an anthem for justice and peace. So many innocent lives are lost at the hands of violence, whether it be police brutality, gang violence, human trafficking, war, etc. We wanted to write a song that represents a call to action as well as a hopeful message. I want to help change the stigma behind discrimination. I want to help show people that it is important to embrace peoples’ differences. Until more people start doing that, we will remain divided. Music knows no borders and transcends language barriers. I believe that “Don’t Take My Life” delivers a message that almost all people can agree with. We want peace and goodwill for all individuals. I have always been very passionate about social justice and activism. As MLK said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I know of too many lost lives and broken families at the hand of violence. Living in Chicago, I see firsthand the heavy impact violence and injustice has on our communities and our youth. Much of the violence we see is a product of systematic oppression, and the fact that nothing of significance is being done to break this horrible cycle that people of color have been forced into. Not all people are treated equally, and that should bother each and every one of us. It’s frustrating to see my peers and regular civilians doing more work for the community than our politicians and others in powerful positions.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I am definitely a planner. When I received a scholarship to the University of Chicago, I decided I would get my degree. I thought, how could I possibly pass on this incredible opportunity? Though after graduating, I knew my life had no choice but to pursue a career as a musician. I definitely had my doubts in pursuing music and had a backup plan in case I never made it, but there was no way I wasn’t going to at least try. It wasn’t until after I graduated college I realized my life had two choices — follow my heart’s burning desire and go after music, or pursue a job that, at the end of the day, I knew I would never love. I joined a band as soon as I graduated and played music any chance I got — from mini stages to trains, you name it! There was never really one specific trigger, it was more of a domino effect.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Where do I even begin…
I want to start off by saying that I do not expect to solve the problem I am passionate about, which is inequality. I am well aware that to do away with inequality entirely, it will take years and a lot of work by a lot of people. My role as an artist is to raise awareness, move people, and to channel the problems through my craft. I applaud all of the activists who continue working hard every day to make the world a more unprejudiced and just place.
One thing communities need to do is research your political candidates and VOTE! There is too much false information being spread, and we all need to do our part, research facts for ourselves and make informed decisions on how to vote. Our ancestors fought hard to gain us this right. We must not take it for granted.
Many of our politicians are looking out for their own interests and not those of the community they help govern. We, as a society, need to be more selfless and giving. If you see someone in need and have the means to help, help them.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.
- Listen and take into consideration advice from those whom you respect, and don’t place too much significance on the negative opinions of strangers. If those you respect have productive criticisms, it is likely constructive, and they are telling you because they realize your potential. When we allow the negative remarks of strangers to impact us, we give our power away.
- Thoroughly know and understand the people you wish to work with. I have had many experiences working with people who are misogynistic or have not had my best interest in mind. Don’t hesitate to reach out to others who have worked with that person to make sure you will be treated properly. Also, especially as a woman, never put yourself in an uncomfortable situation if you can avoid it.
- Practice and work on developing your skills every day. Once I started doing this, my performances and talent improved, and my confidence on stage skyrocketed.
- Write and/or record ALL of your ideas and keep them organized. I have gone back through my arsenal of lyrics and melodies and brought them back years later to use in a song. An idea you have should never be thrown away as often you can build on it, no matter how much time passes.
- Keep your mental and physical health a top priority. You cannot continue perfecting your craft if you become mentally or physically ill. Your health is not a debt you can just cancel. The body collects. So, take care of it.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Positivity is generally paid forward. Much of why I do what I do is due to the kindness and love that was shown to me, and I want to pass that on. There can never be too much good in the world. If you have an opportunity to have a positive impact on someone or on society, why would you not take it? It will only benefit yourself and others. It’s good for the soul.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love a chance to have a private meal with Rihanna… She embraces diversity and inclusivity in all her work. Rihanna has done a lot to make young women, especially women of color, feel valued and beautiful. I look up to her in many ways and I strive to make an impact like her one day. She also just seems like such a fun person to hang out with, and I love to get any advice from her.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They can follow me on Instagram @blaziansensation or on facebook at facebook.com/aya.blaziansensation
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!