R&B singer Illa (Ari Robinson) is a boss. Fearless, business savvy, and assertive, she effortlessly maneuvers in a world of men while owning her femininity. One of the few women in her graduating class at barber school, she now owns and operates an exclusive, referral-only barbershop in Berkeley, where members of East Bay rap collectives ShmopLife and HBK Gang regularly go to get lined up before shows.
If Illa’s success as a barber is any indication, she’s a go-getter. And her approach to her music is no less bold. On her upcoming mixtape with prominent East Bay producer Trackademicks, Favor, due this fall, she exudes the sort of conviction that’s propelled her self-made success story.
A San Francisco native raised in the Fillmore District, Illa sang her first solo in the church choir at only two years old. Her uncle, rapper and producer K-Maxx, encouraged her to learn to produce, grooming her to be self-sufficient in the male-dominated world of music.
“My uncle used to have a studio in the basement of my grandma’s house,” she said during a recent interview in her barbershop. Though it was the end of a long workday, she looked relaxed and put-together with her Nineties fly girl style and long, manicured nails. “I learned how to play piano by putting my hands on top of his while he played. I’d memorize it as best I could and run back upstairs to my grandma’s upright piano and try to recreate what we had just played.”
K-Maxx’s early guidance taught Illa to take initiative in her creative process. While it’s more common for female R&B artists to be regarded as performers rather than auteurs who handle everything from lyrics to production, Illa taught herself to make beats so that she could have more creative control over her work. “I went online, downloaded [the music production software] Reason, and watched YouTube tutorials. … I knew I could create a beat and now I had all the tools in front of me.”
In high school, Illa had dreams of being an R&B singer, but everything changed when she came down with serious health issues as a teen. “I was a big girl when I fell sick and I lost eighty pounds in a very short period of time,” she said. Although she was recovering, her newly thin appearance made her popular among her peers. “I had people wanting to be around me because of how I looked. It taught me a lot about people.”
She continued, “I know what it feels like to be the cute, popular girl and I know what it feels like to be the fat girl who had to fight for attention and would do anything to be in people’s good graces. … I’m still that overweight girl on the inside. And because of her, I can identify with everyone and empathize with everyone’s struggles.”
It’s Illa’s empathetic and soulful nature that makes her a poignant, sincere songwriter. Her singles and features on tracks by local rappers such as Kool John and ST Spittin caught Trackademicks’ attention. (Illa released some of her previous music under the moniker Ari Ill.)
Trackademicks has worked with many prominent Oakland artists including Mistah F.A.B. and Kamaiyah, but he and Illa are like a modern-day Aaliyah and Timbaland duo. “It’s not a lot of people who are, like, one-hundred percent consistent with their technique, and as I got to know her, she’s a woman who knows how to handle herself,” said the producer.
He went on, “Her voice, the church in it, the musicality, the riffs — that voice helps me do what I do best.”
The collaborators are currently putting the finishing touches on Favor, and Illa said she hopes the project will inspire young women to see their inner strength. “I spent a lot of years on the hamster wheel of my insecurities: ‘Am I good enough, pretty enough? Is my butt big enough?’ I didn’t know my own value. And now I’ve been through life. I’ve been through a lot, and I finally took the time to deal with myself and walk in my own confidence. I know who I am and I know where I stand, and music got me there.”