For Rochester musician Zahyia Rolle, the stage is where she finds her power.
“Performance is my drug. It’s my mental therapy. It’s where I feel the most comfortable. It taps into a different matter or energy which music can transform,” says Rolle, who admits she “geeks out” over the possibility of music affecting quantum physics. “I don’t have the technical sense, of course–like Stephen Hawking or whatever–but I’m fascinated by the idea of transforming existence through music. How can you create sounds that will uplift or focus someone so it will understand their pain?”
Absorbing pain is a major aspect of her newest single, “Fighting the Sickness.” The concept for the song was born 11 years ago after Rolle, who was babysitting a friend’s four-year-old daughter, learned he had been privately battling a heroin addiction.
A prayer from the Baha’i faith, a spiritual movement that believes in the unity of all religions and one that Rolle grew up with and continues to practice, came to her mind. She remembers repeating it over and over the entire night. The lyrics of “Fighting the Sickness” are selected portions of this, known as the “Fire Tablet” prayer.
“The majority of the prayer is him crying out: ‘Yo god, I’m suffering, What’s up with that? People are dying, the sea is swelling up, the world is horrible,’” Rolle says. “But then he has an epiphany, like almost a ‘Braveheart’ moment where he says we need to fight this. That’s what’s powerful about it. It’s an acknowledgement of angst, but know that we can’t dwell on it forever. We need to fight.”
Rolle sees this same angst in the world today, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, the deaths of George Floyd and Daniel Prude, and civil unrest as events that have raised anxieties, distress, and discord globally. Rolle adds that the music video purposely uses footage from the anime epic “Akira” as a reflection of reality’s chaotic landscape.
“The city, in this future Neo-Tokyo, has locked up the power of this thing, Akira, and now it’s literally falling apart,” Rolle says.
The end of the film results in the destruction of the city, but Rolle does not view this as entirely hopeless.
“On the surface, it’s not encouraging because everything’s destroyed.” she says. “But, the way I read it, Akira becomes one with god at the end, he’s rising up out of the water in the end. There’s a sense of survival after all of the chaos.”
Rolle says her recent music has purposely been aimed at coping with these difficulties. “Foul SoulChild,” which was released nearly a year ago, specifically deals with the mental health struggles she was experiencing through the process of shaving her head, as seen in the music video that went viral.
“I needed to move on to a different emotion and I wanted to physically represent it. I kept seeing the hair and felt this need to get rid of it. My husband was freaking out about it,” Rolle says. “But he understood. He got over it.”
Similar to “Foul SoulChild,” “Fighting the Sickness” features a mishmash of musical sensibilities. The thrumming guitar line of her latest work was inspired by Disturbed, for example. That eclecticism is something Rolle would be the first to proudly admit is an accurate encapsulation of her as an artist.
“I feel like all musicians are told, ‘the only way to market yourself is to stay in one lane.’ But I don’t believe creatives are ever in one lane. We’re really more like 14 different colors of Play-Doh mashed together,” Rolle says with a laugh.
Her musical journey began with learning piano as a three-year-old child and wanting to be the scarecrow from “The Wiz.” By age 11, Rolle was creating full compositions on a Casio sequencer and, in college, she sold EPs out of her car and was featured on a radio segment about local musicians.
In addition, Rolle grew up in a musical household. Her father was a jazz musician who “always had instruments laying around the house,” which she experimented with, and a mother who loved Tina Turner, maybe too much for the younger Rolle.
“Sometimes you shy away from people your parents love, you know? Mom played Tina Turner into the ground for me. And there’s this weird narrative that Black people aren’t supposed to be rock and roll,” says Rolle, who was shamed for her love of glam rock in high school. “It took a long time for me to come around but now I see Tina as accepting the rock and roll parts of my existence.”
Part of that acceptance was a popular Turner impression she did for her Motown cover band in college. By studying Turner’s performances, Rolle says, she gained a greater understanding and skill about the energy created by performing live, something she has not had the opportunity to do over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Virtual shows were the worst thing I ever did. We’d end a song, putting this energy into it and out of breath on stage, and there was nothing. The deadness of it all was so depressing compared to the light I feel with live performances,” Rolle says. “So I just stopped doing them.”
The wait for live performances will be over next month. Rolle is set to perform at the Lux Lounge on March 11. New music is also set to come out soon, with an album of popular songs put through a process Rolle calls “upcycling”–remixed and redone in a different style–slated to be released next month. The one description of a song Rolle gave was “jazz funk meets thrash metal.”
“Yes, it is bipolar, I know. This is how I have fun,” Rolle says.