Ebony Obsidian can not be sonically defined. “Whatever comes out of me at any given time is clearly whatever space I’m in,” she says. Sometimes, songs rise out of her as full-on rock anthems; other times, it’s jazz or neo-soul. “It just has way more to do with what’s going on with me, and I think that speaks a lot to how I have molded my acting career. I’ve always wanted to be something different next. I’ve never wanted to be typecast, if you will, or anything like that.”
Obsidian, most known for her role as Karen Mott in Sistas on BET, as well as in such films as If Beale Street Could Talk, returned to the music space with last year’s rhythmically off-kilter “Leave.” Now, the singer-songwriter springs forth with a silky R&B ballad called “EIL,” which once began as a love song before morphing into a reflection of deep loss and pain. “It turned into a song of me comforting myself,” she tells American Songwriter.
“That was a message that I wasn’t getting from any of the songs I was listening to at the time,” she adds, “and that I wasn’t seeing, specifically in any of the films or TV shows that I was watching at the time, which was a lot because we were in lockdown. I wrote the song that I really needed and still need because we’re still in this. Healing is not a quick thing.”
Over the last year, Obsidian turned ever-inward to do much-needed personal work and confront “things I haven’t felt comfortable talking about.” As such, she began setting aside time in the early morning to write. “It still doesn’t feel structured to me because it’s just me leaving time for it if it should come,” she notes. “A lot of the stuff that I’m writing right now are things that are connected to the roles that I’m playing on a couple different shows. So much of my life is very much so the work that I do, and I love that. But it’s reflective work. Balance is also something that I’m becoming a lot more aware of.
“The really cool thing about the work that I do with acting is that sometimes it overlaps. Sometimes, the experiences that you have on screen as somebody else are experiences that you yourself have had or they feel like them,” she continues. “They might not be the exact same setup but they feel like them and just seeing them from a different perspective gives you a chance to see how you really felt about something, when you thought you may have felt an entirely different way.”
Originally from New Paltz, New York, Obsidian grew up performing in choir, loving Disney movies (Aladdin and The Little Mermaid were her favorites), and soaking in her grandparent’s East African heritage. “They came here during the civil war in their home country, and music was a big part of their culture and how they used it to heal, to bring joy, to express their own feelings and their own experiences. I’m really grateful for that, because music definitely is a universal tool. It doesn’t matter what language is being spoken, when you hear something, it still makes you feel something.”
Since New Paltz so near the Catskill Mountain Range, Obsidian and her family spent many days commuting to and from the lush countryside. Songs by Lenny Kravitz, Shania Twain, Anita Baker, and Whitney Houston soundtracked their travels, in such a way that cemented the importance of lyrics and melody for her.
“I was that kid who when I was home, and in a safe space with my family, I was very outgoing. But outside of that, I was always really shy growing up,” she reflects. “I almost feel as if I would have come into music much sooner if I hadn’t been as shy.”
Her mother would also sit her down in front of their giant box stereo and “see if I would take it seriously. She sat me down one day and put on Whitney Houston. In my head, I’m like, ‘Mom, why are you playing Whitney Houston?’ I sound nothing like Whitney Houston; I don’t have the vocal capability of Whitney Houston. But I remember her putting her hand on my stomach and saying, ‘This is how you breathe. You breathe from here.’ That, I think, was the beginning of me saying, ‘Huh, there’s actually a proper way to sing.’ And that is what led to voice lessons and really sticking with choir and thinking about it more as a performance and as something that can and should be done right.”
When singing and songwriting became a serious passion, Obsidian recorded her own songs down on a collection of cassette tapes, many of which she still has to this day. “Songs would come out of nowhere. I’d be washing the dishes, and I would start thinking of a song or tune or whatever the case may be. It was always the lyrics and tune first, before I ever got into a studio space to work with producers or anything like that.”
Despite such rich musical roots, Obsidian initially intended to become a travel journalist, but the gravitational pull to act was far too strong. Instead, she studied at The William Esper Studio and soon landed several roles in independent films before finding her way to Tough Love, a popular YouTube series, and If Beale Street Could Talk. And the rest (really) is history.
The last few years, however, have found Obsidian called back into songwriting. She released “Hold Me,” directly inspired by her work on Tough Love, in 2016. Now, she slides further into the musical spotlight, an instinctual move that’s already paying off.
“I’ve never sat down to write unless I had already started a song. So any song that I’ve started has come out of the blue, and then I’ll put them down if the inspiration runs out, or if it just doesn’t go anywhere, and then I’ll come back to it,” she says. “I have songs I wrote when I was 14. Interestingly enough, some of the stuff I was singing about at 14 is something I’m going through now.
“What happens sometimes is you don’t always get to express everything you want to express. When you’re playing a character, you have a script and a job to do, and you do it. But sometimes there’s still some stuff that you have to get out. And so the really cool thing that songwriting does is it allows me to fill in the gaps where I might feel artistically stifled, if you will, in any given moment. And I kind of just get to come in and fill that crack and feel like, ‘Okay, I got it all out. That’s how I feel.’”
While releasing an EP or other body work is not off the table, Obsidian would rather release “music when it strikes me to do so. I think that the best that I have to offer in music will always come out that way when I’m ready to share and when it’s finished,” she says. “The fact that I’ve circled back to songs that I’d written when I was in my early teens and seeing how relevant they are now to life made me come to understand how much of what we do, and what we say are things we think we should be doing and saying, versus things that come innately, I suppose.
“And I say that to say, we are whatever our environment is, and I think songwriting is teaching me when I look back at songs I’ve written years ago, or even the stuff that I’m writing now, and just the difference between those two things, or the similarities─this is all connected,” she remarks. “A lot of things have to be dug up and deconstructed to really be fully understood. And that’s been a beautiful process. It’s something that is exciting… and scary at times, and so many other things that are necessary. I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve taken away from the songwriting space and how I’ve grown with it.”