Jamaican-born singer/songwriter Sanya N’Kanta is no stranger to adversity. Immigrating to the U.S. when he was a wee child, trying to integrate into society at such a young age was difficult and often rather denigrating. “My earliest memories of my new elementary school in the Midwest were painful,” he remembers. The ugly tenet of institutional racism was very present, reminding him that no matter how much he tried to assimilate, he was still an “other”. He painfully recalls about his Jamaican accent, “At school, the mere utterance of a few words would send my classmates into hysterical laughter.”
Ostracized and ridiculed, N’Kanta had a difficult choice to
make: blend in or retain his ethnicity.
“My dad expected me to keep my accent and culture, regardless of what I was experiencing in school,” he explains. “I remember studying TV and practicing how to talk without a Jamaican accent with my older brother. My dad overheard us one day, and we received a swift punishment.”
These days, N’Kanta has tried to put that behind him, though the specter of social toxicity still lingers. His new single “The Hard Lesson” from his latest EP These Are the Days, tackles another challenge that he needed to learn: the one of toxic friendships. An emotionally gripping song, “The Hard Lesson” is immersed in the aftermath of saying adios to a friend who wasn’t worth the effort. “The hard lesson to learn in life is that some friends come and go / People can cut you like a knife. Sometimes, you got to let go,” he sings, the folky timber of his voice reminiscent of a young and well-enunciating Bob Dylan.
“’The Hard Lesson’ is a song about the fact that not all friendships last forever,” he reflects. “As unfortunate as it may be, letting go of a toxic relationship is a painful but necessary step for growth.”
Common themes throughout his EP These Are the Days, growth, friendship and healing seem to occupy his mind and music quite a bit, like the ode to his family “Waste My Time” (“it’s a love song for my family who bring me so much joy”) and “I Don’t Remember” (about an encounter with a long-lost friend in an airport). Written earlier this year in isolation with his wife in kids,the EPis a poignant reflection of his life up until now. “These Are the Days are a collection of songs written during the COVID 19 epidemic and my favorite work to date,” he says. “Being shut-in with my family for many months has proved to be a positive inspiration for my songwriting.”
Circling back to the painful subject of his childhood, the wounds of his experiences seem sensitive to the touch. “Things got worse after I perfected my English the next summer and went back to school,” he remembers. “There was no more laughter, only hate, and contempt because most of the black kids thought I was trying to be white, that I had ‘sold out’. I never accepted this because I was already aware of my culture and rich Jamaican heritage, especially the music.”
Absorbing the pain and not allowing it to traumatize him, N’kanta learned that survival meant embracing his “otherness”. “ They made fun of my darker skin and gave me the nickname ‘Midnight’ because my skin was as black as midnight,” he recalls. “This didn’t offend me though. I loved my skin color, and I remember feeling sorry for them that they did not. I just got off the boat from a mostly black country, so nothing they said could convince me that I was not black enough.”
All these memories and traumas of childhood could have destroyed him, but he learned to live with it and carve out his own identity, both as a person and a musician. Though he was raised on reggae, his passion turned to rock. “I’ve always done rock n’ roll,” he says. “My early bands were all rock—it comes naturally and it’s what I love—but it seems like it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around a Black man singing indie rock. But I’m comfortable in my own skin and I’m going to play the music that makes me feel good and not worry about labels.”
For N’Kanta, working through these painful memories and exorcising them through music is his means of survival. Shedding off unhealthy friendships and healing others is his new direction in life. After a recent near- tragic incident of carbon monoxide poisoning, he’s ready. “I felt like I never gave everything to my art, and I was hoping and praying for one more chance,” he says with conviction and a new EP in hand. “Now, I am ready to fulfill my promise.”