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Meet Baraka May in San Fernando Valley

Today we’d like to introduce you to Baraka May.

Baraka, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up in a very musical family. 8 kids, all playing piano on rotation, singing in harmonies, geeking out on chord changes, and all! We had a rich extended family of composers, orchestrators, conductors, arrangers, and performers as well, so there wasn’t a moment of musical silence. My dad was a phenomenal jazz bassist, and he’d bring me to his gigs sometimes to listen to the music and jump in to scat on a song or two. Meanwhile, I was studying classical piano, performing in musicals, trying to emulate Mariah and Whitney 24/7, and making silly voices and celebrity impressions after my mom, who was a spectacular voiceover artist.

These various influences made me love manipulating my voice, and I found myself being the “swing” singer in every ensemble, bouncing around from high soprano to low alto, stepping in last minute to do someone’s part when they came down with the flu, and even sight-reading an entire concert without any rehearsal. I came to love those high-stakes moments when I knew people counted on me to bring everything I had with confidence. I realized that I loved sight-singing a lot more than my peers, and I wanted to sing fresh, new music every day. I couldn’t bear the thought of only singing one style day in and day out. I also spent so much of my life improvising with my siblings, singing on the spot with my dad at his gigs, and I loved the thrill of just jumping in with both feet and figuring things out as I went along.

I thought, man, there’s nothing out there that scratches all of my musical itches… and then, bam: session singing! I was leading worship at my church, and an incredible woman approached me afterwards for my info. She passed my demos on to another incredible woman, who was putting a choir together for Danny Elfman and his upcoming film, Real Steel. She hired me based off my demos, and I came in without knowing anyone there. Without any rehearsal, we just jumped right in and sight-read the entire film score in perfect harmony, right in the pocket… it was life-changing. I knew I had found my people.

From that point on, over the course of the past 7 years, I’ve been thankful to sing on over 200 films, TV shows, and records. I’ve sung in classical ensembles and gospel choirs, done character voices, soundalikes and impressions, provided musical theater and pop solos, demoed original parts for actors, locked in silky smooth straight-tone jazz arrangements and bizarre, aleatoric music… sight-reading all day without rehearsal, improvising and being thrown around from the top to the bottom of my range. One time, my choir director had me on soprano 1 for the first 8 bars, then tenor for 16 bars, and then alto for the last chunk of a song except the last two measures where I jumped back up to soprano 1! I seriously love it!

I so deeply respect artists who know exactly what their message is, what their brand/style/sound is. For me, it’s always been a struggle to know exactly what I am because all I want to do is mold into what the sound needs to be. I’ve never had just one voice. Session singing has been so magical for me because I love working with composers and artists to give them what they’re looking for. Sometimes that sound is raw and messy, sometimes it’s very young and innocent, sometimes it is spot-on and seamless. Aging my voice, shifting my timbre, studying other voices so I can recreate that sound – I live for this type of singing. And sight-reading is my jam – the less rehearsal, the better! 🙂

Has it been a smooth road?
It’s been smooth in the sense that hind sight is 20/20. You look back and see how everything came into place. But during this process, there were definitely periods when nobody was hiring me, people had their cliques and wouldn’t budge to let me in, and so forth. That actually still happens – people get an ironclad idea of who’s “classical” and who’s “pop”, who’s a real soprano and who’s a real alto… so my brand as a vocal chameleon is not always popular. People wanna ask okay, but what do you really do? As if you can’t possibly be good at more than one or two styles. It’s been an uphill battle with some folks to convince them of my full vocal palate. But it’s also wonderful when they hear something from you and go woah, I had no idea you could sound like that!

We’d love to hear more about your business.
I’m a session singer. I specialize in singing for studio recordings, anything from film and TV to commercials, video games, parades, and albums.

I am known for sight-singing and manipulating my voice on the fly in high-pressure situations. I sing a wide variety of vocal styles and am often called on to provide specialty skills like accents, celebrity impressions, child voices, ethnic/world music riffing, and cartoon character voices.

Some solos I’ve done are La La Land, Solo: A Star Wars Story, several episodes of Family Guy (singing voice of Taylor Swift and Juice Newton), the singing voice of Lucky on Spirit Riding Free, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, Coco, and the upcoming Grinch film. I played Sally in The Nightmare Before Christmas LIVE with Danny Elfman in Tokyo and have continued performing solos with him and other Disney-live shows since.

What sets me apart from others is that I’m willing to take vocal risks and am bold when it comes to sight-singing, improvising, and exploring my voice.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
For one thing, our city can improve tax forms for independent contractors. And Jury Duty – doesn’t make a lick of sense for independent contractors!

The big thing about my industry is the battle to keep things union (SAG-AFTRA) and local (stop outsourcing to London, Nashville, Florida, etc…) If you want to be a session singer in LA and actually make that your career, it’s got to be union. When great singers are available non-union, it hurts all of us. The studio/production pays barely anything for the single session with no back end, and now they’re incentivized to keep avoiding fair pay to union singers by seeking out the young folks who are just happy to get the experience. It’s predatory for artists – singers can’t make a living off of a couple hundred dollars here and there for sessions that ought to be paying back end.

That being said, yes, I’d say start out here. Sing for caroling groups, sing for churches, sing demos for your friends, sight-read everywhere you can. Join a choir, sing at open mic nights, sing background vocals for shows, and put your own shows together. Sing for weddings and funerals and corporate events, and get that footage up on your social media sights. Create a demo reel to showcase what you do, and create a community among your singer friends. Singers hire singers. If you start somewhere else, your community starts over there.

Pricing:

  • All SAG-AFTRA rates are available here: www.lasingers.org
  • Solo rates differ based on the project (film, tv, commercial, sound recording, etc…)
  • Demo rates are 50% of scale

Contact Info:

  • Website: www.barakamay.com
  • Email: barakabear@gmail.com
  • Instagram: barakamay
  • Facebook: barakamaymusic
  • Twitter: barakamay


Image Credit:
Frank Hobbs

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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