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'Music Was My Solace': Sanya N'Kanta On Race, Religion and the Power of Reggae

Sanya N'Kanta is a genre-defying singer-songwriter based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Photo courtesy of Missing Piece Group
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Sanya N'Kanta is a genre-defying singer-songwriter based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The past year has been a busy one for Jamaican-born, Charlotte-based singer-songwriter Sanya N'Kanta. In March 2020, he released an electrified debut record that in unambiguous terms reconciles past experiences with the present-day reality of racial inequality. Nearly one year later, he's returned with a brand new release that combines acoustic instrumentation with introspection.

"Music was my solace. It was the thing I gravitated to. It was the thing that made me feel human. Music soothed the turmoil I was feeling of moving to a new country.”
– Sanya N'Kanta, singer-songwriter

Interview Highlights:

On being inspired by music in Jamaica:

I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. I moved to the United States in the early ‘80s. Music was always center in my life. My father is a musician, and he really exposed me to many different styles of music from folk music like Bob Dylan and James Taylor to country artists like Kenny Rogers. I was always listening to different styles of music, including reggae music.

Reggae music is a huge part of Jamaican culture. The thing that means most to me is what it stood for. Reggae music is often political. It often has a much deeper meaning. One of the things I noticed when I first came to the States was that music is more about feeling good here; it’s not really challenging you to think as you listen to music. When I think of reggae music, I think of struggle music, music that advocates for the least among us.

On moving from Jamaica to the American Midwest:

It was very hard. And it was heart-breaking. I felt like I had left this place where I felt so at home and was transplanted to this place I did not understand. I found out about race relations very quick. As a young child, I did not have the background information to digest it… I didn’t feel like I was ever accepted, and I didn’t feel like I had a place when I first came. I remember thinking, “What do I have to do to fit in?”

Music was my solace. It was the thing I gravitated to. It was the thing that made me feel human. Music soothed the turmoil I was feeling of moving to a new country.

On the life-saving move from Chicago to Charlotte:

Around seven years ago, I got very sick [in Chicago]. I had intense vertigo, loss of balance and a bunch of other health issues. I felt like I needed to get out of Chicago. My wife was pushing to get out of there and move to a different place where things would be easier for us. We thought about Charlotte because my best friend had been living here and we had come down here a couple times. We had fallen in love with the trees and the nature; it’s like Charlotte is cut out of the forest, where coming from Chicago was the concrete jungle. Charlotte made me feel like I was in the mountains of Jamaica where you have all this rich greenery around you.

When we got down here, it was the second day of being in Charlotte and I was like, “I’m feeling better!” Eight months after selling our house in Chicago, the buyer’s inspector found a huge carbon monoxide leak. I had been positioned for the last five years in that house! Coming to Charlotte saved my life.

On his new music releases:

The Counterfeit Revival (full-length record released in March 2020) was a personal record, but it was more of a record dealing with a lot of the negative aspects of my life. This was a lot of therapy for me in trying to make sense of the world and the experiences I’ve had when it comes to religion, race and being a black immigrant in the United States. It was a record that I needed to write because there were so many things I needed to say.

These are the Days (EP released in February 2021) is more of an appreciation for the blessings that I have. Although there is all of this negativity in the world, there are some wonderful things that we all have that we should always appreciate. Because no matter how bad things are out there, we still have each other. That’s the vibe of the record.

Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:

Sanya N’Kanta - “Civil War”
Sanya N’Kanta - “The Hard Lesson”
Sanya N’Kanta - “The Darkness”
Sanya N’Kanta - “I Don’t Remember”
Sanya N’Kanta - “Waste My Time”
Sanya N’Kanta - “I.C.E. at the Door”
Sanya N’Kanta - “North Carolina”

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Joni Deutsch is happy to call Charlotte home as WFAE's manager for on-demand content and audience engagement, where she's led the first Charlotte Podcast Festival (named one of the “best podcast conferences” by Buzzsprout) and helped produce such podcasts as FAQ City, SouthBound, Inside Politics, Work It and the Apple Podcast chart-topping series She Says. In addition to being an NPR Music contributor, Joni is also the creator and host of WFAE’s Charlotte music podcast Amplifier, named “Best Podcast” by Charlotte Magazine and honored for excellence in arts and music podcasting by the local Edward R. Murrow Awards and The Webby Awards (called “The Internet’s Highest Honor” by The New York Times).