Before I came to USC, I did not know one could major in Music Industry. Professional artist paths like these are not generally encouraged at public high schools in small suburban towns like the one I was raised in. Since then, I’ve met many impressive college students with Music as their field of studies, and Shekina McEwen is a great example. A third year in the Music Industry program, Shekina has taken her love of enjoying and creating music and put it to work. She is determined to change the music industry with her growing knowledge of record labels and industry norms, and she is also an independent artist with many songs out of Spotify. Shekina and I talked about growing up in a musical home, her experience and advice about school, diversity in the music industry, and incorporating vulnerability in her art.
KEEP UP WITH SHEKINA:
I’d love to learn about your background in music and what role it played in your upbringing.
I grew up with two parents who were already musicians. My father was a drummer in his band in his early twenties and my mom was a guitarist since she was a teenager. My sister took piano lessons but fell out of it, and then I saw her keyboard and kinda messed around with it. I first actually started on the xylophone, like a baby xylophone. I played London Bridge while my mom was washing dishes and she was shocked. My mom says I was watching a kids TV show that would play London Bridge as the theme song, and so I just learned how to play it by ear on the xylophone. My mom was freaking out, and from there she put me in lessons, so I’ve been playing piano since I was 4.
When did you start composing your own music?
I started making my own music around fourth grade. Looking back, my piano teacher inspired her students to play around and do some improv. We’d have these practices together where she would play a couple notes and it was up to me to add the next notes, which allows your brain to make up music.
So, you’re studying Music Industry at USC. How is that? Did you have your eyes on this program?
Yeah, I had my eyes on this program around sophomore to junior year in highschool. I didn't even know about USC-- I'm from a super small town so we basically live under a rock. But my sister texted me the USC music program and said I should apply, so I did my research and was like, wow this is kind of exactly what I want to do. And I love the program, I love the people that I’ve met here, I love the professors, I love everything that I’ve learned. I think there's a lot of useful information about business tactics and legal tactics in the industry.
That’s great. What has it been like being in the music industry as an artist vs learning about it?
It’s competitive, very competitive. I feel like some people are always just trying to one-up each other, when really we're all just trying to make music, do our own thing. I don't really understand the competitive type of drama. What happened to just making music together? But hey, if that's how you want to roll, that's cool. But other than that, I’m fine.
I’ve heard a lot of people say the music industry is very cut throat so that makes sense. I want to talk about your style of music. I’ve been listening to some of your songs for the past few days and it's very vibey, sort of low-fi. I was playing some songs and Spotify autogenerated songs similar to it and it suggested older Clairo songs and spill tab. I’d love to know how you came to the style that you’re at now.
I mean, I grew up listening to a lot of R&B and hip hop. Those two are my favorite genres, but I think over the course of the last couple of years I’ve listened to a lot of indie, indie alt, like Briston Maroney, John Vincent III, so I feel like I’ve also incorporated some indie style in my music. But I typically will always listen to R&B, so I feel like my sound is very diverse, where I'll start off thinking I want to make R&B but somehow there's some indie alt folk elements there, and I’m like, I don't know where this came from but it’s ok! My mom was also into Spanish folk guitar, my dad listens to The Beatles and The Bee Gees, like older ballads, and my sister also listens to R&B and hip hop, so with all the music I’ve listened to throughout my childhood, all of those kind of mixed together to create this sound that's very diverse.
Some of the titles of your songs, like People Pleaser, Dear Anxiety, and My Mind are very openly dealing with anxiety and mental health, like interpersonal conflict. I would love to hear about your personal relationship to those topics, mental health can feel like such a buzzword, but that sphere of vulnerability.
I’m a strong believer that music is self expression, so I think that my art should express how I feel. A lot of my songs, honestly they were meant for therapy for me, like when I’m going through something I'm like, ah shoot I’m gonna make a song. Not too often I make a song to release it, it's always, I'm gonna make a song because I'm going through this, and if it sounds good then I’ll release it. Sometimes I start with how I’m feeling and write everything down, notes app, sometimes on paper. But usually I'm making music based on how I feel in the moment or I'm using personal experiences that happen and just recalling that. Whether it's a breakup or something, I just go to music. Music is art, music is self expression
Being a student, you're constantly with peers who are sharing each other's work. Putting out very vulnerable work and giving those people access to your inner world, what is that like?
It's a little scary. You're really just exposing yourself out here. But I also have friends who are like wow I never knew you really felt like that. It has also created a bond between some people that listen to my music, because they're also going through the same stuff and it assures them that they're not alone. Definitely with my song Dear Anxiety, that song showed the utmost vulnerability that I was kind of scared to release it. It's also like 6 minutes long. But a lot of people liked it because I was real with it and in touch with my emotions
I know you performed at the Brandy Melville studios. Tell me about that experience and what that was like.
It was fun! They just hit me up on Instagram about wanting to record a couple songs and that's what we did. I had recorded two originals, one was already released, one was unreleased. And they gave me clothes, so I was like, win-win.
Is that experience something that you are hoping for more of in your future?
I don't really think so. It doesn't really entice me to be a super famous artist, I really just make this art for fun and if it takes off it takes off, if it doesn't it doesn't, I don't really want to pursue being an artist as a primary identity in the music industry. I want to work with sync licensing and business affairs and legal affairs in music production rather than only being an artist. But, I mean, who knows. You never know. But as far as me personally, I don't really want to be seen as just an artist.
I saw that you are hoping to start up an independent record label, which is sick. I know that having fair treatment in the industry is one of the values that you want to bring into that, so I'm curious what parts of the industry you want to see changed.
One, diversity. I'm not saying that the music industry is not diverse. I would say most artists that we know as far as mainstream radio are white or black, but I think you seldom see Asians in the industry. I had this joke with my friends saying an Asian is rarely in the music industry and if they are, they're in the orchestra- they're not in record label operations, they're not in hip hop, they're not in R&B. I think there's slight growth, specifically Southeast Asians who are starting to get involved in the music industry, like Viet artists and Filipino artists. But as far as East Asians, not as much, so I would like to see that change in the music industry. I would like to see more women in the industry, specifically women of color. I know for a fact there are artists that are people of color who are very, very talented, but they have not been able to get their foot in the music industry and I think that’s solely because they don't have the resources, they are not white, they don't have the connections that other people have in the industry. Second, more people of color who have authoritative positions in the music industry. Like I said, I'm not saying that there's not diversity in the music industry, but that's from an artist level, not from an executive level. Most executives in the music industry, like your boss, your CEOs, mostly they're gonna be white. So I would like to see that change. And yeah, those are the changes that I aspire to help change in the music industry with an independent record label.
If you could have a message for younger kids who are thinking of studying music industry in college, what would you want it to be?
I would say, talk to as many people as you can, make friends with as many other people in your classes as you can. Get along with your music industry professors, they are well known in the music industry they know their stuff. Go to as many house concerts as you can, whenever someone says there's a concert going on try your best to make that so you can make as many good connections with music industry people as you can because connections are everything. And try to collab with other artists as much as you can! Some artists are competitive, you might have to deal with some rejection, but if not, you have some collaborative work. That's always great– it expands your sound, it expands your audience.
Good advice. Speaking of making music, do you have anything coming up to plug?
Yeah I do have an album coming mid-december. So, stay tuned for that :D all the vulnerability is there. It's called For My New Therapist.
* This interview has been edited for clarity