“There aren’t many people who look like me in the local music scene, and with that comes its own set of struggles,” says Singaporean singer-songwriter Keyana.
“Not many people in Singapore naturally gravitate towards a performer like me, and it can be painful at times, but I also feel extremely fortunate to be the person carving the path [for other minority performers]. There is power that comes from that.”
Insightful words from a person not old enough to legally vote. The multi-hyphenate who sings, dances, choreographs, models, and most recently, makes her own pottery, may only be 19, but she speaks with a certain gravitas. And as Keyana stands on the cusp of adulthood, she says she is slowly learning to not just accept her differences, but to celebrate them.
Stronger than yesterday
Keyana shares that she wasn’t always this self-assured. Born Melanie Sum Kasise to a Ghanaian dad and a Singaporean-Chinese mum, Keyana – who’s known as Mel to family and friends – has spoken out in previous interviews about her struggles with growing up mixed race in Singapore.
After placing third in The New Paper New Face competition in 2017, the then 14-year-old scored a modelling contract with a Singapore modelling agency – but it wasn’t always smooth-sailing. In past media reports, Keyana has talked about the microaggressions she faced – such as being passed over for modelling assignments because clients weren’t open to models of colour.
Though she declines to elaborate on these experiences, Keyana has this to say: “I’m mixed-race and proud of it. I don’t necessarily want people to forget that I’m me.”
And who Keyana is, is so much more than just her appearance. The talented teenager released her first single Save It – a moody R&B track about heartbreak – when she was just 17 years old. Her second single Scorpio dropped not long after. The latter track drew its share of controversy, though. Shortly after the song was released in 2020, Keyana took to Instagram to share how she was sexually groomed by her former manager, a man 11 years her senior. She also revealed that Scorpio was about their toxic relationship.
While baring your heart is never easy – what more on a public platform – Keyana says she’s always believed in being raw and honest in the art she produces.
“To me, the nature of music is to share genuine emotions and experiences with your audience,” she says. “My music has always been a way for me to encapsulate whatever I’m going through at a particular period of my life. [This process] has helped me to be a lot more forgiving towards myself.”
“Trust the process” is a mantra that the young singer goes back to time and again whenever she starts to feel selfdoubt creeping in. Despite having performed professionally as a solo act for almost four years now – even opening for established bands such as Moonchild, and Charlie Lim & The Mothership in 2022 – Keyana says she still grapples with stage fright and imposter syndrome.
“It’s an emotional and mental struggle to accept that you deserve a spot on that stage,” she explains.
To help cope with frayed nerves, Keyana says she has started going for vocal lessons to undo the bad habits she picked up as a self-taught singer. While the CHIJ Katong Convent alumnus has been dancing since she was three years old – starting with ballet, before transitioning to jazz and tap, then landing on hip-hop when she was nine – singing was something she only used to do with family.
“My mum and my aunts are big fans of Mandopop, and karaoke was a very big part of my childhood,” recalls the singer, who reveals that she can speak and sing in Mandarin as well.
“My very first music player was an iPod, and because I didn’t know how to download any music, my aunt downloaded her playlist to my iPod, and it was everything from Mandopop to Beyonce to Alicia Keys. That definitely had a big influence on my musical tastes growing up.”
Even today, Keyana’s playlist continues to be as varied as the one she inherited from her aunt. From hip-hop and R&B to jazz and neo-soul, as well as Mandopop and Kpop, Keyana says listening to a wide variety of musical genres has inspired her to find and develop her own sound. “We can all find our space musically – there’s no template to follow,” she says.
A work in progress
Like most girls her age, Keyana is still on the journey towards self acceptance. She says her strategy for combating self-doubt is simply to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and trust that each step is taking her closer to her goal.
“I used to be so angry and frustrated; I found it hard to accept the things I did and the things I went through,” Keyana shares, sounding contemplative. “But I realised that being angry is not effective; in fact, it’s torturous. These days, I try to view my past failures as my biggest motivator.”
Be it failed friendships and relationships or even making mistakes on stage, she says she now takes it all in her stride, and chalks it up to the human experience. “I’m not alone in having difficult experiences, and the lessons I’ve learnt along the way are invaluable,” she says. “Each experience just pushes me to be a better version of myself.”
She attributes her groundedness to her strong support system of friends and collaborators, but says her biggest source of encouragement is her mother. “My mum is absolutely the pillar of my life,” Keyana declares. “She’s always there for me, she’s at all my shows, and is always so supportive.”
In fact, Keyana, who is an only child, reveals that her stage name was in part inspired by her mum, as she wanted a name that shared the same first letter as her mother’s name – Karol. “My mum is the reason why I strive for success. My dream is to give her and my future family a comfortable life, one that is filled with joy,” she says, a look of determination in her eyes.
Making music for the ages
These days, Keyana is channelling her energy into expanding her body of art. She’s currently working on her debut album titled Her Purple Room, a six-track EP that she describes as a time capsule of her teenage years. Exploring the themes of love and loss, Keyana worked with Singapore-based producer Fauxe for this album.
“Finding someone who aligns with me mentally and sonically was very difficult, so I was very lucky to meet him,” Keyana shares. “He is so patient and understanding, and listens to me as a friend. He believes in me and gives me the confidence to create, and I am forever grateful to him.”
The first single off the album Shelter From The Rain is Keyana reflecting on the role she plays in romantic relationships, where she tends to be “too innocent” and takes on the role as a “shelter” for her partners – thus, failing to see any red flags along the way. Such introspection might be considered rare for someone just 19 years young, but ironically, embracing her youth is what gave Keyana the wisdom of hindsight.
“When I first started making music, I was very pressured to write music like the musicians I listened to growing up – such as Rihanna, Sinead Harnett, Beyonce and Ella Mai – who were in their 20s and 30s,” she shares.
“They are all such versatile artistes, and are able to convey deep emotion through their songs. When I first started songwriting, I found it incredibly hard to convey a single emotion through words, but after a while, I grew out of directly referencing music created by artistes I admired, and took my time to seek out a process that was most natural and comfortable for me.
“I’m only 19, and should be making music like a 19-year-old, not a 30-year-old,” she adds.
It’s precisely this genuineness and desire for raw honesty that helps Keyana connect with her audience. A quick look at her music videos on Youtube reveals a growing fan base, with netizens praising her musicality and professing support for any upcoming work.
“I realise that I create my best work when I allow myself to deeply feel my emotions,” she says. “I hope to be the kind of artiste who is able to articulate a particular emotion so well that it resonates with anyone who listens [to my music],” she says
What makes Keyana happy
Pottery “I recently picked up pottery, and I love how it’s a nice balance between life and art. I get to keep the things I make – from bowls and vases to incense holders. I now have seven or eight incense holders dotted around the house for me to light incense at any time; it’s a simple yet intentional step of my daily routine.”
Game nights “I really enjoy game nights with friends and family. Be it card games or mahjong, I find game nights the easiest way to bond and reconnect with people I’ve not seen in awhile.”
Visiting museums “I love going to museums and looking at art. I get a lot of inspiration from discovering the stories behind that single image, and trying to feel what the painter was trying to express.”
Spending time with her mum “I love travelling with my mum, but even simple things, like watching a movie or having a meal and people-watching, are enjoyable when we are together.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Joel Low, assisted by Eddie Tan
CREATIVE DIRECTION Windy Aulia
ART DIRECTION Ray Ticsay
HAIR Karol Loo
MAKEUP Eric Tan / Palette Inc