We talked to the LA-via-New Jersey singer about 'ApeShit,' a short film and narrative concept album executive produced by Chris Hicks and Bryan-Michael Cox.
Sonyae Elise / Still from ApeShit
When you first see Sonyae Elise in her short film ApeShit, she is destroying someone’s possessions and setting their home on fire. You go on to learn that she has committed a number of other rather heinous crimes, for which she has found herself in the middle of a prison interrogation. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that Sonyae is not someone whom, after watching the film, you would have any inclination to cross.
When you first see Sonyae Elise in person, however, she is bubbly and funny and almost unnaturally comfortable in the room, greeting everyone she encounters with enthusiasm and handing out compliments left and right. Her own colorful hair and lip gloss—turquoise and a bright violet, respecitvely, the day we meet—are likely to draw compliments of their own. The lip gloss, by the way, is part of her own line, LipRebel, which she has spent the last few years developing with a friend. Sonyae naturally attracts people’s attention, which is convenient because, in addition to those other pursuits, she is also a musician busy building a fan base.
So far, that fan base has accrued in a fascinating array of ways. Born and raised in New Jersey, Sonyae grew up recording music, attending arts programs, and performing in professional theater before dropping out of college (“When you already know what you’re trying to do, and you’re creative enough to figure it out without the regular models that motherfuckers set up, like just go do shit.”) and moving to LA to pursue music. There, she fell in with a crew of young songwriters that included a pre-fame Frank Ocean, among others.
Photo by Willem Holzer
She entered into a songwriting-themed reality show, Platinum Hit, on Bravo, and she won. Victory came with a cash prize but also with a burdensome recording contract that she then spent a while trying to get out of. Eventually free from paperwork, she resumed promoting herself on social media networks like Vine, where friends of hers like Simone Shepherd and Brittany Furlan had become celebrities. Soon, she created a signature Instagram singing series where she showed herself singing harmonies in a grid of boxes. A version of “Trap Queen” went viral last winter after Fetty Wap reposted it, and from there she was contacted by people throughout the industry, including Rich Homie Quan and a music executive she’d never heard of named Chris Hicks.
Hicks, a former executive at Warner/Chappell Music and Island Def Jam, one of the people behind such acts as Mary J. Blige and Justin Bieber, had moved into film. But he was moved to work with Sonyae, and he connected her with famed Atlanta manager Kevin “Coach K” Lee. She had a couple self-released projects, including a breakup-themed mixtape called S(he’s) Br(OK)en, but they decided the follow-up would be, in line with Hicks’s new pursuits, a short film incorporating the music. And so we got ApeShit, which Noisey is premiering below.
A short film and narrative concept album starring Sonyae and executive produced by Chris Hicks and Bryan-Michael Cox, ApeShit tells a story of infidelity and revenge. In it, Sonyae is a convincing actress in addition to continuing to prove her chops as a multifaceted singer and songwriter. The music features production from Atlanta mainstays like 808 Mafia and Nard&B, as well as contributions from Bryan-Michael Cox and Sonyae’s longtime collaborator Devin Cruise. It’s the latest feather in her cap alongside songwriting credits and features with artists like Jeremih and The Game. To learn more about the powerfully expressive singer behind the whole concept, I sat down with Sonyae for a lively conversation.
Noisey: Both with She’s Broken and ApeShit it's like this story of infidelity. So what's the story?
Sonyae Elise: So ApeShit is the movie with the 11-song soundtrack. Eleven is my thing. The story is—so like my dad's a gangster. He's just been in the streets forever. I've just seen a lot of stuff really early. He has seven kids. I'm the first born. My mom and my dad separated really early, so I only have stories from my mom about my dad, but me and my dad are like best friends, so as he went on to have the rest of his children, I've been a part of all his relationships. And my mom as well.
And then I've found myself in, I've only been in one relationship in my whole life. It was for like almost a decade, and it was serious. He's older than me. I kind of always say he broke me to fix himself, because I'm like wet behind the ears and wildly in love and kind of like got the purest love for this guy because I've never been in another relationship. He's an incredible guy, just maybe not such a good boyfriend.
So out of that relationship came She's Broken, and then spilled over into ApeShit. If you listen to She's Broken, ApeShit is like the sequel kind of, but there's no visuals to She's Broken.
The story is just like all the things that I've seen and went through. I'm kind of crazy a little bit. Not crazy, but I love too hard to be played with. It's like either love me or leave me alone. I'm fine left alone because I have a whole career to worry about and do, but if you're going to invade my space and my heart you better be taking me serious because if not you're going to get a whole album about you.
I just love so hard, yo. I put so many words together for the songs I don't even know how to talk about it. My music is therapy for me. It's just a plus that so many people are going through the same things and they love it. But it's really therapy for me because if not then ApeShit would be real life. ApeShit was this close to being real life! I ran in a few studios, kicked down a few doors, smacked a few bitches. Definitely I've done that a few times. But it's better in art form. Nobody wants to keep breaking nails and shit over niggas.
Still from ApeShit
How did you come up with the plot line?
I had some help. Chris Hicks brought in a team of writers, and they basically took my music and we made a movie. It's all narrative. I didn't want to do like a movie music video. He was like “nah, let's do this like a real movie so that we set you up like you're Tupac, you're J. Lo. Acting and music from the get-go.” We had writers and stuff come in that write movies to help expand the vision. And it came out so good!
It almost scares me because I clicked out. The girl, my friend Kiya, who's the side bitch, I really split her back open and everything. Like with the gun. I just clicked out! I don't know what happened, but it felt so good. It was like my favorite experience yet. Visuals are so important. It's just another level of creativity.
They’re probably getting even more important. Now you can watch music videos on your phone. What did you think of Beyoncé and Lemonade?
ApeShit has been done for eight months. People were having a hard time figuring out where it would live, what it would do. I'm a black girl going crazy; who wants to see that? But now that Beyoncé dropped Lemonade, I feel that it's gonna help.
I just think that I'm on the right page, for her to come out, and it's kind of reminiscent of what I'm doing. I feel like if I had a million dollars for She's Broken it would have been Lemonade. That bitch is incredible, though. Those visuals are crazy. She's going to fuck with ApeShit, mark my words. Me and Bey going to work because she's gonna watch ApeShit and she's going to hit me like “my lil young young! What's really good!”
Every time Bey or Rihanna drops something, people call me like “congratulations,” thinking that I wrote on the project. If I showed you the text messages when Lemonade came out, they were like “congrats, this is incredible.” And I'm like, “Yeah, I didn't write on this at all.” But people that know what I'm doing and see what's going on in the climate of music, they're like, “This shit just feels like something you would put together.” I'm like '” wish!” Oh my god! Lemonade's so crazy! I wish!
You know how bitches are trying to fill a void or take somebody's spot? I'm coming for Drake. I don't care about none of the girls. I want Drake and that's it.
Photo by Willem Holzer
Let's get philosophical for a minute about infidelity. There's this thing on She's Broken where you say like “this is the burden of being a woman. He's a guy so he can get away with it.”
Did you see how it's She's Broken but (He's OK) in the title? Not that the guy's really OK. I'm like back in communication with my ex now, and we're talking through a lot of things, which is good because it's probably going to be on the next album.
The guy is not OK, but y'all just have a good poker face. If it was real, then both parties are fucked up. That's what I'm learning now. But the fucking fact that—one time me and this guy break up over something serious—my little sister calls me like “he's at the movies with another bitch.” Like the same night! And he went up to my sister and told her “Don't tell Sonyae you saw me, we're already going through enough problems. Please.” Of course she calls and tells me! But why would you? You've got to be OK because I'm sitting here miserable, crying, writing songs, writing my heart out, and you're somewhere with the next bitch! Which is where “Funeral” came from: “Don't kill yourself over a nigga, he might just bring the next bitch to your funeral.” In those dark moments, girls contemplate suicide, yo. Not to really do it, but like “damn, if I die would this nigga even care?” So that's how I thought of that song: If I were somewhere on a fucking cliff, he wouldn't even give a fuck! He at the movies with another bitch!
It's not even really a gender thing. It's whoever the person is in the relationship that is always being forgiven. Always it seems like it's one person in the relationship giving their all and wearing their heart on their sleeve, and the other person is like sometimes. One person's the glue. And then it switches, which is crazy. Which is what I'm going through now. I'm dating guys now, and I'm like, “I don't really like you that much, but I'm bored.” And then when months and months go by and this person's like in love with you, you're like “oh shit!” What do I do? Go to the movies with the next nigga!
What was it like working on the music for ApeShit?
I did most of the music in Atlanta, between 808 Mafia, Bryan-Michael Cox, and Devin Cruise, who's in LA but from Jersey. He's like my nigga from when I was little. We came up together. He's like my 40 to my Drake. The vibe in Atlanta is so different. I'm speaking about the same shit as She's Broken because it's real life that I experienced, but the vibe is so lit. It's like tropical trap. It's more energetic. She's Broken, you're going to play when you're listening to Mary and Adele, when you're in that mood. I'ma give you ApeShit—put that on with Rihanna and Bey.
It’s a little less one vibe. She's Broken was one vibe. My heart was broken, and that's all I could fucking sing about. This one it's like fuck niggas, get money. Yeah I love you nigga, but fuck out of here. Fuck out my section. I'm talking about my day ones, my homegirls that been there for me, that be there for me to dry my eyes when these niggas be fucking up. I'm talking about getting to the paycheck. I'm just in a whole new space.
Atlanta—you have that like Future, fuck everybody mindset.
I started binge listening to Future! I'd never been that into Future, but then I got to Atlanta and was like 'this is why he's got to be so fucking hot.' Because the music out here alone without words on top of it is a different feeling, a different energy. And then you go to the studio, niggas have got guns on the table. I love it. I felt right at home. It ain't like LA at all. Well, I've been to some studio sessions in LA with guns. But not really. It's mostly like good vibes and candles and weed and peace and harmony. But man, I be in Atlanta turning up! I love it out there. I've got Bryan-Michael Cox doing trap music. He has a way of merging beautiful musicality with whatever you want.
Photo by Willem Holzer
Another person you’ve worked with is Anderson .Paak.
We have a couple songs together, between me him and Game. We were Game's favorite, let's just be fucking honest. Game hit me up on Instagram like “you're fucking incredible.” Then months later Migos was in town, we ended up going to a Game session. All Game's best friends and girls and stuff, they were like “oh that's the girl from the internet! You're dope!” And they lured him over like “if she sings for you, she'll make you cry.” And he's like [tough guy voice], “you ain't gonna make me cry. I've heard so many singers, ain't nobody going to make me cry.” I was like “you ain't heard me sing before?” He looked at me like “ohhhhh, why you didn't tell me?” And after that me and him were in every day until his album was done. And that's how me and Anderson met.
We were both like really new artists, in the Game sessions together, and we just clicked. I think he would be like another musical soul mate of mine. Malay would be on the production end, and then if I could have another musical husband it would be Andy. Because me and Andy just go back and forth freestyling, and words come out. Our energy writing is crazy. He's one of the best guys I've met. Him and Jeremih. They're sweethearts. I'm on that Jeremih album. I wrote “Worthy” and “Give No Fuks.”
I write for boys. I refuse to write for girls until I'm like Rihanna level because I don't want people stealing my shit. I would write for girls if it was Bey and Rihanna, but I don't want somebody coming with a big machine and stealing stuff before I let the world know who I am. It's hard to come behind somebody and be like “no this was really me.'”They're like “we don't give a fuck, she did it first.” I just write for guys and swag out with the guys in the studio. They just love me, yo. I don't get disrespected. I think I have such a strong personality that I kind of always take the sister role with a lot of the guys that I work with so there's no confusion. And they all just accept me because I'm weird and kind of emo sometimes but then I'm bubbly. I'm a Cancer, so I'm mad moody. But the guys are like “just get in the booth. Express yourself.” And now that I'm with Coach and Chris, everybody lets me do what I want. Ain't nobody messing with me.
Boyfriend/Lover: Donald James
Chief: Tasia Grant
Detective #1:Lem Collins
Detective #2: Lecody Braddock
Detective #3: Denise Santos
Detective Escort: John Palomino
Side Chick: Kiya Roberts
Bad Girl #1(driver): Kasha Jean-Charles
Bad Girl #2: Anaya Roderick
Bad Girl #3: Jessica Vanessa
Bad Girl #4: Rayuana Aleyce
Executive Producer: Christopher Hicks + Bryan Michael Cox
Writer: Lalanya Abner
Director: Chad Tennies
Producer: Antwanette McLaughlin
Producers: Lekeith Taylor + Damon Thompson + Brittany King + Omar Green + Kevin "Coach K" Lee
Associate Producer: Mac Grant
Casting Director: LaQuanda Plantt (ElleQ Casting)
Production Manager: Tiphanie Watson
Production Coordinator: Joseph Barrett
Script Supervisor: Matt Grant
1st Assistant Director: Ibrahim Villa
2nd Assistant Director: Knia Bonds
Cinematographer: Kristian Zuniga
1st Assistant Camera: Daniel Guadalupe
2nd Assistant Camera: Mike Rooney
Steadicam Operator: Brett Mayfield
Gaffer: Alex Allgood + Daniel McDowell
Electric: Shaun White
Electric: Kevin Eagleson
Best Boy Electric: Dylan Harrington
Best Boy Electric: Josh Smith
Key Grip: Eddy Sarkisov
Grip: Edward Martinez
Swing: William Hickox
Art Director: Cotrell Qualls
Set Dresser: Meghan Brazelle
Prop Maker: Jason M. Brown
Art Production Assistant: Jonathan Fritschi
Office Production Assistant: Avery Johnson
Truck Production Assistant: Eric Canada
Production Assistant: MiAsia Burks
Production Assistant: Mecca Bonds
Production Assistant: Latanya Carter
Production Assistant: Artemus Jenkins
Production Assistant: Janae Houston
Production Assistant: Wendell Johnson
Production Assistant: Jacob Gayton
Hair: Kindra Wright-Horn
Makeup: Alexis Fagan for Joseph B. Agency
Makeup Assistant: N/A
Costume Design:Kara Chin
Wardrobe Designer: Raquiah Carter
BTS: HALO + Garfield Lamond
Still Photographer: Dwen Stuart
Creative Director/SFX: Damian Atkinson
Editor: Jeffrey Dennis "HALO"
Audio + Boom Mixer: Chykeria Thompson
Sound Design: Teddy Bishop
Sound Design: HALO
Colorist: Jakoyea Wright
Art Design: DL Warfield
Willem Holzer shoots pictures and video for VICE. Follow him on Instagram.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.