To hear Keyana, real name Melanie Sum Kasise, tell it, the story of how she got her start in the modelling industry involved a lot of convincing. “My mum was the one that pushed me into going on shoots as a child, trying modelling, going on cute little runways,” she says, her expressive eyes crinkling with amusement at the memory. This eventually led the precocious teenager to the catwalk of The New Paper New Face competition in 2017, where she clinched second runner-up. “She dragged me out of bed on Saturday morning to go for the audition and I was like, I don’t want to do this; I was complaining throughout the audition,” she says as she cracks up with laughter.
Half-Chinese, half-Ghanaian, the spritely 17-year-old is at our Syed Alwi Road office for her interview before a full-day shoot at Upper Seletar Reservoir. Dressed simply in a camel knit top, track pants and sneakers, she is preternaturally self-assured and thoughtful when giving her responses; her personality shining through in bursts as she talks about the influences and choices that have moulded her into the performer that she is today.
One of these influences, Keyana admits, is dance. An avid dancer versed in several genres, she is grateful of the values that she has learnt through the craft. Dance was also her escape from the occasional bullying that she faced in her school-going years, when she was called names because of the way she looked. “As a teenager, dancing was the only thing that helped me and disciplined me a lot,” she says. “As I grew up, the discipline that I learnt through dance culture has stayed with me.”
She has put this discipline to good use in the pursuit of her music career. In June 2020, Keyana put forward her first single, ‘Save It’, an R&B track produced by one of Singapore’s top hip-hop producers, Flightsch. “It’s a song about heartbreak, getting through it, and becoming a stronger person and woman,” says the singer. “My thought process behind it was really simple: I wanted to convey how I felt at that point in time in the cleanest and easiest way possible for people to remember.”
The hallmark of any great artist is being able to turn personal experiences into something that others can relate to, and Keyana managed to find her medium through song. “I want people to remember it, to listen to it and feel comforted by it,” she explains. “That’s my direction when it comes to any song—from ‘Save It’ to the song that I’m about to release. It’s about taking something away [by listening to] it.”
By the time this issue hits newsstands, Keyana’s new single, ‘Scorpio’, would have been released. It’s a darker romp than her previous single. Having had it in the vault for a while now, she says, there’s no better time than the present for her to unveil it now that she’s older and more mature. “All my music encapsulates that period of time that I’m in,” she says. “I’m basically encapsulating how I feel now, and my personal experiences now, and translating it to the world.” So, what hints can she give us of the new track? “It’s a lot more R&B, it’s a lot darker, it’s a lot more intense,” she says, not wanting to reveal the surprise. “It’s one notch higher.”
“You’ve got to pour your heart and soul into it. If not, it just wouldn’t be you and you wouldn’t feel proud of your craft at the end of the day”
On the topic of her music, we turn to her influences and inspirations. Growing up in a multiracial family, she says that the genres she was exposed to were varied, but Mandopop was a constant fixture in the house. “My family was huge on Mandopop—Jay Chou, JJ Lin—it was on daily. From that, I grew my love of ballads,” she recounts enthusiastically.
So why hasn’t she released a ballad for her repertoire, I ask curiously. “I haven’t made one myself because that is very scary to me,” she laughs.“Ballads are huge and big. You want it to be perfect, you want to hone your craft till you can do that.”
Another musical influence comes from her Ghanaian side: African music, Afro pop, reggae and dancehall play a big part in shaping her music today. “There’s just that kind of groovy, undeniably hot beat. Yeah, I’ve got my love for that,” she says. In a way, Singapore is a perfect metaphor for her music: a melting pot of influences that comes together to create something that is undeniably unique.
Coming of age in Southeast Asia has also opened her eyes—and ears—to musicians within the region, among them, Singapore’s Yung Raja, Abang Sapau and Alyph as well as French-Malaysian singer-songwriter SonaOne. As luck would have it, the latter is working on Keyana’s new EP, slated for a 2021 release. “I’ve listened to his music since I started listening to Southeast Asian artists,” she gushes. “I’m very glad to be working with him right now.”
Making it as a performing artist is hard, but, as they say, when there’s a will, there’s a way. At the end of the day, all Keyana wants to do is present the most genuine version of herself to the world through her music. As we come to the end of our interview, she tells us a piece of advice that a family friend told her when she joined the industry, something that has stuck with her till today.
“He told me to make sure that I stay true to myself at all times, doing whatever I do. Because I am a beautiful person inside and out, and I need to remember it, and translate that in anything I do,” she says. “And everything that you do, you’ve got to pour your heart and soul into it. If not, it just wouldn’t be you and you wouldn’t feel proud of your craft at the end of the day.”
Photographer: Shawn Paul Tan
Fashion: Daryll Alexius Yeo
Hair: Ken Hong/Evolve Salon
Make-up: Greg’O using Make Up For Ever
Photography assistant: Melvin Leong
Fashion assistant: Low Rin