Black History 365: Naia Kete

We are highlighting examples of Black excellence throughout the year! Feel free to send us suggestions!

One original song every week

Published: 2/21/2020 8:42:11 AM Modified: 2/21/2020 8:41:59 AM

Many of us make New Year’s resolutions, but we’ve usually given up on them by the time Groundhog Day arrives. That’s not been the case with the urban reggae group SayReal. The band vowed that in 2020 it would release a new song every Friday on Soundcloud and on its Facebook page. The group also vowed to make sure the song on Facebook would also have an accompanying video. That’s right: 52 original songs in one year.

It’s an ambitious project that is taking a lot of work, but it has paid off, as the band has found a new way to engage with its audience, all the while keeping the focus on the music and the messages within it.

Listeners will get a chance to hear some of these new songs played live when SayReal and Rebelle perform at the Perch at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center on 289 Main St. tomorrow night, Feb. 21, at  7:30 p.m. (performance took place in 2020)

SayReal is based in Los Angeles but has roots are here in the Pioneer Valley, where the group has been visiting for the past couple of months. The group is led by Naia Kete, who was born in Northampton and lived in various parts of Western Massachusetts including Shutesbury and Leverett when she was growing up. She is the group’s lead vocalist, lyricist and bassist. She is joined in SayReal by her younger brother, Imani Elijah on keyboards and drums, and her longtime boyfriend, Lee John on drums and guitar. 

The daughter of musicians, Kete has been making music with her family including Imani for as long as she can remember. She got her musical start singing with her family’s reggae band the Black Rebels, which became Rebelle and is led by her mother, Kalpana Devi and step-father, Emmanuel Manou. Kete later launched a solo career and started performing at various local venues. Her backing band included Imani and about 12 years ago, she met Lee John, who joined her band. Like Kete and her brother, John’s parents are musicians. His father is guitarist Earl Slick, best known for his work with David Bowie, and his mom is Jean Millington, who co-founded the band Fanny with her sister Institute for the Musical Arts co-founder June Millington.

Not long after John started working with Kete, the three musicians moved to California and started busking on the streets. Kete’s powerful, expressive voice landed her on the second season of The Voice, where she made it to the top 24 on Team Blake. The group continued to make music under her name, but after musician/ producer Randy Jackson confronted her after a gig and pointed out that the music was bigger than her, she got to thinking about forming a proper band. 

“I asked Lee and Imani ‘how about would you feel about being a band?’” said Kete in a recent phone conversation. “Because the music never was about me. The music that I love to perform is sparking personal musical and cultural evolution, and we are all on board with that.” 

Kete said the band works because they are a family, and theirs is an egoless collaboration where they give each other the freedom to express themselves however they want. 

SayReal released its full-length debut “Unarmed and Ready” in September. The group released four singles from the project, prior to its official release, and noticed that with each songs release came a spark in activity – everything from increased plays on Spotify to more activity on Facebook. “So we thought the more we release the more we have the opportunity to gain more fans and grow our community,” said Kete about one of the ideas that sparked the 52 releases project.

The fact that this project would allow them to dig deeper into the content and message of the music also made it appealing. Kete said, however, that what really appealed to her most about the idea was that it was a way that SayReal could help combat all the hatred and division that is so prevalent these days, especially on social media. 

“The thing that I love about music is that it inspires this feeling of awe and wonderment,” she said.  “I really wholeheartedly feel that the right song has the opportunity to open a person’s heart and change a person’s mind in an instant. It really is a universal language, so for me, 52 songs is 52 opportunities to do just that: to open people’s hearts, and for all of us to be able to find common ground and speak a common language.” Support the Recorder. Subscribe Today

So far, the songs they have released is a diverse bunch that range from the love song “Take it Slow,” released last week in honor of Valentine’s Day, to “Photograph,” a tune that explores the current obsession with snapping pictures to post on social media. While all of RealSay’s music is rooted in reggae, rock, pop and soul sounds can be heard in their work, all the while the message remains positive and life-affirming.

In the accompanying videos, the band shares a behind-the-scenes look at their songwriting process and the meaning behind some of the songs. 

Some of the songs were written before the start of the year and others they are writing now specifically for this series.

“I’ve been working harder than I ever have before, but it’s a welcomed challenge and the kind of work I believe in,” said Kete, adding that at only two months in, she’s not sure where the project will ultimately go. “Who knows? It could be a new business model for us. It is all an experiment.”

SayReal is also in the midst of running a GoFundMe campaign to help finance a new tour van. And, Kete has other side projects: she works as a life coach supporting women in weight loss, fitness, relationship goals and more. She’s also launched an online project through which she is encouraging women to play bass and posts a video online every Monday of her playing the bass lines of the new songs. 

“It started when I was vocal coaching at IMA (the Institute for the Musical Arts in Goshen) last summer,” Kete said. “I was so inspired by female musicians, and would like to see more of them,  particularly in reggae music, so it became my mission to encourage more women to play bass.”

But SayReal’s greatest passion remains playing live and inspiring fans with messages of empowerment and positivity. 

“It’s about being honest and transparent about all the emotions and feelings and experiences that life has to offer — whether that is on a personal level, in a relationship or something happening in politics or in our culture,” Kete said. “It is just being real and honest about sharing your perspective and sharing your heart — so that is what I try and do in my music.”

For music, visit sayrealmusic/

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at