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Growing up in a family band with eight siblings is a recipe for a bustling, loud life. For Fana Hues, if it wasn’t her stepfather’s old soul records spinning on the turntable or her mother’s Jill Scott CDs playing, it was bass lessons from her dad or YouTube singing tutorials for songs by powerhouses such as Mariah Carey and Beyonce. Amidst all the commotion, Hues’ story nonetheless begins with a whisper.
A dangerous combination of strep throat, tonsillitis and scarlet fever left the singer almost voiceless for part of her childhood, an anecdote that has been a centerpiece for much of her career. An unintended consequence of Hues’ illness was her fragile voice, strained by even the shortest of conversations, which left her stuck between a rasp and a whisper for almost five years. Nursed back to health with a potent combination of vocal training, persistence and her mother’s homemade medicines, Hues regained her voice and found her calling.
For most people, their introduction to Hues was in the middle of a different type of silence: the pandemic. Her 2020 debut “collection” Hues arrived in a tense and confused world, setting the stage for her own anxieties as she processed the deterioration of an old relationship alongside fantasies of revenge sex. Stuck in the awkward purgatory of fame in the midst of a global standstill, Hues gained recognition amongst everyone from Earl Sweatshirt to Issa Rae, with the latter including “Icarus” in an episode of her hit TV show Insecure. Faced with the pressure of retaining an audience in an uncertain climate, Hues told herself one thing: “Get it done by any means.”
It’s this resilience that frequently comes up in my conversation with the 26-year-old singer, whose tales of prison outreach, musical theater and closet recording sessions escape her mouth nonchalantly. It took almost half a decade to bring Hues together, and its follow-up flora + fana, released last week, came with its own challenges. “I finished recording my project in a closet,” Hues confesses. “I recorded songs on an old laptop and had to learn how to convert files to send the stems to the engineer so he can mix them properly.” It’s an unconventional workflow adopted by many artists in the pandemic. For Hues, it felt like going back to her roots.
The singer fondly remembers traversing the minefields of Limewire, dodging deceptive files in search of her favorite songs ranging from Drake to Nina Simone. Using the audio editing software WavePad, Hues would separate the vocals and instrumentals to create her own karaoke tracks and harmonize with her musical idols. Tasked with creating playlists for her middle school dances as part of her student government class, she also learned how to censor the songs to avoid getting into trouble.
It’s this technological advancement that creates unprecedented autonomy in a new generation of musicians. Whether it be the ease of illegal downloads or overnight virality due to social media, music’s playing field has evened out for the most part. Less than a year after the release of her self-titled debut, Hues received an Instagram message from Tyler, The Creator asking to collaborate. It was a twist of fate, and Tyler was unaware that Hues’ mother knew his, or that their sisters went to school together. All he knew was that there was something special there.
In the middle of closet recording sessions and ping-ponging files to engineers for her sophomore release, Tyler’s CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST dropped in the summer of 2021. Alongside fellow R&B star Brent Faiyaz, Hues had the opportunity to shine on “SWEET / I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE” as Tyler’s unattainable love interest. Over a tropical shuffle, she sings, “Honestly, it’s all about the timing / I ain’t mean to lead you on because / him and I got some things that we’re trying.” The two intertwine like a clumsy dance, wrestling with confusion over the state of their relationship.
In a Twitter Q&A following the album’s release, Tyler revealed that their collaboration was his favorite on the album: “SWEET. THAT SHIT MANNNNN WHEW. THAT MY TYPE OF SHIT THO.” Just like that, all eyes were on Fana Hues as this mysterious rising star.
For the singer, this newfound attention arriving after her debut prompted an approach that was as much of a proper introduction as it was a refocus. With the clever confessions of Hues out of the way, in came the more voyeuristic and intimate world of flora + fana that began to plant the seeds of what is growing into her own ecosystem. The nature comparisons are almost inevitable. Airy vocals and hazy guitar strums flow throughout the album as a central life force. From there, the jazzy flourishes of tracks such as “BAD bad” or the wobbly electronics on “high roller” shift in and out of view like changing seasons. If there’s anything to know about Hues, it’s that she creates with intention. She recalls the musical theater classes she took throughout her childhood: “My teachers always said to never move on stage without a purpose. Do not move around aimlessly. In my performance and stage presence, I never move unless I am moved to move.”
At the core of flora + fana is Hues’ kaleidoscopic view of Black womanhood, both as it pertains to her and as a shared experience. “I intend for it to be very clear,” she asserts. Hues draws my attention to “fall in line,” a song written in the middle of her involvement with various social justice movements around police brutality. After the tragic death of George Floyd at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the focus shifted on artists to speak up about racial injustice. Hues used her platform to reflect on healing. Her dazzling harmonies repeat, “Fall in line,” which serves as both a tense reminder and a stern affirmation to ground oneself in the midst of trauma. Twirling piano keys dance around Hues’ central question: “Why what’s good to me ain’t good for me?”
There is a healing, almost medicinal quality about Hues’ music, like the cooling menthol of Vicks VapoRub or the subtle kick of lemon tea. The minimalist choral arrangement of album standout “wait” reaches a spiritual euphoria as she repeats, “If you could wait only a while / I still need time to mend.” flora + fana blooms with affirmations and reassurance, allowing for space to grow, mess up and breathe. Hues uses her sophomore album as not only an introduction to a much wider audience, but also as a personal reminder of her identity and purpose. “I’m always going to talk about me identifying as a Black woman here in America because that’s my reality,” Hues explains. “It is natural. It’s not something I can turn off.”
Within the past decade, a new wave of female crooners has taken the global stage, defining Black womanhood in their own terms. SZA’s 2017 debut CTRL, which will go down in history as one of this generation’s most influential albums, contained candid tales of sex and anxiety. Noname’s stream-of-consciousness, soul-infused raps on 2018’s Room 25 tackled failed relationships in the same breath as activism with a sharp wit and humor. Expanding the telescope also reveals songwriters such as Raveena Aurora (who Hues is touring with this spring) taking influence from her South Asian heritage for a divine exploration of millennial life on her 2022 debut Asha’s Awakening. A common thread throughout these works is the lack of expectations they set upon listeners, allowing for people to approach these songs with all their experiences and faults. For Hues, all are welcome into her ecosystem.
This communal ethos makes sense from the moment Hues’ glassy vocals touch the air. The experiences of her lifelong prison outreach work with Aim4TheHeart, DJing middle school dances and singing at her local African market are woven into the warm, colorful quilt of her artistry. She duets acoustic covers of her songs on TikTok and looks on with a childlike glisten in her eye. She jokes with adoring fans on Twitter. Several times throughout our conversation, she finds a way to bring up her 2021 Day N Vegas performance. “I did not know that people were going to know the words to my songs,” Hues exclaims. An innocent breathlessness mixes with her light rasp as she tells me, “It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
Hues excuses herself from the call to return to rehearsal for her upcoming nationwide tour with Raveena. She still finds a way to keep her family close, learning the movements choreographed by her sister and soothing her voice with the best medicine of all: her mother’s homemade herbal concoction. Hues continues to tend to her voice, explaining, “I’m just a bit more fragile than everyone else.” After all, she still has so much to say.
Jade Gomez is Paste’s assistant music editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. She has no impulse control and will buy vinyl that she’s too afraid to play or stickers she will never stick.