On the early November afternoon that her father was arrested on Black Lives Matter Plaza, 9-year-old rapper Fly Zyah was scheduled to perform there as part of an Election Day rally sponsored by Black Lives Matter DC, Long Live GoGo, and Shut Down D.C.
Shortly before her set, Metropolitan Police Department officers began to push the crowd to a different location. In the ensuing chaos, Zyah and her younger sister were separated from their parents. Frantically searching for his daughters, Ron Brown was tackled to the pavement, handcuffed, and arrested—charged with crossing a police line, disorderly conduct/inciting violence, and resisting arrest. Black Lives Matter organizer Nee Nee Taylor negotiated with police to retrieve his car keys before taking Zyah and her family to the nearby St. Regis Hotel for hugs, reassurance, and some Whoppers and Kit Kat bars.
Three hours later, Zyah climbed on the flatbed truck that served as the event’s stage, now relocated a block away. In a video shot by photographer Dee Dwyer, Zyah loses her composure as she steps up to the microphone. Sobbing, she says, “My dad, he got arrested a little while ago, for protecting me and my family, for no reason.” After the assembled crowd shouts out words of encouragement, Zyah launches into a fierce rendition of her song “Generation Speaks,” with lyrics that include the following:
“If you could see what I see People screaming, he can’t breathe Got his knee on his neck while they watching him plead Should’ve did the right thing and just let him leave Now we’re marching in the streets Just us, no peace Say his name, Elijah McClain, doves release Black lives that matter getting snatched by police.”
In the days that followed, Zyah wrote a new song, “Dear DC,” addressing her father’s arrest with justifiable anger and an unflinching demand that the city do better by its Black residents. The single premiered on the same day as the Capitol insurrection; since then, “Dear DC” has attracted a lot of attention, including spots on several TV news stations. Currently, the video has 865 views on YouTube and hundreds more on Instagram. A go-go version of “Dear DC,” recorded last month with Flux 180, is receiving radio airplay on WKYS-FM, WHUR-FM, and other platforms.
As Zyah speaks, taking on gentrification, racial inequality, and other issues, she is accumulating admirers. In the process, she has become the DMV’s hottest elementary school-aged rapper.
“She told us, ‘I’m writing a new song, and they’re gonna know what they did. Yo, this is beautiful. She took her pain and put it into her art,” says Taylor. “When I first met her, I was drawn to her spirit. She’s so intelligent and smart, and she was mostly talking about the injustice of Black people.
“Then what happened the night of the election put even more fire inside of her. I think she’s a powerful little Harriet Tubman in the making,” Taylor continues.
“Zyah is dope! You can tell that her words are well thought out and she means what she is saying. It’s rare to hear such a young artist expressing her emotions at that age. I love it,” says rapper Calvin “Killa Cal” Henry.
Reuben Jackson, an award-winning local poet whose work has also addressed the complexity of Black lives in America, has listened to “Dear DC” multiple times. “I sound like a bad guidance counselor here, but I am so proud of her, both the narrative and her craft,” he says.
“Her critique of this place is rooted in an intimacy and real knowledge of D.C. I just think it’s so well-balanced in every respect. And boy, 9 years old. Just to see her doing that and my heart just swells,” Jackson adds. “I say this with all love: I wish to heck I had written it, but I’m glad somebody did.”
Currently a 4th grader at Friendship Online Academy, part of the Friendship Public Charter School Network, Zyah has been rapping since she was 2 years old. Her debut release was 2013’s “Peanut Butter Remix,” set to the beat of “Truffle Butter” by Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Lil Wayne. Her father, who also raps as Z da Matrix, wrote the words. Five years later, Zyah’s “Ride My Bike” was featured on WKYS-FM, and she performed it at one of the station’s block parties. Her eight-song mixtape, Young, Black and Gifted, was released in February 2020.
Zyah’s parents both manage her career; they supervise high-profile appearances that include her performance last summer for the online Mayor’s Arts Awards and a recent virtual performance with the Washington Wizards’ Wiz Kids dance team. Even more exciting was the February night last year when she joined rapper Rapsody on stage at the Fillmore Silver Spring. Earlier that day, in a joint interview with Zyah conducted by WKYS-FM radio personality Little Bacon Bear, Rapsody praised Zyah, saying, “I remember how I was when I was young, watching Lauryn [Hill] and Queen Latifah and what that meant to me. I used to rhyme in the mirror with a hair brush, but she’s like 200 times better than I was at her age … She’s the future, so I gotta support that, and she’s talented … She got my full support. She is a beast.” Zyah says she was so overwhelmed, she could hardly speak.
Long Live GoGo’s Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson, who has organized multiple musical protest rallies in the past two years, has been thinking about different ways to include Zyah in upcoming events. “She is a bright light with a very unique talent to deliver her raps with passion and charisma,” he says. “She always seems to be very focused on her delivery and what she’s saying, and I think people are very receptive to it.”
In a recent Zoom interview with City Paper, Zyah wore a black sweatshirt reading “The Future is Female,” and answered questions confidently with only occasional supportive whispers coming from offscreen. She smiled easily and often, but not when she describes what her family endured on Election Day. “‘Dear DC’ was based on a true story. Police were just pushing and shoving everybody in the crowd for no reason,” she said matter of factly. “My mom got really scared because she didn’t know where we were … the police were jumping and hurting my dad … putting him on the ground in handcuffs. It was very scary.
“It’s sad that people have to go through this just because we’re a different color,” she added. “I just wanted to tell people how I feel and how I want to change the world to make the world a better place.”
According to her mother, Danielle Champ, Zyah is in many ways “a regular 9-year-old.” Slime is a priority, and she enjoys playing with friends and Morgan, her 4-year-old sister. (“Morgan does not rap,” says Champ. “She’s going to be the singer, singing while Zyah is rapping.”) A hobbyist painter and acolyte of Bob Ross, Zyah also loves Roblox, Bunk’d and Jermaine Dupri’s The Rap Game. Her favorite stuffed animal is the ombre rainbow-colored llama she calls Llamie.
While her parents carefully cultivated her development as a rapper, they also shaped her political consciousness. Zyah and Champ attended the first Women’s March in 2017. Zyah carried a sign that read “I march for my family,” got to meet Emma Watson, and was featured in a Yahoo! Finance piece, which quoted her as saying, “I wanna tell Donald Trump he needs to be nice to girls.”
For Zyah’s father, Ron Brown, teaching her to be an authentic artist was crucial. “That’s the whole era I came from—expressing yourself as real as possible with no gimmicks or having to lie about anything. I passed that torch down to her,” he says. “We doing everything without record deals—shows and videos, mixtapes and albums. The whole shebang.”
At one point in “Dear DC,” Zyah raps, “I always try to represent, but this city don’t represent me / I try to be the best, but you fail to see what’s in me.” While her parents help her with some of her lyrics, Champ says that her daughter wrote those lines on her own.
Zyah’s first television interview centered around “Dear DC” aired late January on NBC4 Washington. “It was amazing to see myself on the news the first time. We were jumping up and down and screaming and going bananas and talking about how crazy this is and how far I’ve gotten in life—and how I’ve grown so much to get to that place,” she says.
Recorded about a month after “Dear DC” was first released, the new go-go version is gaining even more traction than the original recording. Within four hours of its completion, it was played by DJ Rico during his Noisemaker Nation set on Twitch and on Malcolm Xavier’s “Crank Session” on WKYS-FM. “It resonates differently whenever you do a song about D.C. … and it has a go-go pocket,” says Xavier. “Go-go is our sound, so it feels that much more authentic and more like home.”
Xavier has been supporting Zyah ever since he heard “Ride My Bike,” and he plans to keep playing the go-go version of “Dear DC” on his evening show focusing on local artists. “Zyah is super talented,” he says. “How far do I see her going? I think she can be like Jay Z, having that long of a career. Not too many artists have what she has. She has it.”
In a video posted on her Instagram account, Zyah and her little sister are squished together on a chair at Waldorf’s Nightsky studios while Flux 180 lays down the percussion. Zyah is wearing sparkly pink sneakers, and she uses a colorful stuffed bear as her mic as she raps, “Dear DC, I hope you’re ready for me!”