Navasha Daya finds strength in the mirror

The doubt lingered in Navasha Daya's head for months.

The Baltimore-via-Cleveland singer/songwriter had spent years helping to grow the fan base of her Afrocentric neo-soul group Fertile Ground, but after a messy break-up in 2010, Daya had to figure out her future without the support group she had leaned on for more than a decade.


She wondered if fans would still care about Navasha Daya without Fertile Ground. Then the Harwood resident realized that for many fans she was the reason to care in the first place.

"When you're in that space, you have an illusion of not feeling cared for — that people don't want you unless you're in this band or you look this way," Daya said recently before flashing a smile. "I realized that's not true. I realized I'm a singer no matter what."


As her 40th birthday arrives next month, Daya says she is just as comfortable looking back as she is moving forward. The transition process was "scary" and "very painful," she said, but now, as Daya prepares her first full-length album as a solo artist, she is ready to take full ownership of her career.

"I'm really back to who I am and even stronger. It feels very liberating, and scary, because you have so much control," Daya, an expressive storyteller who often talks with her hands, said. "I'm just really excited. I know it's a new stage in my development."

Daya said singing was her destiny. The oldest of six children, Daya told her mother as a child she wanted to be like Janet Jackson. Her first professional gig came at 13, when her father hired Daya to sing with his Cleveland roots-reggae band, Jah Word.

Daya imitated her favorite singers, like Anita Baker and Whitney Houston, but did not realize her standout vocal talents until she won solos at Cleveland School of the Arts recitals. While Daya liked pop music, her parents instilled in their daughter early that jazz was more respected, she said. Learning to perform with jazz groups, she said, laid a strong foundation for Daya's work with Fertile Ground.

"Singing jazz will open your ears and your voice more than any other genre because you have to listen," Daya said. "You're an instrument. You have to not be too loud, not show off too much, not scat too much. It definitely afforded me a training that I really, really appreciated."

Wanting to attend a historically black college with a strong music program, Daya moved to Baltimore in the mid-1990s to attend Morgan State University, where she was eventually introduced to University of Maryland, Baltimore County student and future Fertile Ground bandleader, James Collins. Along with original drummer Marcus Asante, the trio self-produced its first album, 1998's "Field Songs," with the hope of landing a record deal.

Label offers never materialized, Daya said, but the recording was strong enough to earn Fertile Ground gigs around the city, including Larry Stewart's on Calvert Street. The group's rising popularity came at a time, Daya said, when neo-soul stars like Erykah Badu and D'Angelo were emerging nationally.

"There was a vibe in the music scene," Daya said. "We had a different, eclectic sound that was reminiscent of the old Earth, Wind and Fire and '60s music — consciousness, rhythms, percussion. It was all live."

After Daya graduated in 1998, she and the group followed touring opportunities in Maryland, Washington, Virginia and New York.

Kelly Bell of Baltimore's long-running Kelly Bell Band eventually shared bills and became friends with Daya. But he was a Fertile Ground fan first.

"They were the No. 1 jazz band in this region for a long time," Bell said.

Around this time, Daya said, the early Fertile Ground song "Peace and Love" was remixed in London, and "really took off over there." Through word of mouth, a captivating live show and an internationally influenced sound, Fertile Ground was soon enough touring the world and releasing songs on international labels like Japan's P-Vine Records.


"People in other countries are looking for the black music from America," Daya said. "We had horns and the soulfulness, and people were really excited about that concept. ... I was really young — 24, 25 — when we started traveling overseas on our own accord. No record deal. We just gigged all of the time."

Daya's stage presence was a major draw of Fertile Ground's live show, Grammy-nominated R&B singer and Gwynn Oak resident Maysa Leak said. She called Daya the group's "focal point."

"She is a totally spiritual being. You can see it from the moment she walks into the room," Leak said. "That's the personality they wanted to see when they came to the show."

By 2005, Fertile Ground had released four full-length albums ("Field Songs," 2000's "Spiritual War," 2002's "Seasons Change" and 2004's "Black Is ...") and ballooned to a seven-piece. But while the group performed as a unit on stage, internal strife between Daya and Collins — they married in 2002, but divorced in 2009 — had reached a breaking point in early 2010.

The romantic relationship had been over for some time, but Daya said she was only willing to keep the group together if Collins, a self-described "control freak," included her more in the creative and business decisions. (Until that point, Daya said, Collins had made decisions for the group with little input.) Ultimately, Collins and Daya — in the midst of a divorce — could not agree on how the band would operate moving forward, and Fertile Ground ended without a ceremonious last concert or even a break-up announcement.

"People didn't know what was happening. They were just like, 'Where's the band?'" Daya said. "I didn't know what I should say."

Collins, now a remarried father living in Atlanta who hasn't performed on stage since 2011, said the timing was right to end the group. He said "it could be" true that Daya did not have adequate input in band decisions.

"I did my best to try to look out for everybody, but at the end of the day, everybody grew up and sometimes it doesn't work," Collins said. (Last September, Daya sued Collins in the District Court of Maryland after an electric piano Collins had agreed to return to Daya was damaged while en route to her, and the case is still pending.)

Collins said he has "huge respect" for Daya as an artist and hopes the band will one day play together again. Regardless of the future, Collins said, he is happy the band members — including Daya — were able to pursue their own interests.

"At the end of the day, she was becoming a businesswoman, an entrepreneur and a solo artist," Collins said. "That was happening in the midst of Fertile Ground, and so I think, as a result, she made the decision she needed to make so she could blossom into the artist she is now."


To find her identity without the group, Daya wrote, produced and arranged all five songs on the December 2012 EP, "Rebirthed Above Ground," she recorded at Remington's Wrightway Studios. Steve Wright, the owner of the studio and the project's engineer, has worked with Daya since Fertile Ground. He called her "by far the best vocalist I've ever worked with" in nearly 25 years of professional recording.


"She's absolutely phenomenal," Wright said. "She'll do 50 takes that are amazing, but she won't be happy with it until it's absolutely what she wanted to do and perfect."

Wright said the most striking thing about the "Rebirthed" sessions was Daya's desire to explore different genres. For a rejuvenated (and since remarried) Daya, it was important to present herself like a new person.

"I went through a rebirth. I went through a healing, a letting-go process," Daya said. "When I did that, it was a certain strength I gained."

"Rebirthed" was a reminder to Daya fans she was still here, and she hopes to release a proper full-length debut this summer. Her "diverse" pool of 20 new songs to choose from includes tracks with blues and electronic influences.

As she works on the album, Daya continues to tour (she recently finished a stint in Ethiopia) and release music with others ("Supernova Spinning," a new Daya song produced by Teddy Douglas of the Basement Boys, was released to iTunes last month). She also occasionally performs as a guest vocalist with the Grammy-winning group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Along with her husband, Fanon Hill, Daya also runs the Youth Resiliency Institute, a community-focused education group they founded in 2010. Since then, it has received a $500,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and was recognized at the White House last year for its work in areas like Baltimore's Cherry Hill and East Cleveland, where Daya was raised.

Daya teaches music to the youths she works with, in large part, because music is ingrained in everything she does. She mentioned setting a collaboration in motion after recently running into Katrina Ford, singer of the indie-rock act Celebration, at the grocery store. It is an example of an opportunity she might not have considered years ago, before the end of Fertile Ground.

This time, the decision is hers alone.

"I had to heal. I had to figure out how I wanted to show up in the world, and now I feel like I have a gauge on that now, and I'm ready to go to the next level," Daya said. "I wasn't ready before. Now I'm ready."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun