Shi Scott is excited to be back in Harford County. She’s here celebrating the 20th anniversary of Church Creek Elementary, the Belcamp school she attended when she still went by her given name, Shaina.
Dressed in a flowing pink-and-black number with a subtle elephant print and gold accessories, Scott’s unique personal style is on display as she takes photos with teachers and then takes the stage to perform.
Born in Florida, the former “American Idol” contender spent most of her formative years in Harford County and has fond memories of her time here.
“In Church Creek Elementary, I loved my teachers,” Shi (pronounced “Shee”) recalls. “I really established connections there, and I loved learning.”
The charismatic singer, 19, admits that things got a little rocky for her once she got to high school. Although she was in the Gifted and Talented program at Church Creek, she attended several different high schools but never felt like she’d found her niche.
“I was bullied, for sure,” she says. “I was always different, but that didn’t seem to matter as much in elementary school. Maybe because I got along with my teachers there, or because at that age, your parents are able to be more involved with your school. But once I got to middle school and later high school, I started to feel like my differences weren’t supported at that stage.”
“In fact,” says the slender, tawny-skinned beauty, “I was told I was ugly to my face. More than once.”
Despite the middle and high school pressures to conform, Scott has always embraced unique features like her wild curly hair. And she’s hoping her time in the “American Idol” spotlight will give her a forum to encourage self-esteem in others who don’t feel like they belong.
“I don’t want to be just a singer,” she explains. “I want to be a voice for overlooked people, to encourage them to be true to themselves.”
Scott credits her entire family with helping her find her voice and believe in herself. Her musical journey began in Harford County, where Scott, her mother, Sandra, and her sister, Miranda, performed in local theater productions such as “Annie.” And it was at Harford’s Church Creek Elementary that Scott took her first uncertain steps toward singing.
“I thought I might want to join the school choir, but I was afraid. I told my mom, and I was so scared, I was sobbing,” she remembers.
“I told her she just needed to ask the teacher,” says Sandra Scott, who now acts as Shi’s manager. Shi’s response: “Ask? I can’t do that!”
But ask she did, which led to several years singing with the school’s choir.
“I didn’t really like a lot of the music we sang in choir,” Scott confesses. “It wasn’t exactly my style. But it gave me an opportunity to sing, and it forced me to improve my voice.”
Scott says she’s never taken formal lessons, but she learned a fair amount about music from her mother, who holds a degree in vocal performance and taught voice and piano for more than 15 years.
“And we did get vocal coaching on ‘American Idol,’ ” Scott says. “It was really helpful, but I feel like I have to be careful about who I work with in the future. I don’t want them to make me into something I’m not and lose the emotion in my voice.”
The soulful singer won acclaim for covers of songs by Amy Winehouse and Stevie Wonder during her stint on “Idol.” Her performance of Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” was a huge crowd pleaser on an “Idol” episode filmed at the Los Angeles House of Blues nightclub.
“That was probably my favorite moment at ‘American Idol,’ ” says Scott. “I completely let go. I felt like I kind of didn’t care — but in a good way. I felt like the band really had my back that night. I was connecting with the audience, connecting with the band, and the judges were laughing and having a good time. It was a really important moment for me.”
Although she’s sorry she didn’t win the competition, Scott still feels good about her results. “I made it about halfway through, and I was pretty much just singing in my bedroom until then,” she says. “I didn’t expect to get as far as I did. It’s a great fast-track for learning about the music business under pressure.”
After being voted out of the competition, “Idol” contestants need to remain available to the show for possible appearances on upcoming episodes. That makes it difficult to take on any additional singing engagements for a while. But Scott didn’t remain idle during her post-“Idol” weeks. Instead, she began speaking to her fans (whom she affectionately refers to as “Sushis”) in a series of popular videos on YouTube and Facebook. The videos address heavy topics like school bullying and the recent Baltimore riots.
With nearly 9,000 followers on Twitter (@whoisshi) and more than 400,000 Facebook views on her video about Baltimore, Scott might have a future that encompasses more than just music. In May, she also spoke to students at Gaithersburg Middle School, near her current home, about mental health issues. Asked if her interest in social and political issues might translate into a career in politics — or maybe as the next Oprah — Scott seems intrigued by the idea.
“I want to be an entity with a voice in what happens to the world,” she says. “I don’t just want to sing songs. I want to do something that allows me to focus on conveying positive, powerful messages to others.”
Despite her youth, Scott evinces a great deal of poise and introspection.
“One thing I’ve learned about the world,” she says. “Everything has come to me at the right time and nothing is my own doing. All my success comes from someone else – my parents, who’ve always supported me; my sister Miranda, who keeps me light; my boyfriend, who supported me through all the craziness during ‘American Idol’; and ‘Idol.’ ‘Idol’ gave me a platform to be heard, and I’m really grateful for it.”