Ina Carter was standing in her kitchen when she first heard the voice. Deep but feminine, it spilled down from the second floor of her Bronzeville house in a rough, powerful wave. It was a grown-up kind of voice, a voice to make you clap your hands and throw back your head. It belonged to her eight-year-old daughter, Mae Ya Ta'Nell Carter Ryan. She was singing a child's nonsense tune—just a little song she'd made up about how her family loved her. And she was singing the hell out of it.
Carter called her daughter downstairs. "I said, 'Mae Ya, you can sing!' And the way she answered me was like, 'Uh, yes.'"
Mae Ya had asked for voice lessons a year before, but Carter, a busy single mother, hadn't paid any attention. She was paying it now: "I said, 'I've got to do something about that.'"
Three years later, Mae Ya (whose name rhymes with "hey-uh") has racked up appearances on WGN, CBS 2 Chicago, and WCIU, as well as on the stages of the Chicago Theatre and the DuSable Museum. The sixth grader belts out, tears into, and soars through the music of the classic performers to whom she's constantly compared: Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone.
When Mae Ya sings, the contrast between her sweet little-girl demeanor and the rich, deep, soulful tones coming out of her mouth is enough to prompt a double take—or make one assume, as some listeners have, that she must be lip-synching.
"You can't teach what she has," says Jade Maze, Mae Ya's voice coach and a vocal teacher and faculty mentor at the Merit School of Music in the West Loop. "It's just there. I think she could really have an iconic career. She could be right up there with Mahalia and Aretha. I think she'll reinstate soul."
As clear as Mae Ya's talent is, it's not clear exactly how—or whether—she'll climb to the heights of Fitzgerald or Simone. Young voices, even great ones, inevitably change with age; and then there's the little matter of getting noticed by a music industry inundated by every American Idol wannabe wriggling out of the woodwork.
But if you believe the music professionals closest to Mae Ya, this is one girl who stands a chance of making it—not only because she has a preternaturally powerful voice, but because she has an intuitive musicality that's far out of sync with her age and life experience. "There's a lot of spirituality in her singing," Maze says. "It makes you cry, and it's not because she's trying to do that. She doesn't even know what she's doing."
"If you say, 'Sing,' right before she does it, she stops being a little girl and becomes that song. You can see it happening."—Mae Ya's mentor, Bruce Thompson
No one else in Mae Ya's family sings, and Carter wasn't sure at first how to get her daughter the instruction she needed. She called music schools, only to be told that Mae Ya was too young to take voice lessons, and that doing so would risk damaging her vocal cords. "I said, 'That can't be. There's so many children that sing.'"
After a couple of false starts with private voice instructors, she found Merit, where Maze agreed to listen to Mae Ya, who was by then nine years old. "The practice rooms at Merit are small, so Mae Ya sat right next to me, and her voice was so strong, I just about fell out of my chair," Maze recalls. "Young people, they usually can't make that much noise because their lungs haven't developed to a certain stage. It's one of those rarities. Judy Garland had that big sound when she was a little girl." She's worked with Mae Ya ever since, considering it her job "just to get out of the way so her voice can come out."
On Saturdays, after Mae Ya spends four hours at Merit, her mom picks her up and makes the 30-minute drive to Harvey, Illinois, where she spends another two or three hours learning piano, composition, and sound engineering from the man Carter calls Mae Ya's mentor, Bruce Thompson. A Baptist minister who played with Isaac Hayes and the 70s soul-funk band 24-Carat Black, Thompson learned piano as a child from Ralph Jones, who played organ for Mahalia Jackson.
Thompson, who met the famous gospel singer many times, says it's no coincidence that some people who've heard Mae Ya sing have called her "little Mahalia."
"I am not supposed to believe in reincarnation," he says. "But I believe that that's Mahalia Jackson in that little body. It's the richness of her voice. She has such good control over it." Then there's the familiar transformation Thompson says he's witnessed in Mae Ya: "If you say, 'Sing,' right before she does it, she stops being a little girl and becomes that song. You can see it happening. That's another thing she does like Mahalia."
Mae Ya's career got several big boosts last year. In January 2012, she received the Chicago Music Awards' Emerging Star award ("I won against boys," Mae Ya says gleefully). In August, her performance at South Shore Jazz Lives: Because Jazz Unites! (formerly the South Shore JazzFest) caught the attention of Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich, who praised her "soulful utterances, graceful melodic embellishments and utterly natural phrasing" and called her voice "so deep, dark and alluring as to make practically everyone do a double take."
Shortly afterward, Mae Ya took first place in Chicago Has Talent, a competition sponsored by the Wade's World Foundation, which was founded by NBA superstar Dwyane Wade. The judges, among them Michelle Williams of Destiny's Child, joined the audience in giving her a standing ovation. A television producer in attendance promptly booked Mae Ya to perform on WGN Morning News. WCIU's You and Me This Morning and CBS Chicago's 11 AM news did segments on her a few months later.
That November, Mae Ya gave her first concert at the DuSable Museum of African American History. And this January, Mae Ya won again at the Chicago Music Awards, taking the title of Most Talented Kid—but couldn't attend the ceremony, as she was in Washington, D.C., singing the national anthem at the Illinois Presidential Inaugural Celebration.
What's life like for a girl whose voice merits all this attention? When she's not singing, Mae Ya seems every inch an 11-year-old, with her baby face and high speaking voice. A child of few but polite words, she lets her mom do most of the talking, piping up occasionally to ask if she can go outside or play the new song she's mastering, Adele's "Skyfall." In her free time, she likes to knit and watch movies. School is tricky. "Some of the kids are jealous," she says softly.
Her mother isn't worried that all the attention will go to Mae Ya's head—"She's pretty grounded in Christ"—but she does worry about how to steer her daughter safely through what she already knows can be a treacherous industry.
"By the time she's mature vocally, she'll be able to sing whatever she wants to sing. It'll be a richer sound, and she'll have life experience to sing from."—Mae Ya's voice coach, Jade Maze
"Sometimes it's kind of scary," Carter says. "It's like, 'Where's all this leading to?' The industry did something to Whitney Houston." Carter doesn't want to see that something happen to Mae Ya. With little knowledge of the entertainment business, she's not certain how to help launch Mae Ya into the career she fiercely believes she deserves without exposing her to unsavory elements along the way. That's why, so far, Mae Ya has no agent, lawyer, or publicist. Carter isn't sure whom to trust.
"People just see green when they see her," she says. "It's like she's a cash cow. The manager gets their money, and the agent gets their money, and the publicist gets their money, and the lawyer gets their money. I'm like, 'What is she going to have?' We've been approached by entertainment attorneys, and two of them scared the hell out of me. They said that of everything she does, they wanted 10 percent. Gross! They wanted 10 percent gross! I'm like, 'You're not Uncle Sam.'" (Actually, that's a reasonable cut in the industry.)
At the same time, she feels an urgency about getting Mae Ya's career going as soon as possible. "I just feel it is easier for her to try to get discovered as a child, because there's so many adults that sing, and sing really well," she says. "But there's not that many children that sound like adults."
Both Mae Ya and her voice are still young. "There are so many more things she needs to do before I can compare her voice with the greatest voices on the earth," Thompson, her mentor, says. "I'm not going to try to discover the limits of her voice right now. Maybe at 13, we'll start pushing and find out what she can do."
Jade Maze feels certain that as Mae Ya matures, her vocal talents will increase: "I think she'll have six more low notes and eight more top notes," she says. "By the time she's mature vocally, like around 21, I think she'll be able to sing whatever she wants to sing. Her middle voice will be so strong. Right now she sings really low or really high. It'll be a richer sound, and she'll have life experience to sing from."
Mae Ya's talent and her mother's support aren't the only things pushing her forward, Maze adds—it's also her own innate confidence. "It's surprising, because she seems so shy," Maze says. "But when she gets up to sing, I see her face, like: 'All right. Get ready. Here it comes.'"