Black Mona Lisa

Is anything more engaging than sweet refrains of soul music that stay with you, songs that touch you to the core with pinpoint vocal accuracy, songs you want to sing along with and grooves that last after the music has stopped? Tonya Dyson is a product of that essence, crafting a sound as indelible as those who influenced her to bring it to life. From the first listen of her debut album and single, Find My Way, it’s easy for listeners to connect with this indescribable feeling.

Born in Covington, TN, (known to scholars of soul music as the birthplace of Isaac Hayes) and raised in a household where music played a key role in her development, Tonya began singing at a very early age. “I started singing at the age of 4 in church. I can remember that I was so short they used to stand me on a chair so I could reach the mic!” Though raised with the influence of gospel music, she would go on to discover and be influenced by the very essence of what are considered classics in the world of soul music.In her words, “My Mom introduced me to artists like Stevie Wonder…she bought me the “Master Blaster” 45, which I played until I lost the little thing that keeps the 45 in place (what’s that called?) She also introduced me to the Jackson 5 & Parliament. My mom was young when she had me & was very much a nightclub-goer, so I am blessed that I learned about good music thru albums she bought.”

After singing in her high school choir, Tonya began appearing in talent contests and competitions statewide, garnering selection to represent Tipton County in the Miss Black Tennessee pageant. All the while, Tonya continued being weaned on a steady diet of Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, D’Angelo, and a wealth of positive hip-hop from artists like the Native Tongues crew. Eventually, Tonya relocated to Memphis, a spiritual center of her soul music influences, eventually earning a BBA from LeMoyne-Owen while continuing to perform in nightclubs.

Her first professional singing venture, Men-Nefer, became a staple of the burgeoning neo-soul movement bubbling up in Memphis, earning the group inclusion on a compilation released by the Expansions label in the UK. Numerous accolades and the attention of artists and producers followed, including the legendary David Porter. “David Porter inspired me to continue writing. I was performing at a benefit that he attended where I performed “Love’s Return”. David came backstage to ask me if I had written the song. After telling him it was my song, David simply smiled and told me that I was ‘something very special’.” That chance meeting and note of encouragement proved a turning point and motivating factor in Tonya’s career.

The last few years have been a whirlwind for Tonya, from sharing the stage with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Justin Timberlake to a featured appearance on the VH1 Soul show “Soul Cities”, hosted by Nelson George and broadcast worldwide. If Memphis, and by extension Stax Records, is known as “Soulsville U.S.A.”, Tonya is well-known as the mayor of Neosoulville, re-igniting the spirit of Stax and sharing her passion for music with others at Neosoulvile.com. Tonya has become a sought-after vocalist, performing on stages throughout the U.S. and overseas, all the while quietly crafting her first full-length recording, entitled “Finding My Way”.

Surely only a woman with Tonya’s effortless energy and talent could assemble a team so impressive for a debut recording: several tracks on the album are produced by Memphian Jon Rych (Angie Stone, Lalah Hathaway, Eric Benet). Other producers who came on board for the the album include Richard Tucker (Kindred the Family Soul) and Dogg Pound impresario Daz Dillinger. The credentials serve to validate the quality of the songwriting and the performances Tonya brings.

Regarding the songs, Tonya’s muse is less obvious than it may seem on the surface. “People seem to think ‘Find My Way’ is about a guy,” she says. “It’s actually about anything and everything I was scared to let go of for some reason or another. Situations, jobs, friendships…anything that proved to be unhealthy for me that I somehow felt I needed in my life & just couldn’t do without.”

On “Find My Way”, Tonya is keenly aware of her grounding. “I think we are all equipped with a ‘divine navigational system’, a common sense & intuition that guide us. We sometimes are misled by unhealthy situations and we have to take that control back from whatever it is & become our own guide. ‘Love’s Return’ is about the prospect of a second chance at love. Have you ever met someone who was really great but wrong for you at that particular moment? Ever wondered what would happen if you met that person again under different circumstances?”

The future should hold continued good fortune for Tonya as she readies release of Finding My Way, her soul-searching, groove-invective debut collection, featuring that special kind of sweet soul music that plays on in your mind after the music stops.

-written by E.J. Friedman