“There ain’t bunk beds in caskets. I am going to die alone.”

Music became refuge during a period of homelessness for 21-year-old R&B newcomer, ZIM. The spirited singer-songwriter took an uphill climb towards the airwaves of New York’s HOT 97 radio station, and soon found herself in a recording booth at Jungle City Studios. This session became the first of many, where she’d pen poetic vibes in preparation for the release of her debut EP, Sylmar.

Released today, the doughy body of work is punctuated with silky-toned confessionals and tales of dark encounters, showcasing ZIM’s affirmed self-reliance after an array of traumatic bouts within her then-home. Billboard caught up with the singer to discuss her vocal versatility, her heritage, and how youth within the foster care system can empower themselves. Read below and learn about why this NYC crooner is making waves.

What do you hope about your debut project Sylmar resonates with new listeners?

I hope that they know that there is somebody out there who thinks like them. I am a part of the young generation, so a lot of millennials can relate to [me]. I hope they can keep my message, listen to my story, and understand it. They will go through these future experiences with me. You know, I hope listeners will feel better about themselves, the same way I in time did.

How you were discovered is unusual. Can you enlighten those becoming better acquainted with you?

I was at a friend’s party. At the time, I was homeless. I would sleep on the couch. So, she invited me to her barbeque and introduced me to a couple of her friends. One [friend became] my manager.

People there knew people [in the music industry]. She told me, “There are a few people who make music here. If you’d like to sing, rock out.” So, I thought, “Okay!” I played a beat on an iPad and started singing. Afterward, they told me, “You are really good.” It was the only song I had at the time, too. It worked out.

Which radio station supported Sylmar from the jump?

Okay, I did win a radio contest, but I was doing a song because I used to be in foster care. A connection I made in the foster care system used to host talent [shows]. She had a link [at the station] that was trying to help me out.

I sang my song on a talk show on Hot 97. When I arrived, they said they have a producer I can work with at Jungle City [Studios]. That was a real blessing. I had never been in a studio before that.

On which Hot 97 segment did this occur?

It was on the Jen From BK segment in the morning. My producer is really dope, in Jungle City. He perfects my music until it is A1. If it sounded like trash, he would make it sound like good R&B. [Laughs.]

Your self-titled single “Zim” is buzzing. How does it feel to have a growing fanbase?

It feels a little weird. To be honest, everybody nowadays thinks being a singer and rapper is cool. I did not know anybody was going to listen to my music. Now, I see fans hitting me up. People click on [my songs], and those streams are growing. It is crazy. I look at the numbers. It’s like, “Yo! People be listening to my songs.” Sometimes it is unbelievable. I had this notion in my head that my shit still sounds so basic. I wondered, “Why is everybody listening to this shit?” [Laughs.]

Still, my manager always tells me, “There is something for everybody.” So, I go by that. It is why I kept writing and writing. I have two managers, [they are] the best in the world.

You’ve acknowledged Kehlani and Jhene Aiko as R&B contemporaries that you sonically identify with, how so?

I relate to their R&B. Those artists have that mellow and chill vibe. Kehlani and Jhené Aiko have their own little steez. They are pretty much girl’s girls. I like Jhené because she has smooth R&B. But, I really like Kehlani’s voice. She has a beautiful rhythmic sound. I love it.

I relate to their music a lot, in the sense of struggle. I’m a female trying to make it in society. I am trying to live life and do what we do best [musically]. I am trying to be successful, and strong as hell.

What is your favorite song on Sylmar?

I have to say my favorite song is “Recent.” That song is all about me. It is the New York, gritty me. The song has a fire-ass beat. That shit was dope. “Recent,” basically, is me [establishing] myself. This is me, who I am coming out to be, and what I stand for. This is what I am delivering. It says, “I’m ZIM!” You know?

How do you feel you differentiate yourself from other rising R&B talents aesthetically?

So, I feel like, I am going to be a different impact on certain stuff. One, I bring a lot of variety. I offer many different sounds. I can go from singing in church to sounding as if I am singing on Broadway. My voice is crazy.

Also, the fact that my upbringing and struggle were different. Even if your experiences are similar [to someone else’s], they are not exactly the same. So, everyone has their own little path. My path has helped me to acknowledge [my life experiences] are not something that a lot of people face. This shows immensely in my music, and how I carry myself.

Empowerment is at the forefront of your artistry. You’ve been courageous and candid about your father’s addiction, witnessing physical abuse towards your mother, and experiencing sexual abuse in your home environment. How did you keep yourself encouraged amidst tribulations?

Oh, that was hard! It is always a battle going through stuff like that. Coming from where I come from — my neighborhood in New York City was project [housing]. I mean [I’m] straight from the projects. The environment which was institutionalized there seems common.

And while hearing [about the projects in New York] may seem natural to people, in some sense, I had to save my life and keep moving on. I had to go through those obstacles and understand I only have myself. There ain’t bunk beds in caskets. I am going to die alone.

So, I have to hold it down, the way no one else can hold me down. I know myself better than anybody else. Why not struggle and push through it? I am here for this reason.

ZIM, what is your message to other young people who are within the foster care system?

One thing, in my opinion, about a lot of kids in foster care is they honestly believe no one loves them. Sometimes, people are working [in foster care] with love. That love can grant you a lot of opportunities.

Take that love, and take all the help you can get. I say that with the utmost respect. Please accept the help [available]. Don’t be the “don’t want to take love” kid. I became one of those kids who would fight back. I’d yell at people, and destroy shit.

Honestly, I was a bad kid. I could have avoided a lot of situations. I might have been able to tackle a lot [more]. So, again, I say this with the utmost respect, for real. All my kids in foster care, take the help and pick your head up. Well, treat people the way you want to be treated, too. Ain’t nobody gonna deal with bullshit. Trust me.

By Bianca Alysse Mercado for Billboard.com

Image: ZIM

About The Author

Bianca Alysse is an incurable music junkie, who lives for dance, art, and urban culture. She has worked alongside some of the most ingenious entertainment moguls. Her ink covered hands grabbed her BA in Journalism and ran to New York City.

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