By Cameron Lee
December 4, 2020
For pianist and singer-songwriter Curtis Hayes, aka Curt Keyz, the catalyst for his newest EP Black Heart, derives from the frustration and pain that grew from observations of a society that has neglected the voices of the disenfranchised. While Black Heart may sound like the title to a project that is hardened by an apathetic world, it’s more of a representation of a defeated soul seeking to understand how to love in a society that hasn’t reciprocated.
Following his 2019 album, Love or the Lack Thereof, this six-track composition plays like a musical daydream during a gloomy Sunday sermon. With interludes from Pastor Lathan Wood weaved into the seamless transitions on the EP, Keyz delivers an eloquent dissertation addressing the questions many have forgotten to ask.
Battling with feelings of hopelessness from social and racial injustices in recent years, Keyz has learned to strengthen and develop his own voice through the songwriting process.
“I was coming off my debut album, and I was writing a lot of this music trying to figure out how I can put this into a project,” he said. “I thought I was gonna sprinkle it in. And it just didn’t come out that way. Getting to a good place for me spiritually and mentally into now feeling like, I am justified in saying what my heart feels.”
Growing up in a small town of Great Falls, South Carolina, Keyz started playing drums at five years old at First Mount Zion Baptist Church. He switched to playing piano at the age of 16, ultimately leading to his musical academic pursuits at Winthrop, where he became director of the university’s gospel choir. Keyz would frequently play with acts like Charlotte jazz artist Gabriel Bello, among other local bands, often coming to Charlotte with his jazz cohorts to take in shows at the Evening Muse and The Double Door Inn. After college, Keyz moved to Charlotte in 2014, and is now a radiant figure in the music community.
Coming off the full-length album Love or the Lack Thereof in 2019, Black Heart is a cohesive body of work exploring the emotional journey of a Black man attempting to make sense of the senseless.
Collaborating with singer-songwriter Ahji on the track, “Why,” Keyz captures both a question and affirmation on the spellbinding song. “I had to raise that question. Why do they hate us? And then kind of like an inverse of the question. Why don’t they love us?” he said. “Some people are in the middle. Some people don’t hate us, but also people don’t have love for us as well. And I believe that the middle ground is the most dangerous because they’re silent.”
On the opening track, “Runnin’,” a chilling police recording of a statement made by a witness in the Ahmaud Arbery case plays as renowned guitarist Nero Tindal eases into the track with a funk sound reminiscent of the music in a classic ‘70s cop movie. It’s an eerie juxtaposition of the glamorous depiction of cops in an era where many police are vilified. With a pounding bass like a pulsating heartbeat by DeMarlo Hayes (his cousin), Keyz adds his dazzling gospel piano strokes. We hear heavy gasps of breath as the song slowly fades into an excerpt from a sermon that ponders the listening threshold of many still in denial of injustices in this world.
On the gripping spoken-word poem intermission, “Last Nightmare,” poet and visual creative artist Deonte Streeter voices a disheartening portrait of recently deceased victims of brutality over Keyz’ enchanting piano notes.
I hope you squeeze hands with Sandra
Share a bag of Skittles with Tray
While listening to the dopest mix on Alton’s CD
As you freeze, playing along with
Tamir’s gun drawn pressed up against your spleen
I pray George grabs you by the hands and reminds your lungs how to breathe.
The haunting poetic interlude is followed by “Breaking My Heart,” a smooth contemporary R&B song with tranquil and sleek verses from North Carolina rapper Tecoby Hines and guitar by Charlotte’s Stefan Kallander.
On the following track, “They Don’t Even Care,” Keyz gets back to the root of emotions experienced while writing Black Heart: “They don’t even care / Who or even where we’ve been / We’ve been at this too long / The truth is, we’re tired.”
Keyz’ focus returns to the origins of the songwriting process for Black Heart.
“We aren’t vigilant in listening. We don’t use all of us to look at our neighbors and empathize with them, to the point of, we’re going to do what’s best for them,” said Keyz. “And I think that’s the motif of any racial relations, and social injustices, is that we do not, or some of us do not listen, we do not listen enough.”
On the final track, “Prevail,” Keyz not only succeeds at gently lifting your mood out of hopelessness, but his talents are fully exalted in showcasing his magnificent voice and songwriting abilities, as he layers harmonies over piano at a superb pace. Joined by gospel choir, Movement Worship, Keyz finds a way to thoroughly capture the soul of perseverance in the midst of darkness.
While our attention can sometimes stray away from the root of the problem when we witness emotionally charged national events, we sometimes forget to just listen. Listen to stories, history, perspectives– both good and bad. For Curt Keyz, Black Heart isn’t just a platform to be heard, it’s the migration of thoughts, fears and questions, to help others heal. The EP certainly triumphs in captivating your attention and emotionally drawing you in, but for Keyz, it’s as simple as just listening: “Listening is a tool to make us more communal, to make us be together.”