Music has always been an essential aspect of Samara Joy’s life. The 24-year-old jazz singer’s earliest memory of performing is at eight years old, when the Bronx, N.Y. native recalls singing songs like “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers in front of her church congregation. Eventually, Joy would find her way to more challenging selections like Jordin Sparks’ vocally dynamic pop hit “One Step at a Time,” signaling that music was her future, though no one could’ve anticipated how far she’d go in a few short years.
As Joy explained during a recent conversation with theGrio, music not only gave her an outlet to express herself but deepened her connection with her grandparents and father, who shared the same passion. It was through listening to “the music of [her] parents’ childhoods” that Joy fell in love with the powerful voices and nuanced stylings of artists like Lalah Hathaway and Jill Scott. The depth of their vocals, coupled with her desire to sing with that same conviction, led her to apply to the Jazz Studies program at SUNY Purchase, despite knowing only one jazz song at the time.
“It was the greatest thing I could have done because I was like a sponge,” Joy now says in retrospect. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions or ideas about what jazz should sound like, so I was just immersed in the sound of it.”
The program proved to be a training ground for a career already percolating beneath the surface. The intimate learning experience provided an atmosphere where Joy was surrounded by others who strived to become better vocalists, teaching her how to be an artist and develop the work ethic that now fuels her success. “The teachers can only do so much,” she recalls. “You take all of their advice and all of their guidance and everything, but you have to work on it for yourself.”
While still in college, Joy’s drive, determination and distinctive talent resulted in the release of her self-titled 2021 debut, quickly followed by her sophomore album, “Linger Awhile,” in 2022. Both projects showcased her undeniable vocal range and a maturity that belied her years, while telling organically crafted stories that resonated with listeners and industry heavyweights alike.
“As a touring artist, I have a lot of time to try out and experiment with repertoire,” she told theGrio, describing the creative process behind the making of her albums. “For me, [it’s] a constant practice of creativity, working out ideas and trying them out live, [and] seeing if they work, seeing if they don’t, [or] maybe trying it again in a different way.”
In addition to showcasing her incredible voice, both projects exemplified Joy’s devotion to telling timeless stories that connect people, a dedication to craft that didn’t go unnoticed by the Recording Academy. In 2023, her work on “Linger Awhile” earned Grammy nominations for Best New Artist and Best Jazz Vocal Album, ultimately winning both awards.
Joy, only the second jazz artist in Recording Academy history to win Best New Artist, was in utter shock when she was announced the winner not once but twice. For her, being nominated in categories alongside legendary and pop-charting artists, attending the ceremony and sharing the moment with her family had been enough.
“To actually win, it helped me to realize that what I do is important,” she now shares. “I knew that I felt like I was walking in my purpose already, and I was on a path that was meant for me. But, to be acknowledged in that way by my peers, I’m always going to be grateful for that moment. That was a highlight of my life.”
Joy’s historic win at the Grammy Awards propelled her further into the spotlight as her name attracted music lovers of all ages — and served as inspiration for aspiring vocalists like the one she once was. While she admits she’s still adjusting to it all, the whirlwind following her first two Grammy wins has only fueled her fire.
“It feels like I’m doing something that’s going to outlive me,” she says. “I’m glad that I’m just one of many stories to emerge out of the Bronx and show people that [they can] do what they want to do.”
Less than a decade after she applied to SUNY with one jazz song in her repertoire, jazz music has dramatically altered the course of Samara Joy’s life — and pushed her to grow as she continues to explore the genre’s depths and nuances. One year after her groundbreaking wins, Joy is once again nominated for a Grammy, this time for Best Jazz Performance for the single “Tight,” released in tandem with her first fashion campaign for women’s retailer Theory.
As she navigates the music industry and life as a touring artist, Joy says she’s learning to be more confident in her abilities — and to prioritize her own feelings. At her core, she is still the same compassionate artist who loves her community and aims to tell relatable stories with her music. Joy says she makes music for dreamers — and hopes her music continues to touch every part of the human experience.
“The creativity and the exploration of [jazz music], and being inspired by artists within the genre is what kept me engaged,” she says. “It still does.”
Kayla Grant is a multimedia journalist with bylines in Business Insider, Shondaland, Oz Magazine, Prism, Rolling Out and more. She writes about culture, books and entertainment news. Follow her on Twitter: @TheKaylaGrant
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