Zhavia had every reason to be a nervous wreck. Stepping on a massive stage at Fox Studios for only the second time in her young career, she was about to sing not only in front of a roaring audience, but a panel of A-list star makers and millions of viewers across America on one of the biggest TV networks in country—and she was sick. It’s the kind of moment that dreams and nightmares are made of when any young singer who aspires to pick up a microphone in the music industry. But if the look on the face of the dread-headed soulful 16 year-old said one thing to the TV cameras, it’s that moments like these are destined to be her reality for a very long time.
“It was really crazy, before this I’d never been in front of an audience that was that hyped to hear me sing,” she says in a recent phone conversation. Twenty-four hours prior to her last performance on Fox’s latest TV singing competition The Four, she was barely able to speak due to a severe cold. “It was awesome to be in front of that many people who were digging what I was doing and it gave me an adrenaline rush and it made me perform way better than I could ever imagine.”
Dressed regally in a purple pant suit with her long bleached, dreads wrapped up in a crown above her head, she allowed the sultry chords from The Fugees’ cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” to wash over her as she opened her mouth and delivered the confidence, wisdom and soul of a singer twice her age. But more than just the raw power of Zhavia’s voice, during the debut season of The Four, it’s clear that her effortless star power is what continues to impress those who tune in to watch her each week. The competition, which revolves around the titular four singers who take turns challenging new singers vying for their spot in one of the seats of elite talent, is the first singing competition to wholeheartedly embrace the Urban music of today’s generation that fostered artists like Khalid, Post Malone, and Jessie J.
The singers are also subject to the critiques and votes from the show’s powerhouse judges Diddy, DJ Khaled, Meghan Trainor and Republic Records exec Charlie Walk who decide whether or not a member of The Four will get to keep their spot and eventually land a record contract with the judges as their mentors. So far Zhavia has defended her spot the longest out of any of the other talented contestants. Even with such a staggering amount of industry ego sitting in front of Zhavia each time she sang, it was clear by the end of each of her bouts on the show that the judges are the ones in awe of her. C’mon, when a singer’s performance results in Diddy standing up to salute them, they’re probably doing something right.
“I like this show because it’s more about the artist and not just a singing show it’s not just about having the vocals. You have to have a lot of other things and that’s a lot more work in general,” Zhavia says.
It was a fitting, full-circle moment for a girl who just less than a year earlier was singing the exact same song in a recording booth at OC Hit Factory in the District shopping center in Tustin Ranch, auditioning to be part of the Urban Division of producer Thomas Barsoe’s OC-based recording academy for up-and-coming artists. We should know, we were there when she did it. Zhavia, who at the time was only 15 and went by her first name Carisa, came in with budding blonde locks, an heir of quiet confidence and a sense of identity that belied the fact that she wasn’t even old enough to drive. Even then, it was pretty clear that this young local talent had a destiny to fulfill.
“She just genuinely knows this is her destiny, this is her calling in life so what does she have to be nervous about? Barsoe says. “We only get nervous when we get asked to do something we don’t know how to do. For her this is the most natural thing in the world.”
Barsoe remembers meeting Zhavia and her mom for the first time about a week before the performance we witnessed at OC Hit Factory. Though he’d been working with dozens of talented artists as a producer and talent developer, it was clear he was already dealing with a well molded artist from day one.
“The crazy thing is that she walked in already knowing who she was,” Barsoe says. “She already knew what kind of artist she aspired to be she was already so much further than artists who are 10 years older than her. There was no point in waiting years for something to happen, she was ready to go and that made me ready to go.”
Last March, Barsoe—who signed on to be her manager— promised Zhavia and her mother that if they allowed him to work his magic, he’d do everything he could do nail down some big opportunities for her by Christmas time. For the young high school student, that meant transitioning to a homeschool program to graduate high school early and dedicating much of her time to the studio. Growing up in SoCal between Norwalk and Monrovia with her mom and two sisters after her parents divorced, Zhavia remembers bouncing from place to place with her family staying with friends and relatives who could take them in. From the time she was born music was in her blood. Her father was an R&B singer and her mother, Bobbi Jo Black, spent years singing in a metal band when she wasn’t working as an owner and hairdresser at Hot Head Dreads in LA (obviously that’s where her daughter got her now famous locks). Prior to working with Barsoe, Zhavia’s performances mostly consisted of talent shows and open mics wherever she’d be allowed to sing.
“My mom has always supported me it’s really awesome to have a mom who sings well and knows music,” Zhavia says. “I don’t know everything going into this and she’s here to support me and give me knowledge and advice that she’s gained over the years of doing music as well.”
One day in October, after her mom took Zhavia to OC Hit Factory for another writing session, Barsoe was also asked by Fox to hold auditions with a few of his singers for a brand new TV series called The Four. The producers explained that unlike previous shows like American Idol and The Voice that thrived on throwing half-baked and grossly off-key singers in with the superstars, they were only interested in polished artists who could be ready to go for a career as soon as the show was over. The more they explained the concept to Barsoe, the more it sounded like they were looking for someone like Zhavia, who was writing music next door and had no plans to audition for the show.
“I convinced Zhavia to come in and sing a song for them and they absolutely loved her,” Barsoe says. “But it was this whole cat-and-mouse game where even after the reps for the show said ‘We love her!’ I remember having a conversation with Bobbi and Zhavia where they said no. So I told Fox ‘Sorry it’s gonna be a no from us.’ But they wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
After some serious coaxing from producers at Fox, Zhavia changed her mind and agreed to be on the show. Barsoe, true to his word, got Zhavia officially signed onto the show right before Christmas of 2017. Since then, the singer’s unique look and self confidence paired with a soulful rasp with R&B/hip-hop flavor has rocketed her into the stratosphere on social media.
The impact on her social media has been astounding. In less than a month, Zhavia’s Instagram followers went from about 1,700 to well over 300,000. From her first challenger performance taking out Elanese Lansen—an original member of The Four—with her rendition of Khalid’s hit “Location,” it was clear that America instantly connected with her. Daily outpourings of fan love, paintings, drawings and tributes to her on social media seem a bit overwhelming given she’s only been on stage singing for literally a handful of minutes. But she says the wave of support has only amplified her confidence.
“I used to get so nervous a year ago to the point where I was shaking to the point where it would affect my singing,” she says. “But being on this competition feels so right for me that I have confidence in everything I do and especially having all the support from the fans that I’ve gained over this small amount of time has definitely reassured me that I’m doing it right.”
Whether the show itself—which only runs for a couple more weeks—manages to stick around, it’s clear that it’s already done wonders for her career.
“I knew in my heart from the moment I met her she was gonna be a superstar, but did I know it was gonna happen that quickly? Of course not I couldn’t have predicted it in my wildest dreams. And it couldn’t happen to a more deserving girl or deserving family,” Barsoe says. “She’s all in, there’s no Plan B this is her life. She’s not putting up any fronts, she doesn’t mess around, she calls it how she sees it she’s not capable of bullshitting people, that’s just not who she is.”
For the homegrown local talent who gets another chance to show the world what she’s made of tonight on a new episode of The Four, every week is a new adventure on a journey she was born to take.
“Now that I have this fan base I’m on a role and nobody can stop me it’s only going up from here,” she says. “Being able to potentially win is gonna let me do that for the rest of my life.”
Tune in to watch Zhavia on The Four tonight at 8 p.m. on Fox 11.
Nate Jackson is the gatekeeper to your dreams of local dive bar stardom. If he writes about you, expect your band to be offered at least one more drink ticket than the rest of the bands on the bill. Get his attention with some groovy tunes and he might just do it. Then, boy will you feel special.