Deja Belle knew her voice didn’t fit the mold of pop music, so she forged her own path in neo-soul
By Lori D. Roberts Wiggins | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Edith McCaskill, who sings under the name Deja Belle, is no stranger to lights, cameras or action. The stage has been her dear friend since before her teenage years in Silver Spring, Maryland, welcoming her to move in step dance rhythm, to transform into characters in musical theater and to write her thoughts in poetry and speeches.
“Growing up, anything public with a stage, I was on it,” says Deja, now 38, from her home in Pittsboro. “Anything performing arts, I’m here for it.”
Singing, though, was a different story as the first-generation Congolese American immigrant shied away from it when she was young, convinced hers was a sound without an audience. “I was definitely a closeted singer for a long time,” she says. “I was very aware my voice didn’t sound like anyone else’s. It was different.” Privately, she’d recite her poetry in song, headline for fun girl groups with cousins and friends, create demo tapes and dream of being discovered by music mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, whose R&B and hip-hop monopolized the music of her youth.
“I was known for everything else in the performing arts but not singing,” Deja says. “I did not sound like Whitney Houston, and I did not sound like Mariah Carey. I did not have a pop sound, so singing was the last art form I performed in public.” Gaining the confidence to share her music with the wider world was a journey of soul-searching courage and determination.
Credit neo-soul – a genre of music defined in the 1980s and early 1990s as a fusion of soul and contemporary R&B, punctuated by elements of everything from jazz, funk, hip-hop and African music to pop, rock and electronic music – with its stronghold of female artists like Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu.
“This is me,” Deja recalls whispering to herself as she “fell in love with neo-soul. It represented me. It resonated with me.”
Deja recalls the moment just before graduation from Howard University when she resisted the expectation of her “very traditional immigrant family” to become a doctor or lawyer and instead, followed her heart. Her love for music came from her father, himself a member of a cover band that played soukous and rumba music from the Congo, but “music still wasn’t something you pursued seriously,” she says.
But in 2006, without her parents’ support, Deja took her original songs into the district’s underground soul scene and emerged as an indie artist. And she met her husband, Matthew “Matty the Chef” McCaskill, who has been integral to her music career as her counterpart, collaborator and producer. In 2018, the couple moved to North Carolina, leaving behind a music community she’d cultivated from age 23 to 35.
“As creatives,” Deja says, “these are life lessons: Do not compare yourself to anyone else. God blessed me with this tone.”
These days, Deja speaks confidently as a singer, songwriter, record producer and actress. In April 2019, she released her debut album, “U.N.I.,” a fusion of neo-soul and Afrobeat music, written and arranged with messages of love and yearning, faith and resilience. Deja did most of the writing while husband Matty the Chef produced, mixed and mastered the project. Her discography also includes several prior single releases, including a 1960s take of Aerosmith’s chart-topping ballad, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” She’s also penned award-winning music for others and has performed with R&B legends Regina Deja-Nu Peele and Meli’sa Morgan.
Apart from music, Deja dreams of eventually owning land to homestead and to share lessons about how living off the land nourishes and heals the mind, body and spirit. “I hold Pittsboro like a warm place in my heart,” Deja says of their summer 2019 move from High Point to the county seat. “It’s welcoming, and people are really kind, and they’re supportive of my work.”
At the start of 2020, Deja reunited with the stage, exploring the local music scene and performing for the first time in four years in downtown Pittsboro at a Chatham Arts Council event. Then, just shy of the COVID-19 shutdown, Deja’s mother died. Soon after, son Yonatan McCaskill was born, joining daughter, Selima McCaskill, 12.
“I feel like I’m just getting my grounding back,” she says. “Now, I’m starting fresh again, starting anew. I’m ready to start performing around here locally.”
Her goal is joy. “My last album, I just wanted to intentionally make it uplifting, so the joy I’m feeling in my heart resonated with someone else. I want to bring joy through my music because … life is hard. … I have used music to process my grief, and I want to share that, too. It’s real and it’s authentic and it’s where I’m at. I have to share it. It may not be joy, but it’s healing.”
For now, Deja and Matty are trying to grow their own food, tend an orchard and hope to raise chickens on property where they currently live.
“Access to healthy food is beyond personal, it’s a basic human right,” she says. “People having access to rich soil with rich nutrients, access to great food and great herbs is a mission, a purpose for me.”
Meanwhile, Deja reconnects with Washington, D.C., artist friends on projects produced remotely and considers becoming a teaching artist, offering youth online songwriting classes.
“I have to get out of my own way and let the art do its own thing,” Deja says. “I feel reinspired.”