Uncharted tracks the journey of three Black female artists selected to attend the four-day She Is the Music songwriting camp steered by Alicia Keys and her organization, She Is the Music. The purpose of the songwriting camp is to provide Black and Brown women access to mentorship and the ability to form creative relationships with other Black and Brown creatives while creating original music and songs to pitch to artists, TV shows, and films and to provide a safe space for these talented artists to form creative relationships.
Uncharted’s structure feels familiar in all the best ways. The lighting design is stunning, and the camera work invites the audience into each subject’s world with ease. Watching this film felt like I was a part of the action, sitting in the recording studio as the songs were being born.
There are twelve participants in the songwriting camp, but the documentary wisely chooses to focus on three artists: Ayoni, a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Barbados; DaVionne, a Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter from Augusta, Georgia; and Jean Deaux a rapper, singer, filmmaker, creative director, and filmmaker from Chicago. Ayoni, DaVionne, and Jean Deaux are all Black women and reflect the vast diversity of Black women.
Ayoni’s father worked for an oil company, and the family lived in Singapore, Indonesia, and the United States throughout her youth. Ayoni’s parents insisted Ayoni attend college and get her degree, so she went to USC and released her first EP as a student. Since graduation, Ayoni has gotten a record deal on her own. Even though she’s been told by “the industry” they don’t know where to place her, Ayoni is supporting herself as a working singer/songwriter/performer. I loved that her first interview was done as she moved into a beautiful new apartment in LA.
Jean Deaux has been making music since she was eighteen years old and came straight out of high school into a publishing deal as a songwriter. As an independent artist and producer, Jean Deaux pays for all aspects of her business, including being on tour opening for artists who are more prominent than she is, with the hopes that she will be able to build her audience. She notes that if she could keep all of the money she makes without self-producing, she’d have a lot of money. Her main goal is money because she is laser-focused on caring for her family.
DaVionne lives in Atlanta and was the artist who most touched my heart. She’s fully independent and self-manages herself while working day jobs. She acknowledges that talent and luck were in play when she was on a Grammy-nominated rap album that led to her making a little money doing features for other artists, and for one year, she could pay her bills. But as she enters the songwriting camp, she’s a one-woman show, writing, producing her music, booking gigs, negotiating contracts, setting up all the promo shoots, and the myriad of things artists have to do. She took a risk and did not get a college degree, so feels the pressure to make it solely as an artist without any kind of safety net.
Ayoni’s voice is incredible, and artists like Lorde and Adele inspire her music, while DaVionne hails from the South and is influenced by artists like Corinne Bailey Rae and Young Thug. Jean Deaux’s work comes through the lens of a Queer artist. She infuses R&B, house, rap, pop, and indie throughout her work. I love how Uncharted breaks the mold, allowing Black women to be seen creating diverse styles of music beyond what stereotype dictates.
The documentary is directed by Beth Aala, who has won a Peabody and three Emmy awards for her documentary work. Her documentaries have been on PBS’s Independent Lens series and have been honored with various grants that enabled this gifted filmmaker to create diverse films that give audiences insights into diverse communities. The stories of these three women come together at the songwriting camp as they work with their mentors and producing teams who are all women. Uncharted allows the audience to experience women creating music not only as singers but as musicians, songwriters, music producers, studio engineers, and music editors — all of the positions we usually see being done by men.
Alicia Keys makes cameo appearances throughout the film. She recounts some of her experiences as a young woman breaking into the male-dominated music industry and shares why providing songwriting camps for Black and Brown women is vital to giving young artists opportunities to navigate this complicated industry together while creating a collective community to build careers that will last a lifetime, hopefully.
But the heart and soul of the film are the three artists and the network of women who support them as they go through this songwriting camp. Watching all of these women, who did not know one another before the camp, come together in just four days to create music from scratch is astounding. It’s incredible what these women can accomplish without the extra unnecessary noise that women in the music industry have traditionally had to navigate on their own.
My favorite moments of the film are when the artists listen to Ayoni’s song “Find Your Purpose” for the first time and are blown away. When Jean Deaux’s song “Stank Ass Walk” blasts through the speakers, all the women dance bop and embrace the swagger of the song. I loved those moments so much. All of the music grown in this camp was nurtured with pure love, support, and positivity that always occurs when Black and Brown women come together in community with purpose with a common goal. Witnessing these young women come together with a sense of joy was inspiring.
Each artist has deeply moving back stories that make the audience root for each of them. And as the camp comes to an end, we see the process of getting the songs completed and pitched to the various outlets. We stay with the subjects and, more importantly, we get a taste of what it’s like for each artist to live through just a few of the many challenges they deal with as they live their lives.
Uncharted is a phenomenal documentary that gives an honest look at what it’s like to be an artist in the 21st century with a vast array of challenges and benefits.
Uncharted premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, Saturday, June 10, 2023, BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center.
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Jeanine is a Writer, Actor, member SAG/AFTRA, AEA, Podcast host, Producer, CEO VisAbleBlackWoman Productions, Certified Health Coach and Conscious Dance facilitator. Jeanine's mission, centering Black women's stories to preserve our legacies.