They Keep Saying: Keira Smith's Powerful Take on Jill Scott's 'Watching Me'
At the end of Keira Smith’s cover of Jill Scott’s “Watching Me,” the Atlanta-based singer throws up a fist in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and stares directly into the camera for a few moments of silence. Considering the song’s message, in both Scott’s and Smith’s versions, revolves around the idea of intrusive surveillance, her choice to end the video that way is a powerful image, given how her closing line, “And they keep saying that I’m free,” speaks to the frustration and anger that has welled up within the black community in America for centuries.
Smith, a fifth semester music therapy major, covered the song as part of her showcase for Berklee Anywhere, a video series curated by Berklee’s social media channels that highlights the creativity and connectivity of our students and alumni, even though the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had displaced the campus community to their homes around the world.
When you sing, rap, recite poetry, you should expose your true feelings so that people will hear you and feel your story.
Below, Smith tells the story of how she came to write her take on Scott’s original, sharing her own story in the process, and how, as she says, “Music is most powerful when you don’t worry about if everyone is going to like it… When you’re confident, brave, and stand your ground.”
Perhaps the most moving part of the end of Smith’s video is her inversion of the song’s title. After singing the line “watching me” for almost two minutes, she stops to watch us. In those final moments, this song of struggle becomes a call to action.
The following is an edited version of our interview with Keira Smith:
What led you to write your own personal version of Jill Scott's "Watching Me"?
Smith: What led me to writing “Watching Me” is a culmination of emotion and frustration that has been brought to the forefront by the Black Lives Matter movement. In the midst of dealing with a pandemic, we as a nation are still dealing with police brutality and injustice. When I write, I tend to write about topics that I see with my own eyes. I’ve had my own personal experience with the police. About a year ago, I was driving home one night with some friends, when unfortunately, I got pulled over by the police. Being that this was my first time getting pulled over, I was scared out of my mind! Keep both hands on the wheel; don’t make any sudden movements…I was thinking the worst things. Questions were bombarding my mind like: (1) are my friends and I going to die tonight?; (2) am I going to get arrested?; (3) should I record a video just in case?; and (4) will I be able to speak to my family? The police officer told me I did not have my lights on, then instructed me to get out of my vehicle. In my mind, I questioned why I had to get out of the car because I didn’t have my lights on. In that moment, I just knew I was going to be another black woman killed by the police or arrested. I was made to stand outside while the officer’s partner checked me out. I felt blessed to be allowed to leave despite having to stand outside for over an hour. What to do when stopped by the police is a conversation my brother and I have had with my parents throughout our childhood. I put all of these feelings and experiences into the song.
Watch Smith's interpretation of "Watching Me":
What was it that made you choose this particular song?
Smith: My mom is a day-one Jill Scott fan. I grew up listening to [Scott's debut album] Who Is Jill Scott? at least once a week. Jill Scott is one of my biggest inspirations. She has taught me to speak through your music. When you sing, rap, recite poetry, you should expose your true feelings so that people will hear you and feel your story. “Watching Me” is one of my favorite Jill Scott songs. The song made me think about what is going on in this world. It feels unreal. Jill Scott’s phrase “and they keep saying that I’m free” speaks to me. When I heard that line, I knew I had to write.
How did you approach your interpretation? What about your writing process in general?
Smith: My writing process is different. Instead of writing while listening to the beat, I just start writing. I don’t worry about whether things are going to flow or if this word matches that word. I just write all of my feelings in my journal—I try to convey my truth in that moment first. I knew that I wanted the song to be strong, powerful, and honest. When I started writing the first two lines of the song, I asked myself, “Keira, how do you feel about what is happening today? “What triggers you?” After answering those questions in my mind, I wrote the line “Mmm, it’s really sad what this world is turning into.” The song flowed from there.
What role can music play in raising cultural awareness and action?
Smith: The vast majority of people love some form of music. The use of the internet and social media gives musicians access to a larger platform to convey a powerful message to a large group of people at once. The same song has the ability to touch someone regardless of the person’s race, sex, background, or sexual orientation. I think that a song has a larger impact if it’s organic, and if you are speaking from the heart. Music is most powerful when you don’t worry about if everyone is going to like it. When you don’t worry about how many views or likes your video or song will get. When you just speak your opinion. When you’re confident, brave, and stand your ground.