Local Music: The Fly
By Scott Collison
Bandier meets drama, the musical marriage begets The Fly.
Spectators question whether to gleefully cheer on The Fly or to fear for their own safety as the duo performs. Keith Smith regularly wraps the mic chord around his neck, flailing his limbs, all while passionately singing, even shouting, the lyrics. Farasha Baylock spits rhymes furiously, dancing with athletic polish, as she displays her theatrical roots.
Smith loosens his collar and tightens his slender black tie around his forehead, a musical Rambo preparing his characteristic set-ending freakout. As the final tune reaches a climax, both performers enter a spastic ecstasy — Smith crashes the cymbals behind him with his hands and Baylock returns from a frenzied run through the crowd. Catching their breath, The Fly give a reserved, gracious bow.
“It was like his body was filled with fists that punched out in different directions, all at the same time,” said Matt Gasda, a Syracuse University junior and audience member that night at Funk ’n Waffles. Sophomores Smith and Baylock constitute the musical enterprise they’ve branded The Fly. In a year and a half, a music industry student and an actress have melded into a intertwined duo that brings an unnamable fusion of hip-hop, spoken word, rock, soul, funk, and R&B to the music stage and a formidable delivery to the theater.
“We literally started from a primitive state of ‘oh, I play piano, and I speak,’” Baylock said. “And now I’m a lyricist.”
“And I’m a rockstar,” Smith chimed in.
Smith described himself as the future “black Bono,” in his aspirations to bolster social consciousness with his sharp lyrics. In the past, he’s drawn comparisons to John Legend and more recently, people have said he looks like R&B visionary Raphael Saadiq. Someone in the audience at a recent show commented that Baylock resembled Janelle Monáe, the neo-soul indie phenom, whom the duo met last summer. Smith paraphrased wisdom Monáe offered them: “Be great, and change the world.”
This evolution has produced a sound and performance style outside of traditional genres. Funk the Police, The Fly's supporting band, complements a unique sound with a four-piece funk rock attack. Smith writes most of the music in collaboration with Baylock, filling out chord progressions with piano playing he’s developed since the age of three.
Both members share in the song writing equally, either in frequent writing sessions or late-night phone calls and e-mails. Sam Taylor, guitarist for Funk the Police and The Fly's co-producer, said he and Smith then meet to translate the piano parts to guitar and work out rock arrangements with the rest of the band.
Choreographed stage movement fits into The Fly’s writing process just as much as words and music. At a recent show, Smith hoisted Baylock into the air with athletic flourish developed from years of playing high school basketball. She landed straddling him with her legs wrapped behind his tall, slender frame. The plan was for Smith to lift Baylock up over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, but he felt weak and couldn’t complete the maneuver. To cover the mistake, the duo seamlessly slid into a faux sex scene on stage.
Last semester, the two put on a theatrical production, “Mad Mad World.” They wrote and produced the whole show in two weeks, after a 2 a.m. epiphany led Baylock to call Smith with the idea. They performed the show in a small auditorium in Shaffer Art building — the only space available in such a short notice — and filled it to the brim for a two-night run. The play combined projected video art with snappy dialogue and social critiques in a series of vignettes where Smith and Baylock took on a variety of characters, from a Steve Urkel-type nerd to a homeless prophet.
“Before 'Mad Mad World', we had never worked this close to each other for this long on something this big — and this was a monster. At the end of it all, it was like an answer of ‘yes, we can work together as a duo,’” Baylock said of the production.
The artists grew up in geographically disparate circumstances, but both managed to develop an artistic hustle that gels well on the Hill.
“My analogy is that I was born in Brooklyn and my parents were there on vacation and robbed me from my natural environment,” Smith explained about his childhood in Kansas.
He was always a “weird kid” and creativity provided his only refuge, spending hours at the piano until his mother forced him to stop so she could sleep. Smith’s parents didn’t allow him to listen to secular music, but he’d sneak over to the used CD store with his weekly $25 allowance and grab whatever albums looked the best, building an eclectic love for classic rock and R&B greats.
Baylock was raised in Queens, N.Y., attending LaGuardia Arts High School in the Upper West Side and eventually stumbled into acting.
“It was my ticket out of going to a bad high school with the risk of becoming pregnant, dropping out of school, and all of the other stuff that happens to young, black girls growing up in low-income environments,” she said.
Baylock described herself as the role model in her family. One of her poems includes a line about her father, “I found out he got shot when I turned on the news” and that experience fits into the urban struggle of “becoming a warrior at age 12.” Baylock, in turn, has an appetite for success that matches Smith’s.
David Rezak, director of the Bandier music industry program at Syracuse University attested to Smith's fire. He remembers when Smith called almost on a daily basis in the week leading up to the acceptance deadline, reminding Rezak how well Bandier fit into his plan. The sales pitch worked, pointing out the tenacity and personability that Rezak looks for in students.
Last year, Rezak invited Smith to speak at an event for potential Bandier freshmen. He deliberately asked him to come with only 10 minutes left in the talk, knowing that once Smith started talking, no one else would get in a word.
“He’s going to be a kind of triple threat, because he is a good businessman, he has this great stage persona, and he’s going to charm their socks off backstage,” Rezak warned. “I suspect that Keith could gain celebrity beyond the region before he ever leaves Syracuse.”
Both Smith and Baylock have committed to a lifestyle of art, and acknowledge that making that choice requires a degree of insanity. They stress that The Fly is their life — not just a college pastime.
They hope to release a five-track EP in the spring. Smith is also in the process of writing a play entitled “God Hates Fags: A Love Story” for production in the spring. A summer tour might cap off a busy year. “I want to be the greatest duo in the music industry,” Smith said without hesitation. “I want to leave a mark. I feel like what we have is so different — I hate saying it’s different, but it just feels different. We definitely represent that new sound, that new thing that’s being developed in the industry.”
Photography by Will Halsey