Sky Covington has a huge smile, but she wears it like a young girl who's embarrassed of its size and has learned to rein it in. Her dark eyes are wide and welcoming. Her Afro adds a good 4 inches to her already statuesque frame. And with her makeup white stars pooled at the bridge of her nose she looks like a lone member of the Nigerian Wodaabi tribe.
Heads turn as she breezes through the monumentally scaled first floor of the Detroit Public Library it's as if she's walking the red carpet. Strangers stare and more than a few friends approach her, including painter Sherry Young, who asks her to perform at an upcoming art opening. As they chat, Young's friend stands off to the side and enjoys his view of Covington.
It's taken years for Covington to find the calm in her life, yet she influences others in a matter of seconds. Even as she shares stories about leaving home at 15, getting naked at bars and fighting in public, her gentle aura and faint scent of eucalyptus is enough to lull you to sleep.
The singer and performance poet has a new album out, Urban Fairy Tales, produced by Terrence Herd, and a book of poetry, The Reflections of a Lazy Brain.
Add to that a single, "Revolution," that's charting in the UK. But instead of continuing to tour she spent last year in Europe with electronic musician Kenny Dixon Jr. (aka Moodymann) she's moved back to her Detroit hometown for a short while to care for her three young nieces. She cooks for them, reads to them and prays with them.
After nine years in New Orleans and a short stay in Oakland, Calif., Covington says her return home is a good thing. The woman grew up on Detroit's northwest side, singing in choir and studying drama at West Side Unity's privately funded School of the Arts.
But before she could drive legally, she was wooed by a guy nine years her senior, a man who didn't drink, smoke or curse. He was a singer who wore eye makeup and tight pants like Jesse Johnson and he promised her a tour of the world. Her mom, who's her best friend, resignedly, let her get married.
"He was really so sweet," Covington remembers. "He loved milk and Prince. That was his thing. But in the end, he didn't want me on stage. He just didn't want people looking to me."
Covington, who's now 35, left her husband after four years, on a Christmas Eve. She'd been doing gigs around town at bowling alleys and churches, but she says her destiny was calling. So, in an attempt to distinguish herself from every other poet around town, she bared all. At a café, she walked on stage, wearing only a sarong, sat down with her back to the crowd like Miles Davis, and disrobed. While reciting poetry, a friend shaved her head and a blossom of tight black curls fell to the floor in front of the small yet stunned crowd.
The performance gigs became popular but she knew it was time to stop once a young man told her he wanted to "write his thesis" on her. Then, with the help of John Sinclair, Covington ended up establishing a residency at the Audubon Hotel in New Orleans.
Influenced by that city's music scene, she turned her poems into a cappella songs, and got some chiding for not knowing the keys of songs. "New Orleans was like boot camp. It stripped me down and taught me to become a real performer."
But it's difficult to believe she was ever anything less. With a rich, elegant tone and an easy vibrato think Billie, of course, as well as Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone Covington's a neo-soul chanteuse who makes every sound seem personal.
In 2003, her life came to a halt when five people close to her died in one year. Both her father and great-aunt committed suicide; her grandmother and favorite aunt passed away, and her young goddaughter died in her sleep.
"I felt like I was floating, not solid. But everything suddenly meant more. It was like the material just came to me. My world opened up."
Her one-woman shows became cathartic experiments in theater and music, her words the spark to ignite them.
Covington's voice can be heard on several albums, including a Mahogani Music project and the compilation Focus I Project, as well as several singles.
But it's her stage persona that defines her. Influenced by Broadway, vaudeville and the Cotton Club, Covington says, "I like intimate sets that entertain, like a modern-day Renaissance. You can be sexy, sweet or sad, but if you're not funny, you're boring."
Each of her performances tell a story, sometimes featuring sets, such as a clothesline with pantyhose, or props like candles and incense. She tells of a time when she staged what she thought was a fake boxing match. Covington thought it would be cute to wear little shorts and boxing gloves in the ring.
But her opponent, a friend of a friend, was a boxer who fought her for real.
"I kept screaming at her: 'I have a gig tomorrow! I can't get hurt!' But I went home that night and put a steak on my eye and drank a tropical punch Slurpee to ease the pain. The next day, sure enough, I had a big black eye. My friend gave me a hat to cover it up."
Now that she's home, Covington plans to perform her signature shows. A listening party will be held this weekend at The House of Ra, a gorgeous home in Sherwood Forest owned by her friend, Mother Isis, an elder in the community.
"In New Orleans, after a gig, you go to a juke joint or to someone's house to chill," Covington says. "That's the vibe I want here real intimate and welcoming." Mother Isis often makes "superfood" for Covington and her nieces when they need to cleanse or repair their bodies.
On Saturday, Isis is serving it up at her home, which is a temple made of mahogany and marble, with gardens and a theater out back. It seems a perfect place to shine a light on Sky, the girl with an aura the color of midnight.
Urban Fairy Tales Listening Party, featuring Sky Covington and guests, is 8 p.m., Saturday, July 15, at The Temple of Ra, 19291 Warrington Dr., Detroit; 510-367-6825; $20.
Nasty Jazz Poem
by Nicole "Sky" Covington
Your sounds are beyond the melody of jass
You a Stone cold Satchmo prone
I mean your musical eclipse
Is a glimpse into a place with no face?
They're no race, to confuse me
I'm behooved with your blues
The flow, extracting Charlie Parker's
Mysterious ko-ko in my soul
I'm left jittery and syncopated
With Russell's finale thump and slowly
I fall to the ground like a half smoked cigarette,
Rolling down a wet cobblestone street
Still burning for more comprehensions
Maybe San Francisco, maybe New Orleans,
Shedding to Coltrane till 5 am in the morning
Writing songs about the moisture of my panties
The beaks of my nipples
Bouncing off the dusty
Lamp shades at Hotel Audubon
So play dat jazz, baby
Like you born getting good pussy
That salivating kind the kind that
Bounces and be-bop
When you lick it.
From The Reflections of a Lazy Brain, Leadfoot Press, 2005.Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]