Yolanda Williams Rabun has always known that she was gifted with her family's proudest heirloom—"the voice," they called it.
"We all knew we all had this voice," she confides. "The question was, where did it come from?"
So, a decade ago, Rabun decided to delve into her family's genealogy. She discovered that her inheritance was no accident. Her lineage is a list of preachers and singers and speakers, with aunts, grandfathers and great-grandfathers active in the congregations of their Methodist church.
"I learned that my grandmother and great aunts were all in a little singing group [The Gardner Sisters]," Rabun says. "They never told me that."
Rabun stands at an even five feet—well, 5' 6" in the formidable heels she wears onstage. They sparkle with the same rhinestones as her custom microphone and stand. But her stature belies the size and power of Rabun's contralto/ mezzo-soprano, rich and resonant in its low tones and belting in its upper range. That voice is as complex and compelling as the story that shapes it.
"Most people don't know I am as short as I am, and I think it's because of my voice," Rabun explains. "I was blessed with this voice, but part of my job was taming it. My mother would always tell me, 'Watch your tone.'"
Rabun considers tempering her voice a day-to-day challenge, though you wouldn't know it to hear So Real, her 2011 album of expertly modulated smooth jazz. She also seems to have complete control of that voice with her day job as corporate legal counsel for IBM. In fact, the singer and attorney teaches other corporate women how to unleash the power of their voices in the workplace.
"I do seminars on how to understand the tones of your voice and what message it delivers. So there's a way to talk to your boss when you want to let him know that you're taking two weeks off, versus talking to an employee letting them know that they need to improve," she says. The same lessons apply to her musical phrasing. "As I tell them, as a singer, I do think about these things. Do you shout an entire song? Or do you whisper the beginning of the song? And then raise it to the level of making a statement? What message are you delivering based on the rhythm of your song and the tone of your voice?"
An Atlanta native who moved to Wake County in 1994, Rabun took to Triangle stages soon thereafter. She has become a beloved regular in local regional theater. Rabun recently wrote her own music to sing in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at Raleigh's Burning Coal, and she performed in the critically acclaimed, sold-out run of Chaunesti Webb's I Love My Hair When It's Good: And Then Again When It Looks Defiant and Impressive at Durham's Manbites Dog earlier this year.
In developing the play, Webb workshopped the script with the various actors. She credits Rabun with helping give shape to several of its characters: "I was moved by her commitment to me and my creative process. Everything I have ever seen Yolanda do, she has done better than well."
Indeed, Rabun seems fundamentally driven to turn anything into a boon. Of her height, for instance, she says that it allows her to play a wide range of ages and types on the stage. That couldn't be more evident than in the two wildly divergent roles she'll be playing next: Gary Coleman, in Theatre Raleigh's production of Avenue Q during August; and Nina Simone, in Howard Craft's one-woman show Nina Simone—What More Can I Say? at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in September.
"Gary Coleman ... was a pessimist. He was all the opposite of what I think a person should be. So this is a challenge," says Rabun about stretching her acting muscles for that role. "If you had asked me two or three years ago, would I do Nina Simone, I probably would have laughed at you. But now, because of how old I am, and who I am, I absolutely want to tackle that. The thing that I love about her is that she tells a story every song she sings. And that's what I want to do."
For Rabun, the challenge she finds within Simone's work is to tell real stories, whether or not they are giddy ones. Among those not-so-happy tales, Rabun learned, was that Simone had been a battered wife. She was surprised to find out that a legend with such a strong personality would have endured that situation.
"She told you she did," reckons Rabun. "That's a part of who she is."
The Simone play is one commissioned piece of a larger event honoring the North Carolina native, including an exhibition of rare photographs and letters, at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. Craft says he didn't choose Rabun for her voice alone. He explains, "She has a spunk and a feistiness that truly captures the way Nina carried herself, self-assured with a great deal of confidence and agency."
That strength and agency show in Rabun's versatility: Besides acting, singing and working as an attorney, she raises two young boys together with her husband, structural engineer Dereck Rabun. Several of the love songs on So Real are based on their real-life romance, which began in childhood. Yolanda's mother, Kappitola Williams, ran a modern dance company in Atlanta. She and Dereck danced together in a children's version of Roots; he was 8, and she was 6.
"He played Kunta Kinte. I was one of the dancers who was bringing water to him," she remembers with a smile. In college, they went their separate ways until reconnecting one spring break. The couple wed in 1994; 17 years later, on So Real, Rabun used her actual vows to introduce the song "Marry You Again."
Rabun co-wrote that romantic track with Felicia Wright, her best friend, manager and backup singer, and with her musical director and keyboardist, Chris Evans. The rest of the album serves as a showcase not only for Rabun's voice but also for her stylistic restlessness. There's the slow-grooving title track and "My True Love," written by and featuring Durham saxophonist and jazz notable Stanley Baird. (Baird, in turn, features Rabun as a vocalist in his own band.) "Set for Life" is a bluesy burner featuring Raleigh electric guitarist James "JP" Perry. "Come on, baby," she sings. "Why don't you make love to my mind?"
Here, she cuts to the heart of what this soulful exploration of jazz and R&B is all about: music you can turn the lights down to, that won't insult your intelligence. "I'm a thinker. I love it when you can hit me here [points to heart] but you need to hit me here too [points to head]. That's bingo, jackpot," says Rabun.
Love is the overriding theme of the disc, but not all the songs have their head in the clouds. "The Good Wife" is an anthem of marriage gone stale, from the stage play Drift; Rabun adds a grown-up delivery to a cover of "Say My Name," the 2000 hit for Destiny's Child about mistrust leaking through the phone signal. Co-arrangers Evans, Perry, bassist Chris Thompson and drummer Cedric Hardin beef up the song's thumping hip-hop groove. Taking her cues from musical theater, Rabun inhabits each character, although their stories may not be her own.
Though the love, lust and possible loss Rabun sings about is secular, the band members' strong roots in gospel music are always palpable—especially in live performance.
Just as So Real pushes universal "Love"—capital L—in a secular package, in the early '00s, Rabun and her backup singers—Felicia Wright and Bobby Cadell—actually joined a nondenominational group called Ad Lib. Formed out of the New Horizon Church, the group included local standouts like Brevan Hampden and Adrian Duke. They called it inspirational contemporary, meaning they delivered religious messages through everyday songs.
"We were singing Natalie Cole, 'This will be an everlasting love,'" she explains "[We were] taking a song that's universal, for someone who may not like all that God' stuff."
Wright grew up in Mebane's Chapel Holiness Church in Hillsborough, surrounded by gospel music. Her experience seems typical for the band.
"I learned to sing three-part harmony with the choir. We had Hammond organ, you know, so we had big music from the get-go. I've always known big choir sound," says Wright. That gospel essence has never left Rabun's music. "It's kind of in us. You grow up in church, and you hear that and you feel that, you know that beat and that spirit, and it's just what's in you."
That's not the only hidden factor in Rabun's music. Born in Miami, she lived in Florida until age 5. Appropriately, a few Latin vibes diffuse through So Real. There's a subtle Caribbean sway to "Only in My Mind, and on live versions of "Dreaming," Rabun extends the second verse into full-on salsa, singing Spanish lyrics over Evans' piano montunos.
"Listen, my name is Yolanda," she says with Hispanic inflection. "I remember learning Spanish, and even to this day I love hearing the language."
With stage appearances and touring behind So Real, it's been a great year for Rabun. Aside from the upcoming theater performances, she'll serve as guest vocalist with the Heart of Carolina Jazz Orchestra at Sanford Depot Park's free "Function at the Junction" Summer Concert Series on Aug. 9. In May, she performed at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, rubbing elbows with Robert Glasper, Tito Puente Jr. and other festival headliners. The group played for its largest audience yet—on Rabun's home turf, no less.
"We went up on that main stage and blew it out of the water," she exclaims. "That was a 'Great God' moment, I can tell you. I honestly just think I'm doing what I'm supposed to do. I'm working with beautiful, wonderful, talented people delivering a message. And that's real talk."
In her gig bag, Rabun always carries a few essentials: some bottled water, several gummi bears and a rhinestone-studded microphone. She says the rhinestones are a throwback to the grace and elegance of jazz forebears like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson. She shares Wilson's brilliant diction and has been known to wear white gardenias in her hair—an allusion to Holiday's signature style.
"[Drummer] Cedric Hardin is the reason that I have my own microphone," she says of the jeweled treasure. "He said to me: 'Every musician has their ax. I bring my own sticks and my own drums. Where's yours? You must have your microphone. That's your sound, so control your sound.'"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Her sound."