The first thing you notice, of course, is the hair.
Phoenix Lei has what she originally called a “galaxy hawk”– a mix of blue and magenta locks spiked at the top. There was even some red in there for a while. Lei has been rocking this colorful ’do since the turn of the century. “It’s been a long time I’ve had a Mohawk – before it was popular,” says Lei, 35.
When you’re a vocalist (which Lei is) walking around with that sort of hairstyle, expect your audience to have varied responses to it. “You have this group of people – older, more Caucasian people – they love me and my hair, and it’s always a conversation piece,” she says. Curious white folk take it one step further and touch it, sometimes without asking. “And, then, the more African-American people, they’re like, ‘Oh, is that your hair? Is that a sew-in?’”
Welcome to Lei’s colorful world, which she and her manager, Khaaliq Pyatt, discussed at a Starbucks patio in North Raleigh recently.
For a while there, it seemed like the Rocky Mount-born Lei (real name: Colesha Hagans) was going down a different road career-wise. During the late ’90s, she went to N.C. State to study biology and Spanish. She intended to go to medical school, but being born with sickle cell put a damper on that. (“I’ve known all my life,” she says, referring to the disease. “Some people don’t know – you know, they don’t find out at birth. But if you were born in the late ’70s/early ’80s, they started testing children at birth.”)
A couple of years into college, a friend introduced her to Raleigh musician Santonio Parker, who was looking for a female vocalist to include in his go-go band. “As a young girl, I’d also been into music,” she says. “And so I started to sing with his band – it’s called Jus Once – and after doing that for a few years, I said, ‘Hey, there’s another side to me.’ Doing the go-go band was fun, but it’s not who I was as an artist – a solo artist.”
Lei got the itch to do her own thing five years ago. After briefly dealing with a management company that led to some false starts, she met manager/hip-hop producer Pyatt when he and his wife hired Lei to perform at a scholarship function involving St. Augustine’s College.
“This is where I have to give credit to my wife,” says Mount Vernon native Pyatt, who runs TruBlu Entertainment. “She was talking to Phoenix and other members of the band and she said (to me), ‘You know, with your music background, you could really help them. She needs a manager to help them out with their business and line everything up. I think she’s really talented.’”
Since rolling with Pyatt, there have been some new developments. She released a new single, “Fantasy,” which can be accessed on iTunes. She also will perform twice at this weekend’s African American Cultural Festival of Raleigh and Wake County. She first performed at the festival three years ago, doing a Friday night, pre-festival set at the Lincoln Theatre, which she’ll do again this year. For the second year in a row, she’ll also perform on the festival’s main stage at City Plaza Sunday.
At the moment, Lei is working on music she calls “pop urban rock,” inspired by the ’80s synth-pop of Prince and Cyndi Lauper. “That’s what I love about ’80s music,” she says. “I love the synth sounds and the guitars, especially. And the bottom – like the 808s and the bass sounds.”
Despite having other business ventures (she runs a watch boutique and a cosmetics company, co-owned by her and local media personality Nikki Nikole), Phoenix Lei is intent on standing out – wild ’do and all – as an artist.
“All I know how to do is to be me,” she says. “Who am I? I’ve been this way since I was a little girl. I wore leg warmers and neon biking shorts. I had Michael Jackson on vinyl (on) my own little record player. Some people try to be; I am who I am and who you see. No matter what time of day it is or wherever I’m at and whatever setting I’m in, this is me. This is who you get.”