If you live in central PA, you’ve probably heard of Shawan Rice and her band, Shawan and the Wonton. The singer-songwriter has brought her melodic voice and heartbreaking lyrics all across Pennsylvania and the east coast.
There is no other way to describe the 25-year-old’s voice but soulful. Her music, featuring traces of blues, R&B and folk laced together with her autobiographical lyrics, will probably wreck you but help you heal all over again.
“It’s soul music—music made for the soul,” she said. “You can feel it inside you.”
Rice has been making music since she can remember. As a child, she loved musicals so much (especially Shirley Temple) that she would reenact them for her family, with her brothers serving as her background dancers.
At 13, she taught herself how to play the guitar and could finally bring a tune to the songs she was creating. At 14, she recorded her first self-titled EP and started getting into the open mic scene. She also performed for her first live event thanks to her friend, Fish. The event, hosted on State Street in Harrisburg, was meant to give people who were experiencing homelessness a chance to experience the arts.
“It was an exciting experience. It was my first little dip into live performing,” she said.
But, at 15, a dark period hit. She dropped out of her high school in place of cyberschool. There were battles with alcoholism and abusive relationships.
“Unfortunately, I created a very isolated experience for a few years. It was a lot of darkness…and just kinda losing control of my life,” she said. “But, fortunately, got on out to the other side of it.”
Music was her saving grace. Collecting her feelings and turning them into art helped her process those feelings and heal. So, she kept making and recording music but didn’t release anything until she was around 18.
Around this time, she met Daniel Delaney, who encouraged her to start playing live and publishing her music again. She and Delaney, along with musician Torrey Long, recorded their EP, “Assorted Inebriations.”
This was the beginning of Shawan and the Wonton.
Today, Rice, Delaney (drums), Xander Moppin (bass), Mike Dempsey (keys), Nate Young (guitar and keys), Dani Fiore (percussion) and Jason Mescia (saxophone) have performed all across the United States as Shawan and the Wonton.
The band took their mixture of soul, blues, R&B and folk everywhere from Little Amps in Harrisburg to venues in New Orleans and Florida.
Currently, the band is putting finishing touches on their studio album. Rice is also working on a project with Moppin and plans on releasing some singles in the coming months.
Even though Rice has been performing for over a decade, she doesn’t consider herself an entertainer. According to her, her music isn’t about entertainment. It’s a form of survival.
“If I don’t [make music] I’ll die. It’s not an expression… It’s survival.”
And she’s not slowing down anytime soon.
In five years, Rice will, of course, be making music, but, overall, she just sees herself as being happy.
“Hopefully, smiling on a sunny day, but if it’s raining that’s OK too,” she said. “I just want to have that contentment in my heart wherever I find myself in five years.”
This story is one in a series of local musician profiles in celebration of African American Music Appreciation Month.