The melodic lyrics of Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” play in the background of the local eatery where I meet the “urban retro songstress” Leilanda Rowland.
Her natural hair falls around her black-frame glasses. Her easy-going demeanor matches the easy-listening selections playing by chance. The smooth style reminds me of the melodic lyrics and retro inspiration Rowland is known for.
As a singer, Rowland’s urban retro sound has entertained East Coast audiences from The Sugar Bar, a New York City club owned by Motown legends Ashford & Simpson, to the Miami Music Festival. She’s collaborated with artists, producers and songwriters as far away as France.
But the Harrisburg native always finds her way back home.
After she graduated from Bishop McDevitt High School, Rowland studied communications at Millersville University in Lancaster County. She then moved further east to Philadelphia, where she received a master’s degree in higher education administration from Drexel University.
She’s played the career ladder game, working in student affairs at Penn State Harrisburg and admissions at ITT Tech. But, ultimately, she decided pursue her musical passions fulltime. She calls leaving the 9-to-5 grind in 2015 the best thing to happen to her.
“It was scary, but a blessing in disguise,” she said.
On Her Craft
The career change allowed Rowland to zero in on DJing, singing and songwriting.
Under the moniker Lei Row, she dropped her first mixtape, “Lei Row Presents Euphoria,” in 2010 after she and her fiancé broke up. Her vocals effortlessly ride the beats of the late hip-hop producer J Dilla in “Luvwounds” and “Luvstruction.”
Four years later, Rowland released the mixtape “Urban Retro Life Volume 1.” This recording, she said, draws from different topics like spirituality and relationships, which are recurring themes. The mid-tempo song, “How I Feel,” addresses expressing feelings in a relationship. Her airy, ethereal voice sings lyrics like, “If you only knew how my heart beats inside.”
In 2012, Rowland coined the nickname DJ worrieL (Lei Row spelled backward) and joined the ranks of the few women in Harrisburg’s DJing scene. She draws inspiration from women DJs like DJ Spinderella of iconic hip-hop duo Salt-N-Pepa and the legendary DJ Cocoa Chanelle.
Undaunted by the male-dominated industry, Rowland focuses more on her craft and less on her gender. She spins hip-hop and rhythm and blues. She’s open to other music genres, as well.
Daisha Hunter, a Harrisburg native and DJ, said the area’s lack of women DJs reflects the situation nationally.
“Hip-hop is a male-dominated culture, so you’ll see that reflected in the elements of hip-hop, DJing being one of them,” she said.
She then added, “There isn’t a shortage of females wanting to DJ.”
Rowland gives props to local male DJs such as Alf Dawg, Godfather and Herbie Hall. She would watch her cousin Alf Dawg spin at Mr. Mike’s Records.
“DJ Alf Dawg took me under his wing,” she said.
The mentorship she’s found in Harrisburg has helped her find success in this market.
She reached a high point DJing when she played to her biggest crowd to date at the city’s 2014 New Year’s Eve celebration. She also opened when rap veteran Slick Rick performed in Harrisburg in 2013. She’s performed all over the city, even at summer community events in Hall Manor.
Harrisburg-based singer and songwriter Dexter Kendrick calls her a visionary.
“We’ve worked together behind the scenes as a sounding board for each other’s creative pursuits,” Kendrick said. “Lei is always excited, creating and willing to lend an ear.”
She calls Philadelphia, where she used to live, a second stomping ground. She took a six-week course with Scratch DJ Academy in Philly, a school co-developed by Jam Master Jay of Run-D.M.C. She’s a member of Philly’s chapter of The Recording Academy.
When she’s not DJing, singing or writing songs, she drives in Philadelphia for Lyft, a ride-sharing service like Uber.
“It places me in that market,” she said about being in a large urban music scene. “While I’m there, I really make most of my time.”
She drives and performs in Philly and received her advanced education there, but she always makes her way home.
“Being here is a blessing,” she said about living in Harrisburg.
Find Leilanda Rowland’s music on SoundCloud at www.soundcloud.com/leirow.