Kayla Childs is a star rising in Philadelphia. The keyboardist, songwriter, beatmaker and bandleader has put in years of work with R&B, hip hop and jazz artists all over the region – Orion Sun, Ivy Sole, keiyaA, Ryan Gilfillian, Omar’s Hat, RES and more. This May, she steps out with an EP of her own original music for the first time as Black Buttafly, in collaboration with beloved locals Steve McKie and Nazir Ebo. Her first single, “Imagine,” came out in March, and her band plays MilkBoy on Friday, April 14th with Braxton Cook.

Childs grew up in a deeply-committed musical family in New Brunswick, New Jersey. From an early age, she learned about keyboards, especially the Hammond B-3 organ, while her godmother directed music at Ebenezer Baptist Church around the corner from her home. She also studied acting and voice at the local George Street Playhouse, and she earned a scholarship to Rutgers University-Camden before landing her first professional performing gigs and moving to Philly at age twenty-four. Since then, she’s been busy at work in studios, jam sessions and touring bands with the most dedicated players in Philly, Jersey and New York.

Childs cites producer and drummer Steve McKie (Jill Scott, Bilal, Jazmine Sullivan) as one of her closest friends in the scene here: he drums in her live band, and they spent entire days and nights together in his West Philly studio enduring the pandemic, talking, healing, and producing Black Buttafly’s new EP.

Last month, I spoke with Childs on the phone as she rode to Jersey for studio time with Ryan Gilfillian. She opened up touchingly about her growth in the Philly music community, the inspiration for her lyrics, her dreams for this EP, and other upcoming projects– including a new album through her grant from Black Music City. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Black Buttafly - Imagine

TH: What were your first musical experiences while growing up in New Brunswick?

KC: Definitely born and raised in church. While my mom was pregnant with me, she was singing in the choir and my godmom was the music director, she was the minister of music for as long as I’ve been alive up until she passed away. So those were my first experiences, being in her belly at church. I used to sit with her in the choir loft every Sunday and watch my godmom play organ, B-3 Hammond every week, so that was my first example of what music is.

By the time I was in elementary school, I went to Paul Robeson Community School for the arts; I know Paul Robeson is huge in Philly, and I grew up learning about Paul Robeson from about five years old. My elementary school used to have grants for young students to go take acting classes, and all things that will enrich a young person creatively, so I actually got a scholarship to go to George Street Playhouse. They are a New Brunswick-based theater who do a lot of work in the school system there. I did acting from about the age of seven to my junior year of high school, so I spent every week at George Street Playhouse and every summer at George Street Playhouse up until it was time for me to go to college. So that definitely had an impact on my musical journey because it allowed me to be my creative self outside of church, which I’m very thankful for.

I started playing instruments before I could talk. My godmom would just buy me these harmonicas, violin, anything I could put my hands on. So I started playing, for real for real, when I knew I was playing the piano, definitely by the age of five. That developed as my godmom would take me to church every Sunday where she would go and play, and she would take me to all her rehearsals with her. That’s my girl, she makes a lot of things happen for me.

TH: And how did you start getting involved in the Philadelphia scene?

KC: I graduated from New Brunswick high school and I immediately went straight to EOF, which is Educational Opportunity Fund – it’s a program for city kids who want a college experience but can’t afford to go to college – and Rutgers Camden accepted me to their program through the Educational Opportunity Fund. So I spent six years in Camden from eighteen to twenty-four, then I moved to Philly. I didn’t finish my degree, but my last semester of college I got asked to go on tour to Europe. So, you can imagine it makes absolutely no sense to stay in school. [laughs] So I went, then when I came back home I felt like this was the perfect time for me to leap over here to Philadelphia. So I did; I found a house in South Philly, and I hunkered down and I’ve just been working ever since.

TH: Which tour did you leave school for?

KC: I had gone to go play with keiyaA – that was November 2021, after Forever, Ya Girl was out. And I actually met keiyaA earlier that summer; somebody had connected us and was like, “you need to be playing with her.” I was like, “I would LOVE to play with her.” And we’ve been great friends ever since. We still talk all the time; I’ve done a lot of cool things with keiyaA. I’m very thankful that that was my first tour experience. All my touring experiences have actually been with queer Black women, which is a surprise because that’s not common. For my first experience touring being with a Black woman, I definitely appreciated that. Because there’s a level of safety that I got to have while we were on the road, sharing certain experiences and talking about life, so that was great. She was a great leader. She’s in Brooklyn so I was making the commute for rehearsals, and it was kind of crazy but worth it. No regrets.

I was on that tour with Evan Lawrence and Jaylen Petinaud who are also New York-based, great players, one of the best trios I’ve ever gotten to be a part of was that tour. They are like brothers– they are not like brothers, they ARE brothers. We talk every day, we’re basically like best friends. That was all our first experience touring, me, keiyaA, Jaylen and Evan, just like fish out of water over there, but we had each other.

Kayla Childs (right) performs with keiyaA in 2021 at PhilaMOCA | photo by John Vettese

TH: Who have you been working with since living in Philly? And how do you divide your time between your own music and performing and recording with other artists?

KC: All three aspects have gotten busier. That touring experience made me want to hunker down and do it for myself, figure out what it’s like to get my music done and out so I can travel the world playing my music. So I definitely spent a lot of time recording when I got home, and also playing with other people. I definitely like to accompany people who are working to be on the same kind of time that I want to be on, as an artist and as a musician. But what I’ve learned is that you cannot make yourself accessible to every little thing once you start getting bigger gigs. So I try to operate like that. I’m actually in the car with Ryan Gilfillian now, we play tons of music together and I help him; we’re on our way to the studio in Jersey to record as we speak.

The last tour I went on was with Orion Sun, we did three tours. And I work a lot with Ivy Sole, we were in the studio a couple weeks ago; she’s working on a new project that a lot of us are kind of spearheading together. And I play a lot with RES. You know, RES is a Philly legend for young Black women who make music that doesn’t sound like the day-to-day stuff on the radio. I just love playing with RES, she teaches me a lot about the industry and all that good stuff. The stuff I’ve worked on with RES isn’t out yet, but she has a lot of dope stuff coming out that I think people are gonna love. I’m still playing with Omar’s Hat, and I definitely have been getting into more of my own stuff as Black Buttafly. And I spend a lot of time playing and recording with Steve McKie, he’s my guy.

In all of these projects I’m typically playing keyboard, and Ivy and I write a lot together. I have some unreleased music with Orion Sun, too. I don’t know if it’ll ever come out, but – maybe it will? We’ll see. We went to the studio with a bunch of stuff, I played keyboards, made beats; it was a fun time in the studio that day, actually in LA when we did those sessions. I’ve also played with Duendita; I didn’t get to record any music with her but I’ve played with her a few times, she is awesome, awesome. And I did get to play with Lauryn Hill. [laughs] Lauryn Hill is amazing and it was an honor to just share space with her in that capacity.

TH: How has your work as a keyboardist in other groups influenced the way you write your own music?

KC: That’s a great question, and I would have to say that they don’t influence my writing as the leader of my own music because I don’t let that affect my sound and what I do. I’m very particular and I know exactly how I want my music to sound, and it doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. You can always hear the inspirations and influences behind why I write the music that I write, but I never let anyone else’s sound dictate what I do. Not in a bad way! But I know what I want my stuff to sound like and who it’s inspired by, and I just stay in my own lane. Make my own waves.

Orion Sun - Dirty Dancer / Without You (Interlude) | Audiotree Live

TH: Who are the musicians you work together with on your new EP? How did you get to know them, and how have they influenced you?

KC: There’s only one song on my EP that other people were present for; everything else I wrote by myself, in my room, in my apartment. And I brought it to other people to help it come alive, but yeah, everything starts with me. I’ve only been recording my EP with Steve McKie and Naz Ebo and myself. I’ll probably have some guests playing on my stuff – I’ve got Jermaine Holmes on a song with me, he is a Grammy Award-winning artist with D’Angelo and the Vanguard. But yeah, I try to keep everything really tucked in. (Omar’s Hat drummer) Austin Marlow has helped me write some stuff, as well as Eric Sherman. But outside of that, just for recording purposes, myself, Steve and Naz have been shaping everything. Because that’s the sound that I have on stage, that’s the sound I want to have on my record.

I met Steve because somebody used to drive me by his studio all the time and be like, “that’s Steve McKie’s studio,” so I’m like, “who is Steve McKie?!” And Hiruy Tirfe – we play together a lot, he also has a project coming out soon that I’m playing on – I was like, “yo, can you put me in touch with Steve McKie?” And so he did. I came by Steve’s studio one day, and the next thing you know I was at Steve’s every day. He was just telling me every little thing about recording and making music. And best believe I do my Googles, so I know he’s worked with everybody that I grew up listening to; he’s the reason why that sound is dominant the way it is in today’s music. So I’m just grateful I had the courage to even ask who he was and go find him myself, because now we’re here making all this dope-ass music and he plays a huge part in what my sound is today.

I’m thankful for that because one thing about Steve McKie, he is not gonna settle for anything that sounds bad. And neither will I. We have that understanding and that great relationship, and he’s a great big brother to me. I appreciate all that he does for me on the music side. He also has his own stuff coming out that is incredible, and I can’t wait to see him being awesome doing his thing.

The fall of 2021 was when we first started kicking it and getting cool. It was fresh off the pandemic, and honestly, he gave me somewhere that I could record and just be. I was going through a lot of bulls*** at the time with relationships and all of that. And this is when I was living in New Jersey, I was coming from Camden all the way to Steve’s studio just to be there: Pine Studios, on 48th & Pine. I’d be there all night and day; there were some days I just emotionally didn’t even want to go home. And I had a place to go because he would just let me be there. He would leave me in there; he would go home and I would just stay. And I appreciate him because now I have music that’s ready for the world, you know?

I’m pretty sure I met Naz through Yesseh Ali, because that makes the most sense. The day I met Naz, that was probably the same day we were like – locked in. We’ve gotten super close over the past year just because he’s been playing a lot of music with me. Naz is such a great guy, he’s an amazing player, and a lot of people don’t know that he plays bass! I picked up on that sh*t because nobody knew. I need him in my band while nobody knows that he f**ks up the bass. Naz is one of one. And now we’re here, we got a li’l crazy trio between myself, him and Steve, we just get up there and we hit it. No questions asked. They’re both amazing drummers so they have that language between them already, so there’s a lot of things I don’t have to worry about when I’m on stage with them.

I met [Omar’s Hat saxophonist] Yesseh [Furaha-Ali] my first night in Philly ever, which was May 2019; it was at a jam session. My professor Jojo Streater, who teaches in Camden, he told me to come this little shed with him that was gonna be in West Philly. I showed up and that night I met Yesseh Ali, I met Austin Marlow, I met Max Hoenig, I met Eric Sherman, Ajay Shughart; I met everybody in Omar’s Hat who would later be my band, they would be my bandmates. And that’s kinda scary that I met all those people that night, my first real night being out in the scene. And what’s more funny is that Orion Sun performed that night as well – so who knew that I would be on tour with her a couple years later? This was at what used to be known as District 38, now they call it the Friend Zone, owned by Josh Thomas.

Black Buttafly | photos by Victoria Wilcox

TH: I want to talk more about the music on your upcoming EP. Can you describe the experiences that inspired the lyrics on “Imagine”?

KC: The experience really just comes from people assuming things about me, who don’t even know me and don’t know what I’m capable of doing. I grew up heavy on faith in a Christian household, went to church every Sunday, and they teach you about literally believing in the thing before it comes to life. You have to have faith in order to even make something happen; you gotta have the mentality, act like it’s already awarded to you, already available to you. So, I definitely wrote the song in that spirit. I’m big on visuals; I’m a very visual person when it comes to who I want to be, how I want to be able to give back to people of my kind and where I come from. And I take that stuff super serious, because just changing how you think about stuff could really change your life, and how you wake up and approach your days and approach your tasks. All that stuff changes when you have something in mind about where you want to be, and how you want to be able to be available to other people, and use your gifts to open more doors, to have access to more things to share with other people. That’s my biggest thing.

I feel like I also really took a risk because I was being real about a lot of sh*t. Because people always do assume that it’s something for a female to sit down at a keyboard, a bass, anything. They don’t know. They don’t view us on the same level all the time, and it’s not even something they do on purpose, that’s how the industry is. There have been a lot of moments, growing up as a young Black woman who plays music, in the form of production, singing, songwriting, and playing other instruments, that’s not a regular thing for people to see. And a lot of the time I write music, I just want to know why. Why do we feel like this is not possible?

So, I definitely try to debunk that. Because if you close your eyes, regardless of whether you know me or not, you’re not going to see a woman, or a man, or anything – you’re just gonna hear music. You’re gonna hear music that’s bright, that has feel to it, that’s from somebody’s heart, and that’s all that matters to me at the end of the day. I just wanted to take time to talk about how that sh*t doesn’t even matter. So let’s dead that now, before I start something. This is the standard of music. It doesn’t matter that I’m a female. But the message is very positive; I still wrote it in a positive spirit because this is also a manifestation for me. This song is a manifesto. It’s sealing the deal on what I said I wanted to be, and what I’m gonna do in my life, in my career with music. And I don’t take that lightly; I feel like I have a responsibility in my generation of young musicians to say the hard sh*t. And that’s the most important thing to talk about in your music; you can definitely believe that a person is gonna play music wanting to be touched by something. And why not share truth? In those few minutes that you have to really reach somebody, while they’re choosing to listen to your song.

TH: How do you plan to perform this new music live? Will the show sound similar to the EP, or different?

KC: It might sound different but it’s definitely gonna sound better; everything sounds better when it’s live and bigger, especially when you have people like Steve and Naz playing. But typically, I have bigger bands when the budget makes sense for that to happen, and when the moment calls for that. Typically I’m playing with Quintin Zoto on guitar, Yesseh Ali [on tenor saxophone] and Michael Spearman [on trombone]. We’re playing on April 14th at Milkboy opening up for Braxton Cook. I’m really excited for that show because I met Braxton Cook– I met him on a session at Time, I think it was Max Hoenig’s session, and Braxton dropped in. Then we stayed in touch and he hit me up like, “I would love for you to open the show.”

TH: What will you be working on the next few months after the EP is out? Anything you are able to share?

KC: Yeah, I would love to share. I’ll have more Black Buttafly gigs after April but that’s all stuff we’re still planning. And I’ll be working on a beat tape to come out for my birthday in November, in between the EP and my album. I want my album to come out a year after this single, which was in March. I really want to be able to take my time with this album because I feel like a lot of great things can happen in between then and now that will connect all the dots I need to get my album sounding what I need it to sound like. I’d like it to be a little experimental, not steering away from what my EP sounds like now but just adding to that sound, and finding new things to talk about. Also, just having other minds involved. When it comes to the actual sound, I know I want all my stuff to be run through tape machines; I really want to get the warmest, tightest sounds possible for my album. And yeah, more guitars – you can never have enough guitars. [Laughs]

I also just won a grant through WXPN, WRTI and REC Philly called the Black Music City grant, and they awarded me a great budget to record my first instrumental project, which will be in the likeness and inspiration of Shirley Scott and Trudy Pitts– Hammond B-3 legends, also Black women. That’s what I’m gearing up to do while the EP is doing its thing. And I have Ari Hoenig who’s down to come help me out with this, and Lenny White. Lenny White’s one of my great mentors, we talk every week about music and life, and I actually just went up to see him last week; we were talking about what I want this project to sound like. He’s helping me executive produce this project, so I’m excited to have him get down to Philly and be in the room.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Black Buttafly’s new EP comes out in May, and her single “Imagine” came out in March. The band plays MilkBoy Friday, April 14th with Braxton Cook and City Winery Sunday, April 23rd with Gene Noble.