The call came on Christmas Eve, weeks after KIPP Academy of Opportunity music teacher Lanita Smith expected to hear back. “You’re in the top five. Do you want to continue?”
The call solidified her journey to the stage at the Troubadour--and ultimately into the studio with powerhouse producer Don Was and onto the Jimmy Kimmel show.
In March, Smith won Guitar Center’s Singer-Songwriter Competition, a national search for new talent. Don Was, who has produced music for artists like The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Brian Wilson, personally combed through every entry searching for the artist that would, as he said, make “timeless” music. Smith’s entry made him think she could do exactly that.
A native of Memphis, Smith began playing music on the keyboard in church. She said that gradually, “I was able to hear things and put notes together. I didn't have any formal training. It took many days of playing it wrong before it came out right.”
She picked up more instruments along the way and attended a music high school before going to Berklee College of Music to study performance and music business. Smith began giving music lessons when she returned to Memphis and quickly discovered her second passion was teaching. She continued to teach music for three years after college.
Smith later moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career as an artist and songwriter while continuing to teach. The two songs she entered for the competition, “Listen To Your Heartbeat” and “Paralyzed,” were ones she had written for herself but had never shared with anyone. “The more I’d sing [them] to myself, the more they resonated with me. As a performer and artist, you don’t often get a chance to truly be yourself. I count it as an honor to get in front of people and share who Lanita really is.”
In the end, Smith’s powerful lyrics launched her to victory over the other four finalists after the finals at the legendary Troubadour in West Hollywood. Smith said that hearing her name being announced was surreal. “I was definitely a ball of emotions. It was just unbelievable. ” Now, she’s sharing her talents with her students at KIPP Academy of Opportunity in a unit on songwriting. After she won, KIPPsters sent congratulations via social media and requested a performance of her music in class.
“I’m very humble about it,” she said about her celebrity among her students. “In this age group, being able to captivate them is surreal. How crazy is that your students ask to listen to your song?”
In addition to a cash prize and a ton of music gear courtesy of Guitar Center, Smith is recording a four-track EP with Don Was with some new and old material. She is also scheduling her appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, set to record over the summer.