Ina Carter was standing in her kitchen when she first heard the voice. Deep but feminine, it spilled down from the second floor of her Bronzeville house in a rough, powerful wave. It was a grown-up kind of voice, a voice to make you clap your hands and throw back your head. It belonged to her eight-year-old daughter, Mae Ya Ta’Nell Carter Ryan. She was singing a child’s nonsense tune—just a little song she’d made up about how her family loved her. And she was singing the hell out of it.
Carter called her daughter downstairs. “I said, ‘Mae Ya, you can sing!’ And the way she answered me was like, ‘Uh, yes.’”
Mae Ya had asked for voice lessons a year before, but Carter, a busy single mother, hadn’t paid any attention. She was paying it now: “I said, ‘I’ve got to do something about that.’”
Three years later, Mae Ya (whose name rhymes with “hey-uh”) has racked up appearances on WGN, CBS 2 Chicago, and WCIU, as well as on the stages of the Chicago Theatre and the DuSable Museum. The sixth grader belts out, tears into, and soars through the music of the classic performers to whom she’s constantly compared: Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone.