2016: The Year In Music

Cramer's Star Is On the Rise: 'This Is Beyond Anything I Imagined'

To encounter Akeira Cramer (or just Cramer to her fans) is to meet a 22-year-old singer and songwriter who is fully aware of the significance of every step on her musical journey.

The latest episode in Cramer’s adventure took place on Sunday (Aug. 23), when the native of Prince George’s County, Md,, performed at Billboard’s inaugural Hot 100 Festival. She earned her spot thanks to Hyundai’s Grammy Amplifier program -- a nationwide talent search that she and two other artists won back in March -- and over the last six months, Cramer has thought a lot about confidence, creativity and what it means to follow your dreams.

It’s all there in the timeline on her Facebook page, but more importantly, it’s in the handful of honest, heartfelt, gorgeously minimalistic indie-soul songs she’s made available via Soundcloud.

“My generation, we got a lot of information from everyone around us,” Cramer tells Billboard, taking stock of her growing digital footprint. “We have to sort through it and decide which way we want to take it. It’s a coming-of-age thing for everyone: How do you want your life to be? I’m very vocal about it because I’m very extroverted sometimes.”

Billboard Hot 100 Festival: All Our Coverage

Cramer has actually called herself an “intro-extrovert,” a dichotomy you can almost hear on “It’s Alright (It’ll Only Hurt),” the song she submitted for Grammy Amplifier. Her sound is akin to that of Des’ree and Lauryn Hill jamming with the The Weeknd and FKA Twigs -- a cool blend of neo-soul and modern R&B born of Cramer’s various influences. Those influences include Chaka Khan, The Temptations, and all of the other vintage soul artists her parents used to play around the house, as well as Miguel, Jill Scott, and even rock bands like Fall Out Boy, a favorite of Cramer’s during middle school, when she started playing guitar.

“As I got into college, I started to blend everything together,” says Cramer, who studied film at the University of Pittsburgh but left last fall to pursue music. “I don’t even know how to describe it. Maybe a rock-soul indie-type something. It incorporates a lot of strings and synths, but it has the harmonies and melodies of soul music.”

Despite her skills as a genre-blurring writer, performer, and producer, Cramer didn’t grow up wanting to be a pop star. In high school, she did theater and musicals, but it wasn’t until college that she hit the stage solo and began to realize her potential.

“It blossomed out of exposure to people that were giving me positive feedback,” Cramer says. “They were saying, ‘You can do this. Maybe you’ve got a shot at this. Maybe that thing you’ve got and the way you’re connecting with people isn’t the norm. Maybe it’s extraordinary.’”

These days, Cramer performs with a full band, and while she enjoys collaborating with other musicians, she hopes to continue making records that mostly feature her own voice and instrumentation.

“Personally, I connect more with another person musically if I feel like I’m listening to their soul and their heart and not too much accompaniment, not too much else going on,” she says.

Whereas Cramer’s two fellow Grammy Amplifier winners scored video shoots and recording sessions, her prize was the opportunity to play a series of high-profile gigs like the Hot 100 Festival. The focus these days is honing the live show, and that’s just fine with her.

“That’s actually best for me right now,” Cramer says. “That’s what’s least developed. Production, I’ve got a handle on, and what I put out, my image, and stuff like that. This gives me a chance to be like, ‘How do I connect with people?’ That’s what I’m trying to invest in.”

Watch above as Cramer talks to Billboard about her pre-show rituals, what her Grammy Amplifier win means to her and more.