March is Women’s History Month, and to commemorate all that women do, The Lantern Arts & Life desk will be highlighting exceptional female students every Tuesday throughout the month.
In third grade, MiChaela Barker stepped onto the stage of her school’s talent show and started to sing Celine Dion’s acclaimed “Titanic” theme song, “My Heart Will Go On.” Now performing under the stage name of Bella Reign 13 years later, Barker’s love for music has grown into something more.
Born and raised in East Lansing, Michigan, performance was a part of Barker’s everyday routine, whether it was performing in musicals and plays or taking part in open mics during her high school years. When she came to Ohio State, however, academics stole the spotlight from her music.
This all changed Barker’s sophomore year when she participated in the university’s Second-year Transformational Experience Program, and decided to use the $2,000 provided by the program to create her own music.
“I was at a point in my life where I was trying to focus on academics, but I felt like I was missing that artistic side that I always could utilize and express in high school,” said Barker, a fourth-year in public health.
With that money, Bella Reign –– Barker’s alter-ego –– has recorded a variety of mini mixtapes and singles, including covers of chart-topping tracks transformed into the female perspective. Her 2016 debut mixtape “Clapback” featured the female version of popular songs like Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.”
Since then, Barker has focused on creating her own original music, which she describes as a mixture of pop and R&B genres. Pulling from influences such as Toni Braxton and Alicia Keys, Barker said her goal was to take the R&B vocals and tailor them into more upbeat, relatable songs, similar to the work of alternative R&B newcomer SZA.
“[I’m] just trying to find that balance between how I like my voice to sound, popular music melodies and still keeping a message that I agree with,” Barker said. “I write all of the lyrics to my songs, so anything that I’m talking about is something that I’m either passionate about or that I’ve experienced –– just trying to be really transparent in my art.”
Though music is a significant piece in Barker’s life, it doesn’t come close to defining her.
As if being on the pre-med track wasn’t enough, Barker’s resume speaks for itself. When she isn’t studying or working on her music, Barker is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha; part of Sphinx Senior Honorary, a group that accepts only 24 exceptional seniors each year; president of the Minority Association of Premedical Students; and a Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation scholar in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
In preparing for medical school, Barker also volunteers at the James Cancer Hospital and interns at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
This list doesn’t stop there. This summer, Barker will be launching her own business, Melanin in Medicine, where she’ll be selling guided dream journals to help people cope with mental health issues and daily struggles in a healthy, creative way.
Being a minority in the pre-medical field, Barker said she often felt left out in certain spaces, and through Melanin in Medicine she aimed to tackle the taboo around mental health in the minority community and help ease the issue of representation for people like her.
“I wanted to actually fill a need that I’m seeing in our community,” Barker said. “For me going through my own personal struggles and hard times, I was like this is what I want to do with this.”
Though Barker never seems to have a moment of rest, music is her escape in the wake of academic stress or personal struggles. Through her art, Barker said she has grown in more ways than one, especially as a woman.
“[Music] has allowed me to be more vulnerable and also feel emotion,” she said. “As women, we’re often told ‘You’re super emotional, calm down, you’re crazy,’ and just people invalidating your feelings.
“For me, especially as a black woman, people think you’re always supposed to be the strong black woman, you can’t break down, you can’t cry, you can’t express how you’re feeling. I just got to the point where I was so used to building things up and I finally realized it wasn’t healthy and I wasn’t healing the way that I should in certain situations.”
Barker said her music is more than just breakup, it’s an outlet for humanizing issues faced by all women and encouraging women and girls to make themselves a priority. In her latest single, “Bout Us,” Barker created a breakup song that encourages women to cope with their feelings through self-care, rather than through hate and vengeance.
“You don’t have to get under someone to get over someone, and so for me, within that song I wrote about how there was a breakup, but I was focusing on self-love,” she said. “I say ‘I love myself enough for the both of us / And you can never take that away,’ and I just wanted women to realize that even though you’re going through this hurt, put yourself first. It’s totally fine to be selfish and focus on yourself.”
I just got to the point where I was so used to building things up and I finally realized it wasn’t healthy and I wasn’t healing the way that I should in certain situations
Like many female artists, Barker is often faced with “suggestions” on what she should and shouldn’t do with her songs, but this type of criticism doesn’t stop at the music. Historically, women have been hypersexualized and criticized in the music industry, and for Barker, that’s nothing new.
“People have certain expectations and boxes that women just have to fit in. You have to be super dainty and lovey or you have to be super sexual and out there,” she said.
But regardless of what society wants or thinks, Barker isn’t here for disrespect. Drawing strength from influences like Vanessa Williams, Barker holds her head high through adversity.
“For me, I’m always honest with myself, with whatever I do, whether it’s through music, how I act, how I dress,” she said. “Before I go to sleep at night, I ask myself, ‘Can you be OK with the decision that you made when you wake up in the morning?’ And so that’s just what I let dictate my life, and I don’t let anybody else tell me what they think I should or shouldn’t do. That’s how I go about it.”