The Sonny Side: Sonny Miles Hones His Unique Sound

This Winston-Salem native and NC State grad creates catchy music that draws from genres like soul, jazz, pop, rock and hip-hop.
by David Menconi | photography by Samantha Everette

At the end of 2019, Winston-Salem native Sonny Miles had just turned 24 and was making music in and out of groups around the Triangle. His hip-hop group, Dotwav Media, had put out an album that year, but it was Miles’ extracurricular solo work that drew breakthrough attention — specifically “Raleighwood Hills,” a lilting ballad featuring Miles with fellow locals LesTheGenius and Jaxson Free.

Miles played the song’s gentle guitar riff and rapped the middle verse, and they put together a video at Dorothea Dix Park. No one thought much about the song’s prospects.

But shortly after noon on Dec. 30, 2019, former President Barack Obama sent out his “Favorite Music of 2019” playlist to his 133 million Twitter followers. Alongside songs by Lizzo, Bruce Springsteen, J. Cole, Beyoncé and other titans, there was “Raleighwood Hills.”

“To this day, we’re still trying to figure out how it happened,” says Miles. “We didn’t have any marketing money, the guy who shot the video had never made one before and I don’t think we were even on any playlists. But somehow, he heard it.

It felt validating, even if you don’t want to get caught up in external validation. Still, something like that gives you a leg up on respect and being taken seriously. It helped keep me moving.”

Miles has since moved back to Winston-Salem and continues putting out a steady stream of music online through Bandcamp, YouTube and SoundCloud — all of it excellent, if stylistically hard to pin down. Equal parts Stevie Wonder and Kendrick Lamar, Miles draws from soul, jazz, pop, rock and hip-hop, all grounded in the gospel he grew up with.

As catchy as he is rhythmic, Miles is musically versatile enough to be an ideal opening act for the likes of Maxwell or Lauryn Hill.

Born Jordan Williams, he played his earliest gigs as a 10-year-old drummer behind his vocalist father, Stephen, in the choir at Winston-Salem’s Christ Cathedral Church of Deliverance. Music remained a focus through his childhood and then became an obsession after he moved to Raleigh to study communications at North Carolina State University.

That was when he adopted his stage name, Sonny Miles, from two notable jazz musicians — saxophonist Sonny Stitt and trumpet legend Miles Davis.

In Raleigh, Miles’ main instrument became his voice, in the on-campus a cappella group Grains of Time, while he played guitar in other groups. In 2016, Miles’ junior year, he found himself playing the annual PackHowl Concert at NC State’s Reynolds Coliseum as an opening act for Grammy-winning Atlanta rapper T.I.. “T.I. told me he was impressed!” says Miles.

After graduating in 2018, Miles freelanced as a Lyft driver to pay the bills between gigs. And while the Obama hit was the break of a lifetime, it brought label interest but didn’t result in a contract. After several frustrating near-misses with record labels, he’s planning to independently release his official full-length debut album at some point this year.

“It’s becoming a running joke, but it really is coming out,” Miles says. “The old days in the music industry, what made that era sharp was there were channels you had to go through. Labels would spend $200,000 on making a record, so it felt like it had to be earned a little more.

Now, it’s attention that has to be earned, and that can be tough. But I still appreciate this era, where you can be weird and not fit in a box. There are benefits in striving to sound like yourself. Eventually, you look up and you’re the only thing you can do.”

Phonte Coleman, of the pioneering North Carolina hip-hop group Little Brother and the Grammy-nominated band The Foreign Exchange, has emerged as a mentor for Miles. A music industry veteran,  Coleman advised Miles to stop chasing record deals and just run his career himself to start out.

“Sonny Miles, I love that kid,” Coleman says. “Incredibly and amazingly talented with a rare gift, a brilliant musician and singer. He’s someone I’ve come to know, love and root for. I’ve tried to be the guy I never had when I was coming up 20 years ago, do what I can to help him not make the same mistakes I did.”

Meantime, Miles is eager for the rest of the world to finally hear the album he’s been working on. Titled Gamma, it’s all love songs.

Gamma tries to take the journey of the act of falling in love with someone,” Miles says. “In a 30-minute joint, I try to cover every emotion of love: thinking about someone, falling for them, getting together. It’s about emotiveness and passion, and returning to R&B that has unique beats, live instrumentation, songs that mean something. Let’s talk about love again. That’s what I’m singing about.” 

This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.