By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times
“Being back outside” after the COVID-19 pandemic, which was declared in March 2020 and resulted in lockdowns that disrupted lives around the world, meant so much to Birmingham singer-songwriter Kayla “Halo” Wheeler that she released a single highlighting the theme.
“The title ‘I’m Outside’ really explains everything,” said Wheeler, as she prepares for a strong 2022. “‘Being back outside’ was a popular saying over the summer of  because [people were finally able to get outdoors] after being in lockdown for so long. Through that song, I wanted to capture the feeling of being back outside in my beloved city of Birmingham.”
The pandemic not only brought Wheeler back outside but also brought her back home a year ago to Birmingham from Howard University (HU) in Washington, D.C., where she was a jazz voice student.
“My senior year at [HU] was tough,” she said. “[Because of the pandemic], I had to move back home, and I was doing school in a different environment—all online. As a music student, you have to do recitals to show a combination of all the things you learned. Having to do that virtually was difficult, but I made it through.”
While making it through, Wheeler released three singles and opened for several popular artists, including hit-makers like Frankie Beverly and Maze and Chrisette Michele. She also now performs as a professional singer at local venues across the Birmingham metro area, such as Plum Bar, the Perfect Note in Hoover, and the newly opened Eighty-Eight piano bar in Five Points South.
Back to Birmingham
When Wheeler graduated from HU in December 2020 and moved back home, she felt “a little lost.”
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said. “I’m a planner, and [before the pandemic] I had a solid plan. … I was like, ‘When I graduate, I’m returning [to Birmingham] for this many months.’ … Of course, it didn’t work out like that.”
During the pandemic, most of Wheeler’s performances were virtual.
“A close friend introduced me to someone with AWent/DNA Events here in Birmingham, and they decided they really wanted to work with me,” she said. “Soon after that, I started booking virtual shows at different places.”
The shows gave Wheeler exposure and a career boost.
“I made sure my social media presence was quality, and people really started showing me a lot of love,” she said. “Birmingham was the first to open up a door for me. … People started to know my name [and] would ask me where I was performing next. I started gigging more and more in the city and developing my name.”
Early Moments with Music
Wheeler, 24, grew up in Forestdale, Alabama, with her sisters, Shakira and Victoria; Wheeler is the middle child.
“My mom, [Shawanna], my sisters, and I would sing in the car all the time. … Those are definitely my earliest moments with music because we stayed together,” said Wheeler, who began singing at age 7 and by age 11 was the lead singer of the Neo Jazz Collective, a local jazz band.
Wheeler’s home church, Guiding Light in Birmingham, was where she took her “first steps” toward pursuing her passion for music.
“I can honestly say that every step of the way on my musical journey has kind of been ordained,” she said. “My church did a really great job of cultivating my musical gifts—any church plays, any solos, they would ask me to perform. They put me in positions to develop myself. … I’m super grateful for every piece of my journey that has gotten me here. I’ve loved every step.”
As a student at Shades Valley High School, Wheeler joined the school’s Academy of Theatre and Dance.
“That is where I realized I also loved theater, [another] huge passion of mine,” she said. “I was in multiple shows when I was part of the [academy]. … [Our performances included] ‘Once on This Island,’ ‘Guys and Dolls,’ and ‘The Drowsy Chaperone.’ We would have so much fun.”
Being in the academy led to “self-discovery,” Wheeler said.
“I wanted to be the ‘cool girl’—you know, the prom queen. Once I got to the theater academy, I kind of found my tribe and was like, ‘OK, I quit the cool kids. … I’m OK with [not being the ‘cool girl].’”
After graduating in 2016, Wheeler was awarded a full-ride scholarship through The Gates Scholarship (TGS), a “highly selective, last-dollar scholarship for outstanding, minority, high school seniors …,” according to thegatesscholarship.org. She then enrolled at HU.
“My dreams were super big when it came to college,” Wheeler said. “My plans were already kind of decided: I was going to go to the University of Alabama. … Then my godmother told me about [TGS], which provides a full ride to whichever school you choose.”
“I’d been in Alabama all my life, and I was thinking, ‘Let’s go somewhere different.’ My counselor, Miss Atkinson, said, ‘You should really consider HU. You would really fit in there,’” the singer-songwriter added. “When you follow the path that God has for you, the steps are honestly ordered for you.”
When Wheeler arrived in Washington, D.C., she had to make an adjustment.
“It was so sad because I’m a big family person, … so leaving [Birmingham] was really hard,” she said. “I was really homesick during my first year at [HU], … but I eventually got used to the city.”
The list of all of the experiences Wheeler had in the nation’s capitol “would be endless,” she said.
“D.C. has a unique artistry culture, so there were many times that we would go to local clubs and check out up-and-coming artists. Of course, you have all the museums, too, which are really a sight to see in person.”
While the Birmingham native proved a good fit for Washington, D.C., she felt like she stood out because of her “Southern personality and charm.”
“Most people liked it because it was different for them to experience, as well,” she said. “Plus, [D.C.] is a melting pot of people from different backgrounds. I would often meet people from the South.”
Wheeler majored in musical theater during her freshman year and then switched to music business.
“I decided that I wanted to be more focused on music, so I chose music business with an emphasis on jazz voice,” she said. “I think that was the best choice for me. I learned a lot about my genre of performance, and I learned a lot about my voice.”
“The music industry is so different now,” she added. “Back in the day, you could just be an artist. Now you are a whole walking business, and it’s important that you know the ins and outs of the music industry. … You need to know things like distribution, negotiation, how marketing works, all those types of things.
Majoring in [music business] really laid the foundation for performing as a professional artist.”
In 2018, Wheeler founded the group Soul Sistas with her friends Indigo and Ekep.
“We all were really close friends at [HU],” Wheeler said. “We all loved to sing, and whenever we got together it just sounded really soulful. … That set us up for a lot of stuff. We were able to perform at the Library of Congress, we performed at the Kennedy Center, we even got to perform on Capitol Hill.”
Also during that time, Wheeler released her first single, “Body Heat,” under her performing name “Halo.”
“When I released that single, all the students at [HU] loved it,” she said. “I felt well-supported, and that’s what really motivated me and provided me the confidence to continue along my musical journey.”
As for the name “Halo,” Wheeler said, “My publicist at the time [gave me the name] because he said I was sweet like an angel, and he could see my halo.”
Many people in her hometown seem to agree, and they have embraced Wheeler.
“Birmingham people love music,” she said. “Whether you are a rapper, singer, musician, there is a spot for you in Birmingham because the people of the Magic City love music.”
To learn more about Halo Wheeler, visit her Instagram page: www.instagram.com/halowheeler. You also can find her music on several streaming platforms, including Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube Music.