One of the best ways to celebrate International Women’s Day is to say Thank You to the truly awe inspiring women in your life. From gratitude springs humility and empathy. With these we can grow a more bountiful world for everyone.
In that vein, and to celebrate the diverse awesomeness of Women, The Coloured Collective would like to thank all of you lovely readers for following us. We have met so many brilliant women through this blog.
Also, a few of our contributors here at Coloured Collective would like to take this chance to send out a few shout outs of gratitude.
From Christen James
I was trying to be less cliche than going with my mother, but there is no one else on this planet that I could spend the rest of my life saying “thank you” to. Thank you, mammy, for the very early lesson on being independent. This truly has shaped me into the woman I am today and strive to be. Thank you for your quiet reassurance yet always having the right thing to say, but most of all for telling me that you’re proud of me. I not only aim to be everything that you wanted me to be but also all that you wanted for yourself. I am living my dream by living yours.
To Adelaide Smith, thanks for being the woman who made me into the woman I am today. You raised me with faith and unconditional love. I love you and miss you everyday Mom (RIP)!
From Lisa Rajkumar-Maharaj
Corinne Hebden, thank you for being an amazing Midwife. You brought my baby into this world and shepherded me safely through the process. Your wisdom, heart and professionalism made an indelible mark on my life.
If there’s someone you want to give a shout out of gratitude to, feel free to do so in the comment section. We’d love to hear more stories of amazing women.
I have these flashes of memory sometimes. They are intense, visceral kernels of memory that, for a singular moment, take me back home. My favourite moments are actually the the most mundane memories. Just the other day, I was talking to my partner when all of a sudden I remembered standing in a big parking lot in Point-a-Pierre, Trinidad. The parking lot is opposite the tennis courts my friends and I would to frequent. For a moment, though standing in my Toronto kitchen, I could feel the gentle Marabella breeze and see the swaying palm trees that line the perimeter of the lot. I could remember smelling the mild saltiness of the air and feeling the exhilarating warmth of a great tennis workout. That memory was not particularly significant. It is valuable to me only because it was a perfectly ordinary day that belonged to another incarnation of my life. Those perfectly normal moments from when I lived in Trinidad – the moments I took for granted for their plainness – those memories are now irreplaceable nuggets of nostalgia.
My daughter is 5 months old now and in having her, I’ve reopened a trove of memories and emotions that I’d long forgotten. When I was young I didn’t think I’d have children. When I allowed myself that fantasy though, I imagined taking my child to see practices at steel pan yards or to play traditional Red Indian Mas in south Trinidad. I imagined pushing her on the swings at San Fernando Hill Playground or rolling about in the sand at Mayaro Beach. Even in my dreams, I find myself thinking about my childhood and the places that meant something to me. Though I’ve been in Canada for a long time, still, the stories of my life are layered onto the most mundane places, in Trinidad. Places where I loved and laughed. But I don’t live there anymore. And in some senses those places no longer exist.
The truth is though, that my daughter will likely grow up in Toronto. These streets will be her stage. I might take her to visit those places. But really? She’d just be visiting. Her story will be vastly different from my own. This is part of being an immigrant. I have not yet made this place mine, but she certainly will by virtue of the fact that this is the first world she will come to know. I wonder about that. I worry about that. It took me 10 years to figure out how to dress appropriately for winter. How in the world am I supposed to guide her in a land that I don’t really know myself?
I look at events across the border and I worry; what if one day she’s not wanted here? I made a gamble by trading community ties and familiarity in Trinidad for freedom and safety from crime here in Canada. What if that gamble backfires and this place becomes more dangerous to her?
I’m encouraged by the new found community here that motherhood has shown me. I’m encouraged by the liberal values that Toronto exhibits. In the present political climate, though my gamble is currently safe, I mourn for non-white immigrants in America and Syrian refugees everywhere. In them I see my own worst fears played out as the caprice of nations sell out human rights and dignity. I wish I could promise my daughter certainty. Certainty however, appears to be fools gold.
If you don’t know, I will tell you… I prayed that God would make me Black. People who know me might be perplexed by such a revelation. I am “Black” by the “one-drop rule” and I do have African ancestry. Although I self identify myself as a Black woman other people both Black, White, and in between have often asked “What are you?”
Like Andromeda Turre’s PSA ‘What are you?’ in the Huffington Post, I too had to answer that question daily as a child and even into adulthood. Some of my canned responses were “I am a little girl” or “human being.” Their response would be “No. I know that. What race are you?” I would say “I am Black!” They would pause and stare at me then reply “No you’re not!” or “You gotta be mixed with somethin.” As an adult I would be annoyed by such ignorance because most Black folks are mixed with something due to our enslaved ancestry in the United States and later interracially marrying. That mixture is what actually makes us “African Americans.”
The irony is that I was born in Washington, D.C. or “Chocolate City” as it is affectionately known. I spent most of my formative years in the suburbs of Southern California. I remember the first time race became a topic of conversation. I was in the first grade, it was lunchtime and a Mexican girl named April began to categorize all the kids at the table by race. When she got to me she said I was Black. My response was “No. I am actually fried chicken color.” When I got home that afternoon I asked my mother if I was Black? She looked at me, laughed and said “of course, honey!” I told her that if I was Black, why didn’t I look Black? She said “Black people are like flowers, a rose is no more beautiful than a lily, but they all are classified as flowers. We are like a chocolate rainbow of many beautiful hues.” As a 10 year old, I can’t say that I appreciated the analogies. Ultimately, she said “if people have a problem with the way you look then tell them to take it up with God because God made you.” I replied “If I am Black then why don’t people recognize it? Why didn’t God make me Black?“
Later, we moved to Roxbury, a disfranchised community in Boston, Massachusetts, after my single Mom fell on hard times. Although we lived in the “hood” we went to a private Christian school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was teased and taunted by the predominantly African American class for not looking, sounding or being Black enough. I recall while living on both the East and West Coasts, coming home crying everyday because kids of all ethnic backgrounds bullied me for talking and dressing too “White.” It was the mid 80’s and when most kids were wearing faded jeans, Reebok pumps, and Jellies; my Mom dressed me preppy. I was sporting pigtails, pleated skirts, knee high socks and Buster Brown and Oxfords shoes. If that wasn’t bad enough, she encouraged my brother and I to enunciate our words and the use of slang was not allowed in the house. Back then I didn’t feel like I belonged to any ethnic group.
As an adult, I now understand that we are acculturated in the United States to see race by skin tone and not socioeconomically. Many people define “Blackness” not just by the complexion and features of a person but how they speak, dress and even walk. Such a narrow definition of what it means to be Black in America is based on stereotypes and that idea of “Blackness” is a perceived monolithic culture that often eluded me growing up. Ultimately, I grew up to appreciate my articulate proper diction and LOL when people still tease me for being so formal.
However, before I became comfortable in my own skin, I like People® Magazine’s MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN Lupita Nyong’o, prayed for God to change me. But, unlike the Oscar winning actress who wanted to be fair skinned as a child, I prayed for God to make me dark skinned. Growing-up as a kid, to me the most beautiful women I admired had the complexions of my late Mom, Adelaide Smith and women such as Angela Bassett and Grace Jones. When I heard Lupita’s acceptance speech at ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood, I thought of my mother’s own personal agony of being a brown skinned woman with beautiful full lips, a broad nose and wide hips. She was the living incarnation of Rick James Song “Brick House.” However, her self-image was formed in the 1950’s, before Black was beautiful or Alek Wek could be considered a supermodel. Up until her death in 2012, my mother spoke about hurtful incidents throughout her life when her complexion and physical characteristics that made her a beautiful Black woman in my eyes were criticized and diminished. She was told Black women with “big” lips should not wear red lipstick. My brother and I wonder if she chose to date our fathers, who are fair skinned Black men, as a result of such psychological abuse from both Blacks and Whites.
There are constant reminders in the media that my fair skin is beautiful, hair texture is “good,” my freckles are cute and my look is “exotic.” Despite the compliments I do receive, all I ever longed for is to look like a girl who went to my church when I was a teenager. I think her name was Kia and she favored Lupita, but she had a fuller figure and I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. I wanted to look just like her. A chance encounter during a slumber party made us confront the inner desire that I had to look like her and her inner jealousy toward me. We both cried about how we wanted to look like the other. However, her pain and perception of herself was distorted greater than mine. She screamed and wept that I was pretty and the boys wanted to only date girls who looked like me. I did not know how to comfort her. At the time I thought she was right.
Looking back, it wasn’t so much that Kia was right but her perception was based on what her experiences and expectations were. In her mind perhaps she wondered how would she find a boyfriend who thought she was beautiful if she didn’t think she was beautiful. Despite the ugly comments online about Black women being the least desirable on dating sites, along with Asian men, there are plenty of men who do love women with rich skin tones. I think that the self-esteem issues many women struggle with regardless of complexion and body type is based on the way we relate to ourselves more than what men are attracted to. As little girls we often internalize and accept what the media portrays as the standard of beauty because there have been so few alternative and relatable examples.
Finally, at 35, I now love me some me and proudly sport an Afro… although I still wish my natural hair texture was kinkier. Traveling the world, I have met women of all hues who are dying to fit a Western standard of beauty that was given to them. It is a standard that excludes most of us and one we can never achieve or sustain no matter how much weight we lose, surgery we have, and tan or lighten our skin. It forces us to look in the mirror and accept ourselves as beautiful, live life just the way we are or die trying to look “White,” “Black,” or anything other than “who God made us to be” as my Mom would say.
When Stacy-Marie sent me this article of nifty infographics politely pointing out how native-born “low-income” New Yorkers are lagging behind the entrepreneurship curve, something struck a nerve… and I became incredibly angry. I moved to New York City two weeks after Hurricane Katrina with two freelance jobs and a dream waiting here for me. I quit both jobs and spent my FEMA check trying to be “all in” starting a clothing line and ended up broke as broke could be, in one of the most expensive cities in the world, eating hot dogs and ramen noodles and wondering what on earth was to become of me… when on the day I was going to take my last $300 and buy a plane ticket back home to my family a crazy group of guys gave an equally crazy, PTSD little black girl from New Orleans a chance at a full-time gig and my fortunes turned. It wasn’t until I was getting a check every two weeks that I was able to plan to survive. As someone who went from making $12K/yr as a “working” artist at 20, who has spent nearly all my savings and free time over the years in various failed entrepreneurial projects to becoming solidly middle-class, I can promise you that getting a salaried job with benefits is the only way to “pull oneself” up out of poverty. The risk inherent in entrepreneurship is one that the poor frankly cannot afford. Why? Because theyre trying to EAT! How insulting that at the most vulnerable juncture of my life I would be expected to make my own “opportunity” magically appear, when I could barely keep a roof over my head.
So I’d been sitting on bits and pieces of this article for the last few months, my thoughts unclear and stifled… when this righteous anger brought it all together. Here’s what I came up with, and posted today here:
“… while we need safety nets, the focus should be instead on creating opportunity — and, still more difficult, on creating an environment that leads people to seize opportunities.”
– Nick Kristof, “Profiting From A Child’s Illiteracy”
When discussing poverty and the distribution of wealth, two views typically emerge. Conservatives, fond of bothRandian self-accreditation and those proverbial bootstraps we’re all supposed to use as leverage, tend to hold the single individual responsible for their own destiny, regardless of where they started. Liberals, fond of blaming the system and clinging to the “entitlement programs” that seek to alleviate the stresses of said system, are more likely to forgive the personal missteps that often hold individuals in poverty. So it was refreshing to read textbook-liberal Nick Kristof turn a critical eye to a welfare program’s unfortunate misuse. However, the quote above struck me as worthy of inquiry. How, indeed, do we create an environment that leads people to seize the opportunities that we will ensure are there?
The definition of an opportunity is a favorable juncture of circumstances and a good chance for advancement or progress. People who are born wealthy have access to the best doctors and educators in the world, and are nurtured by not only tutors but by family members whose business ventures and financial savvy are constantly accessible. At the opposite end of the spectrum, people who are born poor often have working parents with less time and resources to give, poor health, and are raised by themselves or the television. The only proven route for the poor to the hallowed middle class is for poor individuals to seize positive opportunities — the most accessible of which are education and jobs — to build their skills and resources and avoid the negative, short-term opportunities (i.e. using drugs, committing crimes) that will prevent growth. But how will they know how to recognize said opportunities and in turn teach their children if no one taught them? How will they maintain their resolve to stay a difficult course that leads to success when life’s inevitable challenges present themselves?
Conservatives want to privatize the solutions, which only works if you have the money to pay, the whole problem with which is that poor people don’t. If my tax dollars are being invested in a necessary social safety net, the goals of said safety net should not only be to meet urgent needs but to provide a plan to help individuals exit the system. We need to eradicate the “case worker”/paper-pusher mentality (starting out by paying higher wages to our service providers) and invest in more life coaches, career advisors, teachers, childcare professionals and financial advisors. Create programs that make the outcome of a healthy family the product the agency is responsible for, not just the child in isolation. Government as a whole should not escape the scrutiny of accountability, and can benefit from more influence from the business community: not lobbying to maintain tax loopholes and other corporate-personhood benefits, but cooperation to help spur process improvement, trim bloated bureaucracies and create a better product in service of the American people.
Poor parents need to be educated first of their own opportunities to earn money and build wealth through setting goals and being disciplined enough to budget, prioritize and maintain legal employment — skills they may be learning or trying out for the first time. They become empowered by choosing a path of action to follow and achieving the goals they themselves set to pursue. Only then can they do the same for their children. If the system of incentives we’ve provided to alleviate urgent physical needs is counterproductive and keeps families in a generational cycle of poverty, let’s create new incentives such as guaranteed access to physical benefits (e.g. free metro cards, cell phones, gym memberships) when parents in the programs gain employment, meet savings goals, attend counseling, keep the kids in school and achieve goals of their own. Develop a long-term follow up system with resources people can access in the months after leaving assistance programs when things might get hairy.
A recent report by the Center for an Urban Future laments the lack of “low-income” entrepreneurs in New York City. The entire premise of the report is strange to me, the concept that our most vulnerable populations should be responsible for creating opportunities for employment. The very definition of poverty is to be lacking the money to cover the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and healthcare. If you can’t do that, how can you choose to spend money to start a business when it will ultimately mean yet more physical sacrifice, possibly at the expense of your health, sanity, and what little stability one might have? The risks inherent in entrepreneurship are such that the poor frankly cannot afford it, evident in the questionable success of micro-lending programs worldwide. These pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps perspectives are short-sighted products of the privileged, relieving governments and policymakers of the responsibility to abandon austerity measures and private interests and invest in the types of WPA-style projects that created the American middle class in the first place.
No taxpaying American should go without food, shelter and access to medicine for simply failing to succeed in the game of life. Success is laudable and learned through trial, error, and perseverance; but an opportunity is only a chance at success, not a guarantee. Our approach to poverty and raising people out of it should be encapsulated within the larger strategy of reducing global waste; reusing and repurposing infrastructure to create green economy jobs and sustainable, affordable housing; and re-investing money currently used to build prison and war infrastructure into schools and programs that will break the cycles of poverty. Only then will we be able to provide good chances for advancement and progress, not just to kids, but to their parents as well.
I believe it’s more than my skin color that labels me a “colourful woman.” It’s my passion to create and be a voice for all women regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, etc. My drive and continuous fight to stand up for what I believe in and be who I am give way for all women to do the same.
Who are some of your colourful inspirations?
I have never really had a particular or go to person I’ve leaned on for inspiration. I tend to be inspired by life and the experiences it brings. My good friend and mentor Jerry has probably been one of the most influential people in my life. I’d also have to say Maya Angelou. Her book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” gave me a whole new perspective on life.
What message would you like to share with our readers today?
Dare to be different! People are going to try and stop you before you can even get started but you must strive for excellence within yourself!
I literally started this a while ago and just didn’t know how to end it. So I just left it. Then every so often, I’d return to it to add (and remove) another sentence. But with everything I tried, I just couldn’t finish it. Where would I leave off, on such a sensitive topic? So finally I decided to buckle down and hammer this one out through my own mind’s eye. Forget the rest, or I’d never get it done.
It doesn’t bother me that I’m single – it really doesn’t. What does bother me is that there are some who are bothered by my singleness. What bothers me even more than that is how bothered some seem to be by my not being bothered by it. Up to speed? Now imagine if I let that get to me what a staggered life I’d live.
As a single 30-something in the busy city of Toronto, it is very easy to feel the pressure of “getting up there” and not having settled down yet. There was a time when quite frankly that very thought had really terrified me. What am I going to do, I would ask myself, if I get up there and I’m still single? But once I started to follow the path my life had laid out for me, I am more concerned about taking in the sights along the way. I’m doing so much that it makes up for the other parts.
Don’t get me wrong, singleness will always harbour some fear and doubt. But the fact is that times have changed. Independence is a commodity that we all strive towards. So who says you have to be “settled” by a certain age? So what if you don’t? I’d like to read the chapter in this proverbial Handbook of Life that states that you have a deadline to settle down.
As we evolve, we see that tables are turning; women are taking control of their lives in ways that would render our grandmothers speechless. And how many of us can say our grandmothers didn’t voice their malcontent? Many women are the sole or predominant breadwinner; we’re going back to school, taking on 2nd even 3rd jobs, travelling the world and learning different languages. But you know what the best part is? We’re speaking up and acting out.
The statistic of single 30-something women has increased because we are so focused that we don’t slow down to notice that certain areas of our lives remain unfulfilled. We see success on the horizon and would stop at nothing to get there. If there is an obstacle, it is viewed only as a slight delay as we iron out the kinks and handle it accordingly before we continue. Tunnel vision – that’s what it’s called.
So while you’re sitting there looking at your happily coupled-up friends and reflecting on your life asking yourself “why am I still single?” maybe you should ask: “why can’t I still be single?” Or perhaps the question you need to ask yourself: “am I ready for a relationship?” Many of us think we are, or feel we need to and may even end up making the wrong choices. But being single means moving at your own pace, changing your direction when you feel like it and taking longer than you need to on things. It really is the ultimate selfishness. And I think with all the hard work I put in, I have earned the right to be selfish. And to add a cliché: if something isn’t meant to happen, nothing in your power will make it happen.
I’m happy with the way my life is going even with the unattended area, or void if I may. I’m content with knowing what I want and having the luxury of taking my time. Yes, I’m “picky” but I’m really tired of hearing that, because quite frankly I deserve to be. I have always taken my time on things, so I’m not going to start rushing now. And I really do believe that if it’s meant to happen then it will. Some things just don’t follow a timeline or are limited to a deadline. So I might as well keep doing what I have to do to enjoy my life; by myself, for myself. This for no other reason than I’m allowed to be selfish.
The co-owner of the building in which my office is located, introduced me to a stranger as ‘One of John’s (my boss) girls’. He felt awkward saying it too, I could tell. But he wasn’t quite up for calling me ‘architect’ to my face it would seem. ‘An intern architect working at John’s company’, would have been the proper introduction. But instead he went with the introduction that gave me the least bit of credit possible. What’s worse is that I didn’t correct him. I laughed it off and walked away. Why didn’t I say something? I wish I did but I don’t really know what I would say even now.
This is just a little something to serve as an example of the quandary I find myself in as I learn how to be a professional. On site, the men are mostly very sweet to me. They treat me with a certain amount of deference – but it has more to do with me being a woman than a professional. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I can blame them either. I don’t need deference but I look at John. People listen to him. He has that air about him of trustworthiness and authority. That’s what you need to project as an Architect so that your contractors, clients and consultants listen.
I think about what I project. I think about the social habits people develop to fit in. For example, I’m nice and kind of funny/weird. People like me because I’m nice and remember me because I’m kind of eccentric. Being nice has gotten a bad rap over the years. But it’s true. I’m not very loud or pushy or even particularly opinionated. I can be all of those things of course, but they aren’t my prevailing spirit. What does that mean though as I exist in the workplace? Does it doom me to being ‘one of the girls’? Or can I be respected without being brash? I’ve felt this disconnect for a long time, between who I need to be to succeed and who I am. I’m an artist – entirely self indulgent but reflective and passionate. I’m a human great dane. Anyone who knows the breed knows they’re big showy goof balls. That’s me. Sure I understand that at the office, you can’t be the big dope you might be after hours. That’s fine. What confuses me are the social habits, especially the way in which I communicate with the opposite sex. I’m daddy’s little girl. That’s kind of my default if I were to pick a female stereotype. But in truth, can daddy’s little girl really grow up to be an Architect?
I reflect on the way that people perceive me and the dysfunctional things that people consider assets in our way too jaded world. I refuse to become dysfunctional in order to fit a dysfunctional system. Refuse. I refuse to be someone I’m not, so that I can play out a social game that I resent. So my quandary is how. How to be two things at once – the goof ball that I am as well as the professional I am becoming.
I don’t want to be ‘One of the girls’. As everything, I suppose it will evolve through trial and error, until I have a learned response for days like today, when someone tries to put a label on me.
This week’s Colourful Woman feature showcases Charmaine Joseph. Charmaine is an Atlanta-based Marketing & Sales Coordinator for corporate apparel agency, The Gingerich Group. She is also the co-owner of a socially conscious t-shirt line: Global Warming. Charmaine partnered with Social Media maven, Lauren Shirreffs, and together they created t-shirts that touch on different issues from stereotyping, bullying, racism, body image, etc.
Our concept was to create “walking billboards,” these shirts are text based with pointed messages that are meant to educate, enlighten or provoke dialogue at a glance.
Recently, Global Warming started an initiative called “Global Change.” For this project they team up with different schools and have classes create designs on varied topics and then choose a winning design and have proceeds from the t-shirt sales go towards their charity of choice.
It’s very refreshing to go into classrooms and hear students talk about their visions for their designs and hear the passion that comes from their own life experiences, whether it be racism, bullying, body image etc.
The Global Change initiative’s winning design for Anti-Bullying. On sale at http://www.global-warming.ca from November 1st. designer: Martin Kondrat / The Academy of Design.
What makes you a “colourful woman”? I have to take this very literally when you say “colourful woman”! I actually think it may just be appropriate to insert a photo from my wedding here, the photo really says it all. I may just be the most colourful person I know (laughs). I actually gave my bridesmaids little Kate Spade coin purses that said “Live Colourfully”…it’s definitely my life theme.
Who or what are some of your colourful inspirations? I’m not sure if it is part of my Caribbean roots, but of course it’s a possibility having family from Barbados and growing up seeing the vibrant costumes for carnival, and that rich aspect of our heritage. Then there are the tropical flowers, the sea etc. Being nurtured in such a vivacious environment has a great impact.
What message would you like to share with our readers today? Be the best version of you. Don’t get caught up in someone else’s definition of success, beauty, love, or happiness. As Lauryn Hill once said, “God made us all different, on purpose.” I think our differences make us beautiful so just learn to love your shortcomings, your imperfections, your struggle, because they all add to the masterpiece. A painter mixes colours before they touch the canvas, nothing and nobody is perfect.
“Girl. Have camera. Will shoot” warns Canadian lawyer turned street-style fashion photographer Michelle Bobb-Parris. Over the past two years, Michelle has worked with the greatest fashion influencers, from NYLON magazine to Italian luxury retailer Luisa Via Roma and become a feature of London Fashion Week. This week, she’s celebrating her photographic partnership with Michael Kors for the opening of his new London store.
‘What makes you a colourful woman?’
Usually, when one is described as ‘colourful’ it can be a euphemism for so many things, but I’d like to think of myself as colourful because of what a friend described as my polymath left-brain/right-brain skill set. It has a lot to do with the well-rounded upbringing my parents gave me, full of academic encouragement, creative pursuits, and sports, which have shaped my career path (so far!). I have always found it difficult to define myself as only one thing.
Being a colourful woman, do you think you fit in differently in the street style blogger community?
I’d have to answer that with both a yes and a no. Yes, because I don’t know of other street style photographers with my experiential background, but no because the street style photographer community is a fairly diverse one. It’s a veritable cultural, racial, and career rainbow outside of the shows.
I tend to not put too much stock in comments that come from a misinformed or inflammatory place. When you are not looking for something, you won’t notice it’s missing from your circle, so it’s understandable that both the author and founder of IFB aren’t aware of high quality of blogs that come from outside of their myopic point of view.
‘Who are some of your colourful inspirations?’
My parents. They have taken on challenges in life and have instilled in me (and still do) so many life lessons and values that have sustained and guided me to where I am today.
‘What message would you like to share with our readers today?’
One of my favourite quotes: “The man at the top of the mountain didn’t fall there.” Work hard and success will follow.
What are your upcoming projects you’d like to share with our readers?
One that I can now share is that I just finished shooting a project for Michael Kors (under the hash tag #MKLOVESLONDON) to coincide with the opening of his store in Covent Garden, London, so look out for more about it this week.
This week marks the return of our “Colourful Woman Wednesday” series, which features stories of colourful women surviving and thriving. If you’d like to share your story, or nominate a colourful woman for this feature, email us or get in touch via Tumblr, Twitter or Facebook.
I had the genuine pleasure of sitting down with singer & songwriter Paola Jean as she shared her story with us, including some of the key experiences that drive her passion in music. Born and bred in Bern, Switzerland, this Brooklyn-based multilingual singer & songwriter infuses the diversity of her world into the melody and lyrics of her music, accompanied by beats from some of LA’s and NY’s most promising producers.
VM: So from Switzerland, to LA, to Brooklyn. Can you tell us a bit about your background, and how this journey has been unfolding so far?
PJ: I grew up in Switzerland, and I also have a home base in Los Angeles. My move from Switzerland to New York though, was definitely focussed towards pursuing my artistry. I’m in Brooklyn right now and I feel like as an artist, I can be anything I want to be in New York. There are no limits to how creative or how edgy I can be, and I draw a great amount of inspiration from my environment here. The last decade has been a very diverse mesh of work, my relationship, and my music. I’ve made a conscious decision at present, to really focus on my music and devote real attention to my art and the lyrics. My whole drive behind making music is that I want to leave a legacy when I’m gone. The lyrics you write today, yes they’re here now but it’s not just about today. What you put out there into the world is going to be a huge representation of who you are and the story that you want to tell, and it will be out there for a long time.
VM: Tell us a bit about your musical style and any of your inspirations.
PJ: Because of my upbringing, I draw from a lot of different fields of inspiration when I am defining my own musical style. With a Haitian mother and a Swiss father, I grew up listening to a lot of music from the caribbean, zouk, a lot of soul music, as well as traditional swiss music, and folk music. I like the ability to be a bit of a chameleon with my music, and I think it’s always better when it comes from your own experiences. For example, a project I am working on right now is my new record Love/Infinity. It pulls from a lot of personal experiences, as well as those of people around me. As in the title, it deals with love, but also the other aspects of love. Love and anger, for one, are part of the same thing if you look at it. The first single, “Relativity”, talks about separation and divorce – which is a whole other spectrum of being in love. I’m working on the follow up to that with a song called “Top of the World” where it talks about the metamorphosis of a woman who is no longer going to settle for someone who isn’t worth the sacrifice of taking to the top of the world. Another song, “You Gotta Be Here” talks about the longing for someone that you miss, yet you’re with that person. I took inspiration for that premise from the wars plaguing us globally, where men and women are separated because one half has to fulfill some type of duty. I wanted to acknowledge the sacrifice a lot of men and women have to make. I took that message, but it’s spun in a reggae style, just to take it out of the box a bit.
VM: How do you relate your upbringing into your music now?
PJ: I grew up in a place called Munsingen, just outside of Bern – Switzerland’s capital – in a predominantly white community. But I have to be honest, if I think about when I first realized what colour I was, that reckoning hit me when I moved to the US, not when I was living in Switzerland. In the US it’s almost like these defined cliques and you have to make a choice – a statement – and decide what side you will join. Often I got the question, “Well do you feel like you are black, or do you see yourself as white?”. I see myself as All. In picking a side, you are denying one half of yourself. How can you do that? It took time to fully come into my own and work on it, but I think I have a good blend of the two cultures inside my heart. One of the biggest joys I find in music is the freedom. You don’t have to fit into a clique. There are no boundaries to where you can go with music, or what story you want to share.
VM: It seems the diversity in your family helped you nurture a very positive voice and outlook.
PJ: My parents were very, very supportive, especially of my music. My mom said I was singing before I was walking. But I think the first time it resonated for me, was when I was eleven and sang with my school choir. That’s when I knew in my core that this was something I wanted to do. I expanded into singing and dancing contests. My father in particular always supported me. He always wore a suit, so he looked like my manager, always sitting in the back providing steady support. There were times when he pushed me to enter a competition, and I would say, “I don’t want to conform to anything! I’m a rebel, I don’t want to be commercial…” But he would just reassure me and say, “Hey why not, you never know. Just check it out.” Those opportunities would lead to another, and another, and eventually allowed me to perform shows in Germany and Russia, and I really had a chance to expand. I definitely felt supported by my parents. But they also told me to get a degree. They said that you never know what life will bring you, and you want to have all possible options available to you. They said, “We don’t care what you do, just get a degree.” And well, I could never commit myself wholly to something I didn’t love, so I became a nurse.
VM: That’s some really solid advice. But what pulled you to Nursing?
PJ: Nursing draws me in because it’s about the miracle of human beings. I have a huge respect for our body, for nature, for anything we can’t really 100% explain. I have a huge fascination with the frailty of the human body, and also its strength in what it’s able to accomplish. I also really love engaging with all types of people. I can get bored in a routine quite quickly; Nursing is the perfect job because you meet a lot of different people every day, each with their unique stories. And every nurse who reads this is going to laugh, but I always say that I’m a nurse, I’m a psychiatrist, I’m a counsellor, I’m a spiritual guide, I’m a nanny, a butler, a maid, everything that you can imagine and more. In this one role, you really have to pull from so many other roles.
The broad bridge between Nursing and music has been gapped by my ability to really explore and know myself. My dad has been a huge driving force. I always had an extremely curious outlook and my parents nurtured that. They were very careful not to shut it off. My dad taught me that things are never the way they seem, that you have to really look closely and pay attention to every story and look for yourself. I think our society, globally, can be amazing. But we still have a lot of issues and hangups, like skin colour. And one thing we learn in Nursing is that the skin won’t help you when it boils down to what matters. It won’t help cure you. Internally when we are cut open, we all look the same.
VM: Maybe that can be the next song.
PJ: Yes! We are all Red.
VM: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to sit and talk with us. Where can our readers find more information on your albums and work?
PJ: The first album is available on iTunes. You can also buy the hard copy over at CDBaby. The 2nd full length album Love/Infinity will be coming out soon. The first single off of that is “Relativity” and that’s also available on iTunes. We worked with a lot of great producers including James Poyser of the Roots, Kev Brown, Fantasic Machine and Mobius Collective, among others.
VM: In the spirit of our weekly feature, how would you define yourself as a colourful woman?
PJ: I am a colourful woman, because I love colours in the true essence! You will see me every day in some crazy new colour combination. I think it represents not only the caribbean flavour and a part of my heritage, but also it represents that aspect of my personality. I try to hold onto the vibrance of my heritage and hope it shines through my personality. I take that with me every day, everywhere. And if it’s grey and black out there, I blast it with my joy.
Take a look at the video for Paola’s single Relativity here, and keep in touch with her through the links after the jump: