Colourful Histories

The first chapter of my Master’s thesis looked at the history of Carnival in the Caribbean. In order to represent the syncretic nature of the festival, I chose to tell 3 separate narratives: the African story, the European story and the Indian Story. One story would not have done it justice. Now, having lived in metropolitan societies with many cultural groups, I’m beginning to see how the history of any given place is layered by many stories. Neighbourhoods become defined by cultural and racial borders, so that the city itself becomes a tapestry that immediately reflects the cultures that constitute its parts.

That being said, although there is great beauty in seeing the diversity of a place and people, I can’t help but wonder at the effect of separating the larger historical narratives of a society into racial counterparts. Why, for example, is the history of Black Americans segregated as Black History? Why isn’t their narrative equally represented as American history? Why is Native American history in Canada, taught as Native American studies? Why isn’t it just Canadian History? I can’t help but wonder if allowing history to be represented in racially skewed narratives does more harm than good. Is it still useful in society for the prevalent history to be by the conquerors? I would argue that there is nothing to be gained through a polarized history of a place or people.

There are many more useful insights to be gained from stories like those presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s books or Freakonomics or from podcasts like This American Life that look at real stories of real people. There’s a great Ted talk from novelist Chimamanda Adichie called ‘The danger of the Single Story’ that illuminates what I’m getting at with much more poise and eloquence. In her example she talks about the narrow way in which people respond to her, when they discovered she is from Nigeria. She talked about moving to America and being perceived as ‘African’ for the first time. She talks about the danger of creating single visions of entire cultures that preclude the opportunity for true empathy between cultural groups.


In a world that is learning to incorporate many cultures into the mainstream, we need to ease up on looking at individual histories as ‘us’ and ‘them’. That is no longer really useful. As an immigrant to Canada, it’s sometimes nice to be recognized for my cultural differences, but at the same time there’s danger in being seen as outside of what’s normal or expected. Being different makes it hard for people to respect you and impossible for you to feel like a real member of the society, when you are constantly reminded of how ‘other’ you are. People take for granted that they know my history because they have some vague notion of what being from the Caribbean might mean, based on all inclusive vacations, bad movies and Reggae music. They’re not interested in being corrected either. They’re already convinced of their own imagined story of my ‘otherness’.

Maybe there’s a more temperate way for everyone to look at history and cultural diversity. I wonder for example in the modern situation of world travellers, if we can demand truer histories of the places that we inhabit that are more inclusive of all the stakeholders of places and events. I wonder if it’s possible for people to back off on believing that they know everything about everyone and look at the world without the need to polarize things.

Colourful Woman Wednesday: Paola Jean

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 TumblrTwitter 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:

Follow Paola Jean on:


The Ominous Hijab Part II

I ventured into this topic a few months ago here, when I visited my boyfriend’s homeland of Turkey, for 2 months.  In that time, my boyfriend became my fiance, hosts became family and, well, the entire trip was pleasantly hijacked.

In the weeks that ensued however, I did manage to do what I set out to do: spend time in Turkey’s capital, drive along the coastal towns, and reaching as far south as the city of Izmir, and ending of my whirlwind tour in Istanbul.  What I found pertaining to the hijab was little short of disappointing.

I still haven’t been able to engage with much of the pro-hijab audience, only with my peers who seem adamant that it not only comes from an archaic mindset, but that it is very much anti-Turkish.  This harmless piece of cloth seems a strong point of contention not only from a feminist perspective, but from a political one as well.  And since being an outsider, I could only go on the sometimes biased opinions of my guides, I had to maintain a polite distance from adopting these beliefs.

However even in my own observations, it was hard to deny that within the intellectual and middle to upper class world, the hijab was truly found few and far between.  Through my exploration of the countryside, stopping in villages to get gas, food etc., I did notice that something as seemingly harmless as knee-length shorts and sleeveless tank tops did gather me stares.  I am not sure if they were simple suspicion or judgement, but when they came from women covered head to toe in 40 degree celsius weather, I couldn’t help feeling guilty of something.

At one point, visiting the market and bazaars of Izmir, a city strongly loyal to the old rule under Ataturk, there was a strong air of modernism and progression.  Muslims were very proud to be Turkish, and were very clear to highlight that the two were not the same.

My personal views on the hijab still have not been swayed, only moreso affirmed, so I am not left with much to say, but I took some photos while I was in the Izmir bazaar.  It shows two clothing stores, side by side.  One is selling current demure clothing for the muslim woman who chooses to cover herself, and the other sells beautiful and vibrant traditional Turkish dress hailing from yesteryear.

I think they describe the state of flux that the hijab has created in Turkey, far better than I ever could.

Modern vs. Traditional attire

Contrasting storefronts in an Izmir bazaar

A cultural exchange gone wrong

On an extremely hot and humid Friday night outside a bar near La Esplanada in Alicante, Spain the N-word appeared in a conversation. It was at the end of the night, after a few drinks, a few bar changes, with two British tourists on their first vacation on the Mediterranean Coast. Bob (not his real name) was very happy to speak English, given that his Spanish was non-existent. Maybe that ease of finally speaking his native language, gave him a sense of comfort to really express himself.

He first started by referring to himself as a “Guido”, apparently  he thought of himself as the British version of “The Situation” from the Jersey Shore. And wasn’t bothered at all that the term is offensive to Italian-Americans, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here thinking he hasn’t read much history about Italians in the United States.

As the night progressed, he shared his love for music, women, traveling, “his pride in being a really good dancer for a white guy” and his obsession with American culture, and I guess his “coolness” by saying:

I’ve been to Miami many times, where some of my best friends are black and they called me their N-word….And they tell me I can call them that, because to them I’m their N-word.

When he said it, I was surprised and would have felt offended and repulsed by his ignorance if he had called me that. And that got me thinking, are words ever just words? My best friends are Latina women, and I don’t see anybody jumping for joy to be called a ”wetback”  or a “spick”. I don’t remember my white friends ever wanting to be referred to as “red-necks” nor “white trash”.

Where does cultural awareness begin and cultural insensitivity end? Can we really be clueless about other cultures in a world where access to information is instant?

Colourful Woman Wednesday: Idrissa Simmonds

This is the ninth post in 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 TumblrTwitter or Facebook

Idrissa Simmonds

Idrissa Simmonds is a remarkably inspiring writer and an educator. After studying in Concordia University’s Creative Writing Program for two years, she completed her MA in English Literature and International Relations from the University of British Columbia, and her MA in Educational Leadership, Politics, and Advocacy from NYU. She has always been interested in educational access and equality, particularly for communities of colour globally. Born in Brooklyn NY to Jamaican and Haitian-American parents, she was raised in Vancouver BC, and has spent a significant amount of time in West Africa. The similarities in the disparities in educational access for Black and Brown people in all these places have had a great impact on her career and creative choices.  The Coloured Collective’s writer Veesha Sonachansingh asked Idrissa these questions.

What makes you a “colourful woman”?
I recognize the importance of giving back. Of mentoring. Of giving love even when you don’t feel it given to you. I accept being a beautifully flawed human being and celebrate this in my writing and in my relationships with girls and younger women who are still learning this – shit, I’m still learning this but simply know that there will be good days with the bad. I love exploring my creativity, stretching my boundaries, building community and loving freely.

Who/what are some of your colourful inspirations?
Firstly, I’m inspired by those who are invested in leaving a positive impact with their life, whether that be my landlady opening her home to family on a regular basis for celebrations (and always inviting her tenants!); or the writing of Toni Morrison; or social activists and community leaders. Secondly, I am inspired by anyone who is exploring his or her talent to its deepest potential. James Baldwin, Edwidge Danticat, Nikky Finney, Yasiin Bey, Oprah, a host of educators that I work with, the artists Wangechi Mutu, Paul Sika and Jamal Shabazz…honestly, this list goes on and on!

What are some of your projects right now?
I’m excited to be launching an online magazine that explores the concept of “Global Black Cool” by featuring art, politics, style, literature and social entrepreneurship in cities globally. To stay true to our vision and make this conversation truly a global one, our editors are in Brooklyn, Toronto, Accra, and Vancouver. If interested learning more or becoming a contributing editor please email

I am a 2012 Resident with New York’s Poet’s House Emerging Poet’s Residency. We just completed our 10-week workshop cycle; it was a great experience in digging deep with my writing with a community of peers and getting some publications under my belt. A few of us in the workshop made commitments to our work to see us through the next year and I’m looking forward to seeing what is manifested through this process.

What message would you like to share with our readers today?
If I have learned anything this past year, it’s the importance of living without fear and living authentically.

Feed me something Beautiful

I’m kind of a foodie. That’s not to say that I’m an amazing chef (cuz I’m not), but I definitely relish a good food excursion. In the same way that I’m all about natural beauty, I’m all about natural food.

Being of Indian descent, a lot of people ask me if I can make Roti and of course if I like spicy food. People also get confused about whether I would make traditional Indian food (from India) as opposed to West Indian food. People here in Canada are not too familiar with Trinidadian food verses the more common Jamaican food.

There’s so much history underlying traditional foods. Its obvious on one level, but invisible if your eyes are not open to it. In the West Indies for example so many of our traditional dishes are rich in carbohydrates. Energy giving foods for a people who used to work the fields. We also favour highly spiced foods. I think this is because the produce and meats we historically had access to were lower quality than what’s available today. Therefore we spiced the hell out of it to transform meagre bits into something delicious.

For myself, the type of food that I seek and most love is fusion cooking. I love the unexpected flavours you get from mixing cultures. For example my boyfriend discovered last year that barbecue sauce goes really well with garam masala. At the Kariwak in Tobago they make a cafe frappe that’s a lot like the Greek frappe except it has coconut milk. I’ve found Indonesian food to be a tongue twisting combination of Thai and Chinese flavours (blows the mind). I’ve had spiced venison at an Indian fusion restaurant in New York that was to die for. All in all, in the same way that I love Colourful people, I love Colourful food.

Despite my ethnic indicators however, I’m a dismal failure at Roti and even curry. I’ve tried a million times to make something that even vaguely resembles my mum’s magical cooking, but sadly, her talents have not quietly passed into my own hands. Instead epicurious is my recipe companion and I continually troll various foodie blogs and books to learn new tricks and tastes from fellow colourful foodies around the world.

Food is a playful kind of creativity. We eat everyday and cook things everyday – we may as well make something beautiful. For me, food is beautiful when it is carefully prepared, when its ingredients are harvested ethically and when it is made without too many additives that I can’t pronounce.

no permanent address

I’ve been holding off making business cards for a long time. This is because I didn’t want to put any information on there that wouldn’t be applicable for less than a year. My loved ones can attest to the ridiculous number of phone numbers I’ve had over the years, especially during undergrad when I moved every four months! When moving yet again a few weeks ago I gathered all of my cell phones into a little pile – one for every country I’ve lived in. I cursed, put them in another box and shipped them with all of the other things I’ve shipped and tagged and stored.

So no, I still have no permanent address. I tell people I do – like the government. They seem pretty stuck on the issue, though I stress that ‘permanent’ is a strong term for my living situation. For a while I was using my brother’s house as my supposed permanent address but his wife hates me so that stopped pretty quick. Now I change my address every time I move and in the past 8 or 9 years, I haven’t lived in one place for longer than a year and a half. This is bad news for my National Geographic magazine subscription.

My boyfriend and I were joking around last night that we come from a long line of cantankerous Cartman-like ancestors who at some point in all of their lives said ‘Screw this town! I’m going over there!’ This is true of all of our ancestors with the possible exclusion of his black ancestors who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean. Even then though they were taken to Barbados and then moved optionally to Trinidad – so again – we, and people like us have an inherent predisposition for saying ‘I’ve had enough!’

So why fight it? I should just accept that I’m a nomad. For people like me, buying furniture is a bad idea. Signing 3-year contracts, like my latest phone is a catastrophically bad idea. Reading a lot and making art is hugely inconvenient for moving purposes. But alas, I’ll have to let those last ones slide.

Thankfully, the information age has brought a solution to my business card problem. I’ve gone with Mini Cards from (which are awesome and lovely and I couldn’t recommend them more). On them I’ve put my phone number, website and email address. That’s as traceable as I come.

Colourful Woman Wednesday: Lindsay Hall

This is the second in our “Colourful Woman Wednesday” series, which will feature 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.

Lindsay HallLindsay Hall is a brilliant, young dancer who recently finished a series of performances with the J CHEN PROJECT in NY. She is currently working with a new company called Liberation Dance Theater.

Born in Canada but raised in Tobago, Lindsay’s style of dance is an elegant but seductive mash-up of influences. Trained in Ballet and Modern from the age of 5, Lindsay grew up in Tobago where she was surrounded by Caribbean rhythms, Folk dances, and Dancehall. In May 2011 she became the first Tobagonian to graduate from The Ailey School’s Certificate Program in New York. While in New York Lindsay has been honoured with full scholarships to attend both the Ballet Hispanico Summer Intensive and the Earl Mosley’s Institute of the Arts. She has had the great fortune of working with some amazing choreographers, including Darrell Grand Moultrie, Earl Mosley, Robin Dunn, Andrea Miller, Peter London, Francesca Harper, Bradley Shelver and Kevin Wynn.

When asked why she is a Colourful Woman, Lindsay said this;

Lindsay Hall I am mixed in every sense of the word. I am of different races and different countries (Black/white and Trinidadian/Canadian) and my influences and interests are just as varied. When I was younger and I met other people who were one race and from one place, I thought their lives must be so much simpler, not having to constantly explain where they are from and why they look the way they do, or (like in my case) why they have a Canadian accent but say they grew up in Tobago. But now that I am older (and I would like to think wiser as well!) and I am delving more and more into the dance world, I realize how unique my story is, and that I can use my background and my story in my dancing. I can embrace my story and not feel so bothered if I have to explain why my hair is the way it is or why I have freckles but my skin is brown.

I am colourful because I have embraced ME. Performing has given me the confidence to express myself in a way that we generally do not do in every day life. While I dance, I face people and I am not afraid to show them who I am: honestly and whole heartedly. Who I am is someone who may be compliacted (which I have learned is ok), full of surprises and not easily figured out in one glance, and I kind of like that idea!’

Check out Lindsay’s Youtube channel to see her in motion!

The culture puzzle

In my own skin I’m more than enough. It’s the rest of the world that is a challenge.

When I moved to Paris last January, I was pretty sure of what my adventure would be about: learning French, writing, seeing the world and living life on my terms. Instead, Paris has turned into an adventure of self-discovery, race, culture and belonging.

Every day that I live in Europe, I realize more and more what a culture puzzle I am. To some I’m a woman of African descent, but not a ‘real African’ because I  was born and raised in Spain. For many I’m not a real Spaniard, because my skin is black. And for the rest who feel the need to label me, I’m the American in Paris.

And that label – ‘American’ is what surprises me the most. During the 20 plus years that I lived in New York, I never felt American – but now I feel that more than ever. Maybe that old cliché really is true: you can take a girl out of Brooklyn, but you can never take Brooklyn out of the girl.

For now, I define myself as an Afro-European who was raised in New York, and who for the moment lives in Paris.

When I lived in New York, I was proud to say that I was born and raised in Madrid. Always reminiscing about my childhood, my family and friends. How being the only black kid from kindergarten to 7th grade didn’t faze me, because when I went home there were kids my age who looked like me. Children who called Spain home, the only country we knew. So what if nobody played with me during recess? I was happy to read and dream imaginary worlds. It was the beginning of an isolation that eventually became a part of me.

I think that isolation (or wall, as my best-friends would say) is what helped me survive moving to New York as a child. Where once again everything about me was different. Yes I spoke Spanish, but for the Latin Americans I had the accent and traditions of the “Conquistadores”, so I was never really part of their of culture, because I didn’t have the Latino experience. I had many African-American friends, but for them I was a ‘different’ kind of black, because no one in my family was born on American soil. A blend of many, but not enough of anything.

So where does that leave me now, as the Afro-European woman raised in Brooklyn traveling through Europe? Who am I? What culture do I identify with? Today, this is the answer to the puzzle that works: I am a woman who belongs nowhere, but makes a home everywhere she goes.