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:


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: Masia One

This is the eleventh 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

Masia One

Masia One is a remarkable performing artist. She’s the first female nominated for a Much Music Video Award (Rap) and winner of the Chinese Canadian National Council Pioneer Award. Her music has edge and passion and her style is undeniable. In an interview with the Coloured Collective’s Lisa Rajkumar-Maharaj, Masia has this to say:

How would you describe your musical style? What are your musical inspirations?
My music is based in Hiphop and has dancehall, reggae, and pop influences.  It is also very influenced by my nomadic lifestyle.  The message is with the intention of making people feel brave and positive to balance out the amount of degradation in mainstream sound today.
To say you are multi talented is an understatement. Other than singing, what other types of work do you do? 
I’m currently the Creative Director of a NYC based high end men’s outerwear line M71 that will be launching at Magic in Las Vegas this Fall. My company The MERDEKA Group is a branding boutique where we take events, artists or products and create the brand identity through graphic design, manufactured merchandise and events.  We’ve worked with Redbull, Adidas, Mobile Jam Fest (Youth Creativity Festival) and facilitate opportunities to bring the grass roots community and corporate interests together.  Finally, I really like painting and I hope to get a gig one day illustrating a children’s story book.
Tell us a bit about your upbringing and how you fit into and perceive the urban music scene.
I was born in Singapore and grew up in Vancouver, BC.  When I found a bootleg Public Enemy tape in Singapore at the age of 8, I knew I had discovered something unlike anything I had heard before. When I put out my first album Mississauga in 2003, I’m don’t think I fit into the perceived urban music scene at all – because of the way I look I was told to either be a spoken word poet or car model. Today Hiphop & Urban music is undeniably international and I’m hoping to bring my experience in music & culture back to SE Asia, the place of my birth.
Any performances, albums or anything you’d like to share with our readers? Where can we buy your album?
I have 2 upcoming releases for 2012.  The first is BOOTLEG CULTURE, produced by Grammy winning producer Che Vicious (Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 50 Cent, Kanye).  Guest appearances include The RZA, Isis of Thunderheist and Talib Kweli.  The second is a record done live at Tuff Gong (Bob Marley’s studios) in Kingston Jamaica together with an incredible band Dubtonic Kru.  My music can be purchased on iTunes or on my website (store opening at the end of the month).
The first single Warriors Tongue can be viewed here:

Masia One Album cover

Finally, since the theme of our blog is Colourful women, that is, women who create a unique space for themselves in the world – powerful women of varying racial and cultural backgrounds, what would you say makes you a Colourful woman? 
Every woman is a colourful woman, but what is exposed in the media is an extremely skewed monochrome vision.  Only 24% of news subjects are women.  In a vast mainstream of Hiphop music, there is a spotlight on only 1 female – who incidentally glamourizes being a Barbie.  At the ground level, casting couches are happening every day in order for women to break through in this industry.  I guess what makes me able to show that I am a colourful woman is that I have been able to be independent and self sufficient in the business from reading my contracts to booking shows, where there’s usually a male “gatekeeper” for every female act.  My business MERDEKA is the Malay word for “independence & freedom” and this is certainly something I champion for all women.

Mind if I play my music?

This is a question that I have never asked at the office.

(Context: I work in an amazing, open-plan space with tremendous colleagues who have excellent and varied musical tastes. I know this because said office is equipped with an AirPlay setup that allows us to pipe our Spotify, iTunes, Pandora and playlists to a speaker system for shared rocking out)

But my music? I’ve never asked to stream my (incredibly extensive) Damian Marley playlist, or my (even more extensive) collection of non-soca music made by Caribbean artists.

If my fear is that Damian and Mangoseed are somehow not “office appropriate” (what does that even mean? And what about the recent all-day Wailers-fest we enjoyed, courtesy a colleague who’d watched the Marley documentary over the weekend?), why then don’t I even cue up the Mumford & Sons or the Florence and The Machine playlists?

There are a few things going on here.

One, I have an uneasy relationship with “Caribbean” me, at least and especially when I am in decidedly non-Caribbean contexts. I’ve already got the hair, the head wraps, the WTF accent and that whole being-brown thing. Do I also need to highlight my predilection for soca, dub, dancehall and related musical forms? For one of the reasons why this is even a thing: see reactions to Rihanna in Carnival costume, and add a hefty dose of my must-bust-stereotypes syndrome.

Two, my relationship with music is intensely personal, and I am averse to (indeed, tending toward incapable of) intermingling the personal and the professional.

I regularly listen to Damian at work – safe, secure and inviolate in the castle of my headphones.

And that’s ok.