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:

Facebook
Twitter
Youtube

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

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 mag116online@gmail.com.

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.

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 moo.com (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.

Queen of the Pack

I last discussed the paradoxical relationship between the Female and the Body.  It was very hard to stay focussed on just “the body” however.  The same could arguably be said for hair texture, skin colour, etc.  Women are constantly adjusting and squeezing themselves into a cookie-cutter mold of “the” Woman.  We do so with a far greater sense of urgency than men do, because of this noxious level of competition we instigate with our counterparts.

You hear it in various aphorisms: a woman’s greatest enemy is another woman.  The Times recently wrote an article branching out to a plethora of links regarding why women leave other women out in the cold.

And for the sake of argument, let’s say all this started in a fight to be chosen for procreation, for survival — that no longer needs to happen!  The majority of us are perfectly self-sufficient, and capable of survival – nay, comfort – in the dynamics of modern living.  The other common excuse of “if a woman had to struggle and do it all on her own, she has no sympathy for women after her in need of a helping hand.” Bullshit.  You of all people know how much more productive you could have been with that help.

CUT IT OUT LADIES.

I’ve always compared this phenomenon to similarities in race-rivalry in Trinidad & Tobago.  Colonialists cleverly pitted African descendants against Indian,  knowing that if we keep chasing each other, we would never collectively realize that through cooperation, we pose a greater threat to the established enforcer.

Women are so busy clawing each other’s eyes out in a male-dominated society, but we’re still baffled as to why we can’t achieve gender equity.

Why should we get this from the Patriarchy, when we can’t seem to give it to ourselves?

So what are you anyway?

Image source: http://www.breakingperceptions.com/neither-black-nor-white-the-confusion-of-being-mixed-race/

Mixed?

Thoughts of race/ethnicity/identity always leave me feeling somewhat bemused, somewhat like I have an existential stomachache.

Our society tells us that in order to know who we are, we must know “what” we are- that is to say that much of our identity is built around our racial and ethnic categorization.

Unless you don’t fit into any category but “other”. Cue identity issues.

Trinidad and Tobago boasts of being a cosmopolitan or “rainbow” twin-island nation, where “every creed and race, find an equal place”. Again, no proviso made for those belonging to a number of creeds and races.

Questions of race in T&T are largely influenced by each group’s historical experience, in particular by the conditions of immigration to T&T and the pattern of experiences once there.

Not surprising then, that the colonial imprint of white privilege still affects us today, manifesting itself in a preoccupation with “fairness”.

The phrase “if yuh not red yuh dead” is a prime example of the duality of these attitudes. It implies superiority on the part of these red-skinned Trinbagonians (whoever they may be, since no two people have the same idea of what it is to be ‘red’ in T&T), but is this assigned to them or assumed by them?

My childhood was defined by conflicts such as this- I was cushioned by my parents (particularly my ‘red’ mother) because they predicted that we would always attract extra attention (and mostly of a negative nature) due to our skin tones. Unfortunately these fears were borne out. I was always struck by the stiffening of shoulders, the frigidity of the air when I entered certain social settings. I learnt to carry myself with self-assurance (if only feigned) because I was often met with hostility merely because I appeared to belong to a certain group, and therefore, the assumptions went, I must be an uppity so-and-so… All this, as a child, and coming from children.

That feigned self-assurance could not mark the real hurt caused by such treatment at the hands of my so-called peers. Something else with which to regale my hypothetical therapist.

Note carefully what emerges from the above account of childhood encounters- I began to develop a veneer of aloofness so as to protect myself from the inevitable sneers. At least for myself I can say that if I seem like an uppity so-and-so, is allyuh make me so. Self-fulfilling prophecy indeed.

Yesterday, mom declared that she was going to found a new race, so that we would no longer have to self-define as “other”. Her life has in large part been defined by her appearance. She recounted a recent experience which lead her once more to lament the fate of we mixed individuals, forever lost in racial/ethnic/cultural limbo. At a discussion about the propriety of the Prime Minister bowing to the Indian President, several commentators interjected with perspectives based on what they saw as their particular culture’s position. My mother realized anew that her mixed racial background meant not that she could identify with all, but rather that she could identify with none.

This is what most people don’t understand. Although we can attest that T&T’s culture is this, or it is that, ultimately one’s sense of rootedness requires something deeper, something more primeval.

Fortunate individuals may identify with one or more ethnic influences which they find around them- bi-racial people come to mind here, depending on the circumstances. Others may have a higher degree of mixing but identify with one majority group. And then, there are the “Callaloos” like my family. We are the product of several generations of a high degree of mixing (i.e. across a range of racial groups). We have also inherited several generations’ worth of feelings of racial/ethnic/cultural displacement.

As an aside, I will admit that in my case, dysfunction within the family unit went a long way to exacerbating this sense of displacement, as extended family ties have long been tenuous at best.

Back to the point- when asked “so what are you anyway?” my response is usually- shrug, list various things which make up my racial/ethnic profile and then shrug again, this time internal, at how unsatisfactory an answer that will always be.

Have I mentioned that having a riot of curly hair and a complexion which defies UV rays and, just to make things fun, a seemingly-random Muslim last name really adds to the confusion?

Suffice to say, I am not easily defined.

(FYI, the ‘Muslim’ last name originates from Indian ancestors who can be traced back to that fateful journey aboard the Fatel Razack. Note how proud I am of having at least some ancestry to claim).

The Bus Dilemma

When you walk onto a bus or onto a train, who do you choose to sit beside?

Mostly I go with the dark skinned woman of whatever race and most often that’s who chooses to sit next to me too. I see white people of all ages decide not to sit next to me. I don’t mind so much because they aren’t my first choice either.

The thinking behind this is that if anything bad were to go down, who would have your back? Who would most likely be the aggressor?

The other day at a concert there was a group of very loud people behind me. I think I was one of two coloured people at the show. It was a Canadian folk rock band so I wasn’t surprised. Anyway, the people behind me were in their late 30’s, white and very loud. But I didn’t tell them to keep it down. I deferred to someone white in my group to do it. I do stuff like this all the time and for the longest while I thought I was just cowardly and had to work on self assertion. I’m actually not a coward though in any other part of my life, how could I be a coward about this? What’s really happening is that deep down I don’t think I have a right to say anything because this isn’t my country. You see on some level I am afraid of these people.

The deeper feeling is that if things were to go awry, that I would be the first to be voted off the island. I am afraid that those loud, annoying people at the concert would attack me and that no one would come to my defence, because I’m just that coloured girl. I feel that at the very sight of me, I am relegated to second class citizen and that my preferences and opinions belong to a different world from the world in which I live.

Part of writing this blog is to help me come to terms with that. It’s okay that I am afraid and that I feel like an outsider, because I have made a world for myself with good, strong people (of all colours, shapes and sizes). It doesn’t matter that strangers treat me with ill disguised dubiousness at my intelligence, because I know who I am.

I have heard Jewish people say that they are sometimes afraid that they will be treated with disdain because of their background and I’ve heard Eastern Europeans say the same thing. When I went to university though I could hardly tell the Iranians from the Greeks, from the Jews, from the AngloSaxons. We all feel insecure and we are all over compensating for something.

Being different in sexual orientation, religious affiliation or skin colour from the majority is always difficult. As a visual minority though, I don’t have to wonder if anyone will notice the colour of my skin. It’s out there. I’ve spent enough time from country to country being afraid of drawing further attention to myself. This writing is part of my healing and part of my self empowerment.

Thanks for tuning in.