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What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
I was propelled into music by my love for people and cultures, which compelled me to build bridges that drive more inclusive communities. Through music, I’m able to amplify valuable messages that help people see the world through others lenses and engage in something new. It makes me really happy to see people living fulfilling and joyful lives. So music being as magical as it affects one’s emotions, is a tool I use to ground myself and others, as well as to explore possibilities and to explore the world. I connect most intimately with other cultures through their music, dance, and fashion.
My curiosity also propelled me into music, as I stretched the limits of my expectations and talents, only to discover that I was a phenomenal songwriter and entertainer. Seeing the effects my performances had on the audiences and the joy it brought compelled me to pursue music more formally.
I can’t imagine a world where I didn’t do music. It’s my lifeline. However, prior to doing music professionally, I was an engineer, and right now, in addition to music, I am also a diversity, inclusion, and equity expert, and a writer, amongst other things.
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
When I’m not singing, dancing, or playing music, I absolutely LOVE hanging out with friends, family, and acquaintances, and having deep conversations and getting to know people in a way that they feel seen, valued, and understood.
I also love learning languages, learning in general, traveling, experiencing different peoples and cultures, and having adventures. I’m always up for adventures and trying something new.
I love writing, volunteering, and advocating for more just communities. Actually, I don’t love advocacy, but it’s a necessity I find myself doing a lot, because it’s hard to see the pain of suffering and injustice and be complacent about all of it.
My favorite thing of all time is hanging out with kids or working on musical projects with kids. It usually feels like a different world, a magical one where anything is possible. Their energy is so reviving. But of course, I understand this is easier, when I’m not responsible for actually taking care of them and disciplining them lol.
Sometimes, I also love just staring at a wall and doing absolutely nothing. This thought used to sound absurd to me before, but as I’ve gotten a little older, I've come to appreciate it more, but unfortunately, I hardly get time to do nothing.
How long has music been your career?
Six years. I recorded and published my first song six years ago on July 18 2015, on Mandela Day. It was called Children of the World. It’s about celebrating diversity and leveraging our differences as diversity makes us stronger.
I was surprised at how good my first song and music video turned out. Since it was my first attempt and it was so good, I couldn’t believe it was me. All the participants did such a wonderful job! I was so grateful.
Where are you based out of and how did that influence your music?
I live in San Diego, CA. But I’ve lived all over the world. In the last 15 years, I lived in 4 continents and 5 US states, and also visited over 40 countries and over 40 US states. This exposure to diversity of peoples, cultures, languages, music, and ideas, has really helped shape who I am. It’s made me have a higher tolerance for frustration, and helps me be braver and more open-minded to new values, ideas, and perspectives. It’s also the reason you can sense various cultural influences in my songs.
The fact that San Diego has a lot of cultural diversity has been so helpful, because in the same week or day, I can be in the country-western environment, working on a farm, feeding the horses, going country line dancing, but right after being in a high-rise condo in the middle of downtown or going salsa, ballroom, hip-hop, step, bollywood, flamingo, belly dancing, and more. I love having options to socialize amongst different communities and expanding my perspectives and world, and bringing that diversity into my music.
Tell me about the best and worst shows you have played.
One of my worst shows was a show I did in Chicago in 2014 for a Non-profit fundraiser. I was booked to do a dance performance and a song (as a donation). I was so moved by their mission and the goals of the fundraiser that I chose to write an original song geared towards that purpose. I put a lot of time into it and drove several hours to Chicago to go do this for free. My dance performance received a standing ovation, but my 3 minute song about the power of imagination was cut from the program at the last minute. I was devastated, after going through the lengths to write an original and all the time sacrifices I had made. I believe that if I were getting paid, though disappointed, I would not have felt that unappreciated because I would have been paid whether or not I delivered the service. But having sacrificed so much time as a volunteer and traveled many hours and giving up other opportunities I had that weekend, made the experience maddening at the time. However I learned to be more selective and have very clear expectations upfront and prioritize paying gigs. It is fairly common for shows to not go exactly as planned, but the opportunity cost in this case is what made the overall experience really bad for me. Thankfully, I absolutely love that song and it’s so near and dear to my heart till this day.
One of yy best performances was my very first performance of any kind. I consider it my favorite because it was the impetus of what became my music career.
Growing up in Cameroon, I was the worst dancer or singer you ever met. I had the passion, but zero skill. No matter how hard I tried, people constantly told me that my body was just not made for dancing. And people tried not to sit next to me in church because they didn’t want to be tortured by my horrible voice. I was always hailed for being super book smart and derided for being a clumsy nerd with little social skills or talent. So I thought there is no music in my future, I just have to stick with math and physics.
However, I moved to the US for college in Iowa, and lived in the dorms. An open mic night had been organized and a day before it, there hadn’t been enough sign ups. Out of desperation, the CA (community advisor) persuaded me to do a performance. I don’t know what he was thinking, but he wouldn’t let up even after I explained what a laughing stock I’ve been all my life. Finally, he said, just play some music from your country and freestyle dance to it, no need to choreograph, it will still be entertaining. I thought “Well, I’ll do it to entertain, not to prove that I’m a skilled entertainer - even if people laugh because I suck, it’s still entertainment - afterall, hardly anyone knows me here, so what do I have to lose?” He persuaded enough people at the last minute, such that he didn’t have to cancel the event.
He was right. I was shocked when I got a standing ovation. Then it hit me - these people have no idea what this dance is really supposed to look like, so anything I did, they found it just fascinating. And that’s when I lost my shame, fear, and insecurities when it came to performing and entertaining. A whole world of possibilities opened. I felt like my move to a whole new world across the oceans had given me a brand new slate to redefine myself. No one here knew my history of being a horrible dancer and singer, so my actions could really be perceived at face value without being warped by prior judgments or expectations. So from then on, I made it a goal to entertain for the sake of entertainment whenever possible, even if I could get booed or ridiculed, I thought, it still entertains, as my goal was not to prove anything to anyone. I actively sought opportunities and actually planned ahead this time and even recruited other people, though I didn’t know what I was doing. I constantly kept expanding the possibilities, trying new things and taking some classes here and there including voice training.
And of course, practice makes perfect. So, today, I’m a phenomenal songwriter and singer who does various kinds of musical and dance performances including ballroom, salsa/merengue/bachata/chacha etc., country line dancing, bollywood, belly dancing, Afro-traditional, Afro-pop and many more. I wonder if any of this would have happened had that CA not persuaded me to just do something, and had I not shifted my mindset from wanting to impress, to wanting to entertain, even if it was met with ridicule. Ironically, I don’t recall ever being met with ridicule (with respect to performing) since I moved to the US.
So although that wasn’t a professional show and I wasn’t a professional performer yet, that experience is very near and dear to my heart.
Tell me about your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
My favorite venue to play at is anything I do with kids or for kids, whether it’s private events, community events, school events, corporate events. Any performance where I engage kids is my favorite experience. Kids are so open to possibilities.
My second favorite venues to perform at are at summits and concerts. I would love to perform at the Grand Ole Opry some day.
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
This is impossible now, but just allow me to fantasize for a little bit :) - If I could, I would perform on a ticket with Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie, Johnny Cash.
Ok, now back to reality :) - If I could, I would be on a ticket with Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Joe Dee Messina, Salatiel, Amber Ashley, Yemi Alade, Dolly Parton, Darius Rucker, Alan Jackson, Flavour, Angelique Kidjo, Daphne.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into music?
For someone just getting started, I would say find partnerships, mentors, and accountability partners - don’t go at it alone. No matter how brilliant and hard working you are, things can still get really tough and the support and accountability could make all the difference. In general, I would also say have a well connected life/community for social support. Prioritize self-care. Don’t get so passionate that you end up isolating yourself, considering today there’s technologies that let you do everything without ever even leaving home.
And finally, don’t be ruled by your fears. Acknowledge them, but do what you’d love to do anyway. Even if you suck for a while, it’s ok. Forget the expectation of perfection. Don’t be afraid to try new things.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice, what would it be?
I would take advantage of the power of available helpful technologies for indie musicians, especially social media and content creation, much sooner. I’m a very social person, but I don’t enjoy online interactions that much. If I could go back in time, I’ll make myself ok with that much sooner, even though it’s kind of challenging for me. I would post all my engagements and performances on social media - I never loved social media, so I missed out on all the publicity and connections I could have made, had I been sharing/posting all my shows and engagements.
Most importantly, I would have kept an email list of my supporters from day one, so that we can stay connected.
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
Black Country Girl is closest to my heart. Because it represents the journey of my American experience. At the time I wrote it, it was just for fun, I didn’t realize it had so much more meaning, until I looked back and reflected on my journey and what my unconscious mind and body was able to express through the song. The song encourages authenticity; embracing all of who we are, no matter what boxes we’re expected to fit within. It represents an integration of different parts of me, and a reclaiming of my identity and authentic self.
Interestingly, I also struggle with living authentically sometimes as it doesn’t seem to serve me well sometimes, in a culture where people prioritize looking good over being good, and looking fine over being fine, and feel insecure, confused, or threatened when they encounter authenticity. So I’ve found myself quite a few times, subduing myself and covering my light, just to be able to survive the environments I sometimes have to be in for a while. I wish I didn’t have to, because it’s quite exhausting, and I’m not very good at it. Living authentically is an everyday struggle and moment by moment choice.
Additionally, the song’s music video depicts both a celebration and a struggle. A celebration of the America I love, and the struggle as I became aware of some of the uncomfortable realities that must be faced if we’re to truly build bridges and progress together as a nation. I was really moved by James Baldwin’s quote - “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.”
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
My favorite to perform is Black Country Girl. But I also really love my African traditional songs and Afro-pop songs. So far, Batuo has been getting the most requests, but I anticipate that changing, now that I’ve produced and published Black Country Girl and more people will become aware of it.
It’s also worth noting that there are some songs which I haven’t released yet, but which I really enjoy performing. One of them is called, Make You, which happens to be my only love song, and is a love story I hope becomes true for me someday. :) The other is Modupe which is about gratitude and though gratitude can be a double-edged sword sometimes, it gives hope and helps one stay sane in times of adversities.
What is the creative process for you, and what inspires you to write your music?
Social causes inspire me to write music. When I identify a cause or story, I like to tackle it with song. People also inspire me. I love writing songs that empower people, and give them hope and courage, and make them feel understood and valued.
I’ve noticed that I’m more creative when I have stability and structure in my life - like another job with a schedule. Weird, isn’t it? It’s like I need structure to survive/thrive, but I don’t want to be bound by structure. I am least creative when I’m under constant stress for long periods of time. During such prolonged seasons, my brain refuses to do anything other than worry about my immediate needs. It becomes quite a battle up there (my head).
When I think of a concept or melody, I have to write it down or record it, then explore and build on it later. If I don’t I almost always forget, and I wonder if the same idea ever comes twice. Many don’t end up becoming super interesting to me, but some turn out pretty damn phenomenal! It’s always helpful to have a bank of options to choose from or mix and match.
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
In my music, I love getting across inspirational messages about building bridges, authenticity, the power of imagination and imagining a different world, the power of community, empathy, curiosity, and other diversity, equity, and inclusion topics.
Do you ever have disagreements when collaborating and how do you get past them?
Oh yes, for sure! :) Considering I started out not having enough musical knowledge to communicate how I want my music to sound, the instrumentals usually went through several iterations, before becoming what I envisioned. Black Country Girl for example, experienced four iterations. While I’m sure I could have been annoying, the good news is I always paid for however long it took.
When there are disagreements, not taking things personally helps a lot. I’ve had to exercise patience and give people the benefit of the doubt, as I’m sure they’ve needed to with me. Since I’ve worked with people in and from different cultural contexts, it’s been super helpful to take those cultural differences into account as well, and manage my expectations, especially with respect to time and how feedback is received or given.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
ABSOLUTELY! I’d love to spotlight my upcoming Authenticity Challenge, which I will be launching on July 13th, the National Oxymoron Day. Many people (including me) thought being a Black Country Girl was an oxymoron only because of the lack of mainstream representation of Black people in country music and culture. In reality, it’s not an oxymoron since one in four cowboys were black and many black women and men have contributed to country music and culture over the decades. Many of our perceptions of human oxymorons stem from a lack of representation, stereotyping, and a suppression (whether imposed or voluntary) of who we are.
Participating in this challenge is a way of healing and building bridges so we can recognize our common humanity and potentially stand in solidarity with one another to improve our society so it works for all of us.
To learn more about the challenge or be one of the first to participate and get it rolling, go to www.go.BlackCountryGirl.com and drop your email address to join my Stream Team of authentic music fans and supporters. My street team is the backbone of my movement of building bridges that drive inclusive communities. They are the first to know what’s up, and who’s input I seek when coming up with ideas or making choices. They get a chance to influence what I do, as well as be the hands and legs of healing and bridging divides.
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