Saturday, November 28, 2015

Cry Love, Build Peace

Blending the brilliance of her art and skills with her passion for activism, Maya Azucena has a lot to say to the world. Be it Gender based Violence or Genocide, be it questioning wrongdoing or denouncing violence, Maya is an ambassador of peace, through and through. The artivist shares her story with us.

I would say that my journey as a singer and an activist – I like to use the term artivist – it kinda happened in stages. Being a singer was something I started when I was a little girl. It was very natural. I was four years old. No one made me do it. I didn’t grow up in a household that was full of musicians. At four, I was memorizing songs and trying to present them to my family and friends. I was in every school play. I had conservatory style vocal training in high school years where I studied opera and learned the technique of voice. You would have to skip ahead to a time when I realised that music was my calling and that I wanted to take something I like to do to something that is very purposeful. 

I have always been an empath and have always felt a deep connection to people around the world and their stories of struggle, pain or oppression. I always have that feeling of how I wish I could do something to help and be a part of fixing it and always felt momentarily helpless. 
I would say things came to a head when I was in New York City when the tragedy of September 11 happened, and I was there. And I shared this experience again with all fellow new Yorkers – of helplessness and wanting to do something to help. When the towers fell, New Yorkers gathered to offer blood so that survivors would have blood – and the eerie thing is that there were no survivors. So you can’t – there’s not even remotely a way to fix the problem if there aren’t survivors! So in this time, of course, we reflect in our depression and sense of overwhelming tragedy. My sense of helplessness was followed by an overwhelming desire to sing. “I need to sing, I have to sing. I have to get out there, I have to sing.”  

It was almost like discovering my superpower – like this is what I had. I don’t have money, I don’t have the ability to fly to all these destinations and start foundations. What I have right now is this thing inside of me that I can use consciously to impact change and consciously to be of support to those who are hurting. It was at that moment that I became Maya Azucena, artivist, and started really consciously writing my songs in a way to contribute to change.

I thought a lot about choosing a cause. And then that seemed so wrong to me – because when you’re dealing with Human Rights infarctions, it’s so ridiculous to say that one human rights cause deserves more attention than another. To begin with, I really started to think – what is it that I want to do as an artist with a voice? I am an advocate for art as power. As such, I believe in being of service to these causes and the leaders of those causes. I felt that if I can show up as someone and be the voice that gives rise to the voiceless, or brings empowerment through my songs, this is more of a spiritual thing. The spirit of overcoming an obstacle. The spirit of not giving up. The spirit of not backing down and demanding your rights. However, I can specifically say that the closeness I have to the cause of gender-based violence has a lot to do with the fact that I am a survivor of gender-based violence. I was in an absolutely terrible 7-year prison sentence of a relationship. I think that that experience has made me have this anger and fight and desire to stand up for other women when it comes to this subject. I want to put my body ahead – the warrior in me developed through the course of that pain.

As a survivor, I know that it is vulnerable to tell my story and uncomfortable to recall those moments of horrible experiences. But now that I am past it, I want other young women who may be experiencing this to know that there’s something possible after that, and to know that it’s possible to set themselves free from the situation. If I keep my silence on how I got through and how I got to be who I am today, then someone like me out there won’t necessarily know what’s possible for them.
A woman that I admire greatly, is a success story I look back on. She is a film director and I’ve known her for many years – but I hadn’t seen her for many years. I bumped into her, and she said to me, ‘You know, I’ve been meaning to tell you something. One day, I was planning to commit suicide. And you sang Halleluiah.”  I don’t do a lot of cover music, but I did this one cover by Leonard Cohen and I have my own version of it. And she said to me, “You sang Halleluiah, and I found reason to live that day.”

To hear it seven or eight years later – I didn’t know! Every time before I sing, I always think, “I want this to touch somebody.” You never know if it does or doesn’t, but to have somebody report back, it feels like I am fulfilling my purpose and my intention with this.

I support a Ugandan cause called Bead for Life. They are an incredible organisation. Their work is based in Uganda. Their mission is to empower terribly impoverished women to become sustainable business women and entrepreneurs. They use a training program that trains them with making these traditional style of jewellery beads from coloured recycled paper. They buy the beads from the women – the women work for themselves from the very top and sell the beads to the organisation. They are taught how to open a bank account, negotiate and sign contracts. They are taught to empower themselves entrepreneurially. The funds that they’ve saved from all this income is invested in their own business they started. They graduate from the program in 18 months, they invest in themselves and own businesses. I was invited to Uganda to see the work up close. It’s incredibly real and deep. The women who founded it are based in Colorado, USA, and they help sell the jewellery made from the beads all over the world.

I don’t experience sexism a majority of the time – that’s probably got to do with the fact that I work for myself. A lot of experiences in my life are shaped by the people around me, and around who I respect and who respects me. I have had primarily a grass-roots music career which is a patchwork of somehow making a successful career without the privilege of corporate funding or big major record label support. Because I navigated a music career outside the system, I haven’t experienced the issues that come with that system. I have, though, experienced sexism and a sort of a shallow idea of what a woman’s focus should be and obviously people notice that it is image-centric and is not based on the quality of your work, skill set or talent. I tend to avoid people who don’t respect me – if they don’t respect me, I keep them moving. I’m a business woman – and if I’m talking business and you’re not, then keep moving!

There are many challenges. On one hand, you have to look at straddling two sides of a fence – you straddle an entertainment career. You have to be a professional and understand the business of music which has nothing to do with activism – the packaging, the branding and everything that professionalism in terms of shows and all that. The other side is inserting the causes and issues of cultural relevance and how to fuse those two. My journey has been about integrating that successfully. Beyond that, other challenges I face include apathy. Apathy is heartbreaking. We live in a world that worships celebrity and money, but if you talk about something as atrocious as the fact that 1 billion girls would have been beaten and raped in her life time, which, like Kamla Bhasin said, is the war of our lifetime. Everyone should be outraged by this. Getting people to stand up and act on solutions and results – it is harder than one would think. So, I just challenge myself to continuously come with sincerity and trust that people who need to hear what I’m offering will hear what I’m offering and not be distracted by those who are apathetic and hard to move.