If Music Be the Food of Respect Play On: Maya's Weapon Against Gender Abuse
There are many ways to bring about a “revolution in the world” and she has made up her mind to draw on some of her darkest memories and the spunkiest music to make the impossible happen. As a survivor of extreme abuse she knows what it is like to be caught in a vicious cycle of threats, aggression and survival. If there is anything that connects women across the world, it is their shared history of abuse over generations as also their innate strength to fight it. Today, there are over a billion women fighting a war against gender violence – and MTV Made’s award-winning singer, songwriter and social activist, Maya Azucena, wants to become their “powerfully compelling voice” of love, reason and rebellion through her songs.
Q: How did your journey begin as a singer-activist against gender violence?
A: I met Eve Ensler, who has written ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and initiated the One Billion Rising (OBR) movement against gender violence, when I was invited to be a part of a women’s conference, ‘Women and Power’ at the Omega Institute in New York in 2012. Eve and I connected instantly and when she asked me to support OBR and write a song I was very happy. As a black American who has grown up in Brooklyn, I am aware of the challenges that stem from inequality. I have lived though terrible domestic violence and emerged a stronger person. The OBR movement gave me an amazing opportunity to reach out to one billion women and girls and motivate them to acknowledge their inherent power to make a difference to their communities, families and their own lives.
Q: Music and lyrics are essentially the tools you use to empower, make a difference. What’s your process?
A: I have been singing since I was four and I strongly believe that it is my way of helping the world. My kind of sound has a lot of soul mixed with jazz, hip/hop, rock and roll, reggae and other stuff. Often, when I see something that disturbs me, I write down my thoughts in my journal. I think a lot about freedom, being fearless and overcoming obstacles.
Q: You are a strong survivor of domestic violence. How did you deal with that phase of your life and how does it influence your music and activism?
A: I was in an abusive relationship for seven years and it was like living in a cage. Back then, I believed very strongly in having one soul mate. I endured everything believing I could fix him. We used to have violent arguments. There were times when he would pounce on me and squeeze my neck so hard that I could hardly breathe. Other times he would take a knife and hurt me on my arms and neck. After several years I realised that if a grown man hasn’t changed by now, he never will.
One of the things that helped me leave was a pamphlet I had found in a public washroom. It said, ‘Are You In An Abusive Relationship?’ and listed 20 questions to help figure out. Seventeen of my answers were a ‘yes’ and it came as a huge shock to me that I, who considered myself a strong woman, was trapped in an abusive relationship. I believe that any kind of violence – physical or psychological – has a deep impact on a woman’s mind and heart. I am dealing with it through my songs. I feel empowered when I am singing but to talk about it without music makes me feel very vulnerable.
Q: Over the last three years, you have been travelling and connecting with various communities on the issue of gender violence. Any experience or story that has stayed with you?
A: I have met so many inspiring people through my association with OBR. This one time when I was in Arusha in Tanzania, there was a community gathering to discuss domestic violence. It was an open platform and everyone felt that they could tell their stories courageously. After a while, a man got up and said that he was finally ready to talk about something he hadn’t shared with anyone before. He recounted how when his sister had been raped some years back, his mother and he had refused to accept her back into their home. In their community, it is the woman who bears the blame and ‘shame’ instead of the rapist. It was much later that the family realised that they had treated their own daughter badly. He then proudly told everyone that she was doing well and had finished college. For me, what was exemplary was the fact that this man, despite doing something horrible, had willingly admitted to his wrongdoing in front of a huge gathering. Imagine the positive impact this confession would have had on the other men present there. His brave, heartfelt confession had moved me to tears; it still does.
Q: Whether it’s Tanzania or Russia or India, do you find that women are essentially surviving similar trying circumstances everywhere?
A: In a sense, if there is anything that connects women across the world, it is a shared legacy of abuse over generations as also their innate strength to fight it. Women are the foundations of change in any society. Wherever they choose to unite and work together, it brings about serious social change – and that excites me because that is exactly what we are trying to do through the OBR movement. No matter where we go, no matter what kind of oppression, if women decide to overcome it together then there’s simply no stopping them.
Q: Do you then make a conscious attempt to reflect on “woman power” in your songs?
A: When one is writing a song, one really doesn’t know if it’s indeed going to have the kind of impact a track like ‘Dance Revolution’ has had. Dance is the chosen mode of defiance under the OBR banner and it’s phenomenal to see women in over 200 countries identifying with it. When I went to Haiti earlier last year, I met a group of lively girls who had memorised every word of the song and even created their own dance moves. That’s why I wrote the song. I wanted it to be an anthem, an inspiration to girls everywhere. To be able to witness this in different countries makes me feel like I am fulfilling my dream and purpose. These days, I am working on a new album, ‘Unleash Me’.
Q: Do you believe that songs that inspire feelings of independence and fearlessness can play a critical role in the global fight against violence against women?
A: Music can truly support the ideals of justice, freedom and equality. I want to contribute as a warrior against any form of violence. The warrior in me grew when I was in an abusive relationship – and through my songs I want to encourage women to awaken that warrior within themselves, too. I would like to help them channelise their righteous anger to empower themselves. Every woman deserves freedom and should be able to stand up for herself. I am free and maybe my story and my song will free someone else. So far, the response has been great. When I interact with young girls I tell them that love is an action, not just a word. If he says he loves you but does not show it in his actions then it doesn’t mean anything.
Q: Women and girls from all walks of life in India have been trying to challenge patriarchy in their own ways. What do you think?
A: Indian women have what we call in New York, swag, spirit and the strength to fight violence. I got an opportunity to spend time with college-going girls, rights activists and regular women during my recent visit to India. They are vibrant, fun and quite remarkable. I felt very energetic and happy around them.
Q: As a woman who has been through hell and back, do you think you will be able to fall in love again?
A: Love is a great power. But what is also important is that one is in a healthy, respectful relationship. Every woman must set boundaries for herself, have realistic expectations. I think all men are not abusers but the ones who take liberties do so because they think no one is going to hold them accountable. If other men, too, make them answerable there will be total change.
(Women's Feature Service)