|Maya Azucena, artist, humanitarian, entrepreneur|
A few years ago, she was the feature performer at Symponics Live at Bowery Poetry Club. I was moved enough by her music to chat with her after the show. I fell in love with her music because it is emotionally charged. I love her stage presence and, of course, her hair. When I attended a later show; she remembered me, always had a warm, welcoming energy. Last week between a recording session and before her guest DJ gig at the Nu Hotel she sat down with me for this interview.
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Hi, I’m Maya Azucena, I am from Brooklyn, New York—that always comes immediately after every description of myself—I am an artist, a humanitarian and an entrepreneur. Business woman, basically.
Do you blend a lot of your humanitarian work into your music? Is that the message behind your music?
My social activism work is extremely integrated into my music. I think it all started with feeling that my songwriting was a way that I could help people. I have very strong convictions about injustices in the world and my heart just goes out to those that struggle. I’ve had my own struggles. I think what followed writing songs that had cultural and socially relevant themes was representing those themes at benefit events and branding it in a way where it’s me as an artist meshed with me as a humanitarian.
How important is collaboration to you?
Actually collaboration is a very large part of my approach. Being an independent artist, a DIY artist—I’ve been doing this for years without major funding, without major backing—I really have used this tactic of supporting fellow artists and they support me. One way that we can increase our base is to combine forces on music. So on a business level collaboration is this way for us to double our audience so to speak. On a musical level, collaboration makes me a better artist because I learn from those people that I collaborate with. I have now collaborated with, on stage and in the studio, artists all around the world—China and Sri Lanka to Honduras and Tanzania—all of those experiences make a me a better musician.
Before you hit the stage, is there a pre-game ritual you go through? How do you prep for a show?
Before I hit the stage, I gotta take the business woman hat off because it gets overwhelming trying to worry about the administrative details of a show right before I go on stage. I also really try to stop answering my phone; people are crazy, they’ll be texting me right before I go on stage talking ‘bout “I’m outside can you come get me?”
My preparation starts in the morning before I even get to the venue. I pray. I’m very spiritual about my music so for me I feel it’s important to be in tune, not distracted, not stressed but to be centered. In order to do that I try to do things for myself that day; either working out or stretching or getting a manicure or steam or just moving a little slower than I usually do just so I can be mindful. There’s this expression I just learned, walking mindfully, where it’s you’re not just meandering, you’re walking in a way like you’re actions are also a meditation.
You touched on one of my random questions. You go to a spa. What would you choose: mani, pedi or facial?
Pedicure. No matter what else fails, I’ll get a pedicure ‘cause jacked up feet are unacceptable. (laughter)
Today’s a good example. You just came from a recording session, now you have a DJ gig, how do you prevent burnout? How do you prevent burnout in your creative life?
One thing is diversifying. In order to prevent burnout I’m not doing the same things over and over again. I’m constantly challenging myself to expand and grow and stay ready for inspiration. Today’s a good example because I have no business DJing, I am not a DJ but I figured someone invited me to DJ lemme give it a try and I would use it as an opportunity to expand. I have a busy schedule, my schedule is crunk from sun up to sundown I’m active, I’m doing something, I’m running from one place to another so I don’t think that’s gonna slow down but doing what I love helps.
What artists or songs would be on the soundtrack of your adolescence?
That’s so hard to answer, there’s so many artists…
Aight, just three…
Ok, I gotta think about it for a second. This is hard. Also because it’s hard to come up with something that won’t be totally embarrassing (laughs)… Seal is definitely in there. Sting. There’s a lot of artists… Slick Rick doesn’t wanna leave my mind right now (laughs).
At one of your shows I was at you did a cover of Seal. Which artists are the most challenging for you to cover?
Bob Dylan is a hard artist to cover only because his melodies are not very defined as a vocalist. So [for] me as a vocalist, when I listen to his songs and I try to interpret it I’m putting a melody there that’s not really recorded. That’s challenging but it’s actually kind of a fun task—how do you take a Bob Dylan song, something that someone would not expect me to sing, and how do you make that sound like it was yours?
In any language, what is your favorite word, and why?
Wow, it’s a toss-up. Four come to mind so help me to narrow this down: freedom, justice, faith and shine. They’re kinda interrelated with each other…
Yeah, if you have a sense of freedom then you have faith in something then that might...
Set you free…
Yeah and there’s a shine that might come from within.
All of them are very big themes in my life. So… justice is a word that just saying the word makes me feel energized like I feel like I need to go do something. I feel like justice provokes me—the word and the idea of justice fires me up because I definitely feel that there are a lot of people that are afraid to stand up for it. But I’m a front line person, I wanna be out there helping with what my resources are to protect and get justice.
Is there any feminism in your work?
There is a lot of feminism in my work. It’s natural because I am a woman and I see myself as a strong woman who’s well aware of who I am. I’ve thought a lot about all the different subjects from how I carry myself as a woman, how I dress, all these things. I was previously in an abusive relationship which had a very large impact on my adult life so in terms of being a feminist I am very protective of young women and where I can I use what power I have to help or represent fellow young women.
Explain your project, Lines in My Skin. And what is the next step with that project?
Lines in My Skin is a photo journey. It gives a visual story of a woman who starts out very free-looking and dressed up and then she gets home and you see the tone change. There’s this husband character that’s apparently drinking who beats her up. So you see all things represented in photos. Very striking. People have an emotional response to the images but each individual image, if you pull them, are just amazing works of art.
That collaboration is with a photographer named Rae Maxwell. When I saw her work, I thought that she could handle something that was as challenging as this—I had this idea and she brought it to the next level. Lines in My Skin allows me to be vulnerable and use art as a way for me to talk about the bad situation I once had. I felt that having grown from it and having survived it that telling my story would give encouragement to other people who may be dealing with it. On the website, before you even get through the photos, I actually tell my own story which is very vulnerable for me but again I felt by allowing myself to be vulnerable I am giving strength to someone else who may need to know that they are not alone.
We did an installation of it at Free Candy, so we have an idea of bringing it to colleges, you know, putting it up again in another photo gallery.
When working with photographers and when you’re on stage what insecurities do you deal with?
As an artist, you’re always seeing images of yourself that people post without your permission. The worst for me is when I discover that an outfit that I thought was working wasn’t photographing so well. Things that bother me… I have these lines like right here (touches her cheeks) it makes me feel like I have these mushy, saggy cheeks even though I don’t. It’s the worst and I see it in pictures and I’m like ::::groans:::: If I do it in the wrong way it looks like, you know when dogs have the hanging jowls. Or when I do my own makeup I get completely anxious because it’s after you see the photos that you realize what you did wrong (laughs). And the other thing I can’t stand is I have some lower belly puffiness and like certain angles of photos it just looks horrible… so insecurities? Yeah, I don’t have any.
What is your artist's vice?
Hmm… like my guilty pleasure as an artist?
Yeah or that thing maybe you’ve been told that you shouldn’t do or you know it might affect you in some way but you have to do it. Your vice.
I don’t know what my artist vice is because a lot of what I do are things that people told me I shouldn’t have done and I don’t consider them vices I just consider those people to be shortsighted. There’s people like, “Oh you can’t do that” and I’m like “Really? Why can’t I do that? ‘Cause I see that person did it and that person did it.” “Oh, but they’re Lauryn Hill.” “Oh. Well I’m motherfucking Maya Azucena. I can’t do it because I’m me but they can do it because they’re them?” I don’t believe people who tell me something can’t be done.
So you’re probably gonna like this question. Or I’m gonna like your answer, I should say. What stereotype do you fit?
(laughs) Stereotype… boy, I really feel like I bust up all kinds of stereotypes. My stereotype is that I’m “unstereotypeable”. I really do think that, I mean, because you may think I fit one category and then the very next day, I completely break that notion so yeah I may seem like bohemian, granola girl on one day and then the next day just completely disprove [that] because all facets are in me.
How do you think the world, your fans, would react if you showed up one day without your hair?
I think about that a lot. I have several reasons why I’m so committed to [natural hair]. One which is that I feel that our people, and I say “our people” I mean people of color all around the world, struggle with loving their natural beauty; the beauty of their facial structure, the beauty of their body, the beauty of their skin tone and the beauty of their natural hair. And I mean all around the world, not just in New York, not just in America, but all around the world and they feel so much more secure to have the stringy, fake, rat hair looking mop on their head… anything but letting somebody see the natural hair that they were born with. I wanna prove, I wanna be extremely successful and hold on to the idea that natural hair is dope. And it’s diverse and it’s fun and it’s funky and I like to rock it in a way that gives young girls a sense of beauty in themselves when they look in the mirror—like Oh man, I could rock my ‘fro like that too—that’s important to me.
What are you wearing? I’m focusing on the jewelry. I’m assuming you wear jewelry from artists that you know, people who give you gifts…
First of all, I am obsessed with jewelry, I am addicted to jewelry and I collect jewelry the way people collect art. Most of the time, I get jewelry from the person that made it themselves. These two pieces, Aaron Spazecraft made these for me, the Maya Azucena piece. I got this (bracelets) in Tanzania, it is Masai jewelry. Yeah, a lot of my jewelry I buy, some people have handmade them and I collect it and I’m really into it.
Tell me about any upcoming projects.
Well speaking about collaborations, I’ve done a lot of recording collaborations this summer that will be coming out this fall and winter. I’m still promoting my latest full-length CD, Cry Love and working on promoting each song like a separate single with videos and remixes. I am working on an EP release with Bucktown USA that you’ll be hearing about soon and I have some individual singles that are coming out with various artists.
Complete this statement: If my muse were an animal, it would be…
‘Cause I see myself as a predatorial bird with a wide wingspan and multicolored and soaring above the things that try to keep you down and I relate to that so that is definitely a muse.
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