MELISSA JAMES: “Best current British blues singer I know.” – The words of BBC Radio presenter Tom Robinson who has long given a nod of approval to the work of this singersongwriter. Born and raised in north west London to West Indian parents, Melissa James is, however, much more than a blues singer. She is a singer with incredible passion for her cause which, she sees, is to use her voice and her music to heal and to help form connections with others. Brought-up on a diet of Caribbean sounds – calypso, soca and reggae – these styles are embedded in her musical fibres nestled next to those that formed part of her later listening – folk, gospel, jazz – but never without a large helping of the soul which stretches deep beyond her years.
Melissa makes her shows as much about the delivery of her songs as they are about reaching out to her audience. The creation of her project “SING4SANE” is testament to that. An initiative which sees “pop-up” Big Sings appear in public spaces alongside anyone who wants to raise their voice and sing in the name of wellbeing and joy – bringing together likeminded folk with an understanding of mental ill health. The “SING4SANE” project saw Melissa invite interested participants to join her at London’s RAK Studios in summer 2016. Together they sang and recorded her song, “Live Again” – even though she had recorded it just months before as an acoustic rendition which featured on her second record entitled, “Stripped Back”.
Now answering what she sees as an urgent call for honest and open dialogues around race and prejudice, Melissa has created “Stronger on Sundays”. Spurred by the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent BLM protests, simply, Stronger on Sundays is Conversations with Compassion on Racial and Social Justice in a music-filled space. Live music is shared by Melissa and guest musicians, forging a pathway into the hearts of those who are willing to engage in listening to, or participating in, these often challenging yet needed discussions.
Introduce yourself for those who may not be familiar with you or your work?
I am an Artist; Singer, Songwriter, Writer, Creator. I use my creativity as a way to build a platform for my own voice and expression and for the voices and expressions of others.
What/who inspires you as a creator?
I am inspired by whatever is happening in my immediate network, within the environment around me or in the wider world. In the end, they are all connected. If something stirs me enough then I am usually compelled or activated to use a form of creativity – music, song, poetry – to express it. Partly I do this to help deepen my own healing process or to help enhance my level of understanding. But sometimes I feel specifically “called” to use music to connect people to each other or to the matter or issue that I want to address. I am continually growing as an artist and I am enthused and inspired by the power of music and art when used in this way.
We understand that activism plays an important role in the work you do as a creator. Tell us about this work and the role music can play in this area?
I once saw myself just as a Singer-Songwriter. There is nothing wrong with that. But now I see that my purpose is to help activate positive changes that I perceive need to happen for the betterment of all beings, collectively. I was speaking with Paul Pacifico of AIM earlier today and he said: “Music without purpose is beautiful. But music with purpose is powerful”. That really resonated. I totally believe this to be the case. Music is one of my power tools that helps to facilitate changes within me and others. I naturally gravitate towards creating projects which put music at the centre. This might be for connection to others or to help spread a message. Or to empower myself and others. Stronger on Sundays (SOS) is my latest project. Stronger on Sundays is Conversations with Compassion on Racial and Social Justice in a music-filled space. SOS is a series of online programmes that I started last year after the BLM uprisings following George Floyd’s murder. I invite guests to share their stories, knowledge and experiences in relation to race, racialisation and injustices. An “audience” of participants are welcomed into the space to listen and to respond or to ask questions. Musicians and artists offer their music, as do I. These are often difficult and uncomfortable conversations which we are generally not used to having. The music is important because it helps to soften and open our hearts, enabling us to hold these discussions. None of us is responsible for the construction of race or the divisiveness of race hatred that has resulted. But, as trauma specialist and author Resmaa Menakem describes in his book My Grandmother’s Hands, it negatively impacts every one of us as we all hold ancestral trauma in our bodies. The level of trauma, and how it plays-out, is of course different for black and brown bodies than it is for white bodies. So the term “white privilege”, for me, is a misnomer. I wouldn’t want privilege if it comes at the cost of another’s freedom. Instead, if we are truly willing, we can own the fact that each of us as individuals is affected by racial trauma and each of us can effect transformational change. These ideas can be challenging to hear but I believe they need to be heard and discussed. Such discussions must take place in a space where people feel safe enough to be there. I am therefore clear in my intention that compassion needs to rest at the centre of SOS. And the music is an integral part of this happening.
As you’re aware, October is Black History Month. What does this time of year mean to you perhaps personally, professionally or both?
“Black” history is the history of us all and a focus on stories of people from the African diaspora should never try to be contained in one month – and they can’t be either. My aim with SOS is to keep the conversation moving around racial injustices rather than having matters around race highlighted during one section of each year, or risen when race findings are released or a racial incident happens. That said, Stronger on Sundays can make use of Black History Month by trying to gain more awareness of what it is while the spotlight is centred on events connected to people of African heritage. Once October passes, the Stronger on Sundays conversations will keep going to encourage us all to continually work to change the way we think about race and racial injustices.
How has your heritage influenced your work? Are there any figures from Black Music History in particular that have influenced you or that you would wish to highlight?
My heritage influences what I do because I see the struggles that my family and ancestors have endured. I, myself, feel tired. And upset and angered. Enraged, at times. I want to see change. I want to at least be a part of a process that tries to activate positive change on some level. If we can simply understand that race is a construct, created initially to benefit a small minority (white patriarchy), this is a good starting place from where we can springboard the work that each of us can do as individuals. And, with this knowledge in-hand, we can do the work, remembering not to take it too personally. When I talk about “whiteness” or “Whiteisation”(as opposed to the term “racism”), I am not speaking about an individual person or group necessarily. I am speaking about the disease that has resulted from the construct of “whiteness” which has formulated what we know to be racism and the constructs of “Black” as a racial identity. The impacts of these constructs affect every moment of my day as a woman of African heritage. They have greatly impacted all of my family and my ancestral line and I am deeply saddened and heavy when I think on it. I am inspired and influenced by the work and words of Billie Holiday whose story is really a sad one. Also Nina Simone – each of them powerful women but both so broken by a system built on gender and racial inequities.
From your perspective, how do you believe the wider music industry can do better to tackle the problems that Black music creators face in the current landscape?
Firstly, we need to remember that we each bring who we are and what we do into the industries or organisations in which we work. The industry can maybe help guide and encourage us in our process. And we can try to guide the efforts of our industries. In the end, the work is with us personally. Industries and organisations should try to remember that real societal transformation happens when we go beyond the superficial changes that take place at surface level. In order to eradicate racial injustices, and all injustices, within an organisation, we have to work to eradicate them from within ourselves. This means constant work. Ongoing questions and self-enquiry. With compassion, remembering we did not create any of this. But if we change ourselves, we change the world.
What would you like to see included more in the conversation around Black History Month as well as in general around wider topics that center around Race/Ethnicity/Heritage?
Understanding the history is so important because it helps us contextualise why we are where we are. And it really helps us to de-personalise the problem. Learning about the history of African people in the west is something that we can all do all of the time. We don’t have to wait for this celebratory month. In September’s Stronger on Sundays programme, my guest included author Alex Renton who spoke of his recently published book Blood Legacy. This book is an acute but painful account of his discovery of letters in the family home which detail his own family’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. It is not an easy read but the language is accessible and uncomplicated. It is a really good place to start in understanding – or deepening our knowledge of – this critical period in time which plays a huge part in how we think about ourselves and each other and how we live today. Rather than waiting for a month to remind or encourage us to reflect on these times, we can be actively curious at any time. One of the personal changes I am increasingly making is in taking agency, myself, on things I do and how I do them. Not waiting for permissions prescribed by an authority or figure but taking a decision to think more for myself about who I am, what I do and how I want to show-up in the world. These are questions I would encourage anyone to consider on a moment-by-moment basis. Questions like these have literally transformed the way I think in relation to many things – not just race, ethnicity and heritage.
What are you working on currently? What is coming up next for you?
My focus has very much been on Stronger on Sundays. What started as a bit of an idea, I now see, can potentially become a really important space for deep discussions. There is no where that the conversation on race can’t go as it permeates every single bit of all our lives. So I am keen to grow this as a platform, continuing to make the offering of live music a central aspect to what it is about. I am also working with producer Gerry Diver currently on another record of original material. The aim is to release this in the early part of next year. During the last lockdown, I started something called One Morning Song which was me pitching-up via Facebook live at around 8am each weekday morning to sing one song and to chat to whoever chose to join me. This has further spurred an idea I have had for a long while of creating a one-woman show which centres around me telling my story through my songs. I am beginning to explore this a little more too.
The next Stronger on Sundays session happens on Sunday 31 October, 1800 to 2000 GMT and features Roger Wilson of Black Lives in Music. Bookings are now open and full details on tickets, ranging from £3 upwards, are available via melissa-james.com
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