Cliché: What is it about jazz that resonates with you so strongly as a genre?
Monique DeBose: Jazz is an art form that comes from the blood, sweat and tears of America. It is something that was created here. It is our history. Jazz is an energy that lets you explore life in real time, it lets you improvise what’s happening for you in the moment and create something new that may never be heard again.
Ella Fitzgerald is the artist that carried me into the jazz world. Her nimbleness and dexterity in her note choices and her scatting was everything to me. She made singing fun and a challenge I wanted to take on.
Jazz can be simple or ridiculously complex. And that range is accepted fully- not everyone likes every aspect of it, but we all know that it’s all on the table with jazz. I love that. That’s the kind of acceptance I crave in myself of me.
You received many accolades for your one-woman show, “Mulatto Math: Summing up the Race Equation in America.” What kind of feedback did you receive from audiences? How can we continue to work towards balancing the race equation in America?
Thank you for that acknowledgement. The show has lots of characters from all over the country, through different time periods in our history. It also has excerpts of original music I wrote and perform live each night. Audiences were always grateful. They appreciated that I was willing to share so vulnerably both my experiences and my thoughts about where this country is in the race equation.
I did talk backs after every performance on purpose. It felt like the last act of the show really. The audience was witness to my story, yes, but what really happened was that the audience got to experience viscerally, in real time, their own relationship to race, identity and limiting beliefs they held.
Some people were triggered, some offended, some confronted- all of which I expected because, let’s be real, we’re talking about race- the thing Americans feel a desperate need to sweep under the carpet, at all costs. But some were relieved and like I said earlier, so grateful- they felt like they’d been seen for the first time or they could finally have the conversation they’d been desperate to have in a safe space.
I believe we can continue our work towards balancing the race equation by continuing to bring truth to the surface. Until we are willing to lift the carpet and sweep out all that we’ve been trying to hide, we will stay where we are – at best. Everyone suffers from living in a racist society- even those who think they benefit or feel lucky that they at least have white skin. The truth is, we’re all suffering. The effects of racism on Africa Americans have been shown- there is data, historical evidence of the trauma. But what I think often gets overlooked because of guilt and shame, is the guilt and shame that white people carry in their cells. The way I see it, it’s like white people have to walk around knowing their accomplishments, their status in society, their success in ‘pulling themselves up by their bootstraps’ is based on a brutal, dehumanizing foundation. And to top it off, the people you violently used to create your society are walking around, in your life, everyday as a reminder of your behavior. So much unconscious shame and guilt. 24/7. How are you not impacted by that? How are your cells not changed to a ‘lower vibration’?
That was the long winded way of saying, we way to balance the race equation is need to create SAFE spaces for people to express themselves – no matter what they need to express- as long as it is in service to bringing the truth to the light. We create these safe spaces through conscious dialogue without expectation that things will change tomorrow, but with an intention to move towards change. Art is a beautiful way to create the container of safety, a doorway in.
You’re a mixed woman and have spoken openly about the struggle to be accepted by either world. How has this initial sense of not belonging continuously shaped your identity and your music?
The sense of not belonging is one that I’ve come to peace with- as odd as that sounds. I can’t seem to shake it, so I’ve decided that it just gets to come along everywhere I go, but it doesn’t get to be in the driver’s seat. I can fit in most places- I know how to run in white worlds, I know how to run in black worlds, I know how to run in mixed company spaces. I’ve done it for 40 years.
When I was younger, I thought I couldn’t be a singer because I couldn’t do what black R&B/ popular singers did. My idea of a black voice was a woman running through riffs and being able to belt at any and all times. Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston are examples. Their voices were what it meant to be a singer and since they were black, I should sound like that. It’s wasn’t until later, when I heard Tracy Chapman and Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone that I thought there was space for me in the singer’s world too.
My music is a mix of genres like me. Obviously you don’t have to be mixed to love different genres, but my influences came from my culturally different family members. I love music that speaks to the soul- whatever it’s genre. I’ve had visions of writing jazz tunes, musical theatre, hip hop, being a rap artist and so much more.
Explain your philosophy of “living life in color” and how that influences your approach to art.
One of my missions in the world is to help us go from seeing in black and white to living in full color. I believe that when we can be in acceptance of all the parts of ourselves, we make space for a much more authentic experience. And this goes beyond us individually- expressing ourselves and being willing to listen to other people brings more color into the world.
Living in full color means that I get to start with a blank canvas when approaching my craft of creation. It means I get to allow whatever I’m feeling or whatever is inspiring me in the moment to come forward. Not feeling blocked, or having a set of limitations or rules gives real freedom in the creative process.
I’ve created some pieces that I’ve judged as amazing and I’ve created some pieces I’ve judged as shitty, the point is, I’ve been able to let all of those pieces out. I’ve found that when I don’t let ideas flow, the channel gets backed up. Like a clogged artery. I just want to keep the channel as open as possible.
Talk about your new single, “Rally Call” and what you’re hoping people take away from it?
Nearly 2 years ago, I wrote “Rally Call” from the deepest part of my soul. It is a song to summon ‘the troops’. An anthem for people who have been disenfranchised.
The main message of “Rally Call” is to liberate black people to “get rid of those papers” – a reference to a time in history when black people could not even go out on their own without papers that demonstrated which white person they “belonged” to.
The goal of this song is to empower those who’ve felt they’ve had to hide parts of themselves away. To help everyone understand that when we stand proud, denounce the physical and mental slavery that has been suffered so long -and move towards justice, only then can we ALL truly be free.
I wrote “Rally Call” in 2018 because I no longer wanted to compartmentalize myself due to the color of my skin. I was done with having to erase myself for someone else’s comfort and I was done with buying into the false belief that I needed to wait for someone else’s permission to live my life. It was a love song to black America- reminding us that believing in a ‘heaven’ when our life is over, while just suffering through this life right now, is not the only option. And, it is a song to all of America to teach us that until we are willing to own all the parts of ourselves, our country’s entire history, only then will we truly have a chance at being free.
I was coming from a place of honesty, strength and a willingness to challenge the norms that a lot of us have come to accept. I was feeling like it was time to wake up.
“Rally Call,” a powerful anthem for those who have been repressed for way too long. This song sat on the shelf for 2 years, but then George Floyd was murdered and I knew that I couldn’t let this song stay under wraps any longer. Some friends and I during the George Floyd LA protests shot this music video to tell the story of the real American history that has been swept to the side and overlooked.
“Rally Call” is medicine for our nation. It is a bitter pill of truth coated with a spoonful of ‘music’ to make it palatable.
“Rally Call” is music for inspiration. For the moments you want to go back to sleep, for the moments you want to look away from someone’s poor choice, for the moments you need to remember you have a seat at any table.
Why do you think it’s so important to empower those who have felt pressured to hide a part of themselves?
Because I believe in fairness. An intuitive once told me that righteousness would be my downfall. Let me fall people, let me fall. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, at least I’ll have fallen forward five feet, six inches. I believe being loving to each other is our work on the planet.
Those of us who have been made to feel disempowered are the key to our society progressing to the next level.
When you’ve got a group of people who have been silenced, made to erase themselves, made to hide in the shadows-
- You lose the opportunity to have a more vibrant experience because you’re not accessing their brilliance,
- These people exist even if some want to pretend they don’t. They are in the society as whole, real people. Just because you silence someone doesn’t mean their energy doesn’t factor into the equation. Their energy is just as potent, palpable and present.
In not acknowledging certain people exist, we run the risk (and manifestation as we’re seeing in real time), of tensions boiling over.
We need everyone’s voice. Each unique story makes our world work.
What advice do you have for someone who feels they can’t embrace every aspect of their identity or they will face certain rejection?
First off, for those of you who feel they can’t embrace every aspect of their identity, I hear you, I see you, I love you and your journey.
You were made exactly as you are for a reason. I invite you to look at what you’ve been holding as a ‘flaw’, a ‘defect’, a quality that has you say, ‘if only I wasn’t (blank), then life would be better’ and turn it on its head. What if those qualities were your superpowers? What if?
I remember wishing I was just black, or just white, or ‘the right kind’ of mixed girl (you know the type…white features, long wavy hair that hangs down and a brown tan). I remember feeling like I was never enough, or way too much. So I thought the best solution to the ‘problem of me’ was to hide myself; just get in where I fit in. It was exhausting. So much so, that I developed a tumor in my abdominal wall.
I was choosing to erase myself and my body was literally telling me, ‘okay, if you don’t think you belong here, I’ll help us get out of here faster’. It was at that point, when I could possibly die, that I decided I could not hide any longer.
And the amazing light at the end of the tunnel is that when I decided to own my mixed-ness, my not whiteness, my not black enoughness – only then did I start to see the point of my life. Only then did my work make sense to me. Only then did people start to recognize me. All the things that made me me, were necessary and important.
Does the cultural shift happening right now give you hope for the future?
I do feel hope, in between the bouts of fear and deep sorrow. 😉 What I know is that we’ve lived the last centuries looking outside ourselves for direction and leadership and we’re now in an age where we must look inward for direction and leadership. It’s such a huge about face but it is what is. So, I feel hopeful in that I know where to look for these things- I don’t have to spend my energy wondering who, ‘out there’, I must follow, but it also means I need to grab hold of the reins of power- something I’ve never done before. That is scary. The amount of self trust we are being asked to have in this time is paramount. I feel hope…in between bouts of fear and deep sorrow…and I feel grateful for this opportunity.
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Monique DeBose Provides an Empowerment Anthem with New Single “Rally Call.” Photo Credit: Lift Consciousness.