bill bodkin begins the brand new Uncomun Interview Series with one of the event’s organizers, award-winning songstress Maya Azucena …
Welcome to the first installment of Pop-Break’s Uncomun Interview Series. This series will showcase artists performing at New York City’s monthly Uncomun Festival, a multi-genre, multimedia performance series. The festival returns to New York on Wednesday, Nov. 16 at DROM (85 Avenue A between 5th and 6th) at 10 p.m. after last year’s successful festival at Andrew WK’s club Santo’s Party House.
After years of running as an annual event, the Uncomun Festival is returning to its roots by re-establishing itself as a monthly series (it ran monthly from 2003-2005). The festival’s founder, Loud Apartment lead singer Nevaris Crawford, has teamed up with one of the original Uncomun performers, award-winning singer Maya Azucena, to bring Uncomun back to the city as a way for unique, “uncomun” artists of all genres and artistic niches to have a platform to express their true creative selves.
For Maya Azucena, Uncomun truly is a return back to her New York roots. We first met the singer back in 2008 as she tore down that year’s Uncomun Festival at Brooklyn’s Public Assembly art space. With a powerful voice, a kinetic stage show and a charismatic personality, Azucena’s activism-based music not only intends to move bodies, but it also provokes thoughts. It’s message music wrapped in a completely accessible manner — something that is extremely difficult in today’s heated political climate.
Azucena’s style of music has landed her numerous awards and it was just announced that she is in consideration (or pre-nominated) for five Grammy Awards this year including: Best R&B song, album and performance. She is a multiple-award winning (including a Porin which is Croatia’s verision of The Grammy) and she has been acknowledged for her performance on the recent Grammy-winning release by Stephen Marley.
Pop-Break: You’re an artist that is steeped in activism. What was the impetus for you to dedicate your life not just to song but to helping others around the world?
Maya Azucena: Truthfully, my primary desire is to help others in some way, and when I investigated what power I had to accomplish this, I felt music was my unique tool.
PB: Can you talk about the website MGDFive.com that you established with Emmy-winning director Lisa Russell?
MA: Lisa Russell/Governess Films has produced many films about women’s health issues. Lisa also has a long history of doing projects for organizations like the UN. When she and I connected, around her request to use my music in one of her films, we discovered that we see eye-to-eye on the power of Arts to raise awareness. Lisa saw the particular need to improve awareness for better maternal health (Millennium Development Goal #5 aka MDG5), and invited me to help found MDGFive.com. The site is a multi-media website that uses all mediums of art (film, music, poetry, paintings, photos) and a custom technology, designed by Reality Digital, to allow users to make mash-up videos about mothers, family, and safe pregnancy. These easy-to-make videos can then be click-and-shared with the users’ social networks. Our sponsors are women’s rights and health organizations such as Women Deliver, Ipas, and UNFPA.
PB: You performed at The Rally for Darfur concert with George Clooney and President Barack Obama in attendance — that’s a serious audience. Can you explain the emotions/nerves/excitement you felt performing in front of such dignitaries?
MA: I was honored to be there! I feel honored, every time, to be invited to sing my original music for causes that uplift people and support human rights. Backstage before performing, I was emotional and said to my guitarist Christian Ver Halen, “This is why we write these songs!.” I was excited to share the stage with many dignitaries and activists that day, such as Barack Obama, George Clooney, Paul Rusesabagina and Al Sharpton. But, I was most excited to be in front of the 100,000 average people who showed up with signs and a commitment to justice.
PB: You seem to have a lot of passionate lyrics. Can you tell us what inspires your writing?
MA: I write mostly about my observations of the world, speaking from a personal place about my own struggles to survive in love, life and celebrating the warrior-spirit to endure and overcome oppressive circumstances. A lot of my lyrics are lifted directly from my journal, and slightly modified to fit a song format.
PB: In the same vein, what is the main theme of your album Cry Love?
MA: The song “Cry Love” is a universal message that poetically conveys. If justice prevailed, there would be more actions based on love and nurturing, than actions based on greed, money and selfishness. In essence, this message sets the tone for the whole CD. My music is meant to inspire folks to recognize their own power to change their circumstances. I feel it is important not to deny the pain of struggle and hardship, while being motivating. Without the hardship, motivational music sounds naïve to me. We are all just trying to figure it out, and heal, and be loved, etc.
PB: You have famed musician Ini Kamoze, known to most of us for his hit “Here Comes The Hot Stepper,” on this record. How did you come to work with him?
MA: Ini Kamoze saw me perform in L.A. years ago. According to him, I made an impression upon him and he sought me out to sing with him on his last CD, 51/50 Rule. We have a big mutual respect and agreed to support each other’s projects. He owed me a verse for my CD!
PB: Why include a cover of Donny Hathway’s “Little Ghetto Boy” on your record?
MA: “Little Ghetto Boy” is the only song on the CD I didn’t write. I have a rule about recording cover songs: They have to really have a personal meaning to me. Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy” got up under my skin. I grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where all my friends were fun, intelligent, talented black boys from the hood. The song has so much meaning to me, and it really resonates with me about the subject of young black youth in America. I wrote a song called “Junkyard Jewel,” inspired by the same subject. I just think that young black men in America don’t get told they’re beautiful enough, don’t get told that they’re full of promise enough, don’t get reminded to believe in themselves enough. “Little Ghetto Boy” carries this message for young black men, as well as everyone, that we can pull through struggle, and everything is gonna get better if we believe in ourselves.
PB: If someone wants to check out your music for the first time and downloads or listens to Cry Love, what song do you think defines Maya Azucena’s sound?
MA: My stuff is live soul with hip hop and rock. My music is honest. My music is dynamic and genre-bending. My music is raw and unpretentious. My music is inspiring.
PB: What can we expect from you for the rest of 2011 and in the near future of 2012?
MA: I’ve just begun working with new management, Ujima Entertainment Services, LLC. They work with Naughty By Nature, Eve, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, 50 Cent, Marcus Miller and more. With my new team, I anticipate touring as much as possible to support the new release. I intend to tour internationally.
My new music video for the title track, “Cry Love,” will be released very soon! I am excited about the concept and can’t wait to share it.
I have several recording collaborations on the burners, including a reggae Nina Simone project with Stephen Marley, and a hip hop project produced by DJ Rich Medina with several of my favorite emcees as guests.
PB: You’re performing and organizing the newly reborn Uncomun Festival. Why become so involved in this project?
MA: I met Nevaris years ago, and he included me as a featured artist a few times at his early incarnation of Uncomun Fest. I was very impressed with the artistic diversity, the high quality and the energy of his events. He and I have a similar idea of how to present a live production, as well as how to bring audiences together who may otherwise not have met. Nevaris invited me to consider combining forces for Uncomun, and I thought it was a great idea. I have never done a monthly residency and thought that my own fans would appreciate it.
PB: And what does “Uncomun” mean to you?
MA: The name “Uncomun” sort of speaks for it self. There is no need for us to try and fit into a box. There is no need for us to cater to the lowest common denominator. True artists are those that burst out of the norms, and justify it with quality and conviction. This is what Uncomun artists all represent.
PB: So, what Makes Maya Azucena “Uncomun”?
MA: See the above!
PB: Finally, you’re performing with Lupe Fiasco at Terminal 5 on Monday. Are you excited to be performing with him? Are you a fan of his music?
MA: I am actually a big fan of Lupe Fiasco. He’s an Uncomun type of artist. Lupe is unapologetic of his intelligence and creativity — his lyricism is absolutely phenomenal, from a writer’s standpoint, and also in terms of rhythmic flow, from the emcee’s standpoint. His music is also accessible and will make a head bop. He crosses genres. I just love this guy. I first met him on the bill for Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival when we both performed in ’06.
I am super excited about the show at Terminal 5. I’m excited for the exposure — I think our audiences will blend nicely. I also love the message behind the show, because it is a benefit for Transform America, which has focuses of social justice, community organization and youth-mentoring youth.