CULTURE & ARTS
11/15/2016 08:38 am ET

Poet And Singer Amy Leon On What To Do With Your Despair

“Tend to your sadness, tend to your rage,” the “Burning In Birmingham” artist advises.
Alex Schaefer

Amy Leon’s voice bursts through the constraints of technical proficiency like sunbeams through a window; her words are strong, personal and enlightening.

The singer and poet ― who got her start performing at the Nuyorican Poets Café ― releases her first studio album Nov. 15. Many of the songs concern losses personal and societal, but most crescendo with hope-laced pain.

In “Burning in Birmingham,” Leon sings about the city’s 1963 bombing, and about the cyclical nature of history. “What happens when I lose my voice? / What happens when the sun refuses to rise? / What happens when my son refuses to die?” she chants.

The Huffington Post talked to Leon about her music, and about the importance of self-care and self-expression amid turmoil.

Tell me about “Burning in Birmingham.” When did you write it, and what was the process of writing it like?

I wrote “Burning in Birmingham” last summer, after watching Netflix’s “What Happened, Miss Simone?” In one of her interviews she said “We’re burning in Birmingham.” I was transfixed by the violent way the Bs in that phrase escaped her. I then improvised with the phrase for 20 minutes until the first verse was written. I decided to repeat the verses as an homage to the cyclical nature of our violent history. The poem was written months later for an NYU event where Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, was speaking.

I was really conflicted when they asked me to perform because I could not imagine how my voice could be useful in that space. I analyzed so many different perspectives before I wrote anything. I kept thinking about her and what she would want to hear in a time like that. What manifested was an identification of resilience. My hope was to bring visibility to the plight of the black woman, the barren womb, the immobility of our love and the finesse we are expected to maintain. It is damn near impossible, but we do it everyday.

Why is it important to you to reflect on this historical event today?

We have to know history to stop it from repeating. Black history is so often left out of the conversation, that most educated people in our country don’t realize how little they know about it. I have had several conversations with people who didn’t know about the Birmingham bombings or the slaughter of Emmett Till, and that is simply unacceptable.

It is important that we all get on the same page with how we got here, so we can do our best to unify and change where we are headed. There is so much unlearning to do that it becomes difficult to make space to form new perspectives, but it is crucial that we do so.

People are ready for honesty, ready for the next wave of Billies, Ninas and Arethas.

In “Burning in Birmingham” and “Child of the Sun,” your powerful voice builds into an emotional climax. Why do you think it’s important to break free from “technical proficiency” with your singing?

I’ve only been singing for a few years and don’t have much experience with vocal training, so technical proficiency has never been on my radar. I think the voice is an instrument to be utilized, not necessarily perfected. There are so many parts of my voice that I have found through improvisations that would have never been discovered had I been aiming to achieve a particular sound or key.

I am really enjoying this sonic exploration and am open to whatever my body has to offer in the moment. I am really attracted to the parts of my voice that aren’t necessarily “beautiful” because they feel like excruciatingly pure moments of communication. There’s an honesty there that I am still trying to navigate, but I think the unfiltered nature of my voice is what tends to reel people in, and also what keeps me coming back. There are so many sonic formulas dictating the industry and I think people are a bit exhausted with them. People are ready for honesty, ready for the next wave of Billies, Ninas and Arethas.

What advice would you give to young artists seeking an outlet for their sadness and rage?

Be patient with yourself. Create a self-care regimen and make it a part of your daily routine. Surround yourself with people who love you enough to be honest with you about your work and can hold you accountable. Share what you are comfortable sharing and challenge the boundaries of those comfort zones. Listen, listen, listen. Tend to your sadness, tend to your rage, allow yourself to unapologetically exist in both. Trust the art. Let it morph. Let it be messy. Let it be unfinished. Let it be. 

Who are some of your musical influences? And how does your music differ from theirs?

Nina Simone is my heart. Jimi Hendrix saved me when I was 13. Celia Cruz gave me the tumbao. Those are my pillars. I owe a lot of my appreciation of sound to them. I also love James Blake, Kendrick Lamar, Alabama Shakes, Laura Mvula, Little Dragon, Debussy, Daughter and Queen. I am still navigating genres but think that my use of spoken word and improvisational soundscaping stems from a cohesive combination of all of my artistic inspirations. The inherent difference being our perspectives and the way sound has chosen to escape us.

As a woman of color, visibility is key.

In addition to your songs and books of poetry, you started the #selfiepoetryproject. What inspired you to do this? And why is it meaningful to you to include your self-portraits alongside your words?

I started it about a year ago because I wanted to focus on shorter forms of expression. I included my self-portraits because I realized one’s poetry too is portraiture, and as a woman of color, visibility is key. It ends up being three perspectives of myself. The self when the photo was captured (past), the self that was revealed in the words I chose to use (present), and the self that is then manifested when those two perspectives are presented together (hmm, future?). I truly love this project and all the subtleties it brought to light for me as an artist and look forward to continuing it.

What’s next for you?

I am going to continue my journey of self-care and focus on doing all that I can to advance the impending revolution of love. I am also in the process of planning a tour for February which I am really excited about. Not gonna lie that map covered in red made me question my ability to tour as a woman of color hollerin’ about politics, but the urgency got me feeling brave. Other than that, writing, hustling, building the team who will help me bring this work to the front lines, curating safe spaces for black and brown bodies, educating and getting educated and hopefully witnessing some miracles in the process.

HuffPost

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