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A Canadian sings in Brooklyn: Melanie Fiona blends music and culture

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It’s all about freedom to be an original when Melanie Fiona creates music. Whether it’s 4 a.m. or she’s lounging before a concert, Fiona’s sincerity is a breath of fresh air. The Brooklynite by way of Canada embodies a pioneering spirit, be it passionate idealism or her journey from Canada to the U.S., Fiona is the poster child for the new generation of artists with a set of soulful pipes to back it up.

Before a show in Atlanta at Tongue & Groove nightclub, Fiona is relaxed, she walks in wearing a pair of Nikes, leggings, a t-shirt, vest, and a skull cap with a button that reads “Think Positive” attached to it. Her long dark hair falls effortlessly down her shoulders and she sits down with a smile.

“Is it okay if I eat? I haven’t had lunch yet. I’m starving,” she explains.

Surprisingly down to earth for a two time Grammy Award winning artist. She reaches in the bag to grab a fry, an American favorite, and begins to talk. Fiona’s earthy demeanor exudes a girl next door quality. As she explains why she chose to live in Brooklyn, it’s not hard to see her amongst the music lovers of her generation hanging out in Fort Greene or shopping in Williamsburg.

“I love Brooklyn,” she gushes. “I lived in Manhattan and that served its purpose, but when I moved to New York again I wanted to live in a place where I knew my neighbors and could ride my bike.”

From the soul

Fiona is just as grounded about her music as she is about her living space. She takes the stage in a pair of cut-off jeans, a black top, black hat and black Christian Louboutin heels. Her rich velvety voice stands up against the rift of the guitar accompanying her performance. Soon she is whaling ‘I just keep on running, running’ while fans in the front row sing her lyrics word for word. Fiona’s movements and connection to her music are reminiscent of a young Tina Turner or Gladys Knight.

“I listen to Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. Sam Cooke is one of my biggest influences from old soul, that’s who I really love,” Fiona says. “Album wise they can expect classic Melanie Fiona. I love classic music. I love music that’s timeless, so I don’t really like to do anything that’s too current. For my albums I am a bit more classic, instrumental and a bit more musical.”

She recently teamed with Pepsi and Complex to debut the video for “Cold Piece,” a song where she experiments with the 90’s drum sound. The singer plans to release more songs in a package titled “Free Love” for her fans in between albums. The song “Cold Piece” may be a little different than what her fans are accustomed to hearing from the songstress, but the inspiration is authentic Melanie.

“The inspiration behind the song came from a breakup there are so many things behind a break up anger and joy, and this song is really about a lesson learned. Sometimes when you have to really examine somebody’s flaws you can’t do anything for them, they are how they are, and you have to talk about it,” she explains. “I really wanted to approach the song from a rap stand point. I wanted to be kind of sassy.”

Fiona’s music is a mix of old school R&B, rock and new school R&B. Fiona rejects the music industry stnadard, instead opting for a broader sound. Much like her personality, she feels her music is too evolved to be restricted to certain ears.

“I don’t like to be labeled. Being labeled R&B isn’t the worst thing. I love R&B and I think R&B is the foundation for a lot of music. I don’t take offense to it; I just don’t want to be limited to just one genre. When people come to my shows and hear my full body of work they’re like its really diverse, its rock, hip hop and reggae…. and then of course R&B and soul. I have always envisioned myself and categorized myself as a world artist and that’s how I feel I would like my music to be classified.”

Blending cultures, mixing music

Fiona’s sound is a reflection of her lineage. The walking symbol of multiculturalism has just as many ethnicities running through her veins as there are chords in her music. She identifies herself as Guyanese, but like so many people of mixed heritage the blend is almost endless. When Fiona made her debut in 2009, it was never a question of her vocal talent or range, but to her American audience, a question of her race. Fiona quickly realized the irony of the American melting pot is she had to choose.

“Coming from Toronto its diverse everywhere and there are pockets and places in America that are not as diverse. So when I come down and when I say I am Guyanese I have to educate people on where Guyana is, and what that means for me,” Fiona explains “I’m Caribbean and they’ll say ‘Oh you’re from South America, so you’re Spanish.’ No I’m not Spanish, technically, I’m Caribbean. Guyana’s culture is very similar to that of Trinidad, and then they would say ‘So you’re just Black with nice hair.’ Well I’m Indian, Black, Portuguese, Scottish and all these things, but no one really cares to hear I’m Heinz 57, so it’s hard. I feel like that’s something I experienced coming here, where I was forced to really indentify with one culture”

Drawing inspiration from artists who have crossed color and gender lines is essential to her creative process. Fiona toured with Alicia Keys in 2010, a milestone in her career she says gave her a vision of the direction in which she wanted to take her music.

“I love people like Alicia Keys. It’s not about race or gender or radio format. I had the pleasure of touring with her and I saw diversity in audiences and I saw people who love pop music and rock music at her shows, so that’s’ how I feel. And that’s who I’m influenced by,” She explains. “Lauryn Hill is one of my biggest influences and what she is able to do as an artist from a rapper, songwriter, singer, actress and performer it’s just super inspiring to me. I love any artist that is able to break barriers.”

This past September, Fiona followed in the footsteps of many of her peers and expanded her repertoire playing the role of Shannon in the stage play “Da Kink in My Hair” during its Atlanta run. The opportunity gave the singer/songwriter a chance to try out her acting skills and confront some issues she observed about American culture, particularly African -American culture.

“They say you get caught by the acting bug and I definitely feel like that’s happening to me,” Fiona says. “Da Kink in My Hair” was such a great introduction to me because it allowed me to talk about issues we all face as women and women of color in particular. It was self-love, body image, hair texture image, segregation, multi-racial dating and sexuality.”

The self-described island girl says experiencing the emphasis on hair in the Black community was a culture shock to her. Even now, after living in the United States for years she has difficulty understanding the reasoning behind basing a “class” system on something as trivial as hair. Acting in the play allowed her to explore the layers of emotion beneath the complexities of Black hair.

“It takes place in a hair salon where we are at our most vulnerable and we’re beautifying ourselves, and seeing the transformation and what we go through. I think specifically the fact that it is titled “Da Kink in My Hair” is already putting a magnifying glass on something women of color deal with all the time which is classism based on your hair. That’s something I never understood growing up. I never realized until I actually came to America how much of an issue it is here and how some people are very defensive, some people are sensitive and some people are very proactive,” Fiona admits. “I feel like it’s a real issue here and what “Da Kink in My Hair” does is break the walls down and says forget about hair, look at these things that we have in common that we struggle with internally, emotionally, and socially. We should focus on those things and healing each other rather than breaking each other down based on hair. I love the play for that reason. I love that it’s not just about hair, but it uses hair as the catalyst to then talk about all these other things.”

Much like artists of the 60’s Fiona uses her music to bend the rules and expand the minds of her listeners. Her music is indirectly political, embodying the ideals and ideas the United States was built on. She represents a new generation of Americans who through art are expanding social boundaries.

“We work so hard as people to create a world of freedom and equality of gender, of race and of sexuality. Why are we still defining what people are able to do or how they fit in based off the color of their skin?” Fiona reiterates. “It was definitely a culture shock coming down here and seeing how we’re forced to check boxes. That’s why I want to represent as an artist who just doesn’t live in the boxes.”

EOS Tour Dates & Cities

November 11th: Washington, DC
November 12th: Happy Valley, PA
November 13th: New York City

Follow Patrice Worthy on twitter @worthypatrice

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