Deirdre is an inspired soul. She is driven: a woman who knows that in order to shine, one has to grind. As we sit across from each other at my dining table during her visit back to her native Philadelphia, I can't help but grin. She is a woman I have watched blossom both immensely and beautifully. She has evolved consistently, organically, taking ownership over who she is and what she stands for. It's evident in the way she chooses her words, the way she gestures— smooth, fluid movements— and the way her eyes smile as she mentally dissects and then articulates the experiences she's had. We reminisce, but we also talk about new things. She divulges how travel has lead to a breakthrough in her journey for self discovery, why she always strays far from the pack, and what travel has helped reveal regarding perception, marginalization, the reality of acknowledgement and the power of possibility.
V: We met in London in 2008… That was your first international experience, right?
D: Yeah, it was.
V: What were your thoughts going into it?
D: It was interesting because I had to choose between Japan and London, and I ended up choosing London. Mostly because my courses lined up with it, but also because there was no large language barrier. I could go and speak English, and for me that was a comfortable first international experience. [laughs]
V: Right. Speaking the language is a nice way to sort of ease your way into any foreign environment.
D: Yeah. And I assumed the culture would be different, but not so unfamiliar. So I think for me, I didn’t really know what to expect going to London; I was completely open. And that’s kind of how I like to travel. I don’t necessarily study up on what I should expect as much as… I just go and expect it to be different. And when it’s similar, I’m pleasantly surprised. It was a cool experience but it wasn’t— and this is usually the case when I travel— until I was surrounded by people who were locals, or a part of the culture, that I really grew.
V: I know what you mean.
D: I don’t feel that I grew in the group experiences that I had with students. We built memories but you know, I didn’t experience real London in my academic group study, or even in the classroom, to be honest. Professors, no matter where you go, are always giving you this kind of agreed upon version of the subject— in this case, what London, British Society, what British identity is. I learned the most by making friends and going around people who were from there or had been living there for a while.
V: Of course. Getting a first hand account of what [the culture] actually is. Instead of only observing it, actually positioning yourself within it as well. Meeting people who are situated in interesting spaces and thriving— and thriving with them. You know what I mean?
V: And just becoming a Londoner by acclimatizing yourself to what’s around you.
D: For sure. And I think London was a good first place, too, because it’s so diverse. It has a lot of the issues that we face in the US— like attitudes towards immigrants and multiculturalism. But generally speaking, you’re in a place where people are coming from all over the world kind of converging on this one point, and you don’t learn just about London in London, you learn about all these other types of people, where they’re from and what they bring to the mix.
V: I think London is a really good place to start one’s journey to become a global citizen. To really grasp what that means. It’s that hub where you can meet people from all over the world, connect with them and form really great friendships.
D: As we did [laughs].
V: [Laughs]. Looking back on London, is there any advice that you would give yourself now, as a more seasoned traveler?
D: I really like the way that everything happened, to be honest. I think one thing I could have done earlier is kind of break out on my own. Because you were there, I was able to tiptoe my way outside of the academic group early on. And that was my goal from the beginning, to not get too attached to the group. So yeah, maybe I would have gone completely out on my own sooner. The people that I met were really cool, and I think had I started earlier, I could have met even more people. But no regrets— I think I got a chance to build good friendships with people— people you knew too!— and spend quality time with those people and get to know them, as opposed to hopping around from new person to new person, wading from one kind of experience to another.
V: Absolutely. And since you brought up wading from one experience to the next, I want to switch hemispheres and talk a little bit about Bolivia— the experience and observations you had while there.
D: Bolivia was such an interesting experience in a way, because I really wanted to go to Salvador in Brazil. I wanted to go to Bahia and connect with these Black people I’d been hearing so much about. There’s a large amount of Black people who are still connected to their African past and also facing a great deal of discrimination. I was interested in having that African diasporic experience in a place other than America. So to me, [Bahia is] the place to go. [But] I had a conversation with a former professor about my goals, and she recommended getting to Brazil by tagging along with a group of students going to Bolivia. I ended up doing some research, and learned about the Afro-Bolivianos. I became really interested in the fact that there are these Black people— even in Bolivia— everywhere you go really, every country. It’s all the same. But a smaller group of people who are even more marginalized, who are starting a movement through music— the way it usually starts— and dance called La Saya. And they literally barely have a voice. They’re not acknowledged by the world at large and that’s kind of the first step where you’re kind of like: for civil rights to really happen, you have to be acknowledged. So they were just starting the first stages of civil rights, in a way.
V: In a way that sounds very similar to the struggle that our ancestors faced.
D: Right. But it kind of seemed like they were years behind the progress that [black Americans] have made— and if you look around it seems like we haven't even made that much progress.
D: But let me digress from that. I felt like I was going there to, in a way, acknowledge them. That’s what I wanted to do. I just wanted to go and acknowledge these people, document some of what they’re doing, meet them, talk to them, observe them— and that’s kind of what I did. I went there for two months. Once again, I went with this academic group of people that I’m kind of serving through a fellowship I was granted. But as I said earlier, all of my real learning experiences happen when I'm on my own. I learnt more Spanish once they left. I made friendships on my own, and connections on my own when I kind of just went my own way. And those are the biggest experiences for me, when I branch off from the organization and kind of just do my own thing.
V: Were there moments where you felt you'd made really good connections? Perhaps acknowledged by the people you were going there to meet and acknowledge?
D: Yeah. Like, one time, I went out with a girl who was a flat mate, [but not a part of the group I came with]. Anyway, we went out dancing and of course there’s kind of this international scene of people partying. I met this guy who looked slightly browner than everyone else. As we started talking, we realized I spoke more Spanish than he spoke English.
V: So you made it work.
D: We made it work. [laughs] As it turns out, he is Afro-Peruvian. He says that he has cousins who are about to sing and dance at a bar down the street and we should go. I thought he was hitting on me— I still think he was— but I’m so glad that I went! His cousins were La Saya musicians and dancers. They were basically the heart of the movement I'd been reading about. It’s so small; the Afro community [in that region] is so small. Not saying there aren’t a lot of them, but as far as the community of people who are actually doing this music and doing the work and communing together, it’s really small. So we went to the club and they tore the house down!
D: Twenty-five of them— like a big band— are dancing and singing. They’re dancing on the tables, they’re dancing on the bar, playing drums on the bar. Everyone is dancing. It was so live! I tried to stay in touch with them. I managed to stay in touch with three of them through Facebook. Ironically, I had some friends who were interested in the same things who went to Bolivia, and they met these guys on their own. One thing I regret, though, is that I didn’t make it my mission and goal to connect more deeply with these people.
V: We're talking about connection— I feel like in order to connect, we have to be able to openly observe and perceive. As a Black woman, how does observation and perception factor in to the way you think about travel, move through the world and connect with people ?
D: Mmm, that’s a really good question… and it really depends so much on how you see yourself, how you see the world, how you think the world sees you, what you think is the reality of a particular country, and the actual reality of that country.
V: I'm sitting here thinking about Barcelona, and the perception of the black woman you encountered—
D: Yes! That was my first wakeup call with regard to how different things would be depending on where you went. How wide ranging and how extreme the perception of a Black woman could be depending on where you went. I had heard all these stories about prostitutes in Italy, for example, and how people saw and kind of hypersexualized the Black body— but especially the female Black body. But witnessing it first hand in Barcelona! I felt like people were really surprised that I wasn’t a prostitute. It felt like it was assumed that every Black woman is a prostitute or a maid. If you’re an older lady, maybe you’re a maid. If you’re 40s and under, then you’re a prostitute. I felt like being with a Black man— you— where it was obvious that… I think it was more obvious to them that I wasn’t a prostitute and that I was actually a tourist, a traveler. I still saw this perplexed look on people’s faces as they tried to figure out who I could be, and who you could be— who we could be? “Are you friends? Are you married? What kind of jobs do these people have? Maybe they come from money.” I would assume that they’re thinking these things. Obviously I can't know for sure what someone is thinking, but these are the looks…
V: Yeah, the looks you were getting were very overt; quite odd and unsettling.
D: Exactly. Remember the one day, I went out with one of the guys from the hostel— I guess you could call it a date. He asked me out and I thought, “Hey, this is a nice guy.” I believe he was Finnish. So we go out and we’re walking, and maybe it’s just me assuming these things— I really think it was more intuition than presumption— but I remember thinking the thought was, “Oh, I think she’s a prostitute.” And people seemed very used to this concept and there was no problem.
V: How do you think people perceived you when you were out with him?
D: I did feel like I was treated very well— maybe even treated better— when I was with this [Finnish] guy. The energy was kind of like, “Oh, I’m treating you well because you’re with him.” But if I were going to try and engage someone else in the conversation, I think it would be more awkward. I don’t know, because it’s kind of like, “How do you guys know each other?"
[But] going somewhere like Japan, I felt like it was completely different. Even though I think it's is a very sexist, patriarchal country, I still liked Japan. And I would say that being a Black woman in Japan wasn’t so different, in my opinion, than being a White woman. I think you’re both foreigners—
V: We're all gaijin to the Japanese.
D: Yeah, exactly, and people acknowledge you as different [than the Japanese]. On the flip side, however, there could also be a slight favoritism and glorification toward someone who’s so different…
V: I think I know what you mean. When I lived in Japan, my British friend and I had a very easy time getting into exclusive events— in a lot of places, we were given press and vip level access— and I do think it's because we were perceived as vastly different, "cool, hip foreigners."
D: Right. See, that's exactly what I mean. But, yeah, I would say that in general, being a Black woman in [Tokyo] was very different than being a Black woman in Barcelona. Being a Black woman in Mexico— even though I didn’t go past Tijuana— was very interesting. Just in kind of the role that women play there and of what it means to be Black. This guy was telling me [about himself], “I have African blood in me; that’s why my hair is curly. And if you go to my town, there’s a lot of Black people.” I didn’t know anything about Black people in Mexico. But he really wanted to relate to me and connect. And I think there, it really didn’t matter that I was Black as much as they saw me as a privileged American. And in Bolivia people didn’t want to believe I was American at all. There, my being Black was “You’re either Cuban, Brazilian or South African.” These were the three [nationalities] I heard over and over again.
So I think I'm perceived differently, but I don’t think it’s been too major a factor in my traveling. It’s just things that you kind of read from people. How they’re reading you, how they take you. But generally speaking, once people get to know you, depending on how you are— how in control you are, in terms of how you address people and address your identity, and address the level of respect that you expect— people kind of treat you accordingly.
V: That's true.
D: I want to add to that. I think culturally— and this could just be in the Spanish speaking countries in general— they say things like the fat woman and the fat man, the ugly girl, you know? This is all kind of rude— to me at least. So of course a lot of times, they used the term “negrita.” They will say “negra” and “la negra” over and over again, even after they knew my name. Because in their culture, I think it was normal for them to say "the black girl."
I don’t like those terms here [in America]— “The Black girl or the Asian guy”— I hate that. But they would say it even once they knew my name. So I had to describe to them why [I disliked it]. I’m like, “You know my name, so use my name.” And they're like "It’s not personal, blah, blah, blah.” I think it’s important that when you travel, you respect that other people have different points of views, different ways of communicating. But I do think there’s a certain standard that each side should operate from. If you expect a certain type of treatment, if you think something is just not right, if you don’t want to be addressed in a certain way, I think you should communicate that.
V: Yeah. I think travel for me is all about that exchange— exchange of ideas and customs and values. And dismantling stereotypes and folklore. And really, how is someone supposed to know that something is offensive to you if you’re not letting them know?
D: If no one does. People will rationalize, "In Bolivia, people just say 'la negra', so just get used to it, you know? It's Okay." People will say that. Or: "It’s no problem. Don’t think about it too much."
I found myself in Bolivia questioning a lot of things. And I think by questioning those things, like you said, it’s an exchange. I think that by meeting me, their perspective has grown and by meeting them, mine has grown.
V: Exactly. Yeah, it’s all about that discourse— having that exchange and growing as people. And I think that should be the big take away from our travels. If we're not engaging with people, if we're not changing perceptions— both ours and theirs— what's the point in traveling? What are we doing it for?
D: Right. Wow, that was an unexpected memory. [laughs] Memories are memories— but sometimes you don’t always store the emotional aspect with the memory. I just realized [that experience] was really annoying. It's so interesting. I think in Bolivia, the Black people there were so marginalized. They were so not acknowledged. And when you look at the hierarchy, the people at the top are of more European descent. People who really identify more as the White people of this particular country. They’re such a minority there— but for years and years and still, they are the leaders, the people who have the money, the people who are making major decisions. So at the time, you had a president, Evo Morales, who is indigenous, and he's fighting for indigenous rights and also really giving more clout and more acknowledgement to the struggles of the Afro-Bolivianos because of the struggle that indigenous people went through. But still, you’re talking about a place where the minds of people are very colonized. Where White is still right and kind of considered to be high end. Indigenous, even though they are the majority, are still lower on the totem pole. And Black people will be at the very very bottom. So it was very extreme and you know, people can be very polite but when you’re talking to people, you really see how deeply ingrained these thoughts are. So when they’re saying things like, “negrito” and things like that, having the conversation of why it’s problematic is a bit hard because everyone says, “No racismo aqui"— there’s no racism here— and you’re thinking like, “Do you guys understand that racism is systematic and that it’s very prevalent here?” I mean, it's ubiquitous, you know and it’s still deeply ingrained.
V: Yeah. I've never been, but it sounds like it's become a part of the culture that everyone accepts. Like in Japan when everyone says, "We're not religious" but you see that religion is baked in to the very fabric of society. Like you said: ubiquitous. In the case of Bolivia, the racism has become inoffensive because it's become part of the norm.
D: It’s just fact. Unquestioned blocks of information. I remember one time I saw this Black woman and her daughter— maybe she was the grandmother. She was an older Black lady and the daughter was maybe 10. And usually when I see another Black person when I’m walking down the street anywhere in the world, there's that nod, that acknowledgement. A smile. I especially want to acknowledge you in Bolivia. But a lot of times, they would avoid eye contact. They would even avoid each other sometimes in these public places. I was in La Paz, which is like such a major city, it’s a capital city. I found that even in their demeanor they were marginalized. It’s like they had internalized the fact that we should not be heard or seen. Almost like they shouldn’t be there even though they have been there for centuries at that point.
V: Marginalization— and sort of this desensitization to it— is so pervasive in so many cultures across the globe. I don’t know how we can go about bringing change to something that’s been so deeply ingrained in the minds of an entire people… I think by talking about it, opening up dialogue?
D: Yeah, you have to acknowledge people. I think I'm 100% convinced that the first step to empowering any group of people is acknowledging them. And the thing is it’s very disempowering for some people to be waiting on someone’s acknowledgment. So if you are talking about women’s rights and you’re waiting for men to stand up for you, you may be very disappointed to see that that’s not their agenda and it’s not their priority. And they may never really step up to the plate and say, “Yes, we stand with you! Yes, we believe that this should be a priority!” You still have to believe that it’s worth it and so move on. But if you have the want to add power to a group of people, acknowledge them. That’s it. Listen to their stories, speak their names, acknowledge and share those actions and activities that you have.
D: I wanted to do more of that action.
V: Yeah, yeah. It’s affirmation. And I think affirmation is something that is empowering and works. It has an effect on people. If people feel affirmed— if people become visible— they can begin to feel empowered.
D: And proud. Going back to La Saya— when they found out I knew about it, they were proud. “Yes, this is our band, our music, it’s very popular now, but it’s from us. This is our thing, and it’s traveling the world.” Much like hip-hop and reggae, and jazz, and all these different things that become exports of a country from a specific ethnic group.
V: I agree. Changing lanes a bit, since you brought up La Saya, I want to talk about your art. How has travel affected the way you approach creating music?
D: I started off from what I knew. People around me were getting deals, getting distribution, hooking up with a particular producer. Even if they were making things on their own, they were seeking out these ready-made fan bases and catering to them. So if I was a beat maker, it'd be "Okay, I’m going after the type of people who love Dilla and Primo beats.” That was all that I knew. So when I first started making music, I was really just getting on beats. Fast forward in time to right before I left for Japan, I had evolved into a person more interested in live music, and had started to play the Venezuelan cuatro. I was working with a guitarist, a bass player, a drummer and keyboardist. And doing some live performances, but still felt like, “I want this to be more artistic, and I don’t need to be the type of artist who’s following the format of everyone else, because [music is] such a personal, spiritual thing. Maybe I’ll never make a lot of money off of it, but I want to do what I think is cool and original and authentic. There were a lot of musicians, a lot of live houses in Tokyo, so many musical spaces. I met someone who had an art gallery, and it ended up becoming a space where I could do whatever I wanted to do. I did an acoustic show there, I did my Amplified show there, I did an art show there— photography and painting that my friends and I had done.
V: It's great that you were able to go and find a niche. It makes your time there so much better. You value it more.
D: I think I’ve grown a lot [from that trip to Tokyo]. I can’t say that I grew as much from my other traveling. The things that I referenced wanting earlier, the spiritual development, was all there. I think Tokyo is the first place where I had all my— what do they say?— "All my ducks lined up?"
V: Ducks in a row.
D: [laughs] Yeah. I had all my ducks in a row. So I already knew that it wasn’t do or die. I didn't need to be discovered. [Music] could just be an expression.
V: I like that. Billy Joel once called music, "an explosive expression of humanity."
D: Mmmm. You know, in every travel experience, I find out more about humanity, and how the universe works and how life flows and how I’m changing, growing. But— I think the year in Japan was especially fundamental in the new way I think about and act toward music, which is that all things are indeed possible, and if you really love doing something, use any opportunity to showcase it. And creating a community is always possible no matter where you go.
V: Have you noticed your experiences, going to and living in different places having an affect on your family?
D: I do. I have a younger brother— I’m one of six— and one of my younger brothers wanted to come out and visit me in Japan. It didn’t work out, but he’s studying Japanese now! He was always into anime. He draws, and I think seeing me go made him more self-aware and think “Oh, I could go too.”
V: That's very empowering.
D: But I think the major impact that my travel has had on my family members is that when I come back, they love to hear stories of how people are. What’s normal there. Just like I felt, “Wow! These unquestioned blocks of information now are getting questioned.” Coming back and telling stories, saying, “Hey, people are different in other places. People are making other choices. People have different lifestyles, different outlooks." And I think that in and of itself— that awareness— it changes you.
V: It does change you. And it has a rippling affect, where you see it begin to change the people around you. It opens them up to possibility.
D: Yeah. And [with possibility] everything has new meaning; everything is given a new lens.