Synead, genre defying artist and innovator is a Teen Vogue Rising Star and founder of the Millions March NYC, the nation's largest protest in response to police brutality.
Synead: I was born 1991. I grew up in Brooklyn. My family's from Trinidad and Tobago. They immigrated in the late 80's and I popped out on the scene shortly after. [laughs] My mom had me when she was 19. I grew up in a big family--with things constantly going on. Because my parents were young we moved around a lot--often living with other family members or transitioning into finding their own place. We had a lot of support so the sense of community is extremely prevalent in my life.
So the early nineties--R&B was super heavy, Dancehall, Reggae...I grew up right around Utica, Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights. Very Caribbean area.
Mai: Oh, yeah. I used to live on Flatbush when I was in college--
Synead: All day, blasting music...24 hrs.
Mai: Uhm hum.
Synead: I have a strong tie to my Caribbean roots, and that's really important to me, in terms of just connection and knowing where I'm from. But also being a first generation American, my parents worked really hard for me to have accessibility to things they didn't have or weren't privy to growing up in Trinidad. So R&B, HipHop, all these things were really super prominent. Missy Elliot, Aaliyah, Destiny's Child, Mariah Carey--my mom loves Pop music as well and was super big on the '80s. She'd played 80's music nonstop in the household.
And then going back to the Trinidadian aspect...you know Trinidad is very ethnically diverse, you have Indian, Chinese--all types of people. So something I was often exposed to would be Indian music--Bollywood music specifically. In Trinidad, every Sunday, Bollywood movies come on. You watch for three-four hours. And I had major exposure to that from a young age, so a lot of my singing is very influenced by that--a lot of runs. In classical Indian music, one measure is 16 notes. In standard American music it's eight. So when I found that out, it made so much sense as to why the Classical Indian singers in general sing for so long, they have a lot more breath control.
And that allowed me to be like OK, if that's what's going on in India, what's going on in Turkey? And then I came across Turkish belly dancing music, eventually got into Korean music and J Pop.
By the time I was ten, I had been to a few places in Europe and then we found our way to Botswana where my uncle was living. So we went from Botswana to Zimbabwe, to Zambia, etc...I think my first time on a plane was six months old, going to Trinidad. My mom was keen on me being a citizen of the world. Highlighting not just my experiences but those of other cultures. How do I fit in or not, how do I interpret it, learn to tolerate, what is diversity? From a very young age I learned to be very open. And I think that has benefited me in more ways than I could ever know.
Mai: That's a great segue into the concept of identity which is very important for many artists in their development.
Synead: Oh, yeah.
Mai: Given the depth and vastness of your cultural experience, how much of your identity as an artist is solid and how much of it is kind of loose...does that make sense?
Synead: Absolutely. That's a really good question. I have a friend of mine, his name is Brandon, we actually have our own band and sing and write together. He often tells me, 'I don't know how you're going to take this, but, you're like a canvas.'
Synead: I go, what do you mean? He goes 'you can just really paint anything on...and it's you...Wholeheartedly, you become this thing, you have the ability to adapt.'
And so for me personally, there's some things I'm grounded on, within myself, but for the most part, I do feel this connection with the loose sense of self. I'm constantly changing.
Identity is just so fragile. A lot of people often cultivate their identity through external circumstances. I always find it very difficult to do that. Just because of my nature. Even artistically, I'm dancing, I'm singing, I'm acting, I'm writing, I'm painting. It's like, I don't have to just be this one thing. I can identify as multiple things because if it applies to me, why should I have to reduce myself to one general idea. Identity is hard. 'Cause I'm just constantly going through it.
Mai: Could you talk a little bit about how that sense of being malleable and open influences your creative process?
Synead: I tend to start, for example dancing, it will start from an idea. I try my best to just breathe in sync...what am I trying to say...what's the answer I'm trying to question? I'm a very nostalgic individual and looking back into memories, and the feelings of those memories really strike me. They do a lot for me because I'm a very emotional individual. My emotional life is extremely vivid for me, very tangible.
Mai: So you follow your feelings?
Synead: For sure, absolutely. Usually my feelings are right, if there is a right and wrong. I had many times where people have told me, ‘don't do this’! But my feelings, my gut will be telling me, hey, do this thing and it always turns out OK, 100 percent of the time. I don't get an immediate response for all the things that I'm doing, but I'll always get the response with time and see how that choice was essential for my life.
Mai: I'm always consciously trying to balance the thought and feelings in various aspects of my life. So in creating, how do you balance thought and feeling--I mean for you, are the feelings really in control? Or is it a balance between the two?
Synead: I think in order to live everyday, I have to find the balance, but to be completely honest with you, my feelings always lead me. A few months ago, I was struggling with a thought.
I had had my first, I guess, same-sex experience with a young woman. I had all these thoughts running through my head because of the feeling I had from this girl. We were just having a moment, and that feeling made me question...What did that mean? You know, in terms of my identity. Do I now have to identify as this or that? And it's like, no. I'm not obligated to anything.
When it comes to making choices, more times than not, I'll know to how take actions based on what I feel.
Mai: Let's talk a little bit about your activist work which kind of put you on the map. The Millions March NYC. Tell me a little bit about where that inspiration came from, I'm sure it was a feeling that you had…
Synead: That's right.
Mai: Having a reported 30,000 people engaged in that. Doing that at 23?
Synead: Yeah, 23. It was 2012. I was in college. That's when Trayvon Martin happened. I did not understand why other people around me, especially non-people of color, couldn't understand why this was such a big issue and that started to weigh very heavily on me. 2013 came around, then Eric Garner happened and then Mike Brown and what did it for me was the Mike Brown case. I was in my senior year, in my second to last semester, and I remember just sitting, watching the news, waiting for the verdict on whether or not the police officer who shot Mike Brown was going to be indicted.
...I felt a little angry but nervous. A lot of nervous energy. I couldn't concentrate. I left my schoolwork at home and ran pretty much to Union Square from Brooklyn, to be with a community of people who all were waiting for the verdict.
The verdict came in about 20 minutes later than it was supposed to. I think someone [in the crowd] screamed out that he [the police officer] wasn't indicted. I felt a sharp jab in my chest and I remember thinking about my little brother who lived closer to the south--you know, in Maryland. I remember feeling so hurt, I started to cry. And from there I protested with everyone in Union Square, we pretty much took over the streets from there to 42nd Street. And from 42nd, I made my way up to Harlem. On the way I remember speaking to my parents, we were pretty much in a shouting match. I can understand their fear. They were very scared. You know they're seeing what's on the news, and now their daughter is on the streets, potentially getting into conflict with police officers. But I felt this need to do this. And I felt like, 'that could be you.'
I made it up to 125th St. and 1st before the police ushered us home. Someone put a microphone in my hand, I didn't know why, but I just started shouting on it.
And from there I'm thinking, what can I do? My mind just went into work mode. And the first thing that came to mind was, oh, I know in Mexico, there were a bunch of students who used social media to garner 20,000 people and I know they all came out, and then I said, well Egypt also used social media to bring out the community and so I thought, if they could do that, why couldn't I do that.
So I went on. My phone was dead, I didn't have a laptop. I was staying with an ex-boyfriend because he lived in Harlem. And I got on his laptop and started making some fliers in Microsoft Word. I put up a status on Facebook, asking help from anyone familiar with community organizing.
I asked my friend, Umaara Elliott, who helped me co-organize [for support]. We made an event page and made me a host on it. The next morning, I wake up and I have hundreds, not like a hundred, hundreds of messages in my inbox of help pouring in. And that was shortly before Thanksgiving, like November 23, 2014. And we pretty much had two and a half weeks to make that happen. And the pouring in of help, I couldn't even fathom that that was the response that I was going to get. I pretty much sat down at my computer, responding.
I had moved into my friend's apartment, maybe about a week after that. That first night, someone from Amsterdam, he was the first person I spoke to and he was flying in that day. He was very familiar with community organizing. He came straight from the airport to my house--that I had just moved into and we started organizing. Mind you, I had no phone, no money, because it had all gone to rent. I didn't even have enough money to move in so I had to sell all of my music equipment.
From the first week of moving into my home, people were in my house from 2AM to 3 AM, organizing through social media, fliers--I had a friend from high school she created all the fliers. We did them in every language, French, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Polish, we did it all. We printed them out and gave them to as many people as possible and just spread it out. I was teaching dance, working at this school. I said, hey, to someone at my job--you should come to this march I'm organizing called Millions March NYC. She said, ‘oh, Millions March? I saw that on Facebook and RSVP'd’. I said great. She said 'you know you're up to 11,000 now right?' I said, 'Excuse me?' She said, 'Yeah, you're up to like 11,000 RSVP’s on there. I saw it this morning.'
I said 'What?!' ‘cause remember, I didn't have a cellphone or anything. She pulls up her's and shows me the Facebook event I had made with my own two hands. And sure enough, we were up to like 12,500 by that time.
And then she pulled up Twitter and showed me Taylor Swift tweeted it, then Kanye West tweeted it. And there were all these celebrities tweeting this thing I had made and obviously, they have no idea who I am, they're just looking to support this thing that's going on. And all I could think was...it was very surreal. It was the most surreal two and a half weeks of my life. We did all this making it happen, meetings, etc...we even were going to meet with police officers. They wanted to make an agreement with us or something like that. But by this time,16,000 people had RSVP'd. We're pretty sure at least 20,000 are going to come…
Mai: So their agreement was like, what?
Synead: I'm not even sure. I think that they wanted to talk to us about what was going to happen on that day, and we're kind of like, dude, we didn't even know that this was going to happen. I don't think that you're going to stop people from coming out at this point.
The morning of, I had all this running around to do. The city was so quiet. SantaCon NYC was also that day. But SantaCon got canceled because of us. And the city felt so still. When we got downtown, someone took me over to where all the media was on 12th and 5th Ave. I'm standing there, talking to Al Jazeera. All of a sudden, I hear this like, low rumble, and I look towards 15th Street and I'm coming around the corner and I see this big group of people with a Black Lives Matter banner and they’re overtaking the street.
I felt so filled with emotion because it was just like, wow, here's this thing that's happening not to just us, not just to me, not just to these young people but there are all these people affected by this, taking a moment out of their day, whatever they were doing, to come here and to really stand together against police brutality. To say that my life matters, this girl matters, we all matter. Just to see the amount of people. All different creeds, all different religions, all different sexual orientations, like, it was more than I could ask for.
‘Til this day, I think about it and I get emotional. It's just like wow. Look at the impact we could have, if we just say enough is enough. Or if you put yourself in someone's shoes, again, that empathy.
I'm empathetic to the core. We all have the ability to be empathetic. It was crazy. It was so crazy.
I ended up meeting relatives of Emmett Till's family that morning, it was so beyond...And I could not have done that alone. At all. The amount of people that I had helping me, and to be honest, the amount of women that were on this team, wow. Strong, powerful, driven women who really spearheaded this. Magical.
Mai: This is some powerful stuff.
Synead: ...And that's what made me realize, if I could do something like that. If I could stir something like that up? What could I really do? So there's nothing in my opinion now, that I can't do. That gave me so much power from myself and motivation.
We have a series of affirmations we say everyday [at the Alvin Ailey School] (Synead is a graduate), and one that always stuck with me is 'I will not use the word can't to define my possibilities.' There is nothing that we cannot do.
Mai: Forthcoming work?
Synead: [One of my latest songs is called] Zenith. We've been working on it for quite some time. We wrote it when I came back from Europe. I had kind of escaped from like this period of activism, from the heartbreak and breakdown of it all. I just needed to get out of here so I went to theater school in London for a bit and stayed out there for six months. Just working on music and writing and getting into myself. Then I came back and started working again with my friends. We've been working on these songs for some time. It's really about that positive feeling I was mentioning earlier. Striving for something bigger and better and greater than you. The song kind of incites that feeling. And every time I play it for people they're just like
'God, this feels big'.
'Zenith' and Synead's latest music is available on Spotify, Apple Music and on all streaming platforms.
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