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Singing Truth – BPR Interviews: Pauline Jean

Image Credit: Brooklyn McTavish

Pauline Jean is an internationally acclaimed Haitian American singer, songwriter, and composer who has performed everywhere from Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Concert Hall to Lincoln Center Shanghai. She graduated from St. John’s College with a Bachelors in Political Science, and from the Berklee College of Music with a Bachelors in Music Performance, cum laude. She blends her New York soul with powerful tributes to her Haitian ancestors through contemporary Creole music and lyrical interpretations of historical events such as Igbo Landing and the work of abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth. On August 6, 2020, the 55th anniversary of the signing of The Voting Rights Act, Pauline released her single “Ain’t I a Woman?”, a tribute to Sojourner Truth’s landmark speech of the same name.

Amelia Spalter: What first moved you to engage with Sojourner Truth in a creative capacity, and how do you hope the song will be interpreted by those previously unfamiliar with her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech? 

Pauline Jean: I fell in love with Sojourner Truth’s spirit and tenacity. She’s so gutsy and courageous. Here’s a woman born into slavery in 1791 who experienced a whole bunch of discrimination and abuse, not only beatings, but also sexual abuse. Then by the time she’s 30 she’s a free woman. She doesn’t let any of those barriers hold her down. She sues a white man because he illegally took her son into slavery, and she wins. During the time that she lived, it was unpopular for her to do the things that she did, but she did them anyways.

She is the whole package, and I just fell in love with the essence and core of who she is. For her to explain to everyone, “Listen, I am a woman. Ain’t I a woman?” was also to address her white sisters, everybody, about, “Look, I can work as hard as any man. Why am I not free?” I wanted to bring Sojourner Truth and that speech into the contemporary because everybody knows her, but they associate her with Black History Month, or Women’s Day, when she was actually an iconic figure in American history and should be cherished as a household name year-round.

I want Sojourner Truth to not just be known as a part of Black History Month. She should be a household name, because she was legendary. She went out and did things against all odds, and to this day, we are reaping benefits from her contributions to America. There were no limitations for her. We really need to honor her, in our homes and in our schools, especially at the university level. Sojourner Truth needs to be a class all by herself, because she is part of women’s rights, civil rights; you name it, she was there laying the groundwork for us all.

AS: You end the music video for “Ain’t I a Woman?” with a quote that reads in part, “A tribute to Sojourner Truth and all the unsung heroines … fusing a dynamic force of what women of color have become today—free.” What does “free” mean to you in this context?

PJ: Free is that I’m not enslaved. Free is that I can speak my truth, just like Sojourner Truth did. Freedom is a sense of being able to express yourself without being afraid that you’re going to be killed. We are not where we used to be, but we’re not where we should be. Back in Sojourner Truth’s day, women didn’t have a say. African Americans didn’t have a say. Now we have the right to vote. That is freedom. What Sojourner Truth, and other unsung heroes and heroines have done, allows us to practice democracy in America. She didn’t even live to see voting rights fully realized, but all throughout the 19th century, she was still fighting for it. The whole thing is that constant pushing, that constant pushing, that constant pushing, because it may not happen in our lifetime, but we sow the seeds so that the trees are growing and our children can eat from the fruit, you know?

AS: Has Sojourner Truth always resonated this deeply with you, or did something happen to make you revisit her work in a new light?

PJ: I had just heard of Sojourner Truth in school. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, it’s all one little blurb during Black History Month. But as I got older and started to delve into knowing more about my history, I realized what I had learned in school is whitewashed and unfocused. For example, when I really focused on “Ain’t I A Woman?”, I saw how brilliant of a mind Sojourner Truth had. She had no formal education, but that didn’t mean anything, because she knew what was right and what was wrong. So, even when a man told her, “You don’t have as much rights as me, because Christ wasn’t a woman, so you don’t have rights,” she was like, “But where did your Christ come from? He came from God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with it.” Come on, that was forward-thinking.

This generation, the younger generation, really need to know about her. That’s why I wanted to take the speech into a more modern, contemporary context, so that they can grab onto it. Because people don’t talk like, “I have ploughed and planted,” anymore, you know? You and I can’t relate to that. I wanted to present it in a way that is relatable, because her story itself is still very relatable. It’s essentially about when you work so hard, but no matter how hard you work, the people around you don’t seem to see it. How many Hollywood movies are about exactly that? There needs to be a movie about Sojourner Truth. Hollywood, you can use my song in the movie.

AS: What do all young musicians need to know about the industry in order to ascend to your level of success, and do you have any specific tips about navigating the unique challenges Black women face in the American music business?

PJ: You have to know your craft; you have to hone in. The more you know, the more you can protect yourself. This is a market for all now. It’s independent, we’re creating our own labels, and we’re making our own contracts. Before I had a manager, I was doing everything myself. You have to know your worth. If you don’t know your value, someone is going to put a value on you. Maybe you should be worth some huge sum of money, but if you don’t know what you’re worth, they’ll tell you, “Okay, you’ll do it for five dollars.” You can’t just take any and everything. Again, the more you know, the better and stronger you can stand on your own two feet.

For my Black sisters in the music business, especially because it’s a male-dominated field, you really need to know how not to be taken advantage of. Know your business and let everybody know you’re about business. If you don’t like something, you should be able to express yourself. No eggshells. You don’t need to walk around on eggshells for anybody. Once you are confident in what you’re bringing to the table and competent in what you know, no one can take it away from you. Then no one can mess with you.

AS: You became a musician after going to school for, and working nearly a decade in, fields entirely unrelated to the industry. What advice do you have for people considering a mid-life career change to music?

PJ: Everybody’s situation is different, but you only have one life to live, and as we can see with the world right now, you have to be wise in your decision making. I ended up going back to school after working as a paralegal. I understand that the situation will be different for everyone. But if you have a dream, you should really pursue it. Sometimes we’re so busy looking at the top of the mountain that we forget climbing it is actually all about the baby steps. It’s all about taking time out to just do a little bit at once. You really just need to tap into what is true to yourself and go for it.

Society has made us so afraid. I think being an artist is one of the most courageous things you can do, because it goes against everything that we know to be stable. A lot of times people want to do art, but feel like, “I need a stable 9 to 5 job, I need to feed my family, I need to…” But then there are artists who find creative means of doing those things, of staying alive, of staying afloat, of staying valid and necessary. So, it’s not for the faint of heart, but at the same time if you have a dream, if you’ve always wanted to do a certain thing, just do it.

This is the time right now. Everybody is home for the most part due to COVID. Things that you always wanted to do, that you thought you could never do, this is the time to do them. This time may never come again. I’ve always believed that everything happens for a reason. To me, this situation right here is a reset for everybody. A reset for what you want to do in life, a reset for your family, a reset for your career, just a reset on the whole thing, because it has caused everybody to pause and consider what is important in their life. Death is surrounding us; reminding us it is inevitable. You only have one life to live, so you have to live today as if it was your last. So, what would you do?

AS: What impact did your Christian upbringing have on your initial interest in becoming a musician, and how does your faith manifest in your work today?

PJ: I just believe that being able to do music is intangible, and that connects me with the spirit. God has blessed me with gifts and these gifts need to be shared. Perfect example, I’ve always sung in a church, and I’ve always been a part of groups such as prison ministries; I do everything I can. I’ve always been able to use the gifts that God has given me to give back, because I always believed that the gifts that are given to you are not for you, they’re for you to give to others. To a lot of the young musicians that are out there just starting, I’d say get out of that mindset about yourself, because when you’re primarily in tune with, “Oh my gosh, how do I sound? How do I feel? Am I doing this right?” then everything gets lost, because the spirit that’s being channeled through you to send out that message is blocked off. It’s not about you.

At my first voice lesson at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, before Berklee, I went to my professor Rachiim Ausar-Sahu, and he sat at the piano testing my range. He played, and when he was finished, he turned to me and went, “Okay Pauline, you can sing from this note to this note. But when you stand before the Father, what are you going to say about how you used your gift?” That was my first lesson. I’ve always been surrounded by people who reinforce their spirituality around the importance of using your gift for God or for the people, for healing, for however it is that it needs to be conveyed. It is not for yourself. For that I’m just very grateful. Music, to me, is a ministry, and so again, I am just extremely honored to be able to have the angels sing with me, to have the Heavenly host be with me, and to have the stage be sacred. That’s why when anything happens in which the sacred space is being altered, I remove myself from it. If you are not in alignment with that sacred space, I will never play with you again. Music is spiritual and I feel so blessed, thank you God, to be able to do what it is that He has called me to do.

AS: What Creole song of yours would you recommend to listeners who are new to genre or even the whole language?

PJ: They could look up “Anmwey.” Anmwey means help. I have subtitles in English so they can understand what I’m saying. It was my first time writing a song in Creole. “Anmwey” is basically a cry for help, when you have done all that you can and are just in the midst of asking, “What do I do?” You just cry out from that crossroad. It could be separation from a loved one, it could be anything. It’s a pain that we’ve all experienced in life, that we can all relate to, when you want to cry out, “Oh my God, Anmwey! All my strength has been gone. What should I do?” I recommend “Anmwey.”

AS: What song that you’ve been listening to should everyone add to their playlist right now?

PJ: Hmm, good question. I’ve been listening to a lot. Ok, this is an old negro spiritual, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”

AS: Did any other historical figures or prominent texts inspire you in the creation of “Ain’t I a Woman?”?

PJ: Equal access to democracy in America, which exists because of the right to vote, all stemmed from Sojourner Truth’s generation and her speech. But then, in our era, you have Congressman John Lewis who believed, “Look, we have to vote.” I quote, he says, “Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful, non-violent tool we have to create a more perfect union.” Then because of his speech in 1965, John Lewis spearheaded the Civil Rights movement. We have Selma, Alabama. We see Bloody Sunday. That brought us back to Sojourner Truth’s bloody experience. Then the world started to see what was happening and America began to ask, “What is going on?” Here are these peaceful protestors being met with violent resistance. In 2020, the public witnesses George Floyd’s murder, which ignited a revolution against racial injustice that we have not seen in decades.  In that way, we are all extensions of Sojourner Truth. We are all an extension of wanting change to take place so that we can have a better world for our children.

AS: How did you make a speech from 1851 into a relevant and relatable song for 2020, while still maintaining the integrity of Truth’s original message?

PJ: My ode to Sojourner Truth reflects the emotional content of her soul transported to the now. I was inspired to reintroduce and reimagine the core essence of Truth, who was a strong, unapologetic, Black woman. This year marks 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which guarantees all American women the right to vote. The 19th Amendment was wonderful on paper, but unfortunately, many African American women still did not get the chance to exercise that right or to play a major role in the voting process, even though they played a major role in establishing the amendment. Sojourner Truth played a major role. She was a pioneer with respect to women’s’ right to vote, but unfortunately it wasn’t until the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, long after Truth’s death, that Black women could vote without facing racial biases. Black women in America have been historically invisible, but we’ve emerged as a constant, quiet, force that continue to contribute to the course of history.

Again, we are extensions of Sojourner Truth, and this year is a big election year. One of the most important elections during our lifetimes. So, my goal for this song is that it generates awareness about voter registration. Because we’re still experiencing voter suppression in 2020, like when you see long lines in predominantly Black and brown communities, where minorities are still being intimidated at the polls. We really need to change the laws back. After 1965 everything was wonderful, but in 2013 those voting rights laws were rolled back. That gave the states power to cause disparities and commit voter intimidation. We need to change unjust laws back to just laws and we have to vote.

Our ancestors died for the right to vote. Think about Congressman John Lewis, God rest his soul. If it wasn’t for Bloody Sunday and the Walk of Selma, Lyndon B. Johnson wouldn’t have signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That’s why I’m releasing the single on August 6th, 2020, the anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, because I really want everyone to understand the importance of exercising our rights, using our voices, and what we can do for change. Our votes are precious. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re not where we used to be. And while we still have a ways to go, I believe that this generation can do it.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.