Q&A with Alysha Brilla

Queer musician of colour fighting in the industry

Alysha Brilla will play the West End Cultural Centre on Sept. 18.

Alysha Brilla promises to put on the best show ever in Winnipeg.

On Sept. 18, the singer, songwriter and music producer will be at the West End Cultural Centre with her third album, Human.

Brilla took a more technical and hands-on approach to the production of this album, which she says women often aren’t thought of as being able to do.

She’s bringing her full band - including a horn section - for the show.

She says she’s stoked about the diversity of musicians she’s got backing her up. Half of the musicians identify as women and, geographically, they’re from all over.

The Uniter caught up with Brilla to chat about her experience in the industry since she got started 12 years ago.

The Uniter (UN): I understand you’ve been playing music since you were a child. Where did this passion come from?

Alysha Brilla (AB): When I look back, I know that there was different types of music in my house. I grew up in a mixed house, and my dad is from Tanzania but has an Indian background, and my mom was born in Canada but with an Irish background. So, I just would hear interesting, different types of music and I think I was curious about music in general.

My dad had a guitar when I was young and would play it sometimes. My mom would sing all the time. So, definitely influenced by them. But, I don’t know, I grew up with three sisters around me, and I would always try and have them harmonize with me or like, have us put on little musical shows and stuff. So, kind of a way to play with my sisters and get attention from my parents, probably.

UN: How would you describe your music today to someone who hasn’t heard it before?

AB: I would say that it’s eclectic, but it definitely stems from my listening a lot to, I listen a lot to Amy Winehouse. I love Bob Marley. I like soulful music, and I also like what is categorized as world music. So, at least this album, I was listening to a lot of old Indian records, a lot of old East African records and blending that with my pop origins, pop sensibility.

UN: How do your political views influence your art?

AB: They influence it a lot. I mean, I do put out music and I’m playing, especially now, more and more shows. But I’m also very engaged within my community here in Kitchener-Waterloo. And I’m also really engaged on social media. So, I’m constantly learning and trying to make sure I’m reflecting the values of what is a really diverse group of people that I’m sharing space with. And, for myself, I mean, I do identify as queer and coming from that mixed background, I’m kind of cognizant of how race plays into society. And, so, I talk about those things. I do.

UN: As a queer woman of colour, what is it like to be in the music industry?

AB: When I started out, I think it was even more intense back then because I was so desperate, like so many artists, for any sort of support or validation, and back then, and even now, the industry is mostly run by white men who kind of own everything and make big decisions.

When I first started, you know, I had a lot of people telling me to hide my ethnicity. To not talk about that part of my background. To just … let people guess or to say that I was Spanish because, post 9/11, being any sort of brown was not that great, especially in the U.S., where I had my record deal.

Being a queer woman of colour is intense, especially when there is so much hetero pandering to these men in positions of power that, if you are queer, you don’t feel that you have the strength to do that. Now, I have my own label and I do everything independently and I make a very conscious effort to support, especially other queer artists of colour, because that space certainly was not made for them.

UN: What did it feel like when people told you to hide your ethnicity?

AB: It really sucked. It made me feel like it was something to be embarrassed about. On one hand, being part South Asian, which is a part of my dad’s culture, now it’s seen as cool. Now, mainstream media has kind of picked it up and the culture of it and stuff. Even like seven years ago, it was so not cool. People’s idea of what South Asian culture was is very narrow.

So, yeah, I was wow, that part of my body, my DNA or my culture is embarrassing and there’s no space for it in my career. Whereas now, obviously, I really embrace it, and I feel like I’m making up for lost time in the way I do it, because there’s so much beautiful fashion and art within that, so I try and incorporate that.

UN: A lot of women want to be known for their talent, not their appearance, and from what I understand that’s how you felt when you first got into the industry as a teenager. With that in mind, how did you feel being recognized at the Junos for your outfit?

AB: For a while there, like Alicia Keys is doing now, I refused to wear makeup on the principal alone. All these male artists were just wearing - at least in my genre because I’m a musician, I play an instrument and was singing - they were all just wearing jeans and a T-shirt, no makeup, and people were listening to their songs and revering their words. I felt like, as a woman, why can’t I be so blasé in my appearance and have the same sort of respect. So I did go through a period of that.

And then, once I finally got free from my label and felt more empowered, I actually started to feel like my appearance was another way for me to express myself. And when it was my own autonomous choice, like no one tells me how to dress, no one can tell me what to wear.

I remember back in the early days, people always wanted me to have my makeup done by professional makeup artists and/or wear clothes by this person or that person. Now, I’m like thrift stores. That’s almost all I wear, thrift store stuff. And I do all my own makeup and I do it exactly the same way every time. All the things that my intuition was back in the day was like yeah, now I’m able to perform that.

When I got recognized at the Junos for the dress, it felt really weird to me, because I love that dress. It’s by a West African-Canadian designer named Zeena Kay, and she’s like a friend. I met her online. She’s not a huge name or anything, but her designs are amazing. I love her stuff.

When I first saw that dress, I was like, it’s so weird. My publicist had come and a few people saw it and I could see the look on their face and they were like, ‘okay, you’re actually going to wear it?’ They thought it was too weird or whatever, so the fact that it got recognized as the best dress was so funny to me, because I just wore it because I liked it, but I didn’t actually think someone would actually think like ‘whoa!’ I guess that’s how life is. If you wear it with confidence or you stand out, sometimes people will write about it.

Published in Volume 71, Number 2 of The Uniter (September 15, 2016)

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