French-Senegalese singer anaiis on joy and new beginnings
In the last year, creativity and the subcultures which spring from it have been impacted in ways beyond measure. Dr. Martens Presents is supporting artists to help them overcome the challenges they are facing at a time when it is needed most.
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Lockdowns might be easing across the UK and Europe, but many areas of life remain on hold – for now. THE FACE has teamed up with Dr. Martens Presents for multi-part series Collective Creativity.
This time around, we caught up for a chat with singer anaiis to talk about the healing power of music and nature. And, she introduces THE FACE to two inspiring creatives, Sanah Ahsan and Julianknxx.
anaiis is sitting in an attic room in her flat in South London when we catch up over Google hangouts. Daylight streams down from a skylight above her head. It’s fitting – this is the French-Senegalese musician’s moment in the sun, after all.
Today is a moment of becoming. anaiis is anticipating the launch of Juno, her project with Dr. Marten’s Presents. “It’s a moment of arrival. It’s a moment of surrender,” anaiis sighs.
“Emotionally, spiritually, I feel really great,” she expands. “It’s a new feeling for me because I just came out of a stressful period, and before that a dark period in my life.” anaiis’ clarity is characteristic; an advocate for mental health awareness, the musician processes her feelings through music.
Juno is a track from anaiis’ forthcoming album. In it, she addresses depression and anxiety from her own intimate perspective. Together with a small team including director Julianknxx and Parisian Black-owned vegan hub Jah Jah Le Tricycle, with the support of Dr. Martens Presents, anaiis created a visual counterpart for the track. Along with this video, anaiis teamed up with poet and psychologist Sanah Ahsan to produce a deck of cards. A talisman for an uncertain world, the cards are filled with self-care affirmations and advice for anxiety, all illustrated by Paris-based painter, musician and animator Lossapardo.
At the age of 10, anaiis moved from Toulouse to Dublin with her mother. Then to Senegal – her father’s homeland – and finally America. She didn’t speak for half a year. “Pretty quickly I learned the less space I occupied the better, the less noise I made the better,” she reflected in a talk for TED X. But today, anaiis has found her voice. Addressing themes of grief, isolation, trauma, suffering and disillusionment through her music, she writes pain out of herself, transforming it into soulful tracks penned in both French and English.
“I’ve always felt the need to use my music as a means for healing,” anaiis explains. “Bringing awareness around certain oppressions or injustices I was witnessing in the world.” Twenty-twenty was a year which clearly illuminated the oppression faced by the Black community. “We’re in a stage where there’s a lot of conversation and it can get really emotionally heavy and difficult,” anaiis says. She’s been searching for joy on her own terms. “I think the conversation for a lot of people like me – Black people, Black women – has been more [about] joy and healing.”
Making art over the last year has been necessarily challenging. Along the way, anaiis’ perspective has shifted. “I found it hard at first because I felt that I needed to speak on behalf of this world,” she reflects. “I didn’t see that my own work and my own experience had value in and of itself.” By turning a mirror on her own experiences, anaiis’ has found a way to transform her pain: “I think the healing that I want to go into now is bringing good feelings into people’s lives.”
Lockdown has brought about a collective pace-change as we’ve all grappled with a new relationship with time and space. The new normal is, well, pretty slow. “I was someone who was very attached to my productivity,” anaiis says. “I didn’t make time for myself. I’ve been able to build a better relationship to see how my mind is doing, how my body is doing, and how I feel.” anaiis has been synchronising with the natural world. “I see myself in my process and my journey as very much the same way I would look at a field of flowers or a tree. There are seasons.” Today, the sky is cerulean blue. Puffs of white and pink flowers blossom on cherry trees. Spring is here. Joy is back.
Introduce yourself and tell us what you do in your own words.
I’m Sanah Ahsan. I’m a British-Pakistani Muslim, I’m queer, I’m a poet, a liberation psychologist and all-round disrupter.
A poet that I love, Kahlil Gibran says “What is to work with love? It is to weave with threads drawn from your heart. Work is love made visible.” I try to make love visible through my work, which focuses on decolonising our understanding of mental health and embracing each other’s madness. The different threads of my work often interweave: I draw on therapeutics, poetics, and activism as interconnected practices to support racialised and marginalised people.
Alongside being a practising psychologist, I’m currently working on a poetry collection, which carries the reader through my journey navigating faith, gender and sexuality as a queer muslim. The poems capture my ongoing journey between shame and self-acceptance, and I hope they offer spaces of imagining and resonance for other queer folks who love god.
Tell us when and how you met Anaiis.
In 2019 I gave a TEDx Talk called “Rewriting my story with poetry and love as a queer muslim.” anaiis also gave a talk and performance at the same event, and when I watched her onstage I was blown away. We both explored similar themes, like navigating internalised shame as women of colour, and cultivating self-compassion and self-liberation in a systemically racist world that feeds us the lie that we are in some way unworthy. After our performances, we spent the rest of the evening talking. We’ve grown to be close since, a kinship grounded in compassion, truth-telling and spiritual growth.
How have you collaborated with anaiis for this project?
anaiis asked me to write the cards for the Dr. Martens project. Drawing on my background working as a psychologist with racialised people, and my work as a poet, she wanted me to bring both those hats to the work. It’s been a collective labour of love and we’ve been really intentional about the language and sentiment of the cards, in hope that they carve space for self-connection, rest, interdependence and compassion for Black and brown people.
What does healing mean to you as a queer Pakistani Muslim?
The language of healing interests me. I fear that sometimes it can be used to perpetuate the myth that there is a healed destination we will one day reach. For me, healing is a lifelong process. It is a regular practice of noticing the condition of existence as flawed, traumatic and painful, and meeting it with softness.
We have internalised a sense of being unworthy for suffering, mired in shame which disconnects and isolates us. As we give ourselves permission to feel our pain rather than shutting it off or moving to “fix” it, and compassionately bear witness to our own suffering, this opens us up to meeting others with the same tenderness. Compassion is a muscle that we build by practicing it with ourselves and with each other. Healing doesn’t occur in isolation; building a culture of interdependence is a huge part of that. For me, finding a chosen family where I can show up maskless with my feelings of unbelonging, and be met with love, is healing.
How can women of colour find a way towards self-love and self-acceptance?
The first step is recognising that we are not born with shame, we learn it. We receive messages from the structures, cultures, and families we live in, about who and what is supposedly “normal” and worthy of love, acceptance and connection. People who dwell on the margins, like Black, brown and queer folk, are often told the harmful lie that we are less worthy. Our fear of deficiency can keep us from being intimate or at ease anywhere. For example, we may constantly seek perfection and over-work, in order to prove we are deserving of love and connection. Even when we get what we thought we wanted, the gaping hole inside us feels unfillable. Remembering that we are always worthy of love and connection allows us to begin disentangling our divine truths from harmful messages we have received. Try and be a compassionate witness when those feelings of shame or unworthiness come up, and perhaps ask yourself: “Where has that message come from? Is it really mine?”
Tell us about your community; the people who have helped you fall in love with yourself.
I love this question! Hilary McBride talks about how we make sense of who we are based on all of the mirrors that we’ve looked into in our lives: mirrors composed of people we love, or those that we believed loved us. When we look into those mirrors, and they reflect back to us “you’re good and lovable”, then we start to carry that as who we are. But if the mirrors that surround you say “if only you looked a little bit more like this, then you’d be lovable” then we often internalise it.
Many of us have spent much of our lives surrounded by cracked mirrors. When someone comes along and truly sees you, reflects back your divine goodness, it is healing. My community is made up of people who see me, who love me, who remind me of my goodness whilst holding me accountable to act lovingly and to keep growing softer.
Introduce yourself and tell us what you do in your own words.
I’m Sierra Leonean, London-based interdisciplinary poet. My practice crosses the boundaries of the written word, music, visual art and installation, exploring themes of inheritance, loss, and belonging, and their effects on personal and interpersonal narratives.
You directed anaiis’ Juno music video. When and how did you first meet?
We met a while back through a mutual friend as I was meant to work on another video of hers as an art director. But it didn’t work out. Fast forward, she came to one of my events and I invited her to participate in the next one. Ever since we’ve collaborated, be it for London Fashion Week or live shows, and now her visual piece for Juno.
Can you tell us how you have collaborated for this project?
She came to me with the idea of presenting this song that is a self-reflective and surreal rumination on entrapment, isolation and anxiety. But because we are friends, the whole process was listening to her and trying to present her truth in the best and more simple way.
As a multidisciplinary creative, your output is expansive. Have you been drawn to any particular medium in the last year?
Lately, I’ve been trying to find my poetry language in film. I believe that will be my life’s work. Every frame a poem, exploring what it looks like for my poems to exist on film be it a commission, collaboration or my personal work.
Tell us what you’re working on next…
At the moment I am an Artist in Residence at 180, The Strand working on my first solo show In Praise Of Still Boys which is a 20 minute three-screen installation. I also have a series of group shows coming up with works from my Black Corporeal series and some other collaborations and commissions.