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Shontelle: “All lives can't matter if black lives don't matter”

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Shontelle Layne shares her experience working in the African film Joseph and recalls being a victim of blatant racism in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.

by Haider Rifaat

You were awarded the title “International Music Icon” last year at the Harper’s Bazaar Star Awards. What went through your mind while receiving this privilege and has it raised the bar even higher for you as an artist?
I was so shocked! It was such a beautiful surprise. I don't feel like I am recognized very often for my achievements because I like to keep away from the limelight. So, whenever a notable publication like Harper’s Bazaar honors you in such a way, it feels more like a birthday gift!

You have experimented with acting this year with a featured role of Dahlia King in the African film Joseph. What propelled the idea of acting for you, and what pulled you to this project?
People have always encouraged me to act. I finally got the opportunity to take it seriously when the director of Joseph reached out to me personally to cast me as one of the leads. Again, I was taken by surprise but I hung on to this as an opportunity to experience acting and be a part of sharing with the world a story about my heritage.

What theme does Joseph grapple?
Joseph explores the cultural and social impressions of the slave trade’s history and the connection it has with Africa and the Caribbean. The movie strongly encourages people like us to know our history, stay connected with our ancestry and experience the healing and enlightening impact of repatriation. Unrelenting love for one’s family and self-discovery are also some of the film’s core themes.

As a woman of color, what is your stance on the Black Lives Matter movement that has gained renewed momentum post George Floyd’s murder?
I am all for it! All lives can't matter if black lives don't matter. It is simple semantics and logic. I am tired of seeing how we keep suffering. It breaks my heart. We have hundreds of years of brainwashing and oppression to erase from our memory. It won't be easy to do. We must fight for the rights of all people but we should first start with those who are the most suppressed. It seems to me that people of color top systemic oppression. I can only pray that we learn to appreciate diverse cultures and respect one another equally, despite our personal beliefs.

Have you been a victim of racism in the music industry?
Of course!

What racial slurs or stereotypes were you subject to early on in your career? Any experience you would like to disclose?
I was called an angry black bitch, monkey, an ape, nigger, ghetto; you just name it! I remember performing in different countries, mainly in Europe, where my DJ and manager were constantly profiled. We were always investigated physically for no reason. We were followed in stores and asked to leave. I have seen signs in some countries that read, "No Blacks Allowed!”

People stared, laughed and whispered behind our backs. We were even detained once and forced to sleep on the floor at an airport. They came to us with guns and dogs and were so rough with us. To this day, I have no clue why. I just felt so sad. I cried many nights until my eyes were bloodshot. I couldn’t understand what we did wrong. It hurt us a lot.

Following the release of your studio albums Shontelligence and No Gravity, your music career gradually began to dwindle. To what do you attribute this shortcoming?
Label politics and bad timing. The industry began to tank around the release of my second album, No Gravity. Almost everyone at Motown Records was being fired and I didn't even have a staff to work with on my music. Only big artists were getting support from the record label.

I winded up with Republic Records but the situation was far worse there and no one took me seriously. I saw it as a complete waste of my time and parted ways with them too. I disappeared for a while to heal and rebuild myself. I feel so much better now and am back to work!

How has this career-changing experience affected your personal growth?
I experienced a major depressive episode. I felt like my entire life was taken away from me and I didn't think I wronged anyone to deserve such mistreatment. It took a long while to get back into a healthy headspace and start from scratch. I don’t expect much from people either. At times, I feel paranoid too but I am working on myself every day. I have recently started yoga. It really helps!

Now that you are back on track, can we anticipate a third studio album?
If I am honest, I have started to work on it but I am not sure when I will be able to release it commercially. It has been a while since I have put out a major release and I want to take my time with it and feel reacquainted with my fan base. I want to keep giving them new music until they demand an album!

You released a new single titled Remember Me in March of this year. Will it be on your new album or is it an exclusive single?
Yes, I expect Remember Me to end up on my third album.

What is your creative process like as an artist?
There is no real process. Everything just occurs to me like magic or I envision something in my dreams. I surround myself with close friends and creative people. Some time alone strengthens my creative drive. I pay close attention to everything I observe in life and allow my mind to express freely without constraints.

Do you sometimes feel that artists in the realm of entertainment suffer from mental trauma and general health issues because they have to live up to unrealistic expectations?

Big facts! There is no question about it! Everyone copes differently but everyone is also deeply affected by the kind of expectations they have to meet.

People often compare you with your fellow Barbadian singer Rihanna. You happened to be her drill sergeant once and also co-wrote her acclaimed single Man Down. Is that flattering?
I know (laughs). After all, we are both from Barbados! The comparison is inevitable, right? Yes, you might sense some similarities but we are still so different. I am proud that Rihanna and I were able to make it in the music business but were told otherwise. We belonged to an unknown part of the world and to have collaborated with each other on songs means a lot to me. It was cool being her drill sergeant too! She was an impressive cadet!

What kind of fashion are you into right now, and whose personal style in the industry do you like?
I love streetwear. There are no rules! You can express yourself as you like and it is comfortable to wear. I enjoy high fashion too. I am more inclined to wear a style that accentuates my legs. Some of my fashion influences right now are Trinidad James, Vashtie Kola, DJ Puffy, Aleali May, Janelle Monáe and Coco and Breezy.

I have avidly followed your music as a teenager. Please keep making more music! To conclude, what would you like to say to your fans who have been by your side for so long?
Thank you from the bottom of my heart! I really appreciate your support. I am humbled that you and all my loyal fans have stuck by me since day one. This proves that people see value in my work but more importantly, the thought that I have been able to touch their hearts with my music is something truly special! I just want to say that I love you so much and we are in this together! I promise, I won't let you down.

About Haider Rifaat: a writer for Arabian Moda, South China Morning Post, OK! Pakistan and Good Times magazine. He is an actor and also the creator and host of Pakistan's first web talk show - The Haider Rifaat Show. He can be reached via instagram and twitter.