The distance between Croatia and Brooklyn is approximately 4300 miles. It’s a distance that Maya Azucena knows very well, for Croatia is one of many tour stops this Brooklyn-based artist regularly makes with her band. A lifetime of experiences also calibrates the distance. Growing up with her sister in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, amidst gunshots and the occasional stabbing, there is very little that surprises Azucena. That experience has given her the mettle to handle the shifty tides of the music industry, where hype creates and destroys artists whose careers are measured by units.
For the past eight years, Azucena has successfully charted her own course parallel to an industry in dire need of self-contained artists like her to set new standards. With three albums and countless collaborations credited to her name, Azucena has spearheaded her career on her own terms. In doing so, she has become one of the most original independent artists to hatch from the New York scene and conquer the world stage. She was even invited to the White House in January 2009 to celebrate the Global Cultural Initiative based on her U.S. State Department-sponsored Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad tour of Burma, China, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka from April 2008. Her music knows no boundaries.
“I feel that I write music that if I sang on Riker’s Island to 300 inmates, they would get it,” she says sitting in a café on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Indeed, there is a crossroads in Azucena’s music that signifies the commonality of experiences shared among many listeners. The songs on Junkyard Jewel (2007), her acoustic project recorded for Purpose Records, underscore the insight Azucena has always had about people. It’s a gift that was seeded in her childhood, when she was the one little girl playing among a group of ten boys on her neighborhood block. It also influences the relationships she has with people, especially men, in the music industry.
She explains, “A lot of times I’ll meet people and they’ll remind me of the kids I grew up with, and I always see the child in them. Even in doing business, I see somebody with the suit and the business card and I always think to myself, behind the card, behind the suit, is a real person. I always think about my music appealing to the human behind all that.”
The story of how Azucena moved off the block and into the spotlight on stages everywhere from Slovenia to Australia is rooted in an upbringing that had a similarly wide range of cultural influences. Born to a white father and black mother, Azucena heard Spanish and Portuguese being spoken in the house. Her father, who was raised in Mexico and Brazil, integrated a Latin element into her childhood, whether explaining what a café con leche was or showing his daughters how to dance salsa. Even after Azucena’s father divorced her mother, he took young Maya to museums and old black and white movies to ensure that her world was as culturally rich as possible.
Azucena’s mother influenced the independence that informs much of her personality and comes across in her music. “My mom was a parole officer,” Azucena says. “Packing a gun and handcuffs, my mother was always fabulous! She had the earrings, the scarf, and the nerve to wear white cowboy boots as a parole officer. I love that about my mom.” Her mother comes from a family line of what Azucena calls, “extremely strong independent black women.” She continues,
“I am of that creed. We’re self-sufficient businesswomen, people that don’t feel crippled by a need to be supported by a man, or by anyone for that matter. That’s definitely what my mother had, but also the fact that she’s extremely expressive, emotionally. We had a household where we would talk about our feelings and talk about life and philosophize on things. It was very free like that. When I went to tour in Asia, the two weeks that we were in China, one of the things I realized that was a big hurdle for young people who are artists there is expression. Self-expression is a really difficult task for them. It was not natural for them in China to personally express, to have a strong idea that someone else doesn’t have. To me, it’s one of the most natural things in the entire world, because I’ve always been encouraged to have a voice of my own and to be myself. It’s hard for me to fathom an existence where that’s being dissuaded.”
That self-expression brought Azucena to Performing Arts High School in New York. She studied opera with a voice instructor who was also a professor at Manhattan School of Music. She landed a publicity gig for a record company, but knew that her own artistic aspirations were what needed the most focus. Eight years ago, she left her day job and fully committed herself to her career. “Being a full-time artist is being an entrepreneur,” she says. “If I get up at 9 AM for someone else, I’ve got to get up at 9 AM for me, my company. As soon as I quit my day job, I was in it 100%. There was so much to do. If you’re willing to do it, you can be working all day and night.”
One of the key individuals that figured in Azucena’s life as she established her career was Christian Ver Halen, co-founder of indie outfit the Rooftop. Soon after meeting her through a mutual colleague, Ver Halen invited Azucena to write with him. It was an offer that, at first, Azucena didn’t take seriously. Ver Halen persisted with his offer, and the two scheduled a writing session. During their first meeting, they wrote two songs almost immediately. After completing one of them, they headed to an open mic that same evening to try the song out in front of an audience. With her marble-bound notebook resting on a stand, Azucena performed the song with Ver Halen. The audience sounded their approval.
Since then, the partnership has yielded a batch of songs that appeared on Azucena’s first two albums, Maya Who?! (2003) and Junkyard Jewel (2007). Both songwriters share a musical simpatico that embraces and respects all genres of music. “We have similar tastes, so he knows what I’m talking about if I’m saying, ‘Let’s do something Stevie Wonder mixed with a Timbaland beat.’ He’s a good creative partner because he doesn’t create restrictions. He’s really as open as I am, so any idea we have, we go for,” she explains, continuing,
“Sometimes, if we start writing a rock song, we just see where it goes. We’re not afraid of trying that as opposed to a producer that’s brainwashed into, ‘Well, how is this going to get played on radio?’, where in the creative phase, they’re already shutting down ideas. With Christian, it’s about the music. I totally recognize that he’s into the mission of it as well, like ‘Music is my calling and it’s a mission.’ He’s down for the cause. When we did the ‘Save Darfur’ rally in DC, him and my drummer Ivan were down for getting up at six in the morning and driving there to do that for the cause. It’s my utter supreme joy to make music that moves people and touches people and is meaningful and has spiritual, cultural relevancy. If you are working with someone who doesn’t believe in it on that level, then you’re constantly having a tug of war. Christian and Ivan, as far as team members on this journey, have been my aces.”
Maya Who?! introduced Maya Azucena to listeners with a set of ten songs that reflected her spirituality and penchant for writing evocative lyrics, but also the groove-based qualities of her music. Released through NuMedia, Azucena feels now that her debut was a good first effort, but didn’t truly reflect the dynamism of her live show. The follow-up, however, was a much truer and more authentic representation of her art. Junkyard Jewel featured stripped-down takes on a few tracks from Maya Who?!, while serving up newer, acoustic-based material written by Azucena and Ver Halen. The album spotlighted the unique musicality of their partnership, appealing to hip-hop lovers and the latte-sipping NPR set alike.
Junkyard Jewel found a home on Purpose Records, a Brooklyn-based independent soul label run by George Littlejohn and Russell Johnson, and joined a roster of acts that included Tortured Soul, Monet, DJ Spinna, and Angela Johnson. Because she had a history of managing and booking herself, as well as self-distributing her music, Azucena became acquainted with a tight-knit circle of independent artists and producers who shared the similar experience of being a self-run business. One of those individuals was George Littlejohn.
Azucena says, “A lot of times when I would get together with people, the other person would end up asking me for advice, which is very natural and cool for me, but I found that George Littlejohn was a person I would call specifically to ask him about something I didn’t know anything about. We’d meet and he’d give me guidance.” The two shared a mutual admiration for each other, so much so that Littlejohn asked Azucena if she’d be interested in releasing her next album on Purpose, while she, in turn, suggested that the Purpose team manage her.
With a record company ostensibly serving as her management, Azucena is in the ideal position of having the option to release any of her projects on the label, though she is not automatically obligated to. “It’s more like, if it’s a good match and we feel that it’s the strongest choice for the project, we’ll do it through Purpose Records,” she explains. “They’re hands-on, and they’re small, and they’re willing to take chances on something that’s a little different. It’s just an option we always have as part of the family.”
You might assume that being so successful already at handling so many aspects of her career would naturally predispose Azucena to establish her own label. Not so, she says. “I’m trying to ween away from doing, literally, everything myself,” she clarifies. “At the moment I start a label, it’s just giving myself that much more to do myself. I wear too many hats for one person as it is. What happens is you stretch yourself to your max capacity, and you’re always on the verge of exhaustion of some sort.” Rather than sequester herself completely away from the business side, Azucena is working towards building reciprocally strategic relationships with other people in the business to create more unique opportunities for her future projects.
Collaboration is actually the one constant that’s always threaded through Azucena’s career. Between her solo albums, and even now as the follow up to Junkyard Jewel takes shape, working with other artists is a frequent venture for Azucena. Fronting groups like Vernon Reid’s Yohimbe Brothers and the Greg Tate-led Burnt Sugar outfit, or singing on tracks by Stephen Marley (“Let Her Dance”) and Jonathan Peters (“Music”), represents just a tiny fraction of her studio and stage work. Artists and producers from abroad have also solicited Azucena for production work, including Italian DJ Jad for “By My Side” (Milano-New York, 2006), and Gibonni, an artist based in Croatia who brought Azucena aboard for “Andejo U Tebi (Angel in You)”, which won two PORIN awards (the Croatian equivalent of a Grammy).
To showcase the full spectrum of her guest appearances and genre hopping, Azucena recently released Taste This (2008), a mix tape CD sequenced by DJ Amore (available on Purpose via INgrooves Distribution). One of the tracks was culled from Black Panther’s My Eternal Winter (2007) album. The Brooklyn-based DJ invited artists to pen a track based on the concept suggested by the album title. One of Azucena’s contributions, “The Half”, is arguably the most chilling track she’s written yet. “I decided to write about the worst, lowest time of my life,” she explains, “which did happen to be one of the coldest winters I’ve ever remembered.” The song’s refrain, “Y’all don’t know the half”, bookends the terrifying details—an abusive relationship, for one—of Azucena’s “eternal winter”, while further elaborating on a track from Maya Who?! entitled “Walk for Miles”.
She recalls, “I used to live up in Washington Heights, and I remember walking from 163rd St. to 8th St to go to work, because I didn’t have enough money to get on the subway. That’s like 10 miles. The entire time that I walked, I was walking with my eyes down, because I was scanning for a quarter or a dime in the street. During that entire walk I could not ask anybody for money. I refused to ask for money.”
Azucena pauses when asked how she transitioned out of that winter. “I didn’t die, so I lived,” she says succinctly. “I’m going to go out fighting no matter how it goes.”
One of the issues Azucena has perpetually fought is race. On more than one occasion, she’s overheard individuals presuppose that her success is due only to her lighter skin complexion, or that she’s using her skin color to her advantage. The cynicism is predicated on the idea that, to quote Azucena, “dark skin and thick hair is not beautiful and gorgeous. Unfortunately there’s still a lot of ignorance and misguided notions of beauty in our county. I look at music videos produced by black hip-hop artists and no dark skinned women are in the videos. Any of the women that are in the videos, 98% of them have fake, straight, long hair sewn into their heads, so we perpetuate this.”
The people who project their cynicism on Azucena, however, are sorely misguided themselves, since they have never even seen her perform. She says, “They just hear my name and they see a picture or two and they say, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, everybody’s just talking about her because she’s just some other light-skinned chick that dresses a certain way.’” She understands the origin of this particular kind of misanthropy, because, as she says, “to a certain degree that kind of dynamic still exists within the system.” She continues,
“On the other side of it, if it’s being said in reference to me, if you know me, it’s an absurd thing to say, because I have never rested on my loins. I have never used my complexion as a tool for advancing myself. It’s just basically an ignorant statement. I’ve never approached it that way. It’s never been a concern to me. It’s always been about making sure I’m coming from some place very honest and very real. If everything you do is built off of how cool you look, or that you think you’re fly or whatever, you’re drawing the wrong energies to you anyway.”
Race and culture is the core of Azucena’s latest endeavor, “Culture Bandit Soul”. It’s a piece that merges together Azucena’s live set along with the one-woman show of Vanessa Hidary, self-proclaimed “Hebrew Mamita”. Having long been friends and fans of each others’ work, the two artists brainstormed ways that they could merge the spoken-word theatricality of Hidary’s show and the live music of Azucena’s. “It all flows together as one big presentation,” Azucena explains, “making the greater point that cultural divides can totally be broken by where you’re coming from in your soul, where you’re coming from in your spirit.”
“Culture Bandit Soul” has already been showcased a number of times at different venues in New York City, receiving a standing ovation every time. With a DVD of the show in the works, Azucena and Hidary are also shopping for a venue that would feature “Culture Bandit Soul” on a monthly basis, where each presentation would feature a different guest host and champion a different non-profit. The format is close to Azucena’s heart.
“I like the idea of marrying the arts to humanitarian causes,” she says. “I also feel that art can be a tool for activism and for humanitarian outreach. I want to inspire people, I want to move people, I want people to put their struggles in perspective by acknowledging that struggle exists, but also talking about having the strength to overcome and owning your warrior.”
The warrior in Azucena has steadfastly built her career from the ground up. With her fourth solo album nearly completed, Azucena is as focused as ever on telling stories and putting her stamp on the landscape of music, regardless of the latest trend or fashion. “The industry underestimates young people over and over again,” she declares. “My whole thing with being independent is I’m going directly to people and I’m not waiting for some corporate entity to give me permission to do that. As long as there’s a demand from people, the career will continue to exist. That’s the point that I’ve been proving.” From Brooklyn to Burma to London to Croatia, and back again, this culture bandit continues to sing her songs as far as the crow flies.