Sevana’s Evolutions of Beauty, Honesty and Self

In Editor's Pick, Poetry and Justice by Susanne Nyaga

I am really grateful that the universe created an opportunity to connect with such an intuitive, talented, and insightful artist like Sevana. As a dark skinned Black woman, she has crafted a space in the industry for herself that is uncompromising and unapologetic. From music creation to video directing to acting, she is a force to be reckoned with. She demands recognition for herself and those she represents while centralizing love, compassion, honesty and care in her approach. I feel deeply connected to her mission and value , and I am excited to document, and bare witness to her evolutions that have come and those that will be. 

Our goal at TRAD is to share the ideas of African people from around the world. To ensure Black people connect to each other and reconnect with themselves. We discuss ideas. These are the intentions that grounded my approach to this conversation. I wanted to explore her art, her story, her ideas and her experiences.  The interview has been edited for brevity, and clarity.

One of the first videos I saw for you was the Mango video. I loved how vibrant and intentional some of the images looked. But specifically, that first shot where you’re sitting there with that huge afro. You are surrounded by vibrant colours. That image says so many things. What is the history of that image? What does it mean for you to create it? But also, who did you create it for? What did you want them to see?

Ahh, who did I create it for? I created it for myself and people who look like me, right? I specifically wanted to. For some people, when they look at it, all they see is sex, you know what I mean? Because it’s like I look like I’m naked. They don’t understand that things can be skin-coloured, and you know, pasties and all the rest of it. But I specifically wanted to celebrate my skin and my hair in an exaggerated way like, ‘Look at me! I’m Black, I’m out here, and I don’t give a fuck.’ You know? Like I give a fuck, because I give a fuck enough to share myself to people who would want to be accepting or supportive of that. But I don’t give a fun, in that, you’re not going to hold me back. And you’re not going to tell me how I need to express my Blackness or my womanness, my femininity. So that is what it signifies for me.

Also, the history of it coming from Miss Diana Ross. I love her. She is a Black woman who has been navigating the space long before I was. I was like, this is dope. This is dope imagery, and this is what this means to me. It’s a celebration of my own Blackness, and I’m going to put it in this video. 

Because Mango to me is really not something, necessarily lyrically, to be taken that seriously. It’s just about me likening the excitement of eating Julie mangoes, me love mangoes, with the excitement that you feel when you love off somebody. You know what I’m saying. So it’s supposed to be really light and fun. So I just wanted to inject my personality, and who I am, and some dance moves into it. To make it reflect that. You know? 

I feel that! I feel that! When I see the way you’ve taken space as an artist, I see you have moved beyond music and taking up space directing and working with different types of mediums. 

Understanding how the music world works, well understanding how the world in general works; when women are known for doing multiple things, people want to force them into a box . Whereas when men branch out, they are sometimes celebrated. You know they are like, ‘Oh wow, look at how diverse their work is!’ And I want to just explore how you have been able to navigate this. Being a multi-media creator, how have you been able to navigate your art? Where do you want to take your art? Where do you see it growing towards? 

That’s a really good question. Honestly, at different points, what I am realizing is that different types of art is resonating with me. So, I did play the protagonist in a mini-series, like a small production called Losing Patience. And in doing that, I kind of discovered that I like giving over myself to a character where I am not as in control. I just like talking about something really important and then also the representation of me being dark skin and being on national TV and people seeing that where it’s usually not the case, I think is powerful. From the very beginning of my creating music, I’ve always had an interest in taking control of how I was portrayed.  

I’ve always had an interest in fashion and style, so I didn’t really stop giving that up. I’ve always experimented on myself, on friends, on people who volunteered to have me put clothes on them or do a makeup look or whatever, so I have never stopped doing that. For Mango, for example, I chose every one of those looks. Like I created the mood board myself, and I was just like, ‘I want to have this look and that look and this look and that look.’ And then, I collaborated with Diana to see them through. So it’s really wanting to fully portray myself, as I am now in my evolution and taking that seriously. That’s really what has seen me crossing over the different art forms. 

So, yeah, it is just really different things calling to me at different points in my life.

Do you think art can play a role outside entertainment, say in the country’s governance or the governance of the land? 

Yes. This has been the truth for Jamaica for a very long time. You find Artists have as much leverage in what they share as a politician does, or even more so. The influence is incredible. This means you have a great amount of responsibility to not mislead people. So I think art plays a role for sure. And if it is that you are sharing a message that Improves, then people will probably listen because you directly influence the frequency around them, depending on what you are creating. My short answer is yes. It will. It can, it has. And it continues to. 

That intentionality, I think, is so important; whether you ask to influence or not, you are influencing it is important to be cautious about that. 

It’s not that I’m saying everybody has to be some kind of a restricted, perfect righteous pretentious version of themselves. Maybe it’s just about being honest about where you are. It doesn’t have to look perfect; it just has to be real. It just has to be the truth. 

Who was Sevana at 8 year old? And what was it like for her moving from life in the countryside to the city in Jamaica, and then to international stages? 

From 8-year-old until I was about 13, I was unbridled. Full of opinion, funny, loud! I’m still loud, still very, very loud and always trying to lead. I made everybody understand it was always going to go my way. I think this is at the core of who I am and it became lost somewhere in my teenagehood. I had difficulty socializing, and people had difficulty understanding me. I tried to be smart, so people could see my value. That didn’t really stick for too long, but yeah, I feel like I’m a little bit more like my youngest self now. Especially these past four years. It’s been such a journey. It’s been such a treacherous, unforgiving rewarding path. And I don’t have any choice but to acknowledge where I am and who I am. 

It was just my mother, you know, who raised me. She would have a boyfriend here and there but remembering that we did not have a lot at all. Remembering that I had to lean on my brother, who is about a year and a half younger than I am. Back in the day, you don’t think about a person being your emotional support. You just think about them being there, and you liking to have them around. I am getting emotional, just from why, where, who I was at the beginning; it is incredible. It is incredible to know that I’ve overcome so much, and I feel stronger than I have ever felt. I feel like I am on the right path.

How would you say these evolutions from 8 years old Sevana till today have shaped your ideas of the world and your place in it?

I first thought it was important to impress the people who had more because I didn’t have anything. I just thought I didn’t have the new uniform or new shoes, but if I could sound smart, they would see value in me. And that is how I was representing myself for a really long time. 

I remember me and brother were running up and down very late at night, cos Mummy deh a work, and we ran into some older people, and I remember him talk full patois, and the woman becoming very worried, wondering if we were okay, and I responded to them in standard English, and immediately, their posture changed, like “o you mean something, you are valuable to someone” I held on to that. I became obsessed with what is the best way to present myself, so people understand that there is value here. 

Yea, so I began un-learning all of that as I grew up. And I think too, especially the beauty side of things, cuz I always grew up hearing that, whether it was ‘oh you’re black and ugly,’ right, or people laughing at my features. The fact that my cheekbones or my jawline, you can see it from the back of my head. I remember people laughing at that, talking about how ‘tuff’ my face was. So, I completely put any idea that I was beautiful out of my mind. It wasn’t until I started doing my own research. Until I ran into, like, a Nina Simone and Maya Angelou’s words. Which is why, honestly, I really love them even now. They’ve become even more important to me, where I am now in my Journey at 29. 

Yeah, so I had un-learned that and then it became, oh so this is where the construct of beauty came from. Oh, this is why people value you more speaking standard English, because it aligns you more to the Euro-centric, the white man’s ideal of how black people should behave. Y’know, colonialism and they have gone around the world spreading their lies as the truth. So, now I’m at the place where I have a much better understanding of my history and where I’m coming from. Where the women have… how the women who look like me, how they’ve been treated. 

And there’s this other thing too that I had to grapple with. People were saying that my features were Eurocentric, and I had to debunk that and denounce that because a black person can look like anything and can have all kinds of features. It doesn’t have to be the broad nose, big lips, which is just as beautiful as if you don’t have lips that are as big or a nose that is as big. I say that to say, Be exactly who you are. 

You know, I heard Solange say something . I thought was intriguing. She said, “it takes a long time to actually develop the confidence that you pretend to have.” Yeah, I’m beginning to understand that, like, I’m actually now developing that confidence. Cuz the whole time, we pretend… I was pretending, at least.

I would love to understand where you were when you were first touched by Maya Angelou and Nina Simone’s words, and how has that impacted the understanding of how you see yourself? 

That’s a great question. I was 19… I was 19, and I was working at Digicel. And, just to give you context, I went from being on a national TV Show sponsored by Digicel. We placed 3rd because I was 16, so that was 3 years prior. And after that, kind of returning to my poor life. But also not returning, because I never went back to the country.

I had always told my mother I was going to move out at 16. So, I placed 3rd in a competition sponsored by Digicel. Everybody knows you, right? All of Jamaica knows you. They recognize you. And the reality of, well, now I have to take care of myself and my family. And going to work in the call center of the company that had sponsored the show that you are on. And for me, it didn’t take too much because I was used to life humbling me over and over. I was just like, okay, well now I just have to go do this, because that’s just where it is, right?. 

Y’know, this thing that people believe that we are larger than life because they see you on TV, it’s not true. So, I did that, and I remember it was the first time living with a roommate, and she had a lot of books, and I was like, hmmm. When I was much younger… growing up as a teenager, I used to read a lot, but then I stopped. I kept writing, but I didn’t read as much. But then when I was 19, and then I saw her books, I was going through the different list, and I had heard about Maya Angelou. 

And I heard that she was a powerful figure, and I knew about the Phenomenal Woman poem. But I hadn’t actually experienced her work for myself or taken up a book from her. So I saw I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and I read the cover of it. And I was like… hmmm. And I started to read it. I didn’t even finish it. I started to read it like I just got the book like two years ago again for myself so that I could finish reading it.

But I started reading it, and I was like, Wow! What an honest, vulnerable, compassionate… I was blown away by her. And then because I love words too. It was really easy for me to connect with her. I saw a lot of myself in her. That was the first time I was moved. And I remember her describing herself as ‘not pretty,’ and I was like, oh shit. And then, because I was always on the internet, I was always on YouTube, things started getting recommended to me, and I think I kind of dug into, y’know, where the (whole) beauty construct came from. And I was like, this is bullshit. To know that someone like Maya Angelou felt at one point like she wasn’t attractive because of the same things. It made me reject it even more aggressively. So, yeah, that’s where I was.

It’s the same thing with me and James Baldwin. I’ve gotten a few of his books now, but I take so long to read through them. I dunno… It’s important to me to kind of really figure out what they’re talking about. I take long. I take long! I don’t have an excuse. I just take long; it’s how I absorb things. I take a long time. Yeah.

I think that’s okay. It’s okay to take long. When you’re engaging with art, I think it’s okay to take the space that you need to engage in the way you are comfortable.

Right! And to see what it means to you, yeah. I’m not really interested in just reading it because, oh, this is the thing that all the academics are reading, so you should read this too. If I have an interest and I’m going to take up, then I’m going to engage with it at the pace that I want to. 

We reached out to and asked you what are your top 3 favourite songs from your own catalogue. And you said, Be Somebody, Carry you and Set me on fire. Is there a common thread throughout each of them, and what specifically do they mean to you? 

Okay. So Be somebody, I wrote it in 2019, the summer of 2019, when I was feeling like I was at a standstill in music. There are a lot of, “Oh, this is going to happen, and this is going to happen,” and then it just is not happening. I felt like, again, and it’s something that keeps happening for me, and it’s something that I’m working through with professionals. (She laughs to herself) This idea that I am this misunderstood, weird, strange woman. When in reality, it’s just that I’m dark-skinned, and people are rejecting the idea that I can have as many dimensions as I do so have. So, when I wrote Be Somebody, I was frustrated. I felt unsupported in music and felt like it wasn’t going anywhere. So, I was like, “Up to my neck with feelings, like trying to wear me thin.” And I guess that is the common theme among the 3 songs.

Carry You is really a song to my brother. I wrote that song to him so that he would know that no matter what, no matter how low down he felt or whatever kind of tests came up, that I would be there for him no matter what. Coming from the same depths that Carry You comes, Set Me on Fire, I wrote at the end of being in a two-year abusive relationship. Abusive in the sense of, mentally, emotionally and sexually. Being raped in my own relationship, my autonomy being denied. And I think that’s why I’m too so now like you cannot tell me that this is the way to go, and this is what I should do with my body because I’ve experienced it and I hated it. Y’know what I’m saying? So, yeah, those three songs from me are very honest, very honest. As honest as I could be. 

I admire writers who are honest like that, in the way that Nina Simone doesn’t give a fuck, she nuh business if your feelings are hurt. And as Black, as she was, in the time that she existed, she was singing about it, and she was doing her “unorthodox” moves on stage. Nina Simone was writing blatantly about her own sexual abuse… I don’t know. Like I said, they become more and more important to me as I grow up because the meaning, their meaning gets deeper as I revisit them, and on as I finish the book, and as I go back. But, yeah, those three songs, that’s what they mean, and that’s the common theme, and that’s why they’re my favourite.

Yes, yes, Thank you for that. I’m just here for the honesty and space… how those songs carry meaning deeper than just creating art but carry meaning for you and those you Love.

Yeah yeah, because the thing is with me and writing, it’s not hard for me to get very vulnerable and honest because I think I practiced writing for a really long time. Even before doing songwriting, I was writing in the back of my books about how I was feeling. I had a whole book about how I felt about not having my father in my life and the kind of anger… and I would reread my writings too and I surprised myself self a lot about how angry I seemed, or bitter, and just you know, dark or whatever the fuck, y’know. So yeah, it became … I started a relationship with writing from really, really young. I don’t know if it was Sesame Street that introduced it to me or what. But something, I just never let it go. I’ve always loved it; I’ve always loved words. And so I was writing stories, and then I went from writing stories to poems. And then I went from writing poems to songs. So that thing of, I’m going to write about how I’m feeling and what I’m feeling and how it’s manifesting in my behavior or whatever, it stayed, it stayed with me.  

That’s beautiful. Throughout this conversation that we’ve had today, I think authenticity has been something that you’ve centralized as really important in your work and really important in your craft. As you build your writing, I think that allows you to engage and connect with your authenticity more. And, as we are thinking of closing up this conversation and wrapping up, I’m thinking of somebody who might not be familiar with your work. Somebody who may just be becoming introduced to your work, how would you describe it? How would you introduce yourself in as many words or as few words as you want to use?

I never know how to really describe myself. But what I would say is, I’m on my own Journey, right, and I’m trying to be honest in it. And I’m doing my best. I’m doing my best at each point. And doing your best looks different, depending on how much weight you’re carrying. It could be that you do five million things in a day, or you don’t do anything. So, yeah, I’m on this journey, and I’m trying to be honest with myself, and I’m doing my best.