'It isn’t always pretty, but it has to be powerful': Mélissa Laveaux on lessons learned from influential women

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Mélissa Laveaux has just released her third album. Radyo Siwèl turns to the American occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934. During this time, popular songs became weapons of resistance once more, enlivened and reinterpreted by a new generation. A strong influence in the process of creating Radyo Siwèl was the Haitian singer and activist Martha Jean-Claude.

To coincide with International Women's Day 2018, we asked Mélissa about the women who have most deeply influenced her as an artist, and why it's important to create work that directly speaks to women's experience.

On the women who have been most influential to her as an artist...

I’d have to say poets, contemporary artists and black feminists such as Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Kara Walker. Their works embrace all of their identities, expose intergenerational trauma. They’ve woven history and their personal life experiences into work that is specific and yet manages to touch every reader. None of these writers have a delicate hand, they say things as they are. I’ve learned that my songwriting doesn’t have to be full of daisies and sunshine if that isn’t what I felt and that the strongest work is always the most cathartic and incisive, often coming out like an exorcism. It isn’t always pretty, but it has to be powerful.

On why it is important to include women and self-identified women in her art...

Representation matters. Growing up, the works of artists who shared my identities weren’t always readily available but when I got my hands on Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou’s books, I saw myself and I saw the women in my life. It was like being summoned to take my turn and speak my truth as well. I could suddenly project myself into a future I didn’t know I had a right to be a part of because I didn’t see myself represented in songs, in books or in media. I recently saw a picture of a little girl excitedly gaping at the canvas of a Michelle Obama portrait. One can only imagine what kind of message that fosters and what will become of that kid.

On how her work addresses issues that relate to women...

My work talks about survival, thriving after trauma and naming the powers that oppress us. If you don’t identify the disease, you can’t cure the illness.

Audre often repeats that we were never meant to survive (in her poem Litany for Survival). The western world’s structure was built to marginalise certain groups in order to build capital. In recent years, the murders of trans women of colour have only increased, only to be minimised and misgendered in the media. To not only survive, but to thrive - is a feat. It is also a militant act of self-preservation and therefore resistance. I try to weave all those element into the thought process behind my work.

Mélissa Laveaux performs here on Fri 13 April. Tickets now on sale