Singer/Actress/ Adventure Seeker & Traveler
In July 2015, I sat down with Shola during my visit to Paris, France. She shared her inspiring story of her brave move to Paris. Shola’s story will encourage you to reach beyond the norms and to live a life with no borders.
I’d love to hear how you ended up moving to Paris from NYC.
I lived in NYC for 8 years and was exhausted at the time. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I wasn’t singing at all. I didn’t feel like I was on purpose. I thought, “before I get married and have kids this is the time to move abroad.”
I heard about some of the history of Jazz and African Americans in Paris- little stuff because now I give tours on the history of African Americans in Paris and know so much more- and I figured this would be a good place to see what it’s all about.
Plus, I like challenges and that’s another reason I left New York. I knew NYC very well at that point. I was thinking, “what’s next?” I found having to learn a language and discover myself where no one knew me was exciting.
The transition was positive I was only suppose to be here from January to July at most. I secured a job [that lasted] until June, But in May I had already I decided that I wanted to stay longer. I wasn’t ready to go back to New York and quite frankly I didn’t know what was waiting for me there.
How did you make the decision to stay in Paris?
It didn’t feel like this huge thing. It was more like I’m not ready to go. I can be very practical as well, and so I thought, if I’m going to stay- my visa’s over in July- how can I actually stay legally? I started looking in opinions and eventually I applied for a visa called Talent and Competency. Which basically meant I had to propose a project and present myself as a professional who was recognized in my home country, in the US and I could also contribute in a substantial way to this culture, in France. I secured this visa, which gave me 3 years to stay here and pursue my project.
People have a different relationship with artists here than they do in the States. It’s not all about making money, there is an understanding that creating art is a a process. And for me, I wanted to sing and perform but did not have a clear idea what that looked like; this has been a great place for me to figure that out without the harsh criticism that I felt in NYC. New York City was about show and prove. If you’re not sure about what you’re doing and how, it’s a hard place to develop yourself.
Did you feel a sense of liberation or deeper connection to yourself when you cut your hair off?
First, I was scared out of my mind.
How did you decide to cut your hair off?
My hair had been relaxed since I was 14 years-old, much to mom’s disappointment, actually. However, in Paris, the water quality is harsh in comparison to what I was used to and it’s relatively expensive for a black woman to get her hair done in the way I was doing my hair in New York. So as a result of all of this and my poor hair care practices, my relaxed hair started breaking off.
Eventually, I met a hair stylist, also from the Bay Area, who has a salon called Polished Hair Care and I told her I was thinking about growing out my natural hair. She told me that my hair was in bad condition, I should let it go and chop it off. So I went to her salon one faithful day and she cut it all off, afterwards, my hair was about a half inch long. And everyone loved it. They said I looked so beautiful, and that my face as more visible than before.
It seems like Paris is helping you step into a solid confirmation of self. You’re taking more risks and are worry-free.
I started getting more in touch with what I think my authentic self is. However, that job is never done. You grow and you change so you always have to check in with yourself. I’m pretty self-reflective so I’m always asking myself what can I do to be more me.
What Paris has helped me to do is hide [but] also to stand out. Not being French, I can hide in a sense that, people are not expecting me to be something. I can cut off my hair, for example and because people really didn’t know me before, they weren’t attached to my hair or specific image of who I was. Here there are no attachments holding me back from exploring. I felt and feel the freedom to explore different elements of myself. I’m not as afraid to make mistakes. I feel like I’m not under a spotlight. It’s just me looking at me.
Here you are in Paris, after leaving New York City where they say, “if you make it there you can make it anywhere.” And this is where all these opportunities have opened up for you. You work with the embassy? How did that happen?
There’s a branch of the US Embassy called the Africa Regional Services, here in Paris. They send Americans who are experts in different fields to exchange in different countries in Africa. So far, I’ve had the opportunity to visit Botswana, Mauritius, and Burkina Faso. I’ve performed in these countries and led master classes.
That has been a result of me physically being in Paris. I’m not sure this type of opportunity or others I’ve had as a result of living here, would have happened if I were in the States.
What is the most valuable lesson you learned from these trips?
We all have a common thirst for truth and people want to share. Being true to ourselves and what we want to pursue in life, and the desire to share with each other and have a human connection with other people.
And so I’m wondering if, when you had that first step off the plane (in Africa), you had that overwhelming feeling of “I’m Home!”
No. I didn’t have that and I wasn’t expecting that. My origin is Jamaican; so I feel as though I come from a land that I know, even though my ancestors were originally enslaved people from Africa. It still feels like Jamaica is run by black people, there is a distinct culture and history so I can claim that as my land and feel “home” there. Consequently, I never felt like I needed to go to Africa in order to get in touch with my roots.
And I do recognize the link between West African countries and Jamaica. But I also acknowledged that being African-American, our history is very different from what Sub-Saharan Africans experience and experienced, their history and their knowledge of it. Our cultures are different. As African-Americans, I think we should feel proud that through it all, we have created our own distinct culture. And even though it’s nice to seek and lay feet in the motherland, we’ve created something else in the land that we’ve made home to us for hundreds of years.
And so now I do want to ask the big question. What are you in pursuit of?
I am in pursuit of joy, freedom and authenticity. It’s really important for me to be true, to myself, people I care about, in my expression. Joy comes from being fulfilled in the way that you live. For me, that’s music, that’s travel, that’s love. Those are the things that make me joy-filled.
And freedom, I don’t like to be tied down to anything. I was born with a nationality that enables me to express my freedom in various ways that other people don’t necessarily have, and I don’t take that for granted. I can, for the most part wear whatever I want and can go almost anywhere I want to go on this earth. I wish for other people to be able to feel free to express themselves and live their lives in whatever way(s) is most meaningful to them.
What would you say to black girls back home?
Don’t think that where you are now represents how far you can go or even how other people in the world see you. One of the things I felt when I came here is that people saw me; they recognized my beauty. It wasn’t like, “Oh, this is a special type of beauty.” “You’re a dark skin beauty.” “You’re pretty for a black girl”, etc.
It was like, all of a sudden I felt like people saw me; men, women, everyone saw me, and maybe saw myself more clearly too. So I think if you stay in the United States and especially with the climate of the US now, you’d think it’s bleak for black people all around the world.
The narrative they tell of Africa as a country instead of a continent is so skewed that you would think all the people in Africa are living in poverty. So you might not recognize that the world is so vast and being an African-American person in Paris (or somewhere else) is something completely different than being an African-American in the United States. And you might have a better deal here (in Paris).
I feel like a lot of people need some type of guidance or reassurance. How would you encourage a black girl of any age, when they want to take a chance or take a risk?
I think what I am learning, is that you never know. You have to be confident in the discomfort and the unknowingness of it all.
I decided that I wanted to move to Paris in October 2010 and I moved in January 2011. So I had no time to save up big bundles of cash. I didn’t move over here with a husband. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have anything set up. I said what I wanted to as many people as I felt needed to know and things started falling into place.
If you want something, think about how you want it, express it to people that you trust, and if things start to fall into place, I think that’s normally a goon indictor. I’m not saying, just say it and it’s going to happen. No. But if you takes steps to do something and things start happening in the way that you want, that’s normally a sign [that, that thing is] something you’re supposed to be doing. Whereas; if you’re doing something and in every way you’re getting a road block then maybe you need to try it a different way.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
If you come to Paris you can look me up.
And just be true to yourself and continue to explore. I don’t think there is ever a moment when “you’ve arrived” and everything is perfect.
And if you are, and it is, it’s probably close to the time when you’re going to leave this earth. Because for me, being alive is about being on a journey, always about reaching for something, creating something, going deeper into who you are and exploring what’s out in the world. I’d also say to be courageous because it’s not easy. You have to have courage in order to pursue what feels right for you.
Where can people find you online?