Emerging on stage for her ‘Exquisite’ show at the St Kilda National Theatre in a black sequin dress, with a bouquet of white flowers in her hair, Mama Alto looked and sounded like an otherworldly angel who us mere humans don’t deserve. She is a modern day queen of jazz, but she is also far more than just her voice. She is an entertainer, a storyteller and an activist who somehow also masters the art of cabaret by incorporating all these elements into her show. She makes you laugh, she makes you cry, she makes you feel like you’re a part of the show and most importantly she leaves you breathless with the urge to change the world for the better. I had the privilege of meeting the fabulous Mama Alto after her performance to chat about music, politics and everything in-between.
How did your interest for music and singing start?
My mother always says that even when I was first born I was making singing noises, like a little bird. And then all my life my father loved music and he had lots of records, cassettes, CDs later on, and he listened to everything from classical music to Elvis to opera, but also a lot of the jazz and soul singers who I love and whose artistry I learned from and modelled my musicality on. Mostly black American and British women. And that’s where it all started.
What attracted you to jazz specifically?
When I was growing up my mum loved Vince Jones and Grace Knight who had a wonderful jazz album that they collaborated on. We had a cassette of it and she listened to it so much that by the time I was 4 or 5 the cassette had big silent chunks on it because the tape had worn out. And my dad listened to Billie Holliday, Nina Simone, Cleo Lane, Sara Vaughan, Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin; the great women of jazz and soul. And for him, which I at some level understood but I couldn’t articulate at such an early age, I could see that it was something very empowering, and for me as well. There was something very meaningful and empowering about these women who were glamorous and powerful and in charge of their own stories, narratives and voices because of, not in spite of, their colour. It gave us a lot of hope, and a sense of agency.
Discrimination towards people from marginalised groups is still a big issue in the music industry. Is that something that has affected you in any way? And how do you deal with it?
Most definitely. It’s a very strange thing because the music world is simultaneously art and business. And that’s when it becomes a really difficult journey, especially as an artist, figuring out how to balance making a living wage, working with these different business sectors of the arts world, without letting it compromise your ideals or messages. For artists who are marginalised to begin with it becomes even more difficult because you might be in a position of less power than the people you’re negotiating with from a structural, systemic, social oppression viewpoint. So it becomes a matter of deciding which discriminations you are prepared to let go and which ones you are willing to fight. Because for me, ideally, you’ll fight every battle, but that’s impossible. Realistically you have to pick and choose your battles in a strategic way. So it becomes a very difficult journey where people are doing the best they can do and often in secret because it can be dangerous to their career. But there are a lot of people in the Melbourne arts scene who do speak up about these things. And that gives me a lot of hope and motivation when it becomes too difficult. There’s always a counter current, and there’s a matter of artists and audience member finding that countercurrent and joining it.
Performing at the National Theatre in St Kilda is a big deal, what has been your most memorable show or performance so far?
That’s a really tough question, because ultimately any performance where you can see and feel that audience members have gained something out of what you’re doing is great. If audience members have accessed their emotions, had their lived experienced and identities affirmed and validated, had their prejudices or discriminations challenged or changed, or if they’ve simply had their hearts touched and opened by music and storytelling, then it’s a great performance for me and I love every single time that happens. So it’s hard to pick a favourite performance, but whether it’s intimate or large scale, the fact that I can’t pick a favourite reflects well back on the aims of prioritising diversity and many perspectives.
Your shows are not just a music concert, it’s entertainment, it’s storytelling, it’s political and a conversation. It was amazing feeling like a part of the show as an audience member. What made you take this musical direction?
That’s so important with cabaret as a genre, it fits well with our newer ideas surrounding social justice. Ethnographers and anthropologists used to go into countries to measure the societies’ values and experiences through observing and notating with objectivity and passivity. And a lot of new social justice movements show us that this was actually a way for white, male, heterosexuals to normalise and naturalise themselves as the norm against which everyone else can be judged. These movements and inclusive self-reflexive ideas of sociology, which include and centre the voices of marginalised people, says there’s no such thing as the objective, passive observer. So it collapses that subject-object divide where we are all subjective and have agency, and it connects for me to the idea of cabaret as a genre. Audience members are participating, they’re influencing the outcome, they’re bringing ideas into what is discussed. It creates a conversation between a performer and the audience. It also creates a situation where the audience is implicated in sociopolitical ideas, messages and context of the performance. And that’s what makes being a cabaret performer in this country very interesting, because you are directly communicating to the hearts and mind of people who go on to influence others.
It is clear through your social media that marriage equality, and the postal survey, is something that is very dear to your heart. How do you feel about the Australian government spending so much time, energy and money on something that should be so easy?
First of all, $122 million dollars, when this country claims to not have enough money to divest from dirty energy sources, not have enough money to confront and solve homelessness and poverty, to bring here and extend benefits and citizenship to asylum seekers fleeing conflict zones. But for an unnecessary, non-binding, postal survey funded by taxpayer money, to be used as a smokescreen to allow the suspension of hate speech, discrimination and vilification laws is disgusting. It is a disgusting and pointless exercise furthering divisiveness in our communities, and furthering the voices of people who would have whole segments of our population exterminated. But it is also sinisterly almost a test run of what non-compulsory, voluntarily democracy might look like in this country and how it can be taken advantage of in political campaigning.
During your show you expressed a lot of frustration towards what is happening in the world at the moment. Living through Trump’s presidency and with the current Australian government it seems like there’s one attack after another on pretty much every minority there is. From a person of colour and genderqueer point of view, where do you see the future of equality going?
I feel very anxious and very worried about the future of equality. There’s a tendency for activists to feel that once any win for equality occurs, that’s it. We can stop fighting. There’s a great risk in the marriage equality debate, where if marriage equality is achieved that the mainstream of Australia’s population, as well as the bulk of LGBTIQ+ people will think that queer equality has been won. But until we eliminate queer youth homelessness, until we have medical treatment equality and equity for trans and gender non-conforming people, until we have public bathroom access, protection in the workplace and education systems, we haven’t reached queer equality.
Secondly, I have great anxiety because liberalism, moderate and progressive political interests seem to flourish, and then decline and are then replaced by rising conservative far-right elements in a cyclical fashion. And the wins of each cycle are sometimes eroded by the losses of the conservative backlash to that progressive flourish. I fear that this cycle is a difficult one to break and that we’re at the end of a progressive cycle; with the rise of conservative far-right thought worldwide, the election of Trump, the continuing of violence against black and brown lives, the postal survey, and we can see it is a worldwide thing and it worries me greatly.
How do you stay positive through all of this?
Singing helps immensely. And connecting with community helps immensely. But as someone who has experienced severe mental health problems, and as someone who always tries to advocate about it, I think it’s important to say that I don’t stay positive. There are times of elysian and extreme positivity, but then there are times when I have terrible lulls of anxiety, depression and breakdowns of my mental health because our communities are literally under siege from people who do not believe that we are equal human beings. And at times like this it’s not possible for any individual to be positive all the time. The best that we can do is speak out about mental health issues to empower and lift each other up and fight for our rights and equality regardless of that. I think denying that it exists, or pretending that it can be gotten rid of, ultimately leads to a greater struggle. It’s better to acknowledge that it’s part of the human condition, that sometimes it is in control, sometimes you’re in control, and that we have to deal with that the best we can.
You’re doing very well as an artist, does it feel surreal to you or have you become used to it?
There’s an element of the surreal every time you step on stage and there are actually people in the audience. And it is surreal every time there is an audience in front of you and they applaud and respond. It fills me with gratitude. It is wonderful. It is overwhelming. At some level also some kind of responsibility and a privilege, knowing the power you and your words can have. And it’s not something that I take lightly. And it’s something that I hope to always do justice to.
What do you have planned for the future?
For the future I want to sing, I want to touch hearts and I want to change minds. Whether it is in a massive theatre or tiny room, whether it’s for 450 people or 8. At an artistic, creative level at the heart of what I do, that doesn’t matter. Whether it’s 8 people in a tiny room with no microphone and no lighting, or in a big, fancy theatre — the important thing is reaching people.
Interview by Nilo Danai, photography by Alexis Desaulniers-Lea and Trent Pace.