“Artists have to use their platform to highlight the human condition honestly”: An Interview with Drea Pizziconi

NYC Singer/Songwriter and self-professed ‘serial social entrepreneur’, Drea Pizziconi discusses her trajectory from politically-conscious youngster to activist musician; female empowerment; international collaborations and how she tries to avoid the ‘white saviour’ complex with her African-based development initiatives.

Drea Pizziconi and Kenyatta Signing
Drea Pizziconi and Kenyatta Signing

How did a classically trained vocalist and percussionist become an activist musician? Was there a turning point?

I am the product of two very socially conscious parents. My mother was an educator and dedicated her life to helping kids from economically challenging neighbourhoods, having been raised with a healthy dose of guilt around her privilege. Her struggle with mental illness gave me a deep compassion and the ability to recognise trauma in others. It also made me dramatically reconsider the impact of racial and economic inequality on a person’s behaviour. Meanwhile, my father grew up very modestly; the son of Italian immigrants. He was constantly discriminated against and his only way forward was to bootstrap an education somehow. It was the game changer for him, but racism against Italians in the U.S., still affected much of his career. I spend all my time outside of music on education reform and increasing access to it for economically disadvantaged youth because of how much education had an impact on both my parents.

There are some who believe that musicians should avoid politicised material and/or question its efficacy. What would your counter-argument be?

Music is the universal language of humanity. We have to find a way to talk to each other and be understood, or we will keep destroying this incredibly beautiful world. Artists have to use their platform to highlight the human condition honestly, so as to inspire others to do better. John Lennon, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte – these are all artists who shifted the tectonic plates of justice in the world. We love their music because it is unabashedly political. I wrote and produced a song called Circus Show two years ago for Keyon Harrold’s album The Mugician. When we toured Europe last summer, audiences came ready to sing along to all of the words. It gave them comfort, knowing that some Americans are conscious that we’re living in a political crisis and we have to stop that dangerous narcissist in the White House as soon as possible. In fact, I don’t think it makes anyone outside the U.S. feel better if they think we aren’t willing to speak up against this craziness; using whatever medium we can to get that guy out. After all, this is a flat-out crisis. And complacency is complicity.

So, for me, I definitely want to ensure I end up on the right side of history when my children ask me: “What the heck were you doing when all this nastiness went down?” At least I’ll have this music to set the record straight. If more artists did the same, maybe we could educate and mobilise more voters to get him out in 2020. I think activism in music should be every artist’s duty right now. I just don’t feel inspired to sing love songs when the whole country is burning.

You’ve just released a charity single Let Us Dance; proceeds of which go to funding education programmes for girls on the African continent. Firstly, how did the collaborations come about; i.e. Maimouna Youssef and The Dap-Kings’ Horns?

Well, Maimouna and I are both survivors, who haven’t shied away from singing about our process in order to heal. She and I both sang at a Global Citizens show last September, which is where we first met in person. I admire her immensely as a performer, songwriter and a very strong woman. We talked about working together and this seemed like the right chance. As for the Dap-Kings, I have a deep admiration for Sharon Jones and everything she represented. The world lost a great woman when she passed. I loved The Dap Kings’ take on the Woodie Guthrie hit This Land Is Your Land, and how they supported Sharon in general. They are the ultimate ‘he for she’ advocates, not to mention great musicians. Plus they have played with artists like Amy Winehouse – who has also impacted me greatly. It was totally natural to invite them along for the ride.

Drea Pizziconi - Let Us Dance
Drea Pizziconi – Let Us Dance

You’ve just described yourself as a survivor. Are you comfortable elaborating what that means in this context?

I will let Maimouna tell her own stories but, in my case, I have realised the only way to help empower girls and women to break the culture of silence that exploits them and heal, is to start by doing it myself. So, yes, I am a survivor of multiple sexual assaults, abuse, and discrimination. These experiences have shaped me profoundly, but only to make me stronger. This music and much of our work outside of music is also deeply shaped by my journey; moving from the setbacks to a higher ground of resilience and empathy.

Thank you for sharing.

You’ve done a number of other notable collaborations. How did you come to work with Gregory Porter and Common on Running?

My song-writing partner for that song (and my co-founder of Compositions for a Cause) is, again Keyon Harrold. He first worked with Common 20 years ago. He has also performed with Gregory for years, who started working with his brother Emmanuel back in the early days of Porter’s career. Both of the relationships were therefore close to Keyon and he generously shared them with me. When we considered who would be the best fit vocally and personality-wise, they both emerged as obvious choices. They agreed immediately and brought so much magic to that track. I really enjoyed working with them on that song and other projects since. They are exceptional artists and people.

You describe yourself as a serial social entrepreneuse. You set up The Christie Company and Africa Integras, which focus on education and development initiatives on the African continent; notably in Kenya and Ghana. The website mentions that “…it is left to the private sector…” to resolve Africa’s infrastructural shortfall. This might be a short-term solution in the case of certain social entrepreneurs. However, history begs to differ, with ample examples of foreign ‘investment’ coinciding with exploitative practices. The site suggests that African governments struggle to fill the reported $50 billion gap, but they could; if there were the political will for redistributive policies such as fairer taxes, a clamp-down on corruption, holding Western actors to account etc. Even in a Western context, it’s clear to see that citizens cannot be left to the mercy of the private sector’s goodwill. Wouldn’t it be better to support existing civil society groups and help them advocate for change at the state and/or national level with the private sector being a junior partner? For instance, where there are no natural monopolies?

Let me try to unpack this question well, yet succinctly, because we could spend the day just discussing this one point. I’ve been working extensively in Africa for nearly 15 years and I’ve come to a few conclusions: First, there are no clear good guys or bad guys. There are private sector investors that are greedy as hell and should be held publicly accountable for their unethical behaviour. There are very greedy governments and politicians that put their own personal interests ahead of the needs of their own people. NGOs and charities are sometimes no better, and even academics can be corrupt and exploitative at times. One focus group we conducted showed that 90% of girls are pressured by at least one professor for sex in order to pass their course. And that’s just one example.

Meanwhile, many NGOs have wasteful budgets that don’t hold them accountable.

Instead they give Western expats exotic adventures to report back about. Additionally, local NGOs often lack the governance to manage the level of funding required to address these critical issues. In short, I’ve seen it all. Equally, I’ve met incredibly noble politicians, academics, and private sector leaders who put the interests of their country first in very genuine ways. We just need more of them.

Moreover, there just isn’t enough money to solve the problem of quality education access in Africa through charitable or governmental funding alone. We have to work with the reality; African governments struggle to collect taxes full stop. Don’t get me wrong; I am all for fair practices to reduce income inequality through proportionally higher taxes for those in certain wealth brackets, but that just doesn’t happen in most countries around the world. Additionally, most of the countries where we work don’t have the GDP to support the level of investment they require for their own education infrastructure. What are the youth to do in the meantime? Every year, without investments in additional university infrastructure, cohorts of young people lose the chance to attend university. And getting a higher education degree is the gateway to the middle class for these young people.

Here’s what I do believe in; my own values and that I should be held publicly accountable to do the right thing when I have control of the investment decision. This is why I became a social entrepreneur—to prove that you truly can do well by doing ‘good’. I once ceded control of material investment decisions to a large, public institutional investor I brought into the deal, who chose greed over doing what was right for the young people involved. That situation taught me never to trust an investor’s good intentions alone ever again. So instead, I have developed legal mechanisms to ensure that the social impact we have prioritised is never compromised; especially to achieve unreasonable financial returns. Equally, development requires private sector capital to happen at such a scale that we cannot afford to take investors for granted. Capital must always be returned to investors, preferably with a reasonable return so other capital is attracted into other social impact projects.

In the meantime, I use music to help rally the youth to take up a more active voice to hold their governments accountable, because, as you say, they should. And I always look at every deal to ensure that the highest returns are made not by the investors but by the universities and the governments. I will not do a deal otherwise.

You might be aware of recent debates in the U.K. surrounding Africa’s (mis)representation in the Western mainstream being almost exclusively from the perspective of those with a ‘white saviour’ complex. It is further underscored by the perturbing and scandalous case of Renée Bach. Is there a danger that your projects could be perceived similarly; well-intentioned as they might be? How do you avoid this, if at all?

Absolutely there is. I fight that perception by investing in and trusting my local colleagues who have enormous agency over how our projects unfold in each country. I have three ingredients that I believe are part of a successful project without which I will not proceed:

1. Parties must trust each other or they’ll never proceed to contractual close.

2. Local culture is always right. If you try to fight it or manipulate it, it will be at your detriment and you’ll likely lose your shirt eventually.

3. At some point you can’t mitigate every risk, so you need to trust each other, hold hands, and have the courage to go forth knowing you can sort out future challenges together.

I am blessed with local colleagues like our East African Managing Director John Ngumi. He is a national hero in Kenya and one of the most honourable people with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure to work. He is key to ensuring I hold myself accountable to that recipe of success. I learn from John every day and feel incredibly blessed to be mentored by him. He’s decades wiser than I am. I also have a handful of other colleagues like John throughout the continent that I rely upon to lead us when it comes to doing right by the cultures and countries that have so graciously invited us. That’s the other secret. We only go where we’re invited. It’s the first step in any project. We accept an invitation after local options have been exhausted. Neither do we compete with local options that are viable, since there are so many other projects we could focus on. One day, I intend that my local colleagues will take over the company completely. I would play a more passive role on the board so I can devote more time to fixing America’s broken education system, or our penal system. There’s a lot that needs fixing right in my backyard as well.

Lastly, what’s next for Drea Pizziconi and your development projects? How can potential supporters get involved?

Well first, that’s kind of you to ask, and thank you for asking all of these other questions that get to the heart of the matter. These are important issues that have to be discussed and debated. Lives are at stake so we can’t afford to dance around them. Time is not on our side. Our youth deserve to see us being as proactive in finding solutions and getting them education access ASAP.

As for what’s next, I have a lot more music coming out in drips over the coming months. I’ve written three distinct albums, so I’ll be releasing music for the next few years steadily. And, since I write most of it during my long plane rides to and from Africa, I will probably have accrued more by the time I release the next two dozen songs. Many of these touch upon some of the issues of inequality, grit, and the ‘isms’ I see in my everyday work. I hope the music will support the development naturally. On the professional front, we get requests from new governments and universities weekly. We have more pipelines to comb through than we could possibly invest in for the coming many years.

Lastly, I’m most excited about a new initiative we’re launching to target student loans for Africa’s most vulnerable girls. It is lesser discussed (though the BBC has documented it) that approximately 50% of girls attending Africa’s public universities are pressured to exploit their bodies and take on married male ‘sponsors’ to pay their school fees. This isn’t just an African issue, of course. The sugar baby crisis has become a global pandemic. Our initiative – Girls First Finance – will attempt to address it both in Africa and in the West. It’s a solution that is equal parts technology (a mobile app), financing for education, mentoring and connectivity with other girls and women. This project will no doubt have the most impact and scale of any social investment I’ve ever undertaken. It keeps me up at night thinking about the magnitude of it all. I can’t wait to release it in the autumn. Stay tuned. In the meantime, Let Us Dance, written for those girls and women, will give all profits to the Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) in Africa. It is setting the stage for what is to come.

Drea Pizziconi
Drea Pizziconi

This is an edited version of a longer interview.

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