Interview: Diaspoura at Hopscotch Music Festival
In our digitally saturated, often overstimulating age, I find myself hungry for meaningful connections with inspiring communities of creatives. The daily grind can distract from our desires to collaborate, innovate and organize. When the stars align and you are able to find a dream team to help materialize your creative process, it can feel like unparalleled magic.
While sitting down with the team that designed the Diaspoura performance experience at Hopscotch Music Festival last week, that oh-so-elusive magic glittered throughout our conversation. Musician, electronic producer and new media artist Anjai Naik is the founding member and visionary behind the constantly evolving project of Diaspoura. In collaboration with set designer Julie Chea and stylist Zuri Adimu, Naik sat down with Capitol Sound DC ahead of their set at Hopscotch to discuss the vision fueling their performance at Neptune’s, inspirations and impressions of the local scene.
Who all do we have sitting here today?
Anjali Naik: I'm Anjali, my artist name is Diaspoura, so I am Diaspoura. This is my music that we're going to be playing tonight. I also am a new media artist, which means I enjoy working in computers and visual arts. I like exploring new territory in terms of what new media is. I released an album on a USB drive, and I work on my own website. I am also thinking about how I can work with other people in different capacities to make new media. I think that's how Julie and Zuri are a part of this project.
Julie Chea: I'm Julie, and I am also a new media artist - I dabble in new media and traditional art. My contribution to this project is that I am doing set design and VJing the set, doing projections and animations.
Zuri Adimu: I am Zuri, and my artist name is Zuri Style. I'm a stylist, model, and a wardrobe designer. That is what I am doing for Anjali - styling their look, making sure they feel confident on stage, rocking a look that describes who they are as a person and artist. I just want to use style to help people feel more themselves while doing whatever they're doing.
Thank you for painting this vivid portrait of your team! We're here at Hopscotch, and I noticed the set up of the performance will likely be different than what people may have seen from you in the past. What has been the progression of this project on your path to this festival, and where do you see Diaspoura headed now?
AN: I've performed in so many different ways. I started performing in general over open mics in Charleston, so people have seen me performing folk music, then they started seeing me play electric guitar for different bands, and then I started playing with Diaspoura, which was very different from now. I was trying new things out in Charleston. My project was about accessibility, feeling empowered by doing really simple things and just being amazing at it, and that's what Carolina Youth Action Project really takes leadership in as well. Now, I am more experienced, have been playing lots of shows, and I'm trying to be more intentional about the performance of my work and how my work is received.
What are some of those things that you really want to be a part of your narrative in your performance, or in your art in general?
AN: I don't really care to give detail about what I am, but I do want to express that marginalized people are multifaceted, they are multidimensional people with many layers.
I'd love to know more specifically about what your collaboration process looks like, and how the design of the set and styling play into this project as a whole.
JC: For me personally, I'm used to collaborating in more traditional means, but Anjali and I have pretty good communication of bouncing ideas back and forth with each other. They wanted to give the creative freedom to express myself in the way I wanted to, but I wanted to make sure I respected the aesthetic of Diaspoura as well, so it was a lot of trial and error. I was learning new software and trying to figure out what I saw in my head when I listen to their music. I got creative direction from some media that they provided to me, using that and their music to figure out what I envisioned from there, and sending it back to Anjali for feedback, and adjusting as we go. That's how our collaboration process went, and it's funny because what came out was accidental and experimental, which underscored the DIY aspect of the performance, too. Being multimedia and adding these new elements that weren't intentionally supposed to be there in the first place makes it for me.
ZA: I am an up and coming stylist, and my mission is to make sure whoever I'm styling is feeling like their best self, putting whatever they want to portray out into this world, like Julie said, in a collaborative way, where they get the sense that I've styled the look and that they feel like their aesthetic is incorporated in the look as well. That was pretty easy for Anjali and I because I used to work at a thrift store in Chapel Hill, and that's how I met Anjali. They would sell their amazing clothes to me, and I got a sense of their style through that. I definitely appreciated being there because I got to do things like that, and it definitely increased my access to clothing and information about fashion, styling and curating. That job thrusted me into what I am doing currently. I go thrifting a lot, and picked out a lot of cool looks that reminded me of them. After going through all of the stuff I have, we came up with an awesome look and I am so excited for y'all to see it.
How do you feel about the artistic community here in Raleigh and Chapel Hill, and what would you like to highlight about the creative spaces here?
AN: Living in Chapel Hill in the past year, I've gotten to know a good amount of people here and played a few venues in the area. I started talking and galvanizing with people and organizing with them. People have started talking to each other about different situations in venues, different community issues with safety and accessibility, gentrification, and so I am learning a lot about the city in an arts way, but also how the artists are getting affected by social issues. That has helped me get to know the city well, including being engaged politically with artists. It's cool to be able to tap in with artists because I think we have a lot of our own power over what's going on. A lot of times, artists don't feel like they have a lot of power that they can tap into, but this whole festival, we're bringing a whole bunch of people to this city for music. If musicians all want to take a stance to do something, then chances are, they're going to have to listen to us. Anyway, I expect good things to come from this area.
I'm just thinking about all of those difficult conversations about systemic racism and scene accessibility issues you lead and that we had in the Charleston arts community a few years ago, and who knows if those discussions were definitively fruitful, but it's still so helpful to have that optimism and hope for how things can improve.
AN: Yeah, but even beyond hope, we are looking for receipts. I'm moving past hope, and I am looking for papers. That's the thing about this area and places like Charleston, everyone wants to be progressive and we're all trying to be on this wave, but people often don't know how to take tangible steps. Paying artists is a big thing, not just paying with clout, not free beer, but we're looking for the paperwork and leadership.
JC: Oh, and I just realized I never talked about the set! In addition to all of the new media stuff, Anjali asked for me to help with the set design. I had been wanting to do VJing since sophomore year, but never told anyone about it. The set design is this organic growth collaboration between us both, because we both didn't exactly know what we all had on hand. Anjali brought a lot of fabric, and we scoped out the space at Neptune's beforehand. My big, overarching theme was an opposition with the media I made aside from Anjali's physical space. I wanted to make a more organic and flowy type of physical space, while the projections were more technical, repetitive and glitchy. We got together our own personal things and we're just experimenting with textures, levels and materials. The use of space and how the technology and the space interact together, that's what we wanted to work with most, instead of going out and trying to buy pretty stuff to make this certain aesthetic work.
AN: Also, how technology and our IRL lives -- it’s all so fluid in our daily lives right now and we have so many interactions over the internet that become our personal beliefs. There is that space in between that I think we're trying to explore. Something that I explore deeply in my work is finding a very natural sound out of something that is completely synthetic.
JC: I feel like that little bit of room for experimentation is the most exciting part, because you never know what's going to grow out of it, but you know it's gonna be something cool.
Of any medium, person or thing, what is inspiring y'all right now? I know our readers would love some context to your headspace and inspiration around this particular Diaspoura set.
ZA: I would say one of my biggest inspirations is Rihanna. Rihanna can do and will do anything, and that's something that really inspires me. Going to high school in Chapel Hill was something that was really tough for me as a black woman. I went to a predominantly white school and I had a big afro -- I just cut off all of my hair two months ago. I would wear my curly hair and people would comment that they liked it better when I wore it straight. Things like that really took a toll on my self esteem and self worth. People would tease me for wearing certain things, and I would push those feelings down, and just say "fine, Hollister, I'll wear Hollister." I feel like now, I'm not necessarily making up for lost time, but I want to help people realize that they don't have to fit inside of the bubble. And that's what inspires me: helping people realize that they have style, they're individuals, and they have the power to express that through their clothing.
Also, I threw a lingerie themed party recently, and we had Diaspoura perform. It was one of the first times, I organized a whole thing myself, and having that power in Chapel Hill...I just never thought that I was cool enough to do anything like that. And that was the time I looked at myself and said, "Girl, you got this! There's nothing that you can't pull off." I saw the whole house full with heads, and a whole yard full of people, and I felt so inspired. When you put in work and really believe in what you're doing, the outcome is huge.
JC: I wish I had one tangible person or thing that I could say, but honestly, what kick started my inspiration was seeing organizations and people like Diaspoura with identities in the South that aren't traditional, but still powering through to convey their own personal message that other people need to be educated. I would normally sit there and take microaggressions because I was complacent in that, and like Zuri said, you just take it and it becomes uncomfortable. But, when you figure out that you have power in your identity... Through Diaspoura and organizations like Carolina Youth Action Project, that empower through music and art, I realized that my creative side was a channel for me to act as an educator, to express creatively and to also explore what my identity in itself was, too. The collection of that and the leadership I encountered through so many different people who are using art as an expressive tool but also as an education means, I learned a lot about myself. It helped me dig deep, and helps me to keep going because I'm learning so many new things by watching people move through their work. It keeps me trying to learn new things and unlearn bad old things. For me, I want to work with all these people and gain their leadership too, so I can also pay it forward and continue to ignite that in somebody else, because that was a really powerful moment for me sophomore year of college. When that clicked, it clicked.
AN: To go off what both of y'all are saying, while it's really inspiring to see a lot of bigger artists, particularly right now, I'm really inspired by a lot of underground artists and the friendships I've been able to make with really affectionate and open people in the industry that are really trying to build solidarity in a real way. I've been really close with my friend who I went on tour with Kohinoorgasm, and Gudiya who I'm staying with while I'm here and who played at Hopscotch, she's been really coming through for me. Working with these folks has been amazing, and it's really inspiring to see people in their element.
JC: When I was on the phone with Anjali, I felt so ready to get everything done. We could feel this excited energy to do something and build something, but we didn't know what. We just wanted to create.
ZA: Oh, yes. Our group chat was everything.
AN: I think having really strong friendships and having a great artist community and creative community that is really holding space for each other is what I'm here for and what I'm really inspired by right now. I want to truly be focusing on relevant issues that we're all dealing with currently and things that we're actually working through. There's so much that we have to gloss up on our social media, and we have no room to talk about complicated issues. We have no room to talk about our nuanced emotions, so we hope that we'll provide a space for that.
Keep up with Diaspoura at the links below.