In Conversation With Sio | “Carry On Being A Misfit That’s Going To Be Your Superpower”
From dismantling patriarchal practices in the house music scene, to the dangers and complexities of existing in this world as a woman, singer, poet and storyteller, Sio shares the ideas behind her latest album, Features.
It’s a bit cold in Johannesburg, but it’s Sio’s favourite season, “so it’s cool” she admits, as we start a delightful conversation I’ve been thinking of having since I started following her a few years ago.
Sio is a singer and a poet. Her new album, Features, explores womanhood, gender-based violence, racism, the weird ways in which good looking people are perceived, and it attempts to rewrite one of the most obsolete paradigms in the music industry, especially in the world of house music.
Sharing a grey sky and chilli weather, which make London and Joburg feel not far at all, we begin to unpack the powerful ideas conveyed in Features.
Having been a featured vocalist on the songs of many producers’ work over the years, mostly in a house context, for some time Sio thought of doing a show where she would sing all of these features and tour it. She had already pictured the poster, but what seemed like an easily achievable objective in a pre-Covid world, became impossible with the reality of living through a pandemic that shut us all down. Nonetheless, it allowed new perspectives to emerge, Sio tells me: “In staying home I looked at the world and it got me to introspect. In 2019, I had what we call ‘a dark night of the soul’, I was a broken piece of human shame, it was wild. And I sat down and watched what being Black meant, outside and inside black skin; and I watched what being a woman was, outside and inside this form. Then I looked at how those things sort of pitied into various things in my life, and I looked at me, at someone who is perceived as good looking: today I’m having a bad skin day and I don’t wear makeup, but we’re not allowed those kinds of off days. We’re also not allowed to have thoughts and opinions in general, because we’re treated as placeholders and all of our successes are accrued through our looks as people who are perceived as good looking, so they’re like: ‘Who did you sleep with?’ And that’s annoying.”
A combination of all these thoughts ended up shaping the themes of the album, whose title plays remarkably on the word feature, going further into the depths of the reflections that accompanied its conception.
“It’s about my physical features: my skin colour, my gender, my race, my social-economic background, those are all features of who Sio is and her heart” she explains. “There’s also, the features I got on the album and these were all like swaps, because I’d been featured in the work of these producers, I just had access to them, so I was just like: “Can I feature you?” and they had no issues. Some of them are big names in the industry [Kid Fonque, Jonny Miller, Charles Webster, Dunn, Dwson and more], but there wasn’t a push back, it was so chilled, but some people were like: ‘Yeah, but you’re not supposed to be featuring DJs.’ And I was like: ‘Watch me!'”
House music has filled our dance floors, our hearts and memories for decades. It’s a genre that connects people, breaking moral and generational walls like only a few other musical genres. However, the insidious, invisible traps of the patriarchal structures embedded into our society have always found a fertile ground in the music industry, where the names of the vocalists—mostly women that have made all those iconic house tracks the timeless hits we remember and sing alone—have very often been wiped not only from the credits, but also from history.
Sio shares this vision. “That’s the thing, there’s been an unspoken industry sort of preset or law for the longest time where the vocalist is shunted or moved aside. There are so many classics that I grew up to. For example, I had no idea who sang Pure until ten years ago and I know it is Monique Bingham now, and I still don’t know the name of the woman who sings Finally by Kings of Tomorrow—I saw a name but I’ve forgotten it. So there’s madness like that, that’s just how it is, how it’s been.”
The soulfulness of Sio’s unique voice surfs the many sonic currents and moods of Features, carrying important messages and sharing experiences that makes it an incredibly bold piece of work that Sio admits was scared to release. Womanhood is at the very centre of it. A state, a condition so intense and complex to experience, yet so overlooked, often ignored and subject to different degrees of discriminations in different parts of the world. Actually, some of the most terrible consequences of the pandemic which have particularly affected women and womanhood (i.e girls who grow up experiencing forms of violence that will most likely affect them for the rest of their lives) haven’t been dealt with, exposed, talked about in the same way as others. During the pandemic in Southern African countries, including South Africa, there has been an escalation in gender-based violence against women and girls due to the harmful gender stereotypes embedded in social and cultural norms, as Amnesty International reports.
In this climate which Sio lives and experiences, both as a woman and an artist, the pain and violence are beautifully harnessed through her poems and lyrics.
“I Learned Early, it’s a poem piece, I posted it on my Instagram page for poetry, called The Twilight Child. It comes from a lot of things that I’ve been through as a person, like a lot of limitations were or are placed on me because I’m female and there’s this expectation to be the girl that came in a pink box with a pink ribbon: I had to be this little, pretty, precious thing that needed to be taken care of, but most often than not I wasn’t taken care of and so I learned to be a boy, because it just looked safer and easier, and there’s so much more that they can’t get away with. I learned early, right through childhood, that it is not a vibe being a chick, being female. It is not. Also watching how other women are going through the same thing in a different incarnation anywhere. It’s not just me going through this madness of being female, everybody has got a difficult time of it and I’m sure there are difficulties in being male, but it still looks better and safer and there’s so much freedom they have over women, I’ve noticed from childhood.”
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“It’s a poem that stems from the climate of the world right now, especially as a South African woman in South Africa. It’s frightening going outside. You need to be careful how you dress, how you speak to people—men specifically—where you go, what you drink and how you are drinking it, when you’re leaving, because you’re in danger almost by default of having a vagina, which is wild!”
And music industry environments aren’t any safer, and women themselves often tend to be the gatekeepers of patriarchal practices like the hyper sexualisation of female artists, she recalls “I had a nine-to-five job in the early days of my music journey, and the idea of this employer of mine of me succeeding as a female musician was to expose a lot of my body and sexualise my image. But I want people to listen to me, and if you look at me because I’m quirky, fine, but not because you wanna take to bed. I’m generally a very self-conscious person and again I’ve been through a lot of sexual assaults and stuff in my time that I’m not comfortable being that woman yet, I might become, who knows!”
Her voice is full of energy and liveliness even as she talks about the dark times she had to go through in recent years and as a young girl, when her vocal talent was starting to shine through. “I grew up in a community that laudes the big voice, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and the undoubted massive voice with all of those beautiful riffs and rhymes. I sound like a woman they threw out of 1947, it’s bizarre! I don’t know why that is, maybe I’m a reincarnation of one of them!” Sio jokes when I ask her if it was poetry or singing she first got into.
“I did theater for a little bit and my voice teachers always said I had too light of a voice and I had to darken it. Even the voice I speak in now is a lot lower than my natural speaking voice, but it’s becoming natural because I taught myself to speak lower—apparently my voice was too squeaky and irritating,” she continues. “But the song writing came from poetry and the poetry hit me by accident: I started writing when I was going to be 16, because this guy was making fun of my name and I responded in rhyme. I was just like: ‘That is corny! but there may be something here!’ I struggled to write songs, then my mum took a job abroad for about a year or two, and I bought myself a guitar. I started learning chords, but it took me ages to crack it. I think I had insomnia for about six months and in that time the songs made sense. I wrote a song about not being able to sleep, and the madness I felt, and a lot of other songs on guitar. Suddenly, I got access to house beats, because there were a lot of people doing the deep house and soulful house thing around me and that’s how they came together.”
Navigating life as a woman, working in the music industry, there’s a lot Sio has learned along the journey, so there are many precious pieces of advice she’d give her younger self: “Carry on being a misfit that’s going to be your superpower, because you get to own who you are and understand yourself. You are going to the deep dark depths of yourself, to heal yourself a lot quicker than your peers will and that’s ok. Everybody’s got their own journey, but you being an outcast and alone and being in your head is okay! Trust your gut and listen to your intuition a lot more. It’s gonna lead you to the right things and protect you from MONSTERS!” She shouts laughing, “So when your guts says ‘Run!’ trust, leave! Also, do the things you have to do without procrastinating so much. I understand you are procrastinating because your self esteem is a bit short, but just do it anyway! Your confidence will come from the exercising of what you want to do, so go and empower yourself! And everybody who tells you can’t… they’re wasting their energy, don’t listen, it’s noise.”
These words echo the lyrics of another song of the album, Golden: You are golden, I, we cannot and will not stay down, the lyrics say. “There’s an aspiration to whiteness and a bastardisation of Blackness I’ve lived,” she explains, “And there’s also the fetishising of me and I don’t know if it’s because I’m close enough to white, that white wanna applause me and aspirational enough for Black, the Black wanna applause me, but I never feel like home. Also a lot of people didn’t wanna accept me because I straddled the line in every way, I’m a misfit outcast in my strange little self. And I just look at ways to celebrate being this mixed human, who’s Black, of course, but also for the other Black people I know, because we haven’t had a lot of reasons to celebrate, especially last year when racial ambiguities became sexy. I’m like: ‘What?’ So it’s a thing now to be Black? Till when white people will decide these things? They culturally appropriate to suit their trend off our Blackness, and then what? We always give blueprints for white successes and I’m tired of it. I want to be in a place where we take ownership of our brilliance because we don’t, and even the way I’ve written Golden is always like a sort of flirtation: you’re not good enough for me white person, stop it. Stop coming after us and using us for your own ends! Let also not give away ourselves so much and just you know, let’s keep our stuff to ourselves, so we can celebrate and explore and expand who we are, without your blinkers and parameters and limits on us, and the limits we’ve internalised.”
Sio was scared to release this album because of the context and the themes within it, but things need to change and who has a voice, especially when it is so beautiful and pleasant to listen to, has to use it.
That’s what Sio did with her features to try and trigger change, channeled through music, from the bottom up, starting from the guy on the street who catches the taxi. “That’s my world” the singer explains, “he catches a taxi to work and has to leave in the wee hours of the morning and come home after dusk. He’s tired and he probably doesn’t have a good role model of what being a gentleman is because he grew up in a township, probably without a father, or a father who was neglectful or abusive. I wrote it for him to teach him or hopefully share compassion, you know, for him specifically and the guys that are coming through.”
Currently working on the visuals for the Features, Sio is also celebrating that the album is reaching so many people across the world and the diaspora of Africans, a blessing for her and for all of us.
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