VIVEK SHRAYA: TRANSCENDING ART FORMS, GENRES AND IDENTITIES, VIVEK SHRAYA FINALLY LIVES HER TRUTH
I’ve been a fan of Vivek Shraya for years. Back in 2012, I attended one of her readings for God Loves Hair at Bluestockings Bookstore in Manhattan. Then, I was taken with her powerful presence and intimate style. Meeting her four years later, I was anything but surprised to discover that she is as modest and kind in conversation as she is talented on stage. Up close, Vivek is magnetic; beautiful on the inside and out, alluring and open, she draws you to her without effort. Her fan base is perhaps not as big as it should be - “being a brown queer musician in the Canadian music industry is not an easy ambition” – but heavily loyal. Once you know about Vivek, it’s hard not to love her. Over the years, she has done it all: releasing 10 solo albums, 5 books, and 4 films, on top of touring with Grammy-nominated duo Tegan and Sara. Fascination with music as a form of expression started early on for Vivek. While she admits that “most narratives around queerness and religion are two things that cannot coexist - they’re like oil and water”- her religion allowed her to express her femininity in a way that was accepted. In school, Vivek was being read as ‘abnormal,’ whereas in a Hindu religious space, the opposite. “All the stereotypes of ‘feminine boys’ are very normal in Hindu masculinity. I think a big part of why I turned to music was because it allowed me to try to connect with God.”
2016 has been a big year for Vivek. On February 15th, her 35th birthday, Vivek publicly announced that she was now using the pronouns “she, her, hers.” She simultaneously released her single, “Girl It’s Your Time,” donating all of the proceeds to a trans and genderqueer support group in Toronto. “The response was just so overwhelming, I felt like it was maybe the first birthday I’ve ever had.” Working solo for the majority of her career, Vivek recently started Too Attached, a pop duo with her brother, Shamik. She says that their personal relationship, which had otherwise been tumultuous, has turned into a supportive and collaborative kinship, infused with the beauty of rediscovering one another through music, a place of earlier connection. The new project also served as an opportunity to create a fresh slate for the siblings’ respective music careers. Canadian born and bred, Vivek recalls that she “flat out had several people say to me you’ll never get by in Canada as a brown artist. I look around and 15 years later, that hasn’t changed much.” Despite the setbacks that she has faced, Vivek remains a positive force and source of light, coming across wildly modest considering her achievements in every art field. On top of releasing new music, she has published The Boy and The Bindi, a children’s book, opening herself up to a younger crowd with brave strides. There is no denying that Vivek Shraya is stunningly prolific, working in every format imaginable. Admittedly, taking breaks is not her strong suit: “I was just having a conversation with a friend about high functioning depressive personality types; when most people think of depression or anxiety, they think of a loss of energy, but I navigate my mental health in the opposite way. My depression involves me being super, super productive as a way to not have to stop and think about the meaning of life and then realize there is none.” She laughs.
Vivek had been exploring the pronouns “she” and “her” with friends for a good six months, but wrestled with coming out publicly. “I’m already brown and I’m already queer, now I’m adding trans to it. Will I alienate audiences, people who I’ve spent years trying to build a relationship with through my art?” She forged ahead regardless of anxieties, and was met with a whole lot of love. When I ask what the most touching response is that she’s received, she pauses – “I get emotional even just saying it now.” It was a message from the trans support group, Supporting Our Youth. It read: “Thank you so much, you give those of us on the margins courage to come forward”. But does Vivek consider herself an activist? It’s complicated. “When you embody marginalized identities and you speak of them, you’re sort of immediately seen as an activist. I worry about falling short.” Objectively, Vivek views art as “a powerful form of activism”, but shies away from claiming the term - “not because I’m ashamed of it but because I have so much respect for people I know who are using their bodies to stop traffic. As vulnerable as it is to make art, when I think about the safeties I’ve had, I don’t know that I ever put myself on the line as much. Sometimes I feel like an accidental activist.” But intentionally or accidentally, Vivek can’t take away from the fact that she has inspired thousands across the world. And she recognizes that this is beautiful thing. “As my career has grown I definitely feel a responsibility to use my small platform to address issues that I feel passionate about and address injustices that I see, which is definitely a form of activism. I think it’s a strange intersection.”
Navigating the art world, which is inherently catered towards white cisgendered men, is difficult. The boxes and labels placed on Vivek’s books, just because of her identities, imply a certain ‘otherness’ about them. “My books are not seen as just books, they’re seen as LGBT books. In some cases it’s fair – for someone to say that Even this Page is White is about race… I mean of course, that’s definitely what it’s about. But I think I bought into this idea that the only people who would like that book would be LGBT or brown. There was this straight white woman [at one of the readings] who told me how she connected to the book for a totally different reason. I remember thinking - wow, of course literature reaches a wide range of people, it’s only in this culture where the dominant is seen as the norm.”
Vivek’s projects are largely personal and political; music, however, not as much. “I’ve often felt like I had to hide parts of myself, so it’s been exciting to turn to music with the same sort of openness.” And this newfound openness is not only exciting for Vivek, but also for her listeners. The lyrics of "Girl It’s Your Time" are as inspiring as they are brave: “All those years of playing tough, all those years I gave you up. I’m never going to hide you, I’m never going to fight you again”, she sings over a minimalistic bass line. Vivek is joined by a choir of her own voices - high and low - with a delicate but steadfast strength.
Social media as an artist is often a necessary part of marketing, but Vivek, like many others, harbors a love-hate relationship with it. “Sometimes I feel like I’m constantly processing other people’s emotions. Especially when [the] Orlando [nightclub shooting] happened, it was really powerful to have this collective grief but it was also hard. Every time I opened social media someone was expressing another sentiment and I was reliving it all over again. Obviously I’m still in a privileged position, but sometimes with social media it’s hard to draw the line between your feelings, thoughts, and emotions, and someone else’s.
When I mention that the images I’ve seen relating to the new music are different from previous ones, Vivek laughs. “I had people say: ‘I googled you recently and there are mostly super ‘masc.’ pictures of you with a beard!’ With "Girl It’s Your Time" I wanted the artwork to express femininity, but also be complicated: my legs are still hairy, I still wanted it to look like me and not like I am Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s Caitlyn’s story. I was trying to figure out what felt like my story.” And the process is continually evolving; much of Vivek’s work hits with a newfound poignancy. “I’ve had friends say to me that the ending of God Loves Hair feels like a trans narrative. I wasn’t identifying as trans at the time, so it’s exciting to think about the ways that on some subconscious level the art allowed me to be myself before I could be.”
What’s ahead for Vivek? The short answer: a lot. With The Boy and the Bindi, Vivek is already working towards a safer and more open-minded world through children’s literature. During a reading of the book, one of the kids asked Vivek why she was wearing nail polish. “I said, ‘I feel like anyone should be able to wear nail polish!’ I hadn’t come out in this context. (Laughs) This kid was like, ‘Yeah that makes sense!’ Kids are so much more receptive to difference. So much of my adult life has been spent trying to have conversations about difference with other adults; I’m excited about being able to have this conversation through The Boy and the Bindi with children whose minds are maybe a little bit more open to thinking about these things.”
While she is extremely open in her art, Vivek harbors a small group of friends, of whom she is “very selective and protective”. The queer music duo Tegan and Sara are counted among Vivek’s close friends – they met in 2005 after Vivek threw one of her CDs on stage, nearly hitting Tegan in the head. And though she is a self-described introvert, Vivek’s unconventional friending techniques go far back. “I would pay attention to what the popular girl was listening to and then I would go to the public library, take that New Kids On the Block CD out, learn that song, and then accidentally sing it around her and then she’d say, “You know that song!” and then we’d become BFFs. It sounds very devious but I think as a queer kid I understood that my safety would be with girls, so it was really about strategically using my voice to build safety for myself.” She laughs. “Manipulative but smart.” There are so few artists out there as honest, selfless, and genuine as Vivek Shraya. And perhaps, we have New Kids on the Block to thank for this incredible artist... Vivek, it’s your time.