Certain songs have the ability to entrance us, giving us goosebumps and taking us on a journey beyond time. The intensity of emotion is at its highest level at such moments. If that song touches our hearts as much as it appeals to our ears, it encourages us to think, act and heal. As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said: “This is why the effect of music is stronger than other arts, that is why it penetrates you. Because at most they speak of the shadow, whereas the music speaks of the essence.”
When thinking about what the background music to my life would be, the answer definitely is “I Am Enough” by Maya Azucena. I felt so lucky when I had a chance to listen to this great song before it was even released. It was the song that took me on a deep journey. With its lyrics and music, “I Am Enough” is a piece that manages to convey its story very clearly. Maya says that the song is for those who have given their all and yet are still not given their due. “Their due means to be given respect, honor and rewards for someone’s contributions. I believe that in America, and possibly worldwide, there are those who made huge sacrifices for their society and their country, and yet they are not acknowledged fully, still treated unjustly, marginalized and even erased from history books. ‘I Am Enough’ is a reminder that those contributions are not empty, and not forgotten,” she explained.
There are actually too many words I could use to describe Maya Azucena. She is an avid singer-songwriter with a four-octave vocal range. In many ways, she is a woman who uses her voice and art as one of her soul’s weapons. She is a master artist, performer and woman who serves as a ray of sunshine and can be an inspiration to other vocalists. She has one of the most incredible voices I’ve ever heard. When I had the opportunity to watch her stage performance live in Istanbul, it didn’t take me long to realize that there was something unique and alluring about her. It was nearly impossible to miss this shimmering jewel.
Maya’s perfect four-octave vocal range, emotional renditions and charismatic, comprehensive gestures literally take listeners on an introspective lyrical journey. While listening to her, you almost flow into the songs with your own emotions. All the songs that she sings with a smooth, angelic, and at the same time, haunting tone are composed of stories that host sometimes heavy and sometimes happy emotions and are conveyed with faith. I have no doubt that Maya should be referred to as a “living legend.”
The reason why her songs are so sentimental and able to evoke an array of feelings when we listen to them is that her musical melodies are fed by the pure expression of human emotions. While these melodies flow freely in the songs, they liberate the listeners providing them with a chance to experience various possible events in life and encouraging them to see their own essence.
This is actually the power of music. Music can express even the most difficult things to convey with a literary style. It is a great miracle that a true creator of art, like Maya, can skillfully build a bridge to reflect the most complex side of human beings when we cannot even hold on to our existence.
‘I am living the wish of my ancestors’
Azucena was born to a university adviser mother and a journalist and music critic father. “My parents are not musicians, but they always supported my interest to follow the artistic path,” she said during our interview.
Maya was accepted into the conservatory-level school Fiorello Laguardia School of the Arts in Manhattan, New York, where she studied opera and classical techniques. The skilled artist said that she did not want to choose opera as a career path and added: “I wanted to write my own music and use my own words as an artist. I did learn from the classical technique and use it when I perform pop music.”
Although Maya’s musical style is mostly defined as alternative pop and contemporary R&B with a rock influence, she defines it as “music from the heart.” Emphasizing that being a part of a positive change is very important for her art, Azucena said: “I believe my purpose is to use my music to inspire others. I have heard many stories about how my performance has helped people who felt in pain, who felt sad, who felt hopeless – and they tell me my words, songs and voice helped them to see hope. Even if I sing a song written by someone else, I find the way to make that song feel like my own. I find my story inside of the songs and sing them from a real place.”
Talking about her musical style, I also wondered when she first sang and what was the turning point for someone as talented as her. It’s clear that her very first moments in this art have brought her to where she is today. Noting that she is happy to tell her story, Maya shared: “I was a very young girl when I started to sing. At the age of 4, I was learning songs, practicing on my own and even making little concerts for my parents. So, as you can see, I was inspired to sing from inside my soul.”
Touching on her non-musician family, she explained: “We, however, always had good music playing in our home and all felt the joy when we sing at the top of our lungs along with the radio. I learned many years later that my grandmother and my great-grandmother wanted to be singers but they did not pursue it. Maybe, I am living the wish of my ancestors.”
Throughout her career in music, Maya has collaborated extensively onstage and in recordings with both national and international stars. She performed with Marcus Miller, Eminem, Roberta Flack and Vernon Reid. The Brooklyn singer, who became famous by marketing her independently released debut album “Maya who?” at concerts and on the internet, later crowned her career with a Grammy Award with a duet with Bob Marley’s son Stephen Marley. Her stage shows were highly praised by Billboard, The Washington Post and the Village Voice.
Azucena also sang with Barack Obama, Paul Rusesabagina, George Clooney, Elie Wiesel and many other artists in “Save Darfur: Rally to Stop the Genocide” at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 2006, which was an experience that has influenced how her songs affect people. Noting that it was one of the first and most special experiences, she said: “I remember being on stage and looking at a sea of about 10,000 people holding signs with messages such as ‘End Genocide.” Highlighting how emotional the experience was, she explained: “When I sang my song, ‘Warriors,’ each time I came to the chorus, everyone in the crowd lifted their signs high in the air, shaking them to the sky. It was like, the song was a fire and when the heat hit, the people became awake. I was proud that I wrote songs which I can sing for such occasions.”
Hip-hop, Shakespeare of streets
Throughout the rest of our interview, we had deep discussions about music genres, her collaboration with Stephen Marley and touring. When it comes to hip-hop, Maya said, “Hip-hop has an international character as a culture where many young people from different classes and ideas are intertwined and which gives young people the freedom to make a voice in line with their own background.”
Hip-hop, which emerged as a musical genre in the Bronx of New York in the 1970s, as a means of expressing and reacting to young people living in the ghettos of America and far from socioeconomically fair conditions, was used as a tool against racism. It has come into existence as a tool for young people living in Turkey to express their discomfort, as well. Azucena describes this as “the power of hip-hop culture; as a tool for freedom of expression, unity, peace and opposing social injustice.”
Stating that the explosion of political and cultural expression in popular music culture was in many cases inspired by the protest rhetoric of black musicians, Maya explained: “The youth revolt fueled an explosion of new fashions, perspectives and views. This coincided with the civil rights and Black Power movement in the United States, which voiced the struggles, innovations and celebrations of black life through black music.
“In the 1970s, the years when tension was high in America, many serious issues were on the agenda, such as the Civil Rights struggle for black equality, the violent and unnecessary Vietnam War and the drugs that affected America after the soldiers returned home. All this sadness, anger and fear took over the people. Artists at this time made music that spoke to the hurting hearts. It was a time when song lyrics talked about what was going on in the world and had substance.”
The 1990s was the golden age of hip-hop in America, according to the singer. “I believe that true hip-hop is not the one which talks only about drugs, killing and cheating on your woman. Hip-hop is a culture which is like the poetry which comes from the streets. It tells the stories from the hard places to live, and brings those stories to life. We have rappers who are like the Shakespeare of the streets, sharing their experiences and telling the stories from around them. I say, history is not taught in school in an honest way. I would venture to say that the rap I enjoy teaches history from the storytellers of the neighborhoods.”
Appreciation of Stephen Marley
The late Bob Marley is an icon known and loved around the world for blending reggae with ska, a genre originating from Rastafarian hymns unique to the island of Jamaica. The freedom and serenity of his message had a level beyond temporal politics. He always managed to immerse his audience in a spiritual experience.
Like his father, Stephen’s life and spirituality honor his Marley legacy by spreading his musical roots everywhere. Maya also said Stephen is a good person and an outstanding artist, songwriter and producer with a great vision. While working together, Stephen encouraged her to bring her own ideas and style, according to Maya. ”Then, he would push me to make it better – like a good teacher. Stephen is also like royalty. Many people around him respect him like a king. He comes out of the legacy of his father and mother: Bob Marley and Rita Marley. It was a big compliment that Stephen appreciated my singing. It shows me that all the hard work I do is working and is able to reach the icons which I respect,” she said.
Maya’s new collaboration with Stephen Marley was released with the Ghetto Youths record label in March 2022. They sang “Mr. Bojangles” on “Celebrating Nina: a Reggae Tribute to Nina Simone.”
‘Americans are much more than their own politics’
Maya is also a cultural ambassador of the U.S. State Department. She explains that her intercultural art is a way to develop positive relations with other countries. When the U.S. State Department sends her to different countries to perform, she is encouraged to go to villages, do workshops with children and collaborate with female leaders. ”They support my ideas to empower people and human rights. For example, the first year I came to Turkey in 2017, the U.S. Consulate hosted an event where I spoke to students at Adana Gündoğdu College about believing in themselves. The U.S. Consulate helped to host a free concert in Maltepe, Istanbul, where I collaborated with Turkish ney player Burcu Karadağ. In March 2022, the American Embassy in Doha invited me to Qatar during women’s month and hosted a speech where I spoke to Qatari Arab women leaders. I was very inspired and honored for this.”
Noting that she is not a political person, Azucena continued: ”My country, the U.S., has done a lot of things which make me sad and embarrassed. But I am also honored to show that Americans can be more than its politics. ”
A friend for life
Speaking of her experiences in Turkey, the Brooklyn artist spoke about her Turkish manager. Reyhan Yalhi (Ry Management) has been a manager in the U.S. and internationally for many years. A few years ago Maya’s Turkish friend in New York City, Serdar Ilhan, who is the owner of Drom Club in Manhattan, met Yalhi at a music conference in Europe. Yalhi had a vision to collaborate with a female artist from America and was looking for someone elegant and talented with a high quality of sound and style. Ilhan recommended Maya Azucena to her.
Azucena shared a similar perspective on the future of her career with her manager Yalhi. She underlines that Yalhi is one of the most effective and reliable businesspeople she knows. “Even if we did not walk in the same place, at the same time, on the same roads, we are able to share the same feeling or vision in any situation, and to be in the same feeling is the most precious treasure. She is just like my sister,” she explained.
“Reyhan also introduced me to some of my favorite new musician friends including Turkish producers/arrangers Oya Erkaya and Serkan Ayman, co-owners of Bahçekat Music Studio in Istanbul. We went on to release new music together and two music videos shot on locations in Bodrum and at the beautiful Belgrad Forest in Istanbul. The music videos compliment ‘Prettiest’ and ‘Unleash Me (BeatQuin Remix),’ singles released through Bahçekat Records,” she added.
‘Turkey is part of my destiny’
Maya said that she always made Turkish friends before visiting the country for the first time, and she has always felt a warm bond with Turkish people. ”I always said to my Turkish friends that I can’t wait to come see Istanbul one day! I am a spiritual person so I believe this feeling of connection was prophetic. Usually, when I have such a feeling about a place, it means I’m supposed to go there,” she said.
Having a strong emotional attachment to Turkey for years before her first visit to the country, Maya believes with all her soul that Turkey is a part of her destiny. “When I came, it was clear to me that some very special people would become part of my life, including meeting my husband and new family after three years performing my music around the country.”
”One thing I love about Turkey which I tell my friends in America is that there is music everywhere! When you walk down the street in Istanbul, you see live musicians every few feet and when you take the metro, when you take a taxi, when you pass a store, music is always playing … In Turkey, there is a beautiful appreciation for folk and traditional styles of music that I admire,” she added.
When the Grammy-winning artist took the stage in Maltepe in Istanbul as part of the celebrations of the 94th anniversary of the republic, she sang the song “Uzun Ince Bir Yoldayım” (“I am on a Long and Narrow Road”) by Turkish bard Aşık Veysel. It was the first Turkish song she learned and she enchanted her listeners with it. “Bağlama musician, Coşkun Karademir, an artist represented by Yalhi, taught this song to me during my first visit before I even learned how to say good day in Turkish,” she said.
Reborn from the ashes
Using her social activist identity as a force in her music along with her altruistic attitude, Azucena made a splash in the world by running various campaigns focusing on empowering women and youth and combating domestic and sexual violence. She believes music is a tool for activism and healing. Her unfortunate experiences may have been a triggering element for such projects.
All women yearn for a world where gender equality principles are embraced. However, the value of women is underrated in many aspects. Worst of all, violence against women, which is increasing day by day, is a serious social problem in the world. It is obvious that the patriarchal family structure and a power imbalance that results in favor of men plays a role in the source of violence against women. As long as there is a social structure in which the opposite sex is positioned stronger over women, it is inevitable that psychological and physical violence based on gender will accompany it.
Like many female artists today, Azucena was exposed to violence in a past relationship but managed to overcome it with courage. She said that one of the biggest reasons for choosing the artistic path is actually this traumatic event. “My first serious relationship was very abusive. The person would hurt me physically, verbally and sexually. He was psychologically manipulative and a narcissist. I describe him as psychotic – a person who pretended to be kind and charismatic in front of others, but he had a completely different dark and violent side when we were alone. For some reason, I thought that if I kept loving him that that love would change him into a better person. I allowed someone to hurt me for years because I thought I was ‘strong enough’ to handle it. I learned after time that love is an action.”