An In-Depth Interview With Musician and Activist DREA PIZZICONI On Her Latest Powerful Anthem, ‘Let Us Dance’ and More!
Posted On 02 Aug 2019
Earlier this Summer, the musician and activist Drea Pizziconi premiered her new global empowerment anthem “Let Us Dance” featuring Maimouna Youssef and The Dap-Kings Horns, with a live performance at the CAMFED 25 Gala honoring singer-songwriter, social activist and philanthropist Annie Lennox on May 9th. The gala’s theme was Education Changes Everything.
Check out “Let Us Dance” here: https://soulspazm.lnk.to/g2m0p
“Let Us Dance” was released worldwide on May 10th with all profits supporting The Campaign for Female Education’s (CAMFED) work to educate girls in Africa. CAMFED is an international non-profit organization tackling poverty and inequality by supporting girls to go to school and succeed, and empowering young women to step up as leaders of change. CAMFED invests in girls and women in the poorest rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa, where girls face acute disadvantage, and where their education has transformative potential.
The song was written and produced by Pizziconi, with a rousing rap by Youssef. “Let Us Dance” is the first of several new singles Pizziconi will be releasing in the coming months in support of her social justice activism. Through this work she will continue to champion the right for women to speak up and share their stories of survival, beginning with her own.
“Education is a basic human right and there is no better investment in our world’s future, than the investment in a girl’s education,” says Pizziconi. “But the barrier for women to reach their potential remains high. I wrote this song for all the girls out there who won’t give up and want to tell the world ‘Get ready…we’re coming.’”
Youssef comments: “It’s time that we have an affirming women’s empowerment anthem that’s not reactionary, but powerfully proactive and fiercely feminine.”
Pizziconi is a multi-hyphenate: composer/ lyricist/ producer/director and serial social entrepreneur. She founded The Christie Company and subsequently Africa Integras, one of Africa’s largest education infrastructure development companies, dedicated to the empowerment and education of youth and especially girls. She challenges standard convention by straddling the creative and financial sectors, trailblazing representation for women to support youth empowerment. A Gates scholar and graduate of Yale and Cambridge University, she has dedicated her life to expanding education access for youth around the world, ensuring she “pays forward” her own privileged educational experience.
The multi-faceted musician is an award-winning music director, producer and arranger, who is classically-trained as a vocalist and percussionist, having toured extensively throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East as a recitalist and featured artist. Her global exposure as a musician inspired her early social and entrepreneurial activism and reignited her storyteller musical roots. She felt compelled to write music that would give a voice to those without a platform, so these critical stories of survival would be told.
Pizziconi’s recent credits include co-writer and co-producer of “Running” (aka Refugee Song), featuring Grammy-Award winning artists Gregory Porter and Common, which Billboard named the top single to inspire hope and change in 2016. She is also the co-founder of Compositions For A Cause, which has released several critically acclaimed records with trumpeter Keyon Harrold, including the protest anthem she wrote “Circus Show,” featuring Gary Clark, Jr. Additionally, she executive produced and served as a collaborating producer and songwriter on Harrold’s 2017 Sony Legacy album “The Mugician.”
Follow Drea Pizziconi on social media- @dreapizziconi
For more information, please visit www.dreapizziconi.com
Learn more about Drea Pizziconi in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time today! Where does this interview find you?
Home sweet home. NYC.
Now that we are over half-way through the year, how has 2019 been treating you? What are some goals that you have for yourself this year? How close are you to reaching them?
Time surely does fly.. On the music front, I have written and recorded three albums worth of music. My goal is to get the first of those three out before the end of 2019 and keep the other two rolling out from there. . My other professional goal is a new initiative we’re launching called Girls First Finance to finance student loans for vulnerable girls in Africa and in the US. It was shocking to realize the crisis unfolding for girls around the world. Research indicates that as many as 50% of girls in Africa are exploited for sex just to cover their university costs. Equally, millions of young women in America are signing up for escort services to cover their living expenses while in college. This global crisis needs a thoughtful, holistic financial, technological, and professional development solution that I hope will include our Girls First Finance initiative coming out later this year.
Growing up, how important was music in your life? Can you recall the moment when you decided that you wanted to be a musician? Was it an easy or difficult choice to make?
For as far back as I can remember I wanted to be an artist, and I spent my youth working towards that goal. I am a creative with everything I do, including my business deals. And I started young. I sang gospel in my mom’s protestant church and I was a cantor in my dad’s catholic church. I spent every moment outside of school on the stage and even did my first solo shows in Europe by the time I was a teenager. I even once lied (by omission) about my age to get into a local college production of Cabaret as a Kit Kat girl. I was obsessed with making music and telling stories. The hardest decision was actually when I decided, for a period of time, not to continue to make music or perform for various reasons including how I found young women were treated in the industry. I used that time to build my other company and make it sustainable so I could one day return with more artistic freedom. I am proud of that work but something was always missing during that period. Luckily, the artist inside of me never went away and I eventually was able to return to creating music knowing I could never stop ever again. I am an artist first. I should just own it, love it, and accept that I will be making music for the rest of my life
Was there ever a time when you thought about doing something else? If you weren’t a musician today, what else could you see yourself doing? Would you be as fulfilled in life?
I do other things. I have multiple companies and have always continued to nurture my non-music related passions. I am a real estate developer, a private equity investor and a venture capitalist, all through the lens of being a serial entrepreneur. All these sides of me I completely embrace and feel very strongly about developing further.
What has been the biggest surprise so far about making music your career? What has been an unexpected or welcome challenge to it all?
I didn’t expect that the barriers for women who dare to do anything creative beyond singing would be so high. I remember when Billboard magazine listed Running (Refugee Song) as the top song “offering hope and perspective during immigration ban.” It was quite a moment. However, they credited the writing of the song to Gregory Porter (who is the first to say he didn’t write it, but he did perform it superbly), Keyon Harrold and Common, rather than me.
They just assumed a woman didn’t write the song. Keyon even reached out to Billboard to try to get them to remedy the mistake and they ignored his request. During that publicity period, several media outlets made the same mistake.
So, yes, showing the world that women can compose and produce and have been doing so – often without credit – is a welcome challenge.
I recently watched the documentary on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s collaboration for Imagine. That song was voted the most important song of the 20th Century and solidified his legacy as one of the century’s greatest songwriters. Except Lennon alone didn’t write it. In fact, he even admitted in an interview, to his credit, that he was a bit of jerk not to give her credit on it since it was her idea to do the song and she wrote the iconic lyrics.
I want to ensure my work can become an example for little girls to follow. That is a welcome challenge I embrace fully.
Let’s talk about your latest single, “Let Us Dance.” What was the inspiration for this song? What was it like working with Maimouna Youssef and the Dap-Kings Horns on it?
I have spent years reflecting on how this pervasive culture of silence holds us all back. The #MeToo movement has been very pivotal,, making us very reflective about what we want to come out of our collective trauma and what we need to heal and to manifest our best selves. I also had some setbacks around the time. I wrote it after a project in Africa hit challenges that demonstrated the biases women still face when we dare to be dealmakers. This song was inspired by those many experiences.
As for Maimouna, she was a wonderful sounding board. It was originally called “Let Her Dance” to which she reacted “Why the heck are we asking permission to dance? I don’t like what’s implied in that title. I dance when I want.”
Of course, she was right. So the next morning I woke up and rewrote the song completely in 20 minutes. And it was better. Her rap is the perfect message to compliment my lyrics. She and I had several heart-to-hearts about our stories as women and survivors in a world and even an industry that can be dangerous for women.
Dave, Cochamea, and Ian (The Dap-Kings horns) were awesome to work with as well. Sometimes men bring a chip to a session that is being produced by a woman thinking we can’t produce as well as another man, but they only brought open minds and a willingness to play whatever I heard in my head. And they nailed it. I was so blessed to work with them and look forward to working with them again soon.
How does “Let Us Dance” compare to other songs you plan on releasing in the coming months?
There are some similar themes in the music that is coming out; – women first, women speaking up, women breaking the glass ceiling and owning our destinies on our terms. My music illustrates what we have to say when we do speak up: That girls are brilliant and powerful and can shape their own narrative.
But my next two single releases (coming out soon) include reflections on the border crisis and on our current political crisis and a stark look at the true history of America’s domestic imperialism. Our ancestors displaced and exploited so many cultures and people to arrive at the beautiful country we celebrate today. We cannot appreciate America honestly without acknowledging the tragedy of their sacrifices at the hands of our supremacist founders. America is an awesome country. But a country founded on genocide, slavery and the subrogation of women. We just gotta be straight up about that going forward.
What was it like premiering this global empowerment anthem at the CAMFED 25thGala honoring Annie Lennox last month?
Awesome! Annie Lennox is a trailblazing icon, but she is also the nicest and most genuine icon I’ve ever met. She was so patient and gave everyone she interacted with her full attention. She cares about the issues around female empowerment so passionately. She broke many barriers with her own career. So many women in the industry now stand on her shoulders.
How did you first get involved with the Campaign For Female Education (CAMFED)?
I met Lucy Lake, the CEO of CAMFED, three years ago at a meeting related to my work building education infrastructure in Africa. We reconnected earlier this year and she asked me to sing at their 25th anniversary gala. I wanted to partner with CAMFED on Girls First Finance as they already support girls to go to school and to succeed as leaders of change.
We ended up doing both.
How do you think you have grown as a musician since you first started singing and writing songs?
I’ve probably grown the most as a producer. As much as I love singing, I LOVE producing music and composing – turning something from a riff in my head to a full-blown story that moves listeners. I love the challenge of working out the puzzle of a song so everything fits together tightly. And I love hearing from audiences when I sing something new for the first time.
Late last year, an artist asked me to write a topline to his instrumental track. I had one night to pull it together before the performance. A man from the audience came up to me and said my lyrics made him cry because they reminded him of his own marriage. Those moments make it worth it. And there is nothing more exciting than conveying a vision for a song to other great musicians and finding ways to align them to it.
But, yes, I love singing too, it was my first passion. And, as a singer I’ve perhaps grown the most in my willingness to let my voice be real rather than perfect. I’ve come to embrace the beauty of an imperfect performance that is vulnerable and real over the pressure to call upon my technical training to create a perfect or impressive performance. There is no perfect performance other than the one that comes purely from the heart. It’s amazing how years of classical training and practicing only help me to embrace the rougher parts of my voice that much more.
What has it been like keeping up with your social media accounts and all of the different platforms? Is it hard to stay up to date on it all? What would you say is your favorite way to connect with your fans now? What has social media done for your career so far?
I have a very different relationship with social media. I’ve actually never been on Facebook in my life – I know that step is coming very soon. We’re taking each platform one at a time and one day at a time. I joined Twitter and IG a little over two years ago when “Running” (Refugee Song) came out at the insistence of my team. I’m otherwise an introvert at heart.
I can’t be fake, it’s not in my DNA, so whatever I do show to the world through social media is who I am. I’ve found such blessings in those fans who have taken a consistent interest in my work, both musically and also in Africa. Social media is a powerful tool to connect so I am embracing it. I hope fans can be patient with me and we’ll get to know each other more and more..
Who are some of your favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music? Who would you absolutely love to work with in the future?
For singers and songwriters: Phyllis Hyman, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Roberta Flack, Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Houston, the trailblazing Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Billy Holiday, Tina Turner, Rickie Lee Jones, Marvin Gaye, Paul Robeson, Miriam Makeba, Fela, Roy Hargrove, Duke Ellington, Marianne Anderson, Leontyne Price, the Dixie Chicks, Joan Jet, Pink, and Chaka Khan to name just a few.
On the producer side, it would be a dream to experience Quincy Jones’ magic.
Also, behind the scenes, I recently saw the wonderful documentary on Clarence Avant, I would love to work with him in any capacity or just absorb his wisdom for 10 minutes.
In terms of emerging artists and producers, I’ve really enjoyed Natalie Prass’s last album “The Future And The Past” produced with Matthew E. White and Brandi Carlile has written a few tunes with words that really stick in my head. Yesterday I heard Anthony Ramos’ “Cry Today, Smile Tomorrow” and I probably listened to it a dozen times in a row before moving on. Among songwriters out there, the woman I relate to the most is Sara Bareilles. I listen to so many of her songs and feel like I lived them already. And could have written them, but she wrote them so perfectly! I’d be delighted to work with any of them. And it would be awesome to work with Sia. Her music is very vulnerable and out of the box. And I respect what WondaGurl has accomplished as a producer among giants along with Imogen Heap, the latter whom I’ve come to know as being an even kinder human being than she is a trailblazing producer and technologist. They are both badass.
If you had an unlimited budget and your schedule was free, what would your dream music video look like?
Well, in some ways, I am making one of my dream videos for “Let Us Dance” now. The shots are of women around the world dancing together. Perhaps a bigger budget would just allow me to document more groups of women in faraway places, but we’re finding ways to be inclusive and highlight women from around the world just the same.
Beyond that, I have a vision for a partially animated video, which will be pricey. But I don’t usually nurse “pie in the sky” creative ideas, I try to make them happen somehow even if it takes a little longer and some more creativity.
Where would you absolutely love to hear one of your songs? On a TV show, in a movie or elsewhere? Do you recall the first time you heard a song of yours out and about?
Funny enough, I heard a reference to one of my songs this morning. Running (Refugee Song) was synced to a documentary called Brightness of Noon about the migrant crisis that has been airing on ABC nationwide on Sundays. The song opens the documentary – a friend watching it halfway across the country sent a text with a short video clip of it.
I would love to hear “Let Us Dance” synced to a female superhero movie. And I’d love to hear “Circus Show” picked up by a political candidate’s campaign (ideally for a candidate whose values I support). I actually intend to rewrite it, updating the lyrics again (and again) to document our current administration and what’s going on in America right now.
At the end of the day, what do you hope people take away from your music?
I hope it makes them pause and think about their perspectives on key issues – how engaged they are, how complacent they are. So many vulnerable subsets of our society are living in unprecedentedly dangerous times. History should judge us harshly on what we do to right this Titanic – because we can. It can even lead to a greater understanding for each other. My job as an artist is to catalyze and inspire those conscious reflections and also to create moments of familiarity.
Not every single song I write is an activist song. Every once in a while I write a love song or something lighter. In those moments, I want to give a listener the chance to relate, to reminisce, to feel a part of something familiar.
Would you like to share anything else with our readers about your music?
One thing I struggle with is the reality that my music doesn’t fit neatly into one genre. It’s highly likely that my next three albums could show up on soul/funk/R&B charts, jazz charts, or even pop/rock charts.
I hope listeners embrace each song for the stories they tell and not for what genre box they tick. These days, more and more artists are admitting that we are influenced by so many different musical roots, I just want to embrace those influences, credit them properly, and mash them up however I hear them in my mind. I ask that your readers join me for this ride. Let’s create new lanes for music that mix cultures so we all get to know each other better through the elements that are familiar or new.