By Adinawa Adjagbodjou
This week, I spoke with Arianna Afsar, singer, songwriter, storyteller and activist as she shared her passions for creating impactful stories, her activism, and how she hopes to develop both in the future.
I would love it if you could just start by introducing yourself for me. Tell me, who is Arianna?
My name is Arianna Afsar. I am a singer-songwriter and storyteller. I believe that art changes culture and in order to change policy, we need to change culture. So it’s become a responsibility, I feel as artists and in my role as an artist to do just that. I am a performer and a composer. My main shift now has been composing Jeannette, which is about the first female identifying Congresswoman to be elected four years before the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave white women the right to vote.
The story of Jeannette is so important and so meaningful. What did it mean for you to create the story of Jeanette, given your own identities?
So, she is a person who decided to work within the institution in order to scream from the inside. And I think both are necessary in order to really see the change. We need to be activists and advocates. And scream from the outside and we need to have power within the halls of Congress. As an example, as the only female identifying Congress person to be in those spaces, what does it mean to hold space as a woman? And, you know, simple things like the bathrooms weren’t near, you know, just silly things like that, that just really showcase your sense of not being welcomed, you know?
And so as a woman of color, as I progress in my career, as I started earning more leadership roles and striving for leadership roles, I am finding similar sentiments. I wouldn’t ever say that I understand what it means to be Jeannette, but I am inspired and motivated by her story to continue to do what I do. And so it feels like a big responsibility because you know, it’s not just about Jeannette, it’s not just about this white woman, this privileged white woman who got elected. That story is unequivocally important and relevant today for the trailblazers and specifically in Congress, women of color trailblazers who are fighting for a more equitable country.
Being a woman of color yourself and then also being in these spaces where you sometimes have opportunities to showcase other people of color, but then you have this history that is often very white, how do you kind of balance that out in your work? What thoughts occurred to you as you’re considering it?
No, it’s really hard. I find myself a lot of times in spaces where if you just put your head in the work, if you look up, there’s going to be all white people around you. You have to be very intentional about it because the hiring infrastructure is not set up for equitable spaces. I shouldn’t be here based on the institution. So, it’s my responsibility. It’s the responsibility of my collaborators —some of whom are white– to hold us all accountable. And that means making it the responsibility of everybody. And not just the people of color who are on the creative team. So, I think it just takes breaking down the traditional ways of doing things and it’s hard and it takes time.
So tell me more about you growing up: your background, your family and if there’s any ways in which they inspired your desire to go into the arts.
I went back to Bangladesh, only my second time in my life last year. And my dad and I spent three weeks there. And my dad is from a rural village in Nakalee Bangladesh. And to walk as an adult, on the footsteps of my ancestors felt like a void in me was filled that I didn’t realize was missing. It was a really emotional trip. Um, and it’s hard. I can’t speak my father’s native language and my family’s native language. So I’m, I’m actually in private lessons with a teacher in Dhaka right now, learning Bangla as I know a little bit, but there’s also a calling to me that is so important. And I don’t know, this is kind of like vulnerability. I don’t know exactly where they intersect and where art is a part of it, but there’s a calling for me to spend a period of my life there. And I think that the importance of the influence of artistry is something that I think is really important to me. And I think it’s sometimes hard to admit. And what does that influence mean and what are you going to do with it? But I feel like art in some capacity is going to bring me back to Bangladesh.
I wonder when you’re not in theater spaces, how do you try to present yourself in the world?
I think the way that I want to present myself is leading with vulnerability. What does it mean? To be honest, what does it mean to be vulnerable? What does it mean to not know and be open about that? That’s how I want to present myself: is honest.
I’ve been describing you as an artist this whole time, but do you ever feel like you don’t want to be boxed into just that?
My definition of artist is very big. I think in order to be an artist, you have to live the breath of life. And I think there’s a difference between being a technician and being an artist. And I don’t think I’m a technician. I am not the best singer. I’m not the best actor. I’m not the best composer. I’m not the best activist, I’m not the best. I think that’s why Miss America was so good for me. Because like you’re really not the best at anything. You’re just like good at all of these things. And that’s really where my skill set lies is being pretty good at a bunch of things, to be able to find the commonality. So that’s my definition of an artist. I think I am always an artist. I think even if I’m like now I work for the Bangladeshi consulate, or whatever I’m in Foreign services, I think I’ll still be an artist because I’m gonna be approaching that field, from my perspective as an artist.