Essay: A Triptych of Voices on Art and Life
In December 2014 the Boston University Institute for the Study of Irish Culture, the BU Arts Initiative and the BU Center for the Humanities hosted Northern Irish musician Kaz Hawkins. Hawkins’ work is rooted in Eastside Arts, a strategy and collective that aims to teach others about the rich history of East Belfast – where C.S. Lewis, Van Morrison and other notables were born – and to encourage contemporary artists. Below Hawkins talks about the relationship between art and life, and BU faculty reflect on Hawkins’ contribution to art, music and the next generation.
Kaz Hawkins: BOSTON UNI
On December 1, 2014 I travelled for the first time from East Belfast to Boston. I was in Boston to represent Belfast’s Eastside Arts, to share my music and life story, and to demonstrate how the East Belfast Partnership has helped my career. I live in an area that still suffers the after effects of the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. It is difficult for us to achieve anything creative, so we cherish those greats who came before us and who lived among our community. As an artist I try to voice my opinion or thoughts via my music, but my main aim is to inspire; it was music that saved me in the end. With Eastside Arts I am now able to celebrate the artists that came before me and tap into a lot more to help my career.
I grew up in a poverty stricken home, with an abusive father and a sexually abusive uncle; this laid the foundation for a destructive beginning. I got pregnant to get out of the home, and this led me to abusive men. Abusing alcohol was normal at home, so I carried on the local tradition. My life took on many faces in those years of destruction. I sank into depression, I was suicidal, I was addicted to drugs, and I wanted to die. I explain my harsh life and use my story to break down barriers around mental illness and make it easier for people to talk about.
My trip to Boston was special for me as I felt with it I had come full circle. To be asked to represent your community in the arts could be a frightening prospect, which it was at first and right up until I caught my flight. As it always does my harsh beginnings kicked me a boot and told me to pull up my big girl panties and move it. My beginnings have taught me never to be afraid again; I’ve learned to use these moments to be proud and to show the world that success does not necessarily mean piles of cash or letters after your name. I’ve learned you can rise from the ashes like a phoenix and shine a light for everyone to see.
As I arrived in Boston my senses were on high alert. I wanted to breathe in every millisecond that I experienced. That little girl afraid of so much at such a young age was long gone, but as I walked down Massachusetts Avenue I felt unsettled and out of my comfort zone in a way I hadn’t been in over 10 years. I still hold on to that frightened little girl, just to remind myself of my own journey and to keep me humble during life’s harsh waves. With my first strong cup of American coffee I headed to Berklee College of Music to meet Professor Victor Coelho & Band, who had been learning my songs for our up & coming gig at Bill’s Bar.
On the way and lost for directions I was overwhelmed by BU & Berklee students’ offers of help. This influx of American accents was so lovely. I was a little tired from travelling and was instantly uplifted by these kids. After they quizzed me on my accent and why I was in Boston, we had an impromptu vocal session on the sidewalk. ‘Hallelujah’ I sang out as one teenager did a vocal arm up standing wrapped in hat and gloves on a brisk Boston night; I giggled like the teenager I wish I had been all those years ago.
Rejuvenated by these youths’ zest for life and by my first American coffee, I practically skipped to where they directed me. I opened the door to one of Berklee’s music halls and again students with instruments and high-pitched glorious voices overwhelmed me. Everyone was so happy, so open and fresh. This was something I had never experienced; the youth in my local area don’t express much hope. As I walked down the corridors and up the elevator I wished our youth from Eastside had this, but then I realized THIS costs a lot of money. I know that if you don’t have a family who can save or a scholarship to further your time in the arts, then you will lose hope. In my heart I was here for those kids back home who filled up street corners; I was here for the teenagers who got pregnant and were bored beyond belief. I wanted them to experience this kind of youthful energy and excitement for the arts. That first impression on Massachusetts Avenue will be locked in my mind forever as it was my first experience of how much hope Boston students would give me that week.
I wish I could give you every sense, feeling and emotion I had and let you know how much I adored the ethos of Boston Uni. I wish I could tell you how BU wrapped this Eastside girl in its arms and guided me up & down Commonwealth Avenue in temperatures I had never felt before. I wish I could tell you how its youth represented this ethos in their humble messages to me after my talks; or how the professors I met were women I could identify with in strength and how when they stood tall with happy faces it made me think I was at a Red Sox game and not a university. It would take a book for me to show people back home just how great you were Boston, but I took enough photos for my fans to live the experience with me.
Thank you BU for educating this educator of life just a little bit more. I hope to see you all again soon.
Yours in Arts,
Kaz Hawkins, Belfast
Meg Tyler: Kaz in Boston and Belfast
Kaz Hawkins, an unusually talented blues singer and musician from Belfast in Northern Ireland, graced us with her vibrant presence for a week in December. Kaz is what some might call a force of nature. I heard about her talent from the founder and director of Eastside Arts in Belfast, Maurice Kinkead. Maurice is a gentle and generous spirit, his smile as much a permanent feature on his visage as his eyes. He’s done a great deal to support artists and musicians in a town where alternatives to these constructive activities can easily take a darker turn. He nurtured the young Kaz and encouraged her talent. In the States we take the blues almost for granted; it so much permeates American music. In Ireland, the blues is an anomaly. But because it grew out of the field songs of slaves, as a way to express the resurgence of self and spirit against oppression, one can see how the blues might have a place in a riven landscape like Belfast. Ireland is also a fairly conventional society. For Kaz to make it as a lead singer, a star even, in a society where male musicians and poets have almost always held center stage, is a marked achievement.
When Kaz visited BU, she came to two classes, one at CFA (Music Appreciation) and one at CGS (Ethics, where we were thinking about Ethics and the Arts). Over 100 students reaped the benefit of her honesty, her audaciousness and her talent. She told her life story, which is painful to hear. And she sang some of the songs she wrote about that story. At CFA, Professor Victor Coelho accompanied her on an acoustic guitar. At CGS, she accompanied herself even though she was healing from a broken wing. The students were mesmerized. No tale wrought in a novel or intimated in a poem could have moved the students more. Especially thrilling was witnessing her strength and ability in transforming darkness into light, sorrow into meaningful art. Her presence and performance were inspiring in a way perhaps that a book cannot be. Rarely have I witnessed such generosity and humility combined with great talent. She brought to us the streets of Belfast, the need for continued optimism, an appreciation of the ways in which difficulty can defeat us and what hard times can teach us. Her live performances in local clubs (including the Brendan Behan Pub in Jamaica Plain and Bill’s Bar on Landsdowne Street) did just what such performances should: stunned and delighted the audiences. But I think Kaz is so much more than a talented performer. Her voice is enormous, yes, and she wields it with great power. But she is also innovative in her craft and in her diplomatic maneuvering. She has taken a well-used and familiar form (blues) and a familiar story (awareness borne of suffering) and brought them into happy collision with the trickyness of life in Northern Ireland, where the sides of cities denote not just geographical direction but also tribal division. She points the way towards a future where divisive lines can begin to fade.
Holly Connell Schaaf: Transforming Corners: Kaz Hawkins’ Blues at the Brendan Behan Pub
That night, in Kaz’s honor, Boston brought forth misty drizzle almost worthy of Belfast. Delighted to open for her, spattering wet rhythms played across the cab windows as Kaz and I rode to Jamaica Plain’s Brendan Behan Pub from the Hotel Buckminster. I’d met her at that iconic Kenmore Square wedge just days earlier. A few weeks before that, I’d cried healing tears listening to her songs “Lipstick and Cocaine,” and “Because You Love Me.” My dear longtime friend Meg Tyler, whose vision and hard work brought Kaz to Boston, introduced us. Talking with Kaz had instantly felt both comfortable and exciting.
The cozy pub was filling as we arrived. At first glance I could not see where she could sing. There must be some other room, hidden hallway, or secret portal, I thought. There was not. Peering through the crowd’s thrumming ebb and flow, I glimpsed a microphone far back from the entrance. Kaz sang from a corner – or at least what had seemed a corner before. As she sang, the walls disappeared in the magic of her voice. And yet they must have still been there, for we could feel keenly the joyous power of her cadences channeled into the narrow space. Some of us stayed close to her all the while she sang; some slid in and out of the crowd to go to the bar now and then. But all moved in Kaz’s orbit. As she spoke and sang with brutal authenticity about life’s challenges in songs like “I Saw a Man,” none could resist her gravity.
It was not all serious, however. With genuine warmth and lively humor, she drew exuberance and boisterous laughter from the diverse crowd. Many had come far just to hear her. But even regulars hitting the neighborhood pub paused in amazement, discovering in Kaz an enchanting surprise that freed them from their daily routine more surely than the pints they held in hands that unconsciously extended towards her. In the rollicking rhythms she shared in “Shake,” “Hallelujah Happy People,” and “Can’t Afford Me,” no hands and feet could be still.
Seduced into singing along with her sensual song “Born to be Lovers,” we felt destined to be in this place with each other and with her on this night. We added our voices to hers. With each note, Kaz wove us together, giving us the best experience that can be had in a crowd – the seemingly impossible blend of collective closeness and individual freedom. We responded all as one and also felt free to explore our own dreams: the unique visions her songs stirred in each of our hearts. She simultaneously stood apart in her glorious blue-haired beauty and was one of us.
It is not just on that night that Kaz sang from a corner and transformed it. In her life she has been backed into countless corners and taught silencing walls to sing. She found the courage and imagination to save herself from abuse, depression, and addiction, but also works tirelessly to give others the strength to survive trauma and embrace life. Telling her story with unflinching honesty, Kaz has raised thousands of pounds for East Belfast Community Counseling, a life-saving organization in her community that helps those with nowhere else to turn. Her dedication has and will give many people the peace and love she sings of in “Get Ready,” a song written to help heal her native Northern Ireland.
Meg and I are now talking excitedly about Kaz’s expected return in October. Until then, I listen to her album Get Ready, happy to have her songs with me. This album has given me an even deeper appreciation for the intricate poetry of her lyrics in “Walkin on My Own,” “Believe With Me,” and “Coz You,” so I cannot recommend it more highly. But to hear and see her live is to become part of a delicate yet strong circuit of song, to know a rush of shared passionate energy that will bring you new hope and vitality long afterwards. Through any medium, Kaz’s blues deeply convey life’s struggles and sorrows, but express with even more vivid beauty the boundless possibilities for joyful resistance and resilience.