New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
“I grew up listening mainly to American music,” Ugandan-Greek singer Idra Kayne, told Vogue Greece editor Giota Tachtara in the December 7, 2020 video interview, “Putting Soul into the Greek Music Scene,” conducted in Greek. Known throughout Greece as a soul-funk-jazz-pop singer-performer (“Don’t Walk Away” is her hit), Ms. Kayne is working on new songs in Greek.
“Putting Soul into the Greek Music Scene,” is the second of the video series “Generation G,” an initiative of the C.P. Cavafy Professorship to create a video series of original interviews with creative people who self-identify as Greek, and who are working to make a difference in the world, with conversations centering on their work and broader thinking about their place in society today. The interview was posted with English subtitles on December 18, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, to celebrate his service to racial equality in the United States.
The discussion with Ms. Kayne about what it was like growing up Ugandan-Greek (her father is from Uganda and her mother is Greek) in Kypseli, Athens’ most multicultural neighborhood, her career in the Greek music world, and the Black Lives Matter movement couldn’t be timelier.Due to space constrictions, this coverage mainly concerns Ms. Kayne’s music and the identity issues she discussed…
Answering Ms. Tachtara’s inquiry into “the last enjoyable thing” she did before lockdown, Ms. Kayne said, “Fortunately or unfortunately, we were not placed under lockdown this summer, so I was able to go on vacation and go swimming a few times in beautiful Crete.Those are the best memories I have.”
Kayne named her favorite music genres and musicians. “Pop, R&B, ‘80’s and’90’s music, and I’m a huge fan of Whitney Houston a huge fan, but who wasn’t a fan of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey? Kylie Minogue, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, there are many. More recently we have Amy Winehouse, I really like Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish …in Greece we cannot get her last name right! Michael Jackson, Jamiroquai.My brother listened to a lot of hip hop and I’d have to listen to it with him because we shared the same bedroom, so I couldn’t get away from it. Public Enemy, the MC, and many, many others.”
Kayne’s performances at popular venues, music awards ceremonies, and international music festivals extend her style repertoire, expanding the sound of the Greek music scene. And she has collaborated and performed with Greece’s greats, Giorgos Dalaras, Yannis Kotsiras, Lavrentis Maheritsas, Helena Paparizou, and others, including “one of the greatest experiences” of her life, a guest appearance last September with Foivos Delivorias, Greek rock musician, singer, and songwriter. “I had admired him for years,” she said, “I’m a huge fan, and when I met him I was shocked at the beauty of his soul.”
Tachtara asked whether Kayne liked Greek music, ”Greek hip-hop, for example.” Did she ever listen to Terror X Crew? She had lived through that entire phase, said Kayne, “but my friends didn’t really listen to that genre of music. I was also a part of the MTV phase and so I’d put on MTV whenever. My father didn’t really care but my mother cared. My mother was always quote,‘in charge,’ and in terms of TV she was quite strict.”
Asked about her school years, Kayne answered that she is not one who reminiscesor wishes she could turn back time. “Great. It’s done. Good luck to everyone moving forward. It’s not that I had an awful, awful time but I’m not terribly nostalgic about it.” Later she realized the hardest thing had been that“in all 12 years of my schooling I was the only black kid at school, and I went to a large private school. Each class had around 40 kids… I think what really impactedmy brother and me was that in Kypseli, where we grew up, which supposedly has the largest black population, I remember being the only black kids in the neighborhood. Up until high school there weren’t other black families. Everyone knew who we were… you know,‘oh, look, it is the only two black kids in Kypseli!”
Kayne described some exasperatingly ill-informed reactions in Greece to her identity. “If someone meets me and asks me where I’m from, I can’t just respond, ‘I am from Greece,’ since that doesn’t seem to answer the questionadequately. I get the response,‘yeah, but where are you really from.?And so, I say that my father is from Uganda. Immediately they’ll say that they know someone from Nigeria…a different country.And they assume for some reason that we are all related because they are on the same continent. Yes, but they are different countries; so no, we are not related, and we do not know each other.”
Although many friends whose parents were from other places travelled back to their parents’ hometowns, she and her brother have never been to Uganda, said Kayne, because her father has not wanted to go.She has talked about it so much she is “stuck” on the idea butdoesn’t really see him “budging.”“I understand that it is in the mentality of this particular country’s people that whoever manages to leave the country for a better future usually doesn’t look back.”Her father had a difficult childhood, boarded at an institution for poor children. “He had ten siblings as far as I know and as far as he knows. He left and arrived in Greece in ’67, married my mom, went back to Uganda in’73,then returned to Greece permanently in ’77, and has not returned.”As he gets older, he is discovering documentaries about Ugandan children from mixed marriages. “He tells me to start watching to try tobetter understand the other side, and I tell him OK, why don’t you guys help me find it.
I think what really impacted us growing up in Greece, and specifically Kypseli, where we grew up–which supposedly has the largest black population, I remember being the only black kids in the neighborhood. Up until high school there weren’t other black families. Everyone knew who we were, you know,‘oh, look!It’s the only two black kids in Kypseli.”
Her parents wanted her and her brother to grow up to be “’very Greek,’ because no matter what, our skin color differentiated us,” said Kayne, explaining that her father is Catholic and her mother Orthodox, and Kayne and her brother were baptized Orthodox. “At one point I did even ask them why they didn’t baptize us in the Catholic Church. When we’d go to the Catholic church for Christmas,I would suddenly see all these people of various ethnicities, and I felt a sense of belonging, but when we would go to the Orthodox Church it was a given that when we would enter the church everyone, yes everyone, in the church would turn to look at us. I do understand my parents’ side of things and how they wanted to help us fit in better with the Greek element.”
Kayne and her brother both really want to go to Uganda. Her brother was born in Uganda and was three years old when they went to Greece, so doesn’t remember anything from when he lived there. “I believe that the more documentaries and photographs I look at the more I feel like I can’t escape my DNA. My roots are tugging at my soul. I really want to see my relatives, but if I don’t get to see them, I want to see the place itself, and where my father lived the first 30 years of his life. “
Ms. Tachtara asked if Kayne has been influenced artistically by Uganda’s culture. “My father listened to music and he had some cassettes with some well-known African songs that he’d listened to on Sundays, but he never really got us into it. We have it is a beautiful memory, and when I listen to it, I dance along to it. He never really shared that part of his life with us but now that he has discovered YouTube, it’s non-stop sharing. He is discovering old African video clips. I love it, and he translates what is being saidfor me, which I also love. But overall, he also listens to a lot of Greek music.”
Why does Kayne choose lyrics in English? “I think that because I always listened only to foreign music and because Greek is my native language, the English style just seemed more foreign. I’m really not sure…it just seemed more logical. I also believe that I have a little bit of a fear. I’ve grown tired of speaking in Greek and hearing people say, ‘you speak Greek so well,’ and having to respond with, ‘Well. I am Greek; that is why my Greek is so good.’ I also had a fear of how society would perceive a black woman singing in Greek. But now, I think I’m over it, and ready to take the next step. “I made the decision andwas able to record 5 Greek songs before this second lockdown in September.
“There are five pieces with really, really nice lyrics, written by and given to me by Bloody Hawk, who is a young rapper from northern Greece. He is so young, only a 24-year-old.I admire him a lot. He and I mesh really well together; we have similar taste.The genre is a cross between R&B, hip hop, artistic…I’m not exactly sure what genre it really fits into, with Greek lyrics. I am extremely excited and now the production is almost over. I’m waiting for them to send me a copy.”I believe my first Greek song will be out sometime in February.”