The LargeUp Interview: Shakira Marshall on Afro Soca, Fela + Working with Lauryn Hill

Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Sean Maung

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Shakira Marshall isn’t just the face of our Afro Soca mixtape. She gave it its name. Several years before it came to refer to the burgeoning musical exchange between Africa and the Caribbean, Marshall coined the term afro soca to describe the techniques she was teaching in her Brooklyn dance class.

Raised on soca in a Guyanese household in New York City, Marshall has spent the last few years highlighting and exploring the connections between African and Caribbean music and dance. In 2009, she was tapped to join the cast of Fela!, the Broadway musical about Nigerian music icon Fela Kuti, and subsequently appeared in the touring version of the production that traveled throughout the U.S. and to Lagos. Since then, she’s danced with and choreographed for artists including Jill Scott, Machel Montano and Alison Hinds. For her latest role, she’s connected with Ms. Lauryn Hill, with whom she performs as both a dancer and backup singer. Her influence can be seen in Hill’s recent, Fela-inspired performance on BET’s Black Girls Rock.

We reached Shakira, who currently resides in Los Angeles, in Guyana, where she was in the midst of launching a children’s dance initiative ahead of the country’s 50th independence celebrations.

LU: Give us an overview of some of the things that you’ve done. The Shakira Marshall story in a nutshell….

Shakira Marshall: I was born and raised in Queens, NY, but both of my parents are from Guyana. I have done many things but I would say some of the highlights of my career have been working with Tanisha Scott and director Gil Green, in Elephant Man’s “Pon De River” video, and working with the likes of Alison Hinds, Jill Scott and Machel Montano. And I’m currently working with Lauryn Hill, as you know. Of course, Fela! on Broadway is a staple in my career, [which] led to me working with several of the artists that I just mentioned. Outside of working with artists, I am an artist in my own right. I have my own music. I also have my own company, Soca Sirens Entertainment, and my own style and technique that I’ve been developing for several years, called Afro Soca Dance.

LU: How did you get your start as a dancer?

SM: I started dance school at the early age of four. My parents enrolled me in an neighborhood dance school called JJ’s Dance Studio in Queens, NY, because I was always dancing and wining around the house. My father’s a DJ with GT Jammer International Sound. He would play all genres of music, but calypso and soca always held a special place in my heart. He would tell me the background of the people singing, from Sparrow to Calypso Rose, so I had an early appreciation for many of the calypso greats. I have a vivid memory as a four year old dancing to [Crazy’s] “Nani Wine.” Many of the women who have been my dance instructors, in the early years, were also of Caribbean ancestry, from St. Lucia to Guyana and Barbados. Namely Yvette Alfred-Cerratani and Ms. Petra Brathwaite. These two women had an early effect on my love for Afro-Caribbean dance. Back then, they called it “ethnic dance.”

I had a lot of early experience with the Kerri Edge Children’s Dance Ensemble. I would say my first professional gig was Elephant Man’s “Pon De River, Pon De Bank.” That was a groundbreaking opportunity for me. Not only did I get to dance in a video that was very influential [for] dancehall and Caribbean music and culture, it also gave me an opportunity to work with Tanisha Scott, who is a dancehall heavyweight who’s worked with Sean Paul for many years, and Gil Green, who works with some of the top rappers and artists today.

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LU: Tell us about what you are doing in Guyana…

SM: I’ve been coming to Guyana for several years now. A couple years ago, I was asked to host Guyana Fashion Week by Sonia Noel, who is a very well-known designer here. I actually met Sonia while I was on tour with Fela! She came to see the show in Miami, we connected, and she felt it was a great opportunity to bring someone who was doing great things in the community in America to come to Guyana and share that. Within hosting Fashion Week in 2013, I also administered Afro Soca workshops to the youth and the models in Fashion Week. Doing that inspired me to create my own program where I could come back on a consistent basis and share my skills and experience with the youth of Guyana, who I still feel are very talented and deserve to experience something different. I still have many family members here in villages like Agricola and Diamond.

I’ve recently started the pilot program for the Value Arts Initiative, an arts-exchange program. We launched the program this week, and today was the last day. I’m working with kids at St. Ann’s Primary School in Agricola village. It’s the first of its kind. We are also taking part in the Golden Jubilee celebration that’s happening next month in Guyana, celebrating 50 years of independence.

LU: What are the things you learned doing Fela!? Did it help you connect more with African culture?

SM: Fela! has had a very instrumental effect on my view of Africa. Within the musical, we were able to travel to Nigeria and experience Africa. I realized that many of the myths and stereotypes I had learned about Africa growing up were very untrue. Africa is not a safari filled with animals. There are parts like that, but there are so many facets. It’s the biggest continent so you can imagine. It opened my mind to viewing Africa not just as a continent of the unknown, but its faces, its people, who look and sound like me. People who I connect to in a way that I never thought I would. So Fela!, the musical, and Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the person, really opened my mind. Reading his autobiography helped me understand that Lagos is a metropolis just like Manhattan. And then to go experience it, it’s Manhattan on steroids, the amount of people, the amount of traffic— there’s nothing like the rush and feel of it. That’s just one city. From doing Fela!, I’ve gotten to experience other places in Africa. Namely Ghana, with Ms. Lauryn Hill, and also Tunisia in North Africa, which was a different experience in itself. In America, we don’t learn about Africa. It’s not mandated. You only learn about it if you take it upon yourself to learn. Of course your view is going to be limited.

LU: What is the story behind the “Faluma” video you choreographed for Alison Hinds?

SM: Alison Hinds came to see Fela! on Broadway. And she was very influenced by the show. Around the time Fela! closed on Broadway, I [brought] a couple cast members together to shoot a dance video to Kes the Band’s “Wotless.” I put it on YouTube and it was one of the first big soca dance videos on YouTube. Many people in the Caribbean community shared it on Facebook, namely Jules Shannon, who has been Alison Hinds’ stylist for many years. Jules showed Alison the video and reached out to several girls in the cast for a gig with Alison Hinds in New York. It was evident that I was one of the members who was most familiar with her music and with soca music and, from there, she reached out to me on a personal level and I became her choreographer. After working with me for several months, I feel she was influenced by me [laughs], directly or indirectly, and she felt it was time to create a visual for “Faluma.” Also around the time, she did a song called “Makelele,” which had an afro soca vibe before afro soca became the popular word that it is right now.

“Faluma” is actually a song from Suriname. It’s from an African tribe that was able to escape slavery and run into the interior of Suriname. Alison Hinds told me when she was a member of the band Square One, they did a show in Suriname, and they were taken on a tour into the interior to meet this tribe that has been able to maintain the culture, music and food from Africa. They can connect it directly back to a tribe in Ghana. The people of the tribe taught her and Square One the song, and they decided to record it. The song blew up, but this was 15 years prior to making the video.

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LU: Where does the term “Afro Soca” come from?

SM: About four or five years ago, I realized that a lot of the movements in dancehall and Afrobeat had names and a vocabulary. But soca was lacking in having a definitive vocabulary. So I set out to create a soca dance theory. I reached out to several of my peers, namely Lashaun Prescott from Trinidad, who was teaching soca classes at Mark Morris in Downtown Brooklyn. From there, I set out to create a technique and a style and a vocabulary that reflected the African influence on soca and vice versa and also the African influence on dancehall and vice versa. I started denoting the different dances, and looking at things in soca that were repetitive movements but people didn’t necessarily have a name for.

I was looking for a word that described my style in one word. Initially, I was posting videos on YouTube calling it “Kira Style.” But it didn’t reflect the elements that make up my style. [Being in Fela!] I learned how Fela created the word afrobeat. It was only after he came to America, and learned about the Black Power movement, that his music changed into a pan-African conscious movement, music that had a message. He realized he could use his music as a weapon. I knew, especially after traveling to Nigeria, the cross-cultural pollination that Africa and the Caribbean have had for centuries. This is not anything new. Highlife music is a direct ancestor of Afro Soca. It’s the constant inter-exchanging of cousins, or a people that were somewhat lost, but culturally always connected, whether we knew it or not.

I literally sat down and wrote down “Soca Afro,” and said nah that doesn’t flow. “But Afro Soca, ooh, I like that.” I Googled it, saw it didn’t exist, and I ran with it.

LU: What are your thoughts on Afro Soca music? Do you see it lasting? Where do you see it going?

SM: I don’t believe it’s going to stick around after several years, or have the same popularity as it has currently. Because, in essence, Afro Soca has always existed. Highlife had its moment, and roots reggae had its moment, not to say these genres don’t exist anymore, they’re just not as popular as when they first came out. I created the term and I’m going to use it as a dance tool, but musically I think it will exist for several years and then the next style of soca’s going to come out. If you’ve noticed, subgenres are being created like soca with EDM — they’re calling it CDM, Caribbean dance music — and will continue to be created with the influence of outside musical genres. That’s going to continue to change and be influenced by what’s popular at the time. I love that Ghanaian and Nigerian artists are actually on soca tracks, and vice versa. Machel, Bunji, Olatunji are now on Nigerian tracks — that didn’t happen until my term became popular. The Bunjis and the Machels have been in this business for years. Who’s to say they haven’t been doing Afro Soca all of these years, because they have. It’s just no one thought to create the term because everyone was OK with it being labeled Afro-Caribbean, or just soca.

LU: What will people learn if they take an Afro Soca class?

SM: In Afro Soca class, you will learn all of the most popular movements from Nigeria to Ghana, Trinidad to Guyana and Jamaica to America. Afro Soca is a fusion of diasporic culture and African diaspora movement that is currently popular, and it also has a foundation in traditional movement. Without the traditional movement there would be no popular movement. A lot of the moves you’re seeing in dancehall and Afrobeats, and now Afro Soca, many people who are of Afro-Caribbean ancestry and who partake in dance will know that they are derived from traditional movements, from Afro-Cuban to even Congolese style of dance, or India. A lot of Caribbean culture has Indian influence. It is a cross-cultural hodgepodge of traditional and contemporary diasporic African and Caribbean movement.

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LU: How did you find yourself in Lauryn Hill’s band? And what is your role in the group?

SM: Once again, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Someone in Lauryn Hill’s camp put out the word that Ms. Hill was looking for a choreographer. And Sahr Ngaujah, who played Fela on Broadway and on the first national tour, came into Chop and Quench rehearsal — Chop and Quench is a spinoff band with musicians from the musical Fela! that I’m a member of— and said Ms. Hill was looking for a choreographer, and he had referred me to her management. I was hired, at first along with one other member of the Fela! cast, Onika Phillips. I started off as the choreographer to her background vocalists. I also would administer private dance lessons to Ms. Hill and her daughter, Selah Marley. Then she brought me in as a vocalist. I’ve had the opportunity to sing with her in Ghana, Italy, Tunisia. So I’ve worn many hats. It’s not until now that I have kind of convinced her to incorporate dancers into her show. And that’s what everyone has just recently seen on BET’s Black Girls Rock.

This is the first time Lauryn Hill has ever used dancers. I’m glad I could be a positive influence on her life. Indirectly or directly, I have influenced her. I had the pleasure of going to Nigeria with her, and making sure that she made it to the New Africa Shrine and that she met the Kuti family and got to experience that because every and any artist that comes through Lagos, they make it their business to go to the Shrine. We visited The Shrine three days after Bono did.

LU: What have been some of the highlights of working with Lauryn?

SM: Although we haven’t had a session for some time, Ms. Hill and Selah Marley took private Afro Soca dance lessons with me. That’s right, Afro Soca. When I interviewed with Ms. Hill, I stated my resume. I let her know I’d worked with the likes of Jill Scott to Alison Hinds. And being the woman she is, she knew who Alison Hinds is. That stuck out to her. I let her know at the time I was teaching a weekly class Friday nights in Brooklyn called Afro Soca. That is the style I brought to Ms. Hill, and that I bring to everyone. It was a great experience to share my style with her and her daughter, and a great opportunity to expand my technique in a creative and interesting way.

LU: What else can we expect from you?

SM: Currently, I am known as a dancer and a choreographer. But I am transitioning into a recording artist and performing artist. I have soca music that I am releasing this summer in Guyana… and outside of Guyana. I have been directly influenced by working with Ms. Lauryn Hill. She has inspired me to put my own music out there. I have been recording and writing my own music since about 2007, and I have been waiting for the right time. I have Afro Soca tracks, reggae tracks, a little dancehall and some hip-hop and R&B. I’m excited for the world to hear what I’ve been working on for many years. I’m also excited to start doing my own shows and performances, and sharing with the world that I love to do. Kira Divine is coming through. Watch out for my new EP.

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