Aurora Barnes. Photo Credit: Wilson Santiago.

Aurora Barnes. Photo Credit: Wilson Santiago.

GALO: “I Hate Not You” seems to stand apart stylistically from the other songs on your EP. It’s a bit angrier and a little faster than some of the other tracks. The music is pleasingly enticing and the lyrics show a more confrontational side of you that differs from the mellow tones of the rest of the album. How do you feel this song fits in comparison to the rest of the EP?

AB: We wanted an up-tempo. I definitely tend to write a lot of ballads; I know that when we were thinking of doing something like “I Hate Not You,” that was definitely something that stood out about it. I’m really influenced by so many different sounds, even judging by the producers I chose — from Erykah Badu to Patti LaBelle, that’s pretty vast and they’re experienced. We wanted the songs to also have some kind of common theme, so that the listener wasn’t totally confused as to what the “Aurora Barnes sound” is, but to also give a taste of these different themes. I grew up at the Nuyorican Poets Café on the Lower East Side in New York City, and there are poets there like Mahogany Browne and Aja-Monet. I grew up listening to their words and learning their pattern, so I think there was maybe a little bit of that rhythm that I was getting with this song. I’ve also been influenced by hip-hop; I did grow up in East Harlem in the ’80s. In terms of the sound, I think it is definitely influenced by these things and I was angry when I wrote that song. It’s definitely one of those songs I wrote in that abstract style. I think it’s just a mish-mosh of frustration and confusion, when you’re really angry at someone or the world and you can’t really articulate it. That’s “I Hate Not You.”

GALO: Your Web site says that you were raised on Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and Stephen Sondheim. Your Web site also features a video of you covering Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Springs.” Are there any other artists who influence you?

AB: I would say at the top of the list are Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Bernadette Peters, and Bonnie Raitt. Vocally, because I know she wasn’t really a writer, Whitney Houston. My first two records ever were her debut and a Bernadette Peters’ album. Lyrically and creatively, I’m really moved and inspired by Alice Walker and Patti Smith. Even though Alice Walker isn’t a singer, I find that her art really moves me and my art, now more than ever.

Video courtesy of Aurora Barnes Music.

GALO: There’s also a quote on your Web site from Bernadette Peters talking about how you really made a good impression on the acting world.

AB: I loved Bernadette as a child and I love her now. When I was a little girl, I liked to think there weren’t that many six-year-olds that were into it. I was like this six-year-old who was stalking Bernadette Peters. She really took me under her wing in the most loving way. When I was 13 or 14, she gave me her vocal teacher’s name and number. My mother called up to make an appointment and, at the time, my teacher said she wouldn’t take anyone under 16 because she wants your voice to fully develop. On my 16th birthday, we called her back up and I started studying with her. A few years later, I began studying with Bernadette’s acting coach. Bernadette’s been wonderful about recommending me every now and then for a role or just supporting my projects. I even thank her on the album. She’s been a wonderful mentor to me, not just as a singer to be able to watch and learn from what she does on stage, but having her teachers be my teachers has completely changed my life.

GALO: I’ve noticed that you’ve played dozens of big-name venues, including Madison Square Garden, Lincoln Center and The Apollo Theater. Which gig has been most memorable for you and why?

AB: The very first stupendous moment was when I played Carnegie Hall as a violin gig. I was 10 and hadn’t yet performed singing at Carnegie Hall. I played Bach’s “Double Concerto” standing between Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern, who at the time were two of the most famous and wonderful violinists. That was pretty incredible, and I think my mom will say that it’s still the highlight for her.

Fast-forward to just a couple of years ago, I performed at SummerStage in Central Park and I sang a 20-minute set, my own songs. There were about 2,000 people there and that was incredible. The sound was amazing. Being a born and raised New Yorker, I’d grown up going to SummerStage my whole life. To be preforming there, to be saying my words, to have that many people listening and feeling what I’m saying and what I’m singing outside in the summertime, it was incredible. The very last one was probably a gig I did two months ago, where I performed at a fundraiser for a new organization I’m working with, Justice League NYC. It advocates for juvenile justice. Mr. Harry Belafonte was there. He’s the visionary for the Gathering for Justice. Justice League NYC is an initiative of Gathering for Justice. I performed for him and that was incredible. I’m still kind of in disbelief about it.

GALO: You grew up around activists in New York, which clearly helped influence your choice to stand up for what you believe in. How do you think your life would be different without the influence of these people? Do you think music would still be a large part of your life if you’d grown up elsewhere?

AB: I believe music’s probably a large part of everyone’s lives. Where I grew up and how I grew up definitely had a ton to do with who I am today. Even the music that really moves me, it’s because I was singing spirituals in school and I grew up singing protest songs. Give me some Pete Seeger and Robert Johnson and I’m in it to win it. I think how I grew up and where I grew up has a great deal to do with who I am today and what I’m doing now.

Video courtesy of Aurora Barnes Music.

GALO: Not only are you a singer, but you’ve founded the GirlsTalk/GuysTalk program to aid in the personal health and well-being of kids and teenagers. Personal growth is an issue that teens deal with every day. With all of the issues to advocate for, why did you choose to focus on this specific one?

AB: I grew up in a family of activists going back generations. I am always on lists for women’s rights and civil rights, anti-war. I’m advocating for everything, you know? Most literally, I was teaching in a school. I was teaching violin to eight-year-olds, and it was one year where I got sixth and seventh graders. I used to always ask the kids, “How are you doing? How was your weekend?” This happened to be a Monday or a Tuesday after a weekend where my girlfriends and I were having lots of discussions about women’s issues in particular. The Friday before, the movie For Colored Girls, based on the play by Ntozake Shange, came out. On the Sunday after that, the very first Black Girls Rock! was televised on BET. It’s this wonderful organization for girls of color and this was the first time that they had something for it. The entire weekend was filled with Twitter and conversation about issues about women in general and women of color, specifically. I came off of a weekend of that kind of discussion and I came into my class and asked some regular questions about the class’ weekends. The kids — the girls and the boys — were spilling out with words that were kind of similar to the things that had been talked about over the weekend. They hadn’t seen what I’d seen — they hadn’t seen the film, they didn’t know about Black Girls Rock! — it was too new. This was just stuff that was in their regular lives.

Immediately, in that moment, I thought, ‘If this is spilling out in violin class, they must not have a place to talk about this.’ I had this wonderful supervisor at the time who said, “All right, write out your idea on paper.” I wrote out the idea and she presented it to the board, or whoever, and she said, “All right, well we’re going to give you the girls’ class.” I said, “Wait, I can’t teach the girls’ class. I teach violin.” She said, “Well, if you don’t teach it, it won’t happen.” So I thought, ‘Well, I need the extra hours and I think this is a good idea, so I should just give it a shot.’ I fell in love with it. I found this way of communicating with them and I found that at a certain point, no matter how good your relationship is with your kids, your kids may not want to talk to you about certain things. They may not know how to talk to you about certain things. It’s really special for them to have a place where they can talk about all the nonsense and all the stuff that nobody else has time to hear. They can talk about it and they can feel that their voices are worthy.

In addition to having regular just girls’ talk or just guys’ talk, we also do things to strengthen their voices. We bring in guest speakers, we go on trips, and we watch documentaries. We talk about everything from the environment and our contribution to it to bullying, body image, and knowing our rights when it comes to the police. We talk about the representation of women and people of color in the media, and how it trickles down to how we treat each other. We talk about language, and I found that this program connects to the teachers and to the parents. It’s a haven for the kids. I would say that the whole purpose is to help the kids understand the power in their voices and that they have choices to begin with.

GALO: With all of your many talents, you’d think it would be hard to decide which gifts to nurture and focus on. How do you manage to find a balance between acting, music and activism?

AB: For a while, I thought everything had to be separate. There’s still a piece of it that I keep separate. I don’t sing when I’m with the kids, even though they try to get me to sing all the time. I keep a piece separate, but I discovered that all of this is a part of me and who I am. It’s a part of my brand. My way of balancing is to just be and to try to do as many of the things I want to do at the same time and, hopefully, be able to grow everything all together.

GALO: I think it’s safe to say — based on the impressive nature of your first EP — that we can expect a lot from you in the future. There’s obviously a multitude of paths you can take, but do you have any confirmed plans for your career?

AB: Just keep on trucking, I think that’s it. My Web site for GirlsTalk/GuysTalk will be up soon. We’re going to have, I think in June, a coming-out party. In terms of my music career and singing, I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing. I’ll be writing and singing songs that I love, communicating. I hope that people will hear it and like it, and I hope that it will continue to be amplified on a larger level. I will be touring soon; I just had a big show in New York at The Cutting Room, so we’re kind of coming off of that and preparing to move forward.

For more information about Aurora Barnes, please visit her site. Her EP “Fair Game” is now available via iTunes.

Video courtesy of Aurora Barnes Music.

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