From the UN basement to the Nobel stage
It’s a cold, snowy Saturday morning in December when we meet with Nosizwe Lise Baqwa at a café in the centre of Oslo. Nosizwe’s the kind of person who immediately brightens up the whole room when she walks in the door, just like she does when she’s on stage. A multi-talent with both a stunning voice and a drive to make a positive impact on the world, she was both a backup-singer for John Legend when he performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Award a couple weeks ago, and one of the two women who first started the Norwegian chapter of ICAN, the organization that won this year’s prize. The Doyennes are suckers for women with a passion, and with this many passions, we knew this was a women we had to have a chat with:
What are you working on these days?
I’m recording an acoustic album! Along with some extremely talented people, it’s a lot of fun. It’s an acoustic version of In Fragments, the album I dropped last year. The actual concert rig we’d set up for that album became too expensive, and didn’t turn out to be interesting or relevant enough, so we stripped everything down. It worked so well that it turned into a lot of gigs, and we liked the sound so much that we just had to record it too. I tell people that “this is my grown up album” – the kind people make a bit later in their careers, but my voice and voice quality really works well when everything’s toned down. I think I’ve been fighting it, because I like to max out everything when it comes to sound.
She takes a sip of her coffee, and continues (We knew she was up to more than one cool thing!):
So I’m doing that, and I’m also working for Kaleidoscope (Fargespill), which is a company that was started in Bergen in 2004. We’ve recently set up a district office in Oslo, and I’m musical consultant there. Kaleidoscope basically makes shows, we’re going to have our first one at The Norwegian Theatre on the 26th and 27th of January. The shows are made by kids and youth, most of which have come to Norway as asylum seekers and refugees.
Yes, it’s so rewarding! And also pure madness; working with a zillion kids! But the Kaleidoscope method entails having workshops and inviting the kids to sing songs from their cultures, songs that they have good memories of. Whether that’s a lullaby that mom or dad used to sing to them, a clapping game they used to sing at school, or a pop song – anything that is associated with something positive. They teach it to us, we learn it really well, and then we use it in teaching. The team and I build the song into something spectacular, whether it’s with a chamber orchestra or a band - and we showcase it on a huge stage, to show the audience that what these children and young people contribute with, is valuable. It’s art, it’s high culture, it’s beautiful! We also want to show the children that what they’re bringing to table is important, it’s enough. The children are also very concerned with learning Norwegian, so we only speak Norwegian during these workshops, and they learn lots of Norwegian songs. So it’s kind of an old school cultural exchange, with a nice twist, and always with a great result! This project is close to my heart, it’s fucking inspiring!
If making an album and working with cultural exchange for kids wasn’t enough, Nosizwe will also be joining a TV-series for Norwegian TV2 shortly, and just wrapped up another one for NRK! Additionally, she has recorded a Christmas song with the trio she’s in, SiNoRi, whom she also performed at
the mentioned Nobel Peace Prize Award with.
How was performing at such a high profile event with John Legend, one of the world’s most famous artists?
It was pure, unadulterated joy! We really went to war; we went in there to impress and do a good job. John Legend never travels without his own backup vocalists – singers do get a distinct relationship with their band, and maybe even more with their backup vocalists, so it was a one time thing because it was the Nobel concert. He told us we were good, and it felt like “OH MY GOD!” but also like, “YEAH! FUCK YEAH!” Haha!
Speaking of the Nobel Peace Prize – you’ve had many different jobs, from artist to spokesperson for the anti—nuclear weapons organization ICAN, who won this year’s prize. What are the pros and cons of these jobs and the lifestyles they entail?
You mean of wearing a suit in the daytime and leather pants in the evening? Of having lots of stuff falling out of your bag at all times? Haha, no, I think the different kinds of jobs reflect that I’ve never really been able to choose between one career path and the other. The challenge that comes with wanting to live in both of these two realities is, uhm… that it drives you crazy. And that you’re always maxing out your capacity, because you’re working both day and night. I couldn’t just work within a political framework, because I’m too impatient, and maybe even to a certain extent…attention seeking. And emotional, spiritual.
I remember being an intern in the Norwegian UN delegation in New York: I was sitting in the basement and following a resolution making process from start to finish. I was so inspired by Thoralf Stenvold who worked for the human rights department and in the delegation, he was such a straight talker, and a diplomat who still believed we could change the world this way. I followed a process where he managed to engage all these diplomats from all over the world, and people worked their butts off. But then, right before the vote, the capitals of the different countries had found out that in one of the resolutions, there was a possibility that one was using language that hadn’t been used over and over again for the past decade, and then they came and fucked it up. I remember sitting there and crying, cause IT’S THAT HARD, changing status quo. People in power have no interest in changing status quo. Then I realized that I’m way too young and cute to be sitting there in a basement and fighting this way. So I returned to Norway and got a job at ICAN, which both was fulfilling in a personal way, and also full of actitivists with a radical and different mindset, who worked outside the UN framework. It gave me wind under my wings again, the feeling that “it is actually possible!” – if you’re a big enough group of people, willing to think in a different way and work in a different manner, you can achieve things.
At the same time, I also realized that singing wasn’t just a hobby, even though I’d tried to put it in the “hobby section” of my life. Just singing a little bit wasn’t enough, so it turned into more and more work, and I also met so many people who really believed in me. Especially the guys at Knickefritt; Daniel Langleite og Torstein Haavorsen, who really pushed me. And what I feel when I’m up on stage singing… It’s something else, man! It’s spiritual. It’s not really about me then – even if it’s all about me, it’s about me as a channel or a messenger. I couldn’t let go of it, and as time has passed, that part of me has become more and more integrated into how I see myself and what it highlights in me as a person.
Nosizwe continues – her goal for the next year is to do less and organize her time better, without feeling guilty and thinking she’s not doing enough. She explains that although she needs the combination of two different “work worlds,” it can be good to focus on just one thing sometimes:
The downside to working two or more jobs is that you’re never just focusing on one thing. I really respect the creative souls I know who really dive into the material, in a way I feel I never allow myself to do, and activists who do the same and have a much deeper knowledge of their fields. Slowly, but surely, things become… not superficial, but not as deep as they could be either. I like nerding, but don’t have the time to do it, and that’s a huge downside for me! So in 2018, I’m going to do this music project and Kaleidoscope and nothing else, and then I might switch things up in a different way than I’ve done so far. But the positive aspect of this is that I get to work with everything that interests me – I never have a boring day!
Coming back to the music, and to one specific project of yours; I Am Nina. How do you think being a musician yourself impacted the way you portrayed the musical legend Nina Simone?
I think, as a musician and as a person who’s strongly interested in music, it became important right away that we wouldn’t try to sound like Nina. We were to pay homage, but not in any way try to sound like her. That quickly made it interesting to find ways to make the role my own. Or our own, since Mariama (Ndure) and I played the role together. Interpreting Nina became an important part of the job. It wasn’t just the text and movements on stage, but also the musical interpretation of her songs. Nina Simone is an incredibly complex character, from her political engagements to her as a woman, as a mother, as a black woman… and as a fucking musical genius! And the integrated narrative to all of that. I recognized myself in much of it, good and bad. But yes, versus a classically trained actor, we spent a lot of time on the music.
"... and the fact that we constantly have an arsenal of weapons pointing in all directions. It’s madness!"
On the other hand, we also talked about your political engagement. Can you tell us a bit about your work in ICAN?
I was hired as a campaign coordinator, that entailed building campaigns, building ICAN – pretty much from the ground up, at least in Norway. Anne Marte (Skaland) and I were the two first ICAN employees in Norway, and came in with very different backgrounds and views on what ICAN should become, something that also became ICAN’s strength. Anne Marte came from the Changemaker tradition and was very concerned with education and training; activism in its more traditional forms, while I was more like “make a party, and they will come,” haha! We got the time and opportunity to do both, and found out what we were best at as indviduals.
Nosizwe continues on how coming from two different backgrounds benefited the organization and the work she and her colleague did together. “I’m a talker,” she says. Not that she needed to explain – through our whole conversation, she’s eloquent, funny and professional, the perfect balance between serious and easy to listen to and to like. It makes sense that she ended up with the role as spokesperson in ICAN, hosting the first big ICAN conference in 2013, being chosen by the organization internationally to speak at conferences abroad, and even speaking in the UN at the first high level conference on disarmament.
It was both practical campaign work and also motivating and inspiring organizations and individuals to talk about and engage in the subject of nuclear weapons, and the fact that we constantly have an arsenal of weapons pointing in all directions. It’s madness!
There has been a lot of debate on this topic lately: earlier this year, the Norwegian government voted against the UN resolution to ban nuclear weapons, and ICAN recently received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work. What do you think is the way forward on this issue, and how can we as regular people engage?
Regular people have to become ICAN-members! And make their workplaces ICAN-members, we are first and foremost an umbrella organization. Lobby your political representatives to engage in this topic, to talk about it. It is very cowardly and sad that Norway didn’t sign the nuclear ban. It’s incredibly disappointing. I don’t want to use the word old-fashioned, but their whole NATO argument is disappointing: you can support NATO and not support nuclear weapons. It’s possible to have two thoughts in your head at the same time. The threat of mass destruction, of killing millions of civilians, of not following the Geneva Convention - or any convention on the horrible business of how to war - is NOT, and can never be, defined as security. Luckily, ICAN continues to grow, and another thing regular people can do is to donate. The organization hasn’t been a priority in the state budget, and we need money to continue our work.
Last, but not least, we ask for some general life advice. Nosizwe is an accomplished woman in more that one field, without having set out to do just one thing. We ask her how to choose directions, in a society that puts a lot of pressure on young people to succeed:
I think the most imporant thing is to be nicer to yourself, and realize that thinking
differently about how to develop a career path isn’t always easy! We’re constantly being bombarded with expectations of who we should be and how we should do it. So be kind to yourself – self love is a political act! Thinking about what you love to do as a motivational factor is very good. Keep in mind that no matter what you choose to do, you’re most likely going to do it for a very long time.
Being diverse in your qualifications isn’t a bad thing in 2017, 2018 and beyond, but at the same time, we can’t all be a DJ/designer/librarian and artist - nerding and really digging deep into something, there’s still so much value in that! Try different things, but try them properly. Don’t do thing superficially, give yourself time and dive in. Then you’ll find what you want to do. I studied political science for seven years before I started working in that field, I didn’t just go “activism is cool! I’m getting likes!” – I dove in. You have to sacrifice as well: going into these professions, I’ve taken some hits, both financially and in my love life. Things have happened, and lessons have been learned the hard way. This career path… It ain’t pretty, man. But it’s fucking worth it!