Beldina Odenyo Onassis is feeling a little tender this Sunday morning. The soulful Glasgow based songwriter had spent the night previous in Edinburgh with a collective known as TYCI who, as Beldina comments, “are a collective who champion the output of women and women identifying artists from all disciplines and walks of life” collaborating on a piece with her friend actor and playwright, Belle Jones. The pair put together the piece for the upcoming Declaration Festival. “The festival focuses on mental health, the right to healthcare and topics surrounding that. It was challenging, pertinent and life-affirming to be part of, every piece performed or presented during the evening was thought-provoking” said Beldina of the event. As an individual, her mind-set is planted firmly on social issues and she is using her artwork as a way to communicate and promote them to great success.
Originally from Kenya, she finds herself in Glasgow via Dumfriesshire performing under her guise Heir of the Cursed. Of her upbringing she speaks of the being the only person of colour amongst her peers and the difficulties of growing up in what was as she says, “not the most forward thinking place”. Not to take her childhood memories as a negative though, she uses this experience to hone her lyrics, her haunting vocal tone and her musicianship. “I always wrote poems and sang, but when I got my first guitar at 8, I began combining the two”. Soon her mind became fixated by the First Lady of Song Ella Fitzgerald, songwriter and Civil Rights activist Nina Simone, Odetta and finally Paul Simon. “I was little and wanted to basically be their love child but the main reason I learned electric guitar initially was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, she was so badass”.
Her fascination on Tharpe is most definitely at the heart of what developed Heir of the Cursed’s unique ability to make a room stand still, remaining fixated on those all-encompassing vocals. “A strong woman wielding such a masculine instrument – with elegance and finesse in the 1930’s! Total boss.” She gushes whilst discussing the Arkansas pioneer. The effects of Tharpe’s spiritual lyrics and rhythmic accompaniment still seemingly living and breathing right here in Glasgow inside of one of the most empowering people I’ve met.
My own personal experience of Beldina’s work has always left me in awe. As she sways silently and confidently with her guitar, an air of confidence swells her powerful vocals. She is, in my opinion, the definition of performance. So it’s perhaps surprising that she should describe her on stage persona as “perfecting my game face”. On further inspection though, it becomes quite clear that social injustice and a love for her roots is what makes that anxiety worth dealing with.
Her choice of name gives further clout to this belief. “It came to me in a dream…I was going through a lot of tumult and self-doubt musically, not sleeping well and when I did, I’d have these vivid dreams, the most vivid of which featured a warm breathy voice pressed right up against my ear whispering “heir of the cursed” repeatedly while I fell into that horrible sleep abyss.” On further inspection, the name became more than just a sleep deprived apparition of stress: it was in fact so much bigger than that.
When the songstress did what all children of our generation do and took to Google to find an explanation, the answer was perhaps more than anyone could have expected. “I found out that it’s the English translation of the tribal name of Patrice Lumumba, who was the first democratically elected President of the Congo. The more I looked into him, read his speeches, poetry, watched him orate the more I felt this profound, yet unfounded connection to him.” Lumumba was murdered in 1961 in a plot that was rumoured to involve the English, Belgian and American governments. In 2002 Belgium ‘recognised’ their involvement in his death; whilst America followed suit in 2014. “It forced me to explore my role as a child of the African diaspora and ultimately I decided I needed to make a place for myself instead of trying to find one.”
Her move to Glasgow came after a short stint in Newcastle; when questioned as to whether her motives for the move were regarding her creativity, she gives a nod to the scene in Glasgow being by and large progressive and inclusive. However, when I discuss what the future holds for her personally, it’s telling that she thinks of the future as what it means for others – rather than herself – despite my direct questioning. “The world is so terrifying at the moment” she shudders as I nod in agreement. “I’m just surrounding myself with the best people possible, trying to make honest art and leave a mark on the world”.
However, far from cowering away from this terrifying world, her feeling is that we need to expand Glasgow to make it more inclusive than ever before. “I think we could also redefine the gig experience, make it more immersive, take bands out with the regular venues and put on diverse programmes in diverse places. There are people doing things about this though, the tide is shifting a bit so as a performer I’m working out how to put on a show that leaves you haunted, provoked and represented that could be put on anywhere and still be impactful.”
It would be fair to say the importance of the creative minds is more important than ever before. The kindness of the human heart and the need for togetherness is more relevant than ever before too. Music can speak to people at a higher level; it can communicate ideas and a power that is not found in many places; in local artists like Heir of the Cursed we have someone who knows how to communicate like a pro. Someone that, despite her human insecurities, is willing to rip up the carpet and re-lay it in the hope it’ll look better for the whole household…and that is something we can all get behind.
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