by Beverly Aarons
Ampersand LIVE is back for its seventh annual one-night showcase of art, storytelling, science, dancing, activism, and more on Oct. 29, 2020, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Virtual and free to the public, attendees can livestream the event from anywhere with an internet connection. This year’s Ampersand LIVE will feature 10 artists and contributors exploring the theme of restoration:
- Juan Alonso-Rodríguez | Visual Artist
- Etta Cosey | Birdwatcher
- Degenerate Art Ensemble | Art Performance
- Christopher Icasiano | Drummer and Composer
- E. J. Koh | Author and Poet
- Heather Thomas Loepp | Poet and Musician
- Amanda Morgan | Dancer and Choreographer
- Clyde Petersen | Filmmaker
- Emily Pinckney | Marine Biologist and Environmental Justice Advocate
- Shaina Shepherd | Singer and Songwriter
I had an opportunity to speak with Shaina Shepherd, the Seattle-based frontwoman for the soul-grunge band BEARAXE, about her upcoming participation in Ampersand LIVE and her work as an artist.
“Honestly, it was like the most beautiful live show I’d ever seen,” Shepherd said of Ampersand LIVE 2019. “It was just so beautifully curated to tell a specific tale. And there was a sense of partnership that was happening with all the artists and speakers and poets. That is really hard to find in Seattle.”
When Tomo Nakayama, the curator of Ampersand LIVE, invited her to join this year’s show, Shepherd was overjoyed. Maybe a little too overjoyed — Shepherd laughed as she noted that Nakayama seemed a bit surprised by her excitement. But for Shepherd, Ampersand LIVE was an opportunity she felt lucky to have in a city she’s come to call home since 2014.
Shepherd is a bit of a nomad. Her mother is from Tacoma, and her father is from New York City, so she spent time living in both cities as a child. But Seattle is the first city that Shepherd chose for herself, and she is “very intentional about calling Seattle home.”
“I fit here,” Shepherd said. Seattle was the first place where she found a “grown-up job,” where people seemed to get her, and where she no longer needed to fit someone else’s mold. In Seattle, Shepherd feels free. But that freedom has evolved since the pandemic began. And that evolution is why Shepherd feels deeply connected to the Ampersand LIVE theme “restoration.”
“Restoration is the theme by which I have shaped my entire existence in the past seven months,” Shepherd said. Like many other artists, the arrival of the novel coronavirus brought chaos into Shepherd’s life, causing her to experience major transitions. She reassessed her relationships and life choices, and she uprooted many things and “started fresh.” The song she will perform at Ampersand LIVE, “Apple Tree,” explores some of those transitions.
“When Tomo shared the theme with me … I knew exactly what song was the right song,” Shepherd said. “Because I wrote that song the last time I had a moment of great major transition. And the last time I had moments of major transitions, I had to decide whether to be the best version of myself that I know how to be or to be a new version of myself that I don’t know.”
Shepherd was speaking of the mold — that old, ill-fitted mold that she felt bound to for a good portion of her life. The mold that defines how she should look: straight hair, not curly. The mold that says how she should act: be selfless and self-sacrificing. The mold that insists on a specific body type: stay thin, not curvy.
“I think the most dangerous mold I’ve been expected to fit into has been an archetype of what I’m supposed to be as a Black woman,” Shepherd said. “Honestly, that archetype has positives and negatives, but they’re all equally harmful.”
Now, at 28 years old, Shepherd is redefining and restoring her authentic self.
“This new version of myself spends less time apologizing and more time problem-solving,” Shepherd said. “In this new version, I just try to honor whatever feels true. I used to hide and lie my whole life. I used to lie all the time. I used to lie to myself. I used to lie to people to get them to like me. … Now, instead of apologizing for all the lies that I told myself, this [new] version of me tries to honor the truth that feels right in the moment.”
Shepherd grew up in a strict religious household — on both sides of her family. She was only allowed to watch PBS — that’s where she discovered opera. Her family was proud of being Black, but they had specific ideas on what it took to survive in a racist society. Shepherd was taught the strict protocols of how to fit in: how to speak, how to follow the rules, how to financially thrive. And she did try to fit into that mold, for a while. But just beneath Shepherd’s compliant persona, there was a rebel who spurned a “sensible” career in business, finance, or education. Shepherd chose her own path — first opera, then soul-grunge. But when she first began studying as a singer, she tried to fit into a new, albeit more glamorous, mold.
“When I first got into classical voice, that’s what I wanted,” Shepherd said. “I wanted them to change my voice to fit whatever was going to make people see me and love me.”
But as Shepherd evolved, transitioned, and restored her authentic self, she left that old mold behind too. She now recognizes her soulful voice as a powerful instrument with its own unique qualities. And she is remembering and reconnecting to her childhood self that felt worthy of just authentically existing. It’s a reconnection that has invigorated her, a spirit she hopes to bring to Ampersand LIVE.
“When you’re a kid, you just accept every piece of you until people correct you,” Shepherd said. “I think that has been the most important thing that I’ve learned, and it’s improved my whole life. It’s improved the way I feel in my body. It’s improved my voice. It’s improved the way that I interact with other people. But it also is lonely, you know, to not have those easy affirmations that those decisions that you’re making in the moment are right. You have to just trust yourself. That’s what I’m still learning to do.”
Ampersand LIVE is hosted by Forterra, a Washington-based conservation- and community-driven nonprofit focused on conserving land, developing innovative policies, and supporting sustainable rural and urban development. Registered Ampersand LIVE attendees who make a donation of $65 or more will receive a print copy of Forterra’s upcoming biannual Ampersand Magazine. Register online at Forterra.org/AmpersandLIVE.
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
Featured image: Shaina Shepherd at Morse Wildlife Preserve by Forterra.