Interview

Who is Ezinma? #ClassicalBae

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They say it’s rare to find a violinist but Ezinma makes it look pretty, powerful and provocative with her electrifying sounds, covers and style. Her work has been praised by some of the biggest artists, from Beyoncé to Stevie Wonder. Although an introverted musician that loves her own space, Ezinma took a moment to let PYNK in and tell us about her new projects;  all new original pieces, nothing like you may have heard from Ezinma in the past. The dubbed #classicalbae is on this world wind journey and she isn’t stopping any time soon!

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PYNK: Who is Ezinma? If you had to describe yourself to those that don’t know?

Ezinma: Wow. Ezinma is … Wow, that’s a really good question. She’s an artist. She’s creative. She’s a musician. She expresses herself most commonly through the violin. She writes music and she just kind of lives music. That’s who she is. Ezinma’s also bold and sometimes afraid, but she still goes for it anyway. She’s confident in her own skin, but it’s something she’s had to really work towards. She’s #woke. She loves to push herself physically, mentally, emotionally. She loves to be at home, actually. She loves to be at home in her own space where she can just work and think about music.

“She’s kind of a cool person.”

PYNK: Awesome. Yeah, I can tell. Would you consider yourself to be more like an introvert?

Ezinma: It’s funny. I’m really social because I have to be for my work and everything. I do enjoy people, but I have to be home by myself with just … like, “Don’t talk to me. Let me work. Let me think. Let me play my violin. Let me practice. Let me write.” It’s really important. I get frustrated when I don’t have that time. I think I have some introverted tendencies, but at the same time I can really turn up.

PYNK: Are you the type to go out to eat or travel by yourself? 

Ezinma: I go out to eat by myself. Yeah. I’ve traveled. I went to Berlin by myself. Yeah. I do stuff by myself. I like doing some things by myself. I don’t know why. I just like to go get a really great dinner and some wine by myself, but then there are times you just want to be with people too.

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PYNK: Absolutely. What was your upbringing like? 

Ezinma: I’m from Lincoln, Nebraska. My father’s from Guyana, from Georgetown, Guyana. My mom is American-born, but my family’s German-English descent, that whole thing. Yeah, so I lived in a mixed race and mixed cultural home. So very West Indian father, like very strict, and my mom was kind of the opposite. My father is a professor of actuarial science, which is really just calculation. So he’s pretty much like a mathematician-type person. My mom is a writer. It’s kind of like two opposing forces all the time. No one in my family is a musician or anything like that.

“Growing up, I just really wanted to play the violin.”

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I think my parents didn’t know it was possible for a child to play the violin, and so they just kind of thought it was annoying that I kept asking. Then they just kind of rented, yeah, they rented me a violin, and I was not quite four yet, I think.

PYNK: Wow! You were extremely young? 

Ezinma: I was very young. Yeah, it was just before I turned four. So yeah, I was three, and I just really took to it. I was a kid still, and you know I wouldn’t want to practice more than 20 minutes or something because I have a very short attention span because I’m three. I did really well. My parents didn’t really push me push me. That was never part of it. It was really just on my own. I’m really grateful for that, because in classical music there are a lot of times the artists and instrumentalists, their parents really force them. It’s like, “You don’t get to eat dinner until you practice.” I think it can kind of create a bad attitude towards what you do, but for me it was never like that. It was really just all on my own.

Then my parents divorced when I was really young. My dad remarried. I have two brothers and two sisters. Like a blended family. Yeah, I was really that kid growing up whom, you know in Nebraska, which is a very kind of conservative, predominately white state, and I never really fit in because I played the violin. So the black kids were like, “Okay, she plays violin.” I didn’t quite fit in with that. Then I was West Indian, Caribbean, so I didn’t really quite have the same cultural experience as the other kids in my class. Then the white kids in class were just like, “Whatever.” So it was really interesting. I grew up predominately alone, never had a lot of friends, never really cared to have a lot of friends either. I just really studied and practiced, and developed a really strong musical ability, intellectual ability, and just really strong sense of who I am, I think in all of that.

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PYNK: So, speaking of your mixed cultural and ethnic background, do you think that had a lot to do with your influences and your versatility as an artist today?

Ezinma: Yeah, definitely. You know, the funny thing is, growing up… I didn’t start listening to hip-hop until I was older. A lot of my friends here in New York grew up with Wu-Tang, Jay-Z, like these types of people. I never really had that. My pool is really lots of reggae. My mom is really into blue grass and Americana, which I also love, and then classical. It’s kind of a little bit of a different, I think, hodgepodge of music.

I think it’s really profound, my upbringing. I remember I would listen to my dad’s recordings and try to play with them and stuff. I remember being a little kid doing that. It was just so fun. I loved it. I loved to make up songs. My teachers would get upset with me because I would add in little things that weren’t in the music, and you know in classical you cannot improvise like that. I got in trouble for that.

“I just think that my upbringing did kind of lead me to where I am today. Although, I would have never guessed I could have been where I am. I never thought that this existed really.”

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PYNK: Speaking of that, I know you mentioned that people don’t expect you to play the violin. You don’t hear that, a violin player. A successful violin player that’s done what you’ve done. So because it’s such a rarity, do you feel like that sets you aside from the rest in an original way? 

Ezinma: Yeah, definitely. Even when I was growing up in Nebraska I remember people couldn’t see me for what I could do because I’m black and play the violin. Their logic was blacks aren’t supposed to play the violin. This black person is playing the violin; we don’t really want to put her first chair of an orchestra. It may not be a good look, that whole thing.

I remember in my middle school getting my first assignment for where I would be ranked. I studied really hard for this audition. I wasn’t arrogant, but I was the best. The best first player in the orchestra, and I was fifth chair. I was like, “What? Why am I fifth chair?” I called my dad and my dad was like, “It’s because you’re black.” He just told me point blank, this is how it is.”

At the orchestra, they had a policy where you could challenge the person sitting in front of you in a blind audition. They record both players, tape A, tape B; the orchestra judges who was better. So I challenged first chair and I won; really, bam that’s it. I challenged third chair, second chair, and made my way to first chair. That’s where I was by the time I graduated. It was one of those things where I had to constantly prove myself, but now that I’ve made my own lane. I said, “I’m a classical violinist. I’ve done these things. I want something more.” I really want to be both mainstream, in the sense that I’m relevant to the average person, but also I want to bring classical music to them. Create a new genre. The fact that I am not the typical looking violinist has, I think, really made people pay attention. It’s really interesting how when you take the things that people may feel are a set-back, you can turn it into something actually that’s your most powerful tool.

“I get emails from black girls and black boys and latino boys and girls like, “Ms. E, thank you for inspiring me. I didn’t know players could look like you and be as good as you.” That’s really been inspiring actually.”

PYNK: That’s awesome. You play the electric violin as well? 

Ezinma: Yeah. I do. I prefer playing my real violin; they’re the same. If you do a set with a DJ you can just plug it in because it’s not loud enough to compete with the sound of the speaker. So you can plug it in and amplify your sound in a way that a regular violin can’t do. There’s no difference on how it’s played or anything. I also have another violin, which is a hybrid. I’ve so gone to really geeky talk. It’s probably not interesting. Oh my god.

PYNK: LOL. It’s very interesting. Tell us more! 

Ezinma: I have my classical violin, which is just wood, which is a natural sound. The electrical is just too electrical. It doesn’t really make sounds on its own unless it has an amplifier. Then I have another one that’s a hybrid. It’s like a Prius type of thing. It’s both electric and classical. So it makes sound on its own but you can also plug it in. It’s fantastic. I just got it actually. They just gifted it to me and it’s really an incredible instrument.

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PYNK: What was your first cover? And what made you decide to start doing covers on social media? 

Ezinma: Wow. My first cover ever … I did “Hello” by Adele. I just played it on my Instagram. Back then Instagram only had 15 second clips. So I played on Instagram for 15 seconds and people were just like, “Wow.” They really loved it. It’s funny because, I claim the violin is not really exceptional to me because it’s just what I do. I’ve been playing the violin most of my life. So I did it and the response was so positive. I did another. The next one that I did was Bryson Tiller’s “Rambo.” I don’t know if you know that song but it’s so cool. I just remember playing it and just thinking … because a lot of hip-hop is minor. It just sounds so epic with strings. I remember feeling like this is such a perfect marriage of hip-hop and R&B, but really hip-hop and strings. You know Miri Ben-Ari had done it before. It’s kind of an interesting mix because it’s so such opposite worlds.

So I just decided to go with that, mainly just because I liked the songs more. There are some pop songs I love like “Hello” by Adele was amazing. I covered Zayn and Justin Bieber stuff.

“My favorite songs have always been like “Panda”. Oh my gosh, that was so fun to do. “Bodak Yellow”. Stuff like that which, has so much space for orchestration is my favorite thing to cover.”

PYNK: That’s awesome. I know you caught the eye of many when you did the “Mask-Off Challenge” on Instagram. How was that experience?

Ezinma: That was insane to me. I remember that night. I come home and my friend, another violinist had done the “Mask-Off Challenge”. I was like, “Oh. I love Mask-Off.” I just love Future. I love Mask-Off. It’s a challenge. She was like, “Oh well you should do something.” I was like, “Oh, but I’ll just do it whatever.” So it’s just me in the living room. I just set my phone on my TV, front facing camera, and I just jam to “Mask-Off”.

Since “Mask-Off”, I feel I’m more intentional about recreating that scenario. It was just truly … I just did it. I posted it on twitter. For some reason it just started blowing up, an unbelievable number. I told you on Instagram. My Instagram wouldn’t load. It wouldn’t load for I don’t know the likes whatever. I had 6,000 followers, like 5,000 something and

“I remember waking up to about 22,000 followers in one night.”

It just kept going. I actually had to go to the doctor because I had anxiety attacks because I felt so exposed. To suddenly have 50,000 people looking at you and you never … people haven’t been giving you that much attention is a big shock.
Now, I’m more used it to it. If it were to happen again I wouldn’t be as stressed. But at the time it felt like such a fluke. I didn’t understand. Time had an article. Complex had an article. My email was blowing up. Fan-mail. People were drawing me. I had never experienced anything like that. But it’s funny because in that I realized, “Oo. Do I really want to be famous? Is that life really appealing to me?” Or you go outside and be like, “Are you the mask off girl?”

Of course, it’s a pretty trivial thing to be famous for. It’s not even real fame like Beyoncé or Ariana Grande or anything like that. It was a really interesting time. I had a lot of thoughts running through my head and feelings. But it was also very exciting because it opened so many doors.

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PYNK: Since your following has GROWN, What has been the most defining moment for you so far? 

Ezinma: I think it would probably be having Beyoncé … Being reached out by or being approached by Beyoncé’s team, which is probably the biggest thing because that was actually before “Mask-Off” even happened. That’s when I realized you don’t know who’s looking at you. You don’t know who’s following your stuff. That’s when I realized … I always just thought I was just in this little bubble and no one was paying attention. That’s when I realized, “Oh snap. I’ve been, in a sense, recruited.

“Of all of the violinists in the world Beyoncé wants me to play with her.”

I was absolutely honored … I think I might be finding something here. I might be finding my lane. This was before I had a manager. This was really just truly on my own. So that was kind of what first made me realize I could do it.

PYNK: So speaking of Beyoncé… Tell me more. Her team reached out to you via Facebook? 

Ezinma: Yeah. That was a Facebook message. The director reached out to me. Pretty much the director of the band reached out to me and was like, “Hi. My client really likes your work. She thinks you’re amazing.” Full commission on violin. You get all these dates to hold pretty much 24 hours. Hold every day for 24 hours.” I was like, I can’t do that. I was working at the time. Living on my own. I can’t really do that. I was like, I think I’m going to have to recommend someone else.” He’s like, “No, just Google my name.” So I Google his name and sure enough he produced parts of Lemonade. He does all of her tours. I was kind of just like, “Oh wow. This is Beyoncé.”

Yeah. It’s crazy. He hasn’t emailed since so I think she’s doing something else. I can’t say. She has a plan and they just have people looking at artists who are doing cool stuff. I think if they really like kind of discover … not discovering but just bringing people … just showing people … showing the world people that people may be overlooking.

PYNK: Absolutely. I know you worked with Stevie Wonder as well. Was that before or after Beyonce?

Ezinma: Stevie Wonder was before. The concert I didn’t do with him it was just a cover, unfortunately. I wish I was with him because I’m a huge fan. The Clean Bandit was really cool too. I worked with that band and work really cool with them. I recently got approached by J. Cole’s people to do some stuff.
It’s good to do nice stuff. It’s just weird. I haven’t even put out an album yet. That’s the thing. It’s all just covers. It’s crazy. I had no idea this would be possible. I think with the number of people that told me, “People don’t want to listen to a violinist. Dumb. It’s already been done.” It’s just proving them wrong, which is cool. It gives me inspiration.
I haven’t really done my own stuff yet. So that’s why I’m just working on this album. I’m so excited for it, so excited to finally show my way.

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PYNK: Tell me about the album. What can we expect?

Ezinma: The album is instrumental. It’s not covered. It’s all original music. I’ve written a symphony, a string quartet. It’s not really classical because it has a lot of hip-hop and trap influences. It’s really just … I’m approaching it as art. It doesn’t even really have a genre. I can’t even say it is hip-hop. It’s just kind of commenting on music in society and classical music. So the very first sound of the album is the orchestra tuning. You know if you go to a symphony you hear the orchestra tuning and warming up. I’ve turned that into a piece. Then there’s a trap beat for the second track.

“It just kind of is a journey of my life but also what I’ve noticed around in terms of how classical music is perceived, hip-hop is received.”

These two worlds when they’re separate, when they’re together. There are solo violin tracks. So I’m just playing by myself over an 808. So it’s a really interesting art piece. I’m really excited for it. It’s very different from my covers in the sense that it’s not … people haven’t heard it before. It’s completely original.

I want it to be an entirely visual album, just because there aren’t words. So I feel that the visual is really important. I’d like to release them both together. Because I really want to get into film scoring, ultimately, like when I’m older. So I was thinking I want this album to score my story for the visual.

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PYNK: Do you ever get to teach? 

Ezinma: No. I used to teach more but this year I came back from Europe and I’m teaching as little as possible. But I’m still teaching just because I love it. I started two after school programs, two after school violin programs. At two elementary schools in New York, in Manhattan. I teach just Monday and Tuesday, just a very small studio of kids. The parents are at work. So they’re at after school anyway. A lot of them rent violins from me. They’re all just a violin family. It’s a group class. They learn classical violin, but also try to mix it up. So last year, for our Spring Recital my friend, who’s like a world champion beat boxer, came in and the kids performed with the beat boxer. I try to do stuff like that. Just keep it interesting and relevant to them. That’s the most important thing.

When I’m older I really want to be more in the education space; just always thinking about kids because kids are the future. As cliché as that sounds, it’s true. They need music. Music is more than real easy … they’re amazing. It’s much more than that, it’s feeling and soul. It’s something that I think everyone should have a chance to experience. Of course, it doesn’t have to be with a violin.

“I think learning an instrument teaches you so much. It teaches you discipline, how to be self-critical, how to accept criticism, and how to really push yourself because it’s hard. So I would love for so many more kids to have an opportunity to learn.”

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PYNK:  It’s definitely rewarding when you’re giving back to the youth. 

Ezinma: Yeah. It’s important. I was telling someone the other day. When I was little … There are really no role models for instrumentalists. If you want to be a musician you think singer or rock star … You can play an instrument like Jimi Hendrix or like Taylor Swift because there’s vocals with it. It’s cool. It’s just there are not many role models. I’m not calling myself a role model. I’m sure a little hesitant to do so. I do feel some sense of responsibility to create a space. Create a space of a violinist who is relevant to society. That just has not happened.

PYNK: I know you mentioned on a podcast that you’re fighting to find your creative voice due to your training; Tell is about that? 

Ezinma: Yeah. It was devastatingly hard. For 20 years I was pretty much just told really … It’s just a part of the training. You do things this way on the violin. You play this piece by Brahms, this phrasing. These are the notes you play, the rhythms you play. Everything is kind of dictated to you. Of course, you have freedom within that. It’s pretty strict. I’ve never written anything on my own really. I’ve never really been encouraged to write. Classical musicians are highly creative people. But it’s a different type of creativity than, let’s say, being a singer-songwriter, where you just sit down at a piano and write something.

So when it came to me writing, I just felt a little bit overwhelmed. I felt not really equipped to do such because that part of me had never really been developed. It was frustrating and I was like, “I don’t know if I can do this.” It was really hard. Really, doing these covers has helped because in my covers … the early ones were really just me just playing with a track but now I’m arranging the original and adding my own thing and doing much more in terms of the composition of the piece. So that’s been a running tool for me.

Also, I went away this summer. I went to Europe to tour. I came back just with so much clarity. I now realize that you never are going to feel 100% equipped to do what you need to do. But in doing it you become so. You become fully prepared and qualified. It was really interesting. Since coming back, I’ve just been writing like crazy. It’s been really exciting. I think I just needed to get away from my space. I needed to see the world. I went to Morocco. I went to Croatia. I heard all these sounds, different music, met these amazing people.
I think that I just needed to shake it up because the creativity is inside of me. The knowledge is inside of me. I think it was a psychological thing where I was just being really hard on myself about it. Yeah. It’s really interesting. I do think that classical musicians and all musicians and all people need to be encouraged to write. Not physically write but to create their own sounds. If you just make up a melody every day, if you just make up a song on your guitar or on your drums. It’s such an important thing that in psychology kids stop doing this around age seven. They stop creating new stuff unless they’re told to do so. So with my students I tell them, “Your homework is to write a piece today. Okay?” For the ones that are able to read music, then you have to write it down by hand as well. They get to perform it for me.

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PYNK: How are you feeling about living in New York? 

Ezinma: I love New York. I feel like it’s one of those cities where it’s a very good city to me. I just meet amazing people almost every day. I walk on the train. I have my violin with me. People are like, “Is that a violin?” I just meet the most incredible people, opportunities. So a lot of those things I feel like a lot of my success is just because I’ve been in New York.

It’s expensive. It’s a really expensive place. I live alone. It’s expensive. I do think it would be nice to live some place cheaper, like a cheaper city or whatever. I think it’s important to feel that edge. I think it’s important to feel too comfortable. Making money … you can pay your bills and rent just fine but I think the second life feels too easy, that’s when you kind of had to plateau.

“So what I like about living in New York is I just feel this constant energy and grind and inspiration just from seeing people busting their ass to make something.”

Whether it’s the taxi drivers or the cleaner or I don’t know, these music students, these college kids, these business men. It’s just everywhere I go I just see people working hard and that’s really inspiring for me.

PYNK: What’s a normal day in the life of Ezinma?

Ezinma: Well, I wake up. I like to wake up early. I don’t always wake up early. I go to bed anywhere between 10:00 pm and 4:00 am. I wake up anywhere between 6:00 am and 9:00 am. It’s weird. I can’t really sleep pass 9:00 am. I wake up and I make coffee and I just practice. That’s the very first thing I do. My day is back to my violin. I touch my violin first thing. I just like to leave it out. I live alone. It’s safe. I don’t have pets or anything. I leave it out. Then I go to the gym. Exercising is really important to me. Then I’m just home working, or doing interviews, or meetings during the day time. Then most of my creative work is actually at night. So when we finish our interview I’m just going to probably work until like 2:00 am or 3:00 am. Writing and working on my next cover. All that stuff I like to do at night. I do my technical violin stuff in the morning.

I feel really frustrated with myself because social media takes so much time for me. I spend probably I’d say like an hour a day just on social media. Total just non-stop social media, an hour. That’s a lot of time. The thing is I have to mind myself and stop myself because that’s my job. That’s a huge part of … Social media is a major part of my brand. Yeah. I wish I didn’t … One day I’ll have an assistant do that with me.

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PYNK: So how often do you gig?

Ezinma: Oo. It depends. I gig less these days. I used to gig all the time. I just kind of took whatever I could get when I first moved here. So I was just gigging constantly. Now I’m more selective. If it’s not artistically fulfilling, it needs to be financially fulfilling. So I’m much pickier these days.
Yeah. It’s kind of ceased or slamming and sometimes when I’m just working like … I just came off this tour having performed 30 shows. Then I came back and it’s fashion and I did all this stuff for that. Then I’ve just been chilling. Just working on my stuff, laying low. Then it will rev up again in October with Halloween. So it kind of comes in waves. So yeah.

PYNK: Nothing wrong with that. How can everyone find you?

Ezinma: They can find me on all social media handles @iamezinma. I have a website. Everything is on there. I have YouTube as well. You can search “Ezinma violin” and that will be up there. You could also just search “classical bae” if that’s easier. I usually pop up. Yeah.

PHOTO CREDIT(S): @iamezinma

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