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'I was ashamed of not being fully Swedish'

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'I was ashamed of not being fully Swedish'
15:22 CEST+02:00
What's it like growing up in Sweden when you don't look like anybody else? Swedish-Eritrean singer and social activist Sa'ra Charismata tells The Local about immigration, peace, and why it's okay to be scared of other cultures.

In the 1970s -- just as it does today -- Sweden welcomed thousands of refugees fleeing from bloody conflicts in Eritrea.

Sa'ra Charismata's parents were among them.

“Sweden was very receptive to immigrants at the time,” Sa'ra tells The Local, sipping a cup of tea in a café on the island of Södermalm in Stockholm.

They had no connection to Scandinavia, but at that time you simply went wherever you could, Sa'ra says.

“Sweden didn't have a lot of experience with immigration, and it was one of the easiest countries to come to. It provided so much for immigrants too. It was easier back then.”

While there were fewer formal initiatives to help with integration, Sa'ra says she feels that foreigners were welcomed more than they are now.

“Now it has become more of an obligation coupled with frustration.”

Sweden takes in more asylum seekers per capita than any other EU nation although it backs new migration quotas to help balance out responsibility.

But Sa'ra says she understands it's only natural that the mindset has changed.

“When you get too much of something it becomes threatening,” the singer says.

“It's the same way in other European countries, and in the US, with Mexican immigrants. The feeling of becoming a minority is scary for people who aren't used to it. It's a normal human reaction.”

Growing up in Sweden during a time when coloured skin was somewhat of a rarity, Sa'ra says that her childhood was "the very definition of an identity crisis".

“I was ashamed of so many things,” Sa'ra says. “I was ashamed of not being fully Swedish. I was ashamed of my parents. I was ashamed of how I lived. I had no sense of pride as a person.”

So when Sa'ra was 17, she did what many an estranged lonely teenager might dream of: She moved to New York.

“I was done with it,” She remarks. “I left as soon as I was done with school because I felt like I couldn't be myself here.”

The American ‘over-the-top' culture appealed to Sa'ra ever since she was a child, and it made sense to choose an English-speaking country since she had always gone to international schools. But she also sought out the US because of a perceived freedom she felt she would enjoy there.

“To me it represented liberation,” she explains. “It was this idea that I could live in the US and no one would ask me where I was from – that appealed to me.”

But New York was no bandaid.

“I've been through some shit,” she laughs. “Can I say shit?!”

The young Swede still didn't know what she wanted to do with her life, and though she did well in law school and was loving life in Brooklyn, she found herself in a downward spiral.

“When you keep making decisions in life that make you feel bad, you get to the point where you can't live with yourself. Like really can't live with yourself. And when you do that for a long time you have to change.”

Sa'ra was caught in a pattern of bad relationships, only dating men who were emotionally unavailable. She felt she had no purpose in life, fought with her family, and hadn't been back to Stockholm for years.

She remembers the day she realized something had to give. She had been rowing with her sister, again, about something unimportant. 

“I got off the phone and I was just screaming, screaming and crying,” she recalls. “And something happened that day. I was at that point of hating yourself so much that you have to change, or – I don't even want to think about what else would happen.”

It was at that point that music stepped in and made all the difference. Sa'ra had always loved singing, but never pursued it fully, focusing on education instead.

“I took small steps,” Sa'ra says. “I started with asking myself what I love to do. I love music, and I love helping people. So why am I not doing that?”

She had also always been involved in activism, even unintentionally. She says she was “that girl” on campus, the one that people went to with problems, when they felt their rights had been infringed.

“I was that field activist, storming board rooms and creating the bias campus response team,” she says. “It made me feel so empowered, helping people.”

But it didn't occur to Sa'ra to combine her two passions until she read a powerful quote from John Lennon about his song 'Imagine':

“It's anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti­-conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugarcoated it is accepted… Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey."

“Ding!” Sa'ra exclaims, indicating an invisible lightbulb flashing on in her head.

“That's how I knew. I had found my calling. I knew that was how I was going to reach out. I had always been frustrated that there are so many horrible things happening in the world, and that there was no music reflecting what is actually happening.”

But how do you sugarcoat protest music? Luckily, despite her identity crisis, Sa'ra is Swedish – so she did what Swedes are known for.

“Hardcore pop music,” she grins.

Since releasing her first single “Gold Digga” last year, Sa'ra has quickly become a popular name on the music scene in Sweden, and was chosen as a key speaker at the latest TEDxStockholm event. She describes her music style as a “militant” and “underground” form of pop, which gets you dancing but then makes you think.

“I mean, why can't we be radical about peace?” she says. “Why can't something cool and fun also contribute to the well-being of the world? Music doesn't have to just be tits and ass.”

In order to complete her transformation and pursue her music 100 percent, though, she had to return to Sweden.

“I dreaded coming back to Sweden, but I felt like I had to go back to my scared self who ran away,” Sa'ra confides. “I felt like it was connected to me not being able to pursue my music. I had to face my demons.”

To her surprise, Sa'ra fell in love with her country of birth, due to its historic focus on tackling inequality.

“I believe in giving recognition where its due, and Sweden is fantastic,” she says.

There's still work to be done all over the world, but when it comes to core human rights, Sweden is still doing fairly well, she explains.

“I believe that economic inequality is the root of evil,” she says. “When you have financial stability and don't have to worry about your next meal, you don't see so many problems in the world. Violence is related to not having your basic needs met.”

The median of welfare is higher in Sweden than many other places in the world, and while marginalization is still an issue, Sa'ra says that awareness is growing.

“The first step is to talk about it. It's ok to be scared of someone who looks different and has a different culture. Just be honest about it,” she says.

“When you address economical inequality de jour, then it comes with social change. And when your strides are successful, it inspires more change.”


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