Culturist: Chloe Flowers | Pianist
Photography by Ashley Sky Walker
Interview by Priscilla Ward
Chloe Flower is one socially engaged artist championing the fight against human trafficking. Flower is a classically trained pianist currently working on her debut album, which fuses her own traditional arrangements with contemporary beats. Flower chooses to make her work as a social activist very vocal, as she hopes to bring much needed awareness to the human trafficking epidemic. The work of Cambodian author and human rights advocate Somaly Mam, who’s work focuses primarily on sex trafficking left huge impression on her. She has chosen strong and moving themes to trigger specific emotions in the listener. Deepak Chopra’s opening words in each act guide the audience through a journey from innocence to suffering, then culminating with hope and healing. AMMO spoke to Flower about her work as a social activist, working with Nas and Swizz Beatz as well as what her favorite color is and why.
What’s your AMMO?
I get inspiration from so many different things, from people- to places I travel -to the kinds of food I eat. Sometimes I find it overwhelming! Most recently, however, I visited an afesip shelter in Cambodia. At the shelter, I tried to give a young boy, no more than a few years old, an ice cream. He pulled away almost as if in disgust. His facial expression was halfway between a frown and an angry glare. He is the son of a young survivor of sex trafficking, and because of this, he hasn’t experienced the normalcy in daily life that one would expect from a 3 year old. As the hour continued, his lack of trust and interest in me did not fade. That is, until, I pulled up the piano app on my ipad. This app has virtual keys that look like a real piano. As I started playing the ever so simple, “Mary had a little lamb,” his face lit up and he started laughing almost uncontrollably. He banged the keys with huge smile on his face and his entire body was reaching and leaning towards the ipad as if he were trying to dive into it. It was truly a beautiful thing to see such joy coming from such sorrow. But all because of music. This experience reaffirmed to me and all of those that were with me that day, just how incredibly vital music education is. Not only can it create identity, nobility, sense of community, and discipline in children, it simultaneously acts as an incredibly valid form of therapy. The anxiety, anger, and nervousness disappeared as the there notes of mary and her lamb repeated. It motivated me so much to continue my work in arts education and education reform.
What first sparked your interest in the piano?
I think my interest was in music, not necessarily the piano. I started piano lessons at age 2, but I also took violin and cello lessons as well. I actually didn’t start conservatory lessons until I was 12, which is extremely late for a classical musician. I was practicing 14 hours a day in order to catch up with my peers in terms of learning repertoire. My parents showed me a video of myself when I was still in the crib. In the video, they were playing a medley of classical repertoire. The interesting part of the footage is my reaction to a specific piece of music. Every time Beethoven piano concerto no.3 in c minor (haha try to say that ten times fast) came on, I would try to stand up and would laugh and make baby noises, quite similar in fact to the young baby I met in Cambodia.
What was it like working with Nas and Swizz Beatz?
It was amazing! It was very last minute…they asked me to come in and try something with a track that salaam remit worked on 24 hours before they started mixing and mastering it. They gave me a little keyboard and a sugar free red bull (because it was after midnight) and told me to do my thing. I started improvising on a Chopin etude I learned ten years ago and literally played it two or three times and then heard the engineer say, “I got it!” I was so confused because I didn’t record it on an acoustic piano, and I really didn’t think they were recording. The classical musician in me that didn’t really understand recording on a 40 keys keyboard haha. Later, nas came in and heard it. I was so scared because I wasn’t sure how he was going to feel about it being classical. I wasn’t about to play chords be the whole point of me being there was to expose his demographic, a demographic I would otherwise not reach, to classical music. I’m not a session musician, I told them. Take it or leave it! I think I had to be that way be I didn’t think Nas would actually end up liking it. But when it was done, he was quiet…then he stood up and started clapping. I was like omg Nas just gave me a standing ovation! Then he said he wanted to hear it again. That was a great feeling because so rarely in classical music does one get the opportunity to play for someone of that magnitude in the hip-hop genre. Part of why I love collaborating with these artists is because I get to expand the classical musical demographic. I get to reach Nas fans and now they will know who Chopin is!
Can you describe one of your favorite performances?
One of my favorite performances was performing for a group of women at the standard hotel’s top of the standard. It was an event for Tracy Anderson, Gwyneth patrol, and Christy Turlington. I work with so many organizations that seek to empower women, so performing with so many successful, courageous, and strong women was amazing! Plus, have you seen the view at the boom boom room!?
What was the transition like coming from such a classical background into contemporary and slightly “R&B” composition?
Wow, I think I am still transitioning! Haha! The biggest transition for me hasn’t been the musical element, surprisingly. It has actually been the performance element. In classical music, since I was basically two years old, I was told to forget my audience and just focus on the piano. As a pianist, I don’t even face my audience. They are to my right and never really see my face. Now in Pop, R&B, Contemporary performance, I am told to do the exact opposite and engage with my audience through visual contact and have even been asked to face my audience with a keyboard! That has been a fun but very different journey for me. But different in a positive way. I feel less confined as an artist when I can engage with the audience by looking at them, smiling at them, and moving my body in ways that I could never do with a traditional classical audience. I think if I tried one of my “sexy piano bench moves” at Carnegie hall, the met might have to be on standby! [laughs]
Why are you so passionate about the issue of human trafficking epidemic?
I keep asking myself that…I guess I am passionate about freedom and human rights. And slavery is one of the biggest violations of human rights. I am also so so so passionate about music education. Because as it turns out, human trafficking- both on the supply and demand side, results from poverty, lack of education, lack of identity, weak family units, and lack of respect between genders. Yet these are all issues that music education can touch upon. When you have music and are part of a group or community, you are not poor. Basic music education at a remedial level gives young kids identity, purpose, it piques empathy. It allows young boys and young girls to build fraternity and cooperation. Unlike sports, any gender, age, size, shape, or race comes together -works together. All of this can directly effect human trafficking.
What’s your favorite color and why?
Purple. Maybe because I’m “yellow” and they are complimentary colors haha!
If you could be any animal; what animal would you be?
A lion. Because I want to be a leader and I identify lionesses with strength, loyalty, and leadership
What projects do you have going on for 2014? Who would you love to work with next?
I have a lot of projects that I’m working on, but the most exciting one will be my album for the Somaly Mam Foundation. We are in the studio now picking songs. I can’t talk about the other projects yet, but there is a lot of exciting stuff going on!
For more from Chloe Flower, go to chloeflowermusic.com
Hair by Cliff Doyle
Makeup by Somaly Kimbrough