Vivek Shraya is an artisan, crafting challenging, tender, and beautiful songs and stories, expressed with love and understanding as a guiding light.
The Edmonton-based trans poet, author, playwright, artist, filmmaker, and singer-songwriter is a Canadian Screen Award winner and a Polaris Music Prize nominee, and her best-selling book I’m Afraid of Men was heralded by Vanity Fair as “cultural rocket fuel.” She’s also the founder of the award-winning publishing imprint VS. Books, which supports emerging BIPOC writers. Shraya is on the Board of Directors of the Tegan and Sara Foundation, and is currently adapting her debut play, How to Fail as a Popstar, as a digital series with CBC.
Most recently, Shraya has graced eager ears with “Colonizer,” from the upcoming deluxe edition of her debut album for Mint Records, Baby, You’re Projecting. A duet with Donovan Woods, it’s a celebration of the kind of balance at play in so much of her work: in this case, the graceful melodies in Woods’ delicate voice, gently plucked nylon strings, and Shraya’s keen ear for pop and dance music, conjuring rhythm to restless feet.
“Colonizer” is a love song with an easy request; to be loved as she is, without needing to be saved, told through mirrored tales that bounce between narrator and lover. “On the surface, the tension is between me and my partner, but actually, the tension is between me and ‘public perception,’ or the perception of others,” says Shraya. “In that respect, it’s actually really easy to hold on to the love.”
Leading with love and challenging oppositional narratives is a skill Shraya has mastered over the years, muscle memory honed over many instances of writing, empathically, all sides of a story. “I think in the kind of work that I’ve made,” she says, “even with the worst people, or people who have treated me the worst, I’ve always really tried to come from a place of understanding and empathy as much as possible.”
This isn’t a difficult mindset for Shraya to achieve. “Coming from a place of understanding, and empathy, and compassion is more common to me than allowing myself to be angry,” she says. “I think part of it is also rooted in my experience of being a marginalized person. I think there’s so much pressure to be a good brown person, and to be polite, and to try to see the other side – or to hear both sides.”
Coming from that understanding place can itself stem from feeling like you have to cede some ground. As Shraya says, “I have to remind myself that I’m entitled to anger, that I’m entitled to rage. But certainly on [‘Colonizer’] in particular, that wasn’t necessarily the place that I was writing from – because ultimately, the track is about reinforcing love for my partner and his love for me.”
Even in the depth of emotion that Shraya explores, there’s humour there for those who can hear it. “I think because of my experiences of oppression, I haven’t always allowed that to come forward in my art,” she says. “‘Colonizer’ in some ways is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, or at least it started out [that way]. Having the word ‘colonizer’ as a title can seem like an aggressive move, but it’s interesting playing the song for brown friends who’ve dated white people – [they] can’t stop laughing.”
For Shraya, reaching the hearts of a wide array of audiences with the emotional core of her work is an ongoing process. Love, tension, and humour work as one, in compelling accounts that reach beyond the barriers of the community from which they’re conveyed. “One of the things that’s felt really exciting in recent years is trying to write a song that has a message that might not be for the dominant listener or the dominant group,” says Shraya, “but still have the dominant group find it catchy.”