Lift each other up: an interview with Girls Girls Girls

Samantha Lindo and Eliza Shaddad have known each other for over a decade. When we meet on the stairs of St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch to talk about Girls Girls Girls, a female arts collective they formed in 2011, the two singer songwriters haven’t seen each other face to face for months. Samantha lives in Bristol and is looking to release an album later in the year, whereas Eliza has been up all night preparing for a string of tours, one of them showcasing her new EP, Run. Our interview becomes a catchup of sorts, where their work, ideals and friendship seem almost inseparable from the overarching subject of artistic sisterhood.

In partnership with the Orchid Project, a charity dedicated to end female genital cutting (FGC), Girls Girls Girls arrange events, primarily in London, showcasing female artists events to raise awareness about the traumatic and physically damaging practice. According to the Orchid Project, more than 130 million women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGC. It’s a support network that pushes female expression and experience to the front room of social politics and does so in a safe and collaborative space. But it’s also a night that gives Samantha and Eliza the chance to perform their quietly observant, yet forceful songs in the majestic setting of a church or music hall, alongside visual artists, dancers and poets they admire.

Over the course of the day, it dawns on me that Samantha’s and Eliza’s story erupts from a powerful thought; the idea that social change goes hand in hand with art and community.

How did Girls Girls Girls come about?

Samantha: The idea came after I saw Beyoncé headline the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury with an all-female band in 2011. I thought, “Yes! That’s awesome!” A woman hadn’t headlined that stage, as a solo act, in 21 years. I came back to London, grabbed Eliza, and said, “We’ve got to do something!” A couple of years before I had gone to Uganda with my friend, Ruth, who works for Orchid, and it was the first time I had come across or heard of FGC. Meeting women who had had it done to them had quite an impact on me. Their stories, which I read on Orchid’s website, are both inspiring and horrific at the same time.

Eliza: I know. They work with an amazing artist called Sister Fa, who headlined one of our events a few years ago. She spreads awareness at a grassroots level, speaking to women in communities across Africa through the medium of music. It shows that change can be achieved in a positive way, through discussion and reason. She’s gone through it herself, so she has authority to talk about it.

How do you think music helps communicate that message?

Eliza: Music inspires people and makes them receptive to hearing messages they might not be interested in otherwise. Sister Fa, for example, is so eloquent in the way she goes about it in her songwriting. People become interested to discuss FGC through her music.

Samantha: Art often plays an important role for social change to happen. Rather than just handing out leaflets, or doing a stall, artistic collaboration is built on relationships, friendships and inspiration.

What effect have the events had on your audience?

Eliza: I recently found some videos we shot of the audience at the event at St Leonard’s. We asked them, “What do you think? Are you enjoying this?” Everyone was like; “I love this musician, or poet, or comedian!” It was so nice to watch and I think people have a lovely time. A Girls Girls Girls show can be a deep experience, but it can also be fun and light. We show them a good time. Hmm, that sounds wrong.

Samantha: Girls Girls Girls—we show them a good time!

One of the things I realised when I researched the Orchid Project was that FGC is still a taboo subject. Do your events get people thinking and talking about it in a different way?

Samantha: The key is to take away the shame. As soon as there’s shame, people go quiet, which then perpetuates the problem. Our audience is not the at-risk group for FGC, but they can make other people aware of its existence. What we’ve contributed financially probably isn’t that much, but I think the message is more important: the women’s stories that people have taken away from the event, or which have made it into the press.

Why did you want the event to be fronted by women?

Eliza: Girls Girls Girls is a space where women don’t have to feel hindered or reserved. They can express an artistic message without fear of judgement. We wanted to celebrate womanhood in a non-patronising sense.

Samantha: By working together, you can make each other a platform to help showcase your journey and creativity. I think that’s what sisterhood is about. Working together and lifting each other up. To be more than what you are individually. Often girls can be a bit competitive and think, “There’s another girl playing, I don’t want to play.”

Eliza: Or event organisers don’t put them on stage together.

Samantha: It’s just mad. I don’t believe in that.

You’ve chosen churches, like St Leonard’s, and other more unusual venues for the event. Why is that?

Samantha: I wanted to use old spaces and churches, in particular. If you’re going to be yourself and be vulnerable in a performance, it deserves a beautiful space and an honouring atmosphere. Not a loud, chatty pub. The old architecture and candlelight, paired with our relationship with each other and the other artists, creates an atmosphere that people can take part in. I think that’s got to do with us being women. It’s not better or worse, just different.

How has joining together with other women for the event influenced you creatively?

Eliza: It’s been hugely inspirational to forge friendships through music and art. Personally, it’s provided me with the nicest gig experiences I’ve had, in spite of all the stress that comes with organising an event.

Samantha: I agree. On a musician’s note, that was part of the reason we wanted to do it. We wanted some nice gig experiences and to create that for each other. When you’re an artist, you don’t go to an office or have a network around you all the time. It can be lonely. So having other women artists around you is so important. It feels like we’re all connected.

What's your advice to readers who want to get involved?

Eliza: Come and be part of it. We’re always looking for new people to work with.

This interview was originally published in issue 30 of Oh Comely.