“My voice, my purpose”

“My voice, my purpose”

by marlies|dekkers

Few women are as controversial as Sylvana Simons, the Dutch dancer and tv presenter who gave up the privileges of fame to fight racism and discrimination. An icon to some, a villain to others, Sylvana is something infinitely more complex and precious to me: a dear friend whom I watched become a legend in her own lifetime. I had tea with Sylvana to speak about love, loneliness, and the incident that changed her life forever. “For 25 years, I had been avoiding this moment.”


M: Sylvana, you and I go way back.


S: We do!


M: I remember so clearly meeting you for the first time -you were still a VJ, I believe- and being struck not just by your beauty, but by your inner fire and the way your express yourself.


S: I think you saw something in me that I wasn’t aware of yet myself.


M: By now, you have grown into a voice to be reckoned with, one of the icons of the 4th feminist wave. Let’s talk about that process. How did you come into your own?


S: Well, it hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride. I ran away from home at only 14 for example; god knows I could have ended up in a very, very bad situation. I grew up loved, I grew up privileged. But I wanted freedom. So, I left.


M: What saved you?


S: I had a dream. I was going to reach the top. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’, but of ‘when’ and ‘how fast’. I know you are going to laugh, but I was going to be the first black soloist of the Dutch National Ballet. That obviously never happened, but when I met Michaele DePrince, I told her: “Thank you for making my dream come true!”.


Secondly, my parents believed in me. No matter what. I was born 2 months early, but they let my mother take me home because I was fully grown already.


M: A freak of nature, from day one!


S: (laughs) Yes! And when my mother was standing on her porch in Paramaribo, holding me in her arms, this big parade showed up. It was for our former Queen Beatrix who shared the same birthday. But my mother felt strongly this parade was for me. It was a sign. And that’s how I’ve lived my life! My parents believed I could do anything, and they gave the moral compass to guide me back to myself, each time I lost my way.


M: To have that kind of foundation in life is priceless. I come from a similar background and the love of my parents is always there, like beautiful background music accompanying everything I do. So, how and when did you find your voice?


S: When I was in my late 20s, a woman read me my tarot cards. I remember saying to her: “I just desperately want to give meaning to my life.”


By then, my dance career had taken me me all over the world. I was on stage, I was adored by big crowds. I had started working for a music channel where I got the opportunity to interview my favorite stars.


M: But you felt that didn’t own any it…


S: Exactly. I was a product, an extension of a producer or director. And then, one day, I found myself sitting at a table in a TV studio when I heard one of the other guests refer to African refugees as ‘those blackies’. Marlies, so many things went through me in the following 3 seconds. Shit Syl, you need to say something. Yeah, but if I do, I will be in so much trouble. Yeah, but if you don’t, what example will you set for your children? And I concluded: if I don’t speak up now, I will never be able to look myself in the eyes. And so, I spoke up.


M: You found your voice.


S: And with it, my purpose.


M: It was like that moment that Eve decided to pick the apple. 


S: Absolutely. Like for Eve, there was no turning back. For 25 years, I had been avoiding this moment. I had been trying so hard to be that well-adjusted sophisticated black woman in the entertainment business showing the world: look, I’m not some twerking single mom! Because the fact that I actually was a single mom with children from different dads was such a cliché; I absolutely didn’t want that. But my speaking up provoked so much hatred and exposed so much sexism and racism that it gave me full license to no longer conform.


M: It was bigger than you.


S: Much bigger.


M: You have been ridiculed, threatened and attacked. I have literally feared for your life, many times. I get emotional telling you this, Sylvana, because you are very dear to me and I don’t want to lose you! Yet you never back down. Where does that fearlessness come from?


S: Everyday, people try to bring me down. But I’ve learned: this isn’t about me, it’s about empowered women, and even femininity in general. And that gives me courage.


M: Speaking of courage, my muse this season is Billie Holiday. I see quite a lot of parallels between the two of you.


S: There is definitely a connection. Like me, Billie renounced the privileges that came with her fame to speak her truth. 


M: Just imagine: she was one of the first black female singers with an all-white backup band, and then she risked it all by recording ‘Strange Fruit’, the song that sparked the civil rights movement.


S: Yes! Looking at her, and other great black female singers from that era like Aretha and Nina, I see women who used their talents to accomplish acceptance for an entire community -black people in this case- but who eventually alienated a lot of people by speaking up for what they believed in. When you do that, you have to be willing to make peace with loneliness; you have to become your own best friend. I’m sure you recognize that.


M: I do, and I know that learning to truly love yourself takes tremendous strength. That is why I find it baffling that some people still think of Billie Holiday as a victim!


S: Like Billie, I have had my share of bad men in my life. But I used these relationships as tools to grow into my own, refusing to see myself as a victim. Everything I have been through gave me the strength to commit to my womanhood, and with that, to my blackness, because things are very different when you are a white woman.


M: We are living in a period of great transition; women have started to raise their voices which is creating this immense forcefield. We are transforming ourselves from victims into heroes.


S: Right on! But I do tell women who see me as an example or a hero: you don’t necessarily have to go to the barricades. You can spread your convictions through the way your raise your kids or treat your friends. Let your intrinsic values be your guide; don’t depend on the approval of others. That’s hard enough as it is.


M: You’ve come a long way, Sylvana. Do you ever allow yourself a moment to be proud of what you have achieved so far?


S: When I was little, 5 or 6 years old, people were writing their names on walls everywhere, saying “I was here”. I guess it was a bit of a trend. And I remember saying to my mom: “I think people will remember that I was here.” I am not going to quit until everybody is treated equal. We still have a long way to go. But yes, there are moments that I am quite proud. I was here; that’s for sure!


M: Gloriously so. Thank you, Sylvana.


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