SHEWIT BELAY: Know your roots
Shewit Belay is a quiet achiever, with great ambitions that seem all too achievable for a person of her calibre.
Hailing from Eritrea, Shewit moved to Tasmania at the age of five and quickly adapted to life in a small town with an even smaller African population. Shewit took difference in her stride, and explored her roots through performance and poetry.
Now studying medicine, Shewit is deft with time - carefully dividing her life between a passion for music and her university studies. I met with Shewit in a cafe in Hobart and was instantly struck by the calm perseverance and warm nature of a talented young person with big things on their horizon.
THE PIN. Can you tell us about your childhood and where you grew up?
SHEWIT BELAY. I was born in Eritrea, East Africa, and I left with my family when I was three years old. We then lived in Kenya for two-and-a-half years and then moved to Hobart, Tasmania.
What was the experience like, as a young child, moving countries and changing cultures?
S. In Kenya I went to an English speaking school, and the country was colonised by the British, so I think moving to Australia was a lot easier for me than others. That being said, it was still completely different to anything we had previously experienced. I was five and curious, so the change wasn’t a bad thing. For my mum it was quite difficult, and perhaps even for my sister, there weren’t really many African families in Tasmania at that time. It was a very new thing.
I think being in a society where your image is not the main image that is portrayed by that society, and in the media, has an impact on you that you can’t really control – whether you like it or not. It translates to what you subconsciously think about standards of beauty and what you can and can’t do, in terms of your choice of a degree, and your ambitions in life. I felt as though there were certain things I couldn’t do. It wasn’t really a matter of me thinking I couldn’t do it because I was different to everyone else, I just never considered it because I hadn’t seen anyone like me do it in Tasmania.
In saying that, I don’t feel as though I was targeted by racist slander or anything like that. Nothing explicit, just bits and bobs here and there.
Did your parents give you any advice on being ‘different’?
S. Definitely, I remember I came home one day and I said, ‘mum, I want blue eyes and blonde hair’. She took one look at me and said, ‘look at me. You’re my daughter. Do I have blue eyes? Do I have blonde hair? No.’
From that point on mum was really aware of the fact that it’s easy to feel, or to desire, a different sort of aesthetic when you’re the minority.
Mum was really really on top of that kind of thing, especially stuff to do with self image and she just tried to make sure we didn’t have an inferiority complex. She was really good at building that confidence in us kids and made sure I was involved in lots of activities that wouldn’t give me time to think about my existence too much [laughs].
You’re doing two things right now that I find really interesting - you’re a musician and you’re also studying medicine. Has music been a way to find your identity and to find people you feel commonalities with?
S. Definitely. When I was in year 10 I had to do a drama exam and think up a program of poetry to and prose to present. I decided to examine colonial culture and colonialism in Africa. It was a chance to look a little deeper into my roots and history.
It was a really liberating moment for me, because I felt I knew my history and I was doing it through drama. Then in year 12 I did an English writing subject. I thought it would be easy, and I was so wrong [laughs], but it was really good because that is how I discovered slam poetry, and how especially African-American individuals express angst and lament their situation in post-racial America. It is a movement I really connected to, and I used that medium as a way to explore my identity and to explain to other people how it feels to live in this society when you are a minority.
Do people have expectations of the type of music you create?
S. Not particularly, which I think is the awesome thing about managing your own music. You’re in charge of the image that people have of you. At university I’m part of a K-Pop dance group, it’s a fun thing...but also a legit thing. I really feel like you wouldn’t expect black people to be doing K-Pop dancing.
With singing I choose to do soul, I choose to do RnB, I choose to do rap – I guess those are stereotypically black things to do [laughs], but it’s what I want to do – and it’s not because other black people are doing it that I’m doing it. That being said, I can’t deny the connection I feel to that kind of music because there is a significant representation of my people within it.
Have you travelled back to Eritrea since you moved to Australia?
S. I travelled back with my family when I was fourteen. I think a lot of people in the diaspora, especially in the West, whenever they go back home generally feel like the spoilt rich Western cousin who doesn’t know enough about their culture and can barely speak the language. It was really confronting because I could see that our opportunities are different. If you don’t get your act together in Eritrea then that’s it. That’s just it.
Other people I have spoken to, who moved to Australia and then travelled back to the country where they were born, have said that they feel they don’t wholly belong to either place. Is this the case for you?
S. Yeah, sometimes I do feel more Australian than Eritrean…whatever Australian means. Whenever we go to African community events I sometimes feel like I’m not quite Eritrean enough as well. It can be quite hurtful, because people say ‘oh, you don’t speak the language as well as you should, you’re not dancing, you’re not being loud, or whatever it is that makes a person Eritrean in Australia’. It plays around with your sense of who you are.
On the other hand a friend made the comment, ‘oh Shewit, you’re the whitest black person I’ve ever known’. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Looking back, it was quite a hurtful comment to make because that person's idea of a black person is just a stereotype and you can’t apply that to every black person. There are a lot of black people in the world.
Going back to studying medicine. How do you find that experience? Is it an overwhelmingly white space and is it something you think about?
S. I remember going to university in Queensland and just seeing so many brown people. It was amazing, I’ve never been in an educational space in Australia with that much ethnic diversity and so many brown people! I felt like I could redefine my identity and set it how I wanted it to be.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
SHEWIT BELAY. Work it. We spend so long wishing our hair was a different texture to what it is, wishing our eyes weren’t brown. But just work it. We have the internet these days, which is both a good and a bad thing. I feel that it’s been really helpful for me to see that black is a beautiful thing. It’s not ugly.
For me, because I really like musical theatre as well, there are certain musicals and certain roles I have never seen a black person play. Stage shows like Hamilton have changed that though. Even just listening to the soundtrack of that musical is a revelation as to what diversity can do in theatre...and I mean it’s a musical about the founding fathers of America, which is about as white as you can get, but the cast is nothing like that. So yeah…. I think that’s the advice I would give my younger self. Work whatever it is you’ve got, no one else has it and you can’t do anything about the fact you’ve got it, so you may as well enhance it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Learn more about Shewit here.
Photo credit: Oliver Berlin
Published August 2017