By Sienna Vittoria Asselin
Photos by Negin Sairafi
Romana, a Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist and musician, is making space for conversations around self-care in a time of great uncertainty. We got to chatting (virtually, of course) during the Covid-19 pandemic all about her new weekly Instagram Live series, featuring interviews with various inspiring women all about emotional well-being and boundaries in times of crisis.
Read on for more as we discuss her career path, her creative process, her new single (take a listen here), and what IG Live guests she’s excited to talk to.
To start, could you tell our readers a bit about you and your background?
I am a self-taught multi-disciplinary artist inspired by the human condition, the cosmos, my ancestors and the spaces in between—I experiment with several mediums to express my journey as a woman of colour in Toronto.
Could you briefly walk us through your career path? Did you always want to be an artist and musician?
My dream since I was a little girl—belting Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You—was to be a singer. I have acted out my Grammy acceptance speech in the shower more times than I can remember. The path to where I am today was definitely not linear. As a South Asian woman born to immigrant parents, the expectation was I would finish High School, go to Uni, get an amazing corporate job and buy a condo—but even after I did all that by the age of 25, I still was not fulfilled.
My creative journey didn’t begin until I finally quit my corporate job and committed fully to the arts. I started first as a mehndi artist doing custom bridal designs, then I was doing corporate murals, and now I am finally making that feel good R&B music that the world wants to hear.
Tell us about your new single, “Holding Space.” What inspired it?
“Holding Space” is a song about creating emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical boundaries. This song encourages emotional awareness and gives permission to say no to the things that don’t serve you. I wrote this honestly after listening to a friend vent for an hour on the phone. I didn’t get a word in. When I got off the phone, I felt super drained and tired and realized I had taken on their s$%t and it was impacting my energy and mood. I realized that I was probably not the only one having this experience, and about 12 minutes later, the song was written!
How would you describe your musical style?
My sound is inspired by 90s R&B music—the sound I grew up listening to and the music I still listen to today. Growing up, Bollywood music was also a big part of my life and my singing style has definitely been influenced by the ragas of classical Indian music too.
Why did you decide to start an Instagram Live show? What’s it all about?
Before Covid, I was planning a pop-up experience to create a conversation around what holding space is and bring awareness to the invisible labour that a lot of us do in the name of love or friendship. Since events won’t be happening for a while, I wanted to shift the conversation to IG Live.
I started an IG Live series called Holding Space—it’s a weekly conversation and performance platform that is 35-45 mins long. My intention is to discuss boundaries, the importance of self-care and space during times of crisis, and everything in between, with inspiring human beings who are open and authentic.Tune in and follow @romanakassam on Instagram for updates.
From the conversations you’ve had so far on your show about self-care, emotional well-being and boundaries in times of crisis, what is an important lesson you’ve learned that you can share with readers?
So far, I have chatted with Kat Stefankiewicz and Sandy Gill, who are two incredible women blazing their own trails. Kat mentioned that she is giving herself permission to slow down, something she has not done in a long time. Slowing down for her has allowed her to do things she didn’t make space for. Similarly, Sandy said that as a creator, you can’t feel guilty for having down-time. Artists need to rest in order to create. As someone who is always hard on myself for not being “productive” enough, seeing other boss women allow themselves to pause is so important.
What’s a regular day-in-the-life for you?
Honestly, there are no regular days in my life, and I don’t think I would have it any other way!
But some of things that are consistent are I usually wake up around 10 am and always start my day with a quiet cup of Chai (I’ve been doing this since I was 5). Chai is kinda like my meditation. At some point between 12pm-2pm I will eat something carby with a side of greens (balance). From 11pm-2am is usually when I get my best writing done. There is something special about creating while the rest of the city is asleep. What happens in between all of those things is usually based on what project I am working on that week. This week I have been working on my latest video.
Who inspires you in terms of art, music, or in general?
My biggest inspirations are the women in my community who are pioneering what it is like to be South Asian and build careers in the arts. Lilly Singh, Mani K Jassal, Kay Ray, Rupi Kaur, Maria Kumar to name a few. Growing up, I never knew that my people could create careers around fashion, acting, poetry—it is so exciting to see these women succeed, and even more exciting that we are all from Toronto! Musically, my biggest inspiration was Aaliyah. I was obsessed with her growing up, not just for her music but because of how she showed up in the world. She used to refer to herself as “street but sweet,” which I always resonated with. She made it cool to be masculine and feminine at the same time, something I never stopped relating to.
What’s your creative process when creating music? And how about when creating visual arts? I’m curious about how you approach things differently when working in different mediums.
I feel very grateful that I can channel my expression into multiple mediums—it gives me choice. For example, when Kobe passed, I knew I needed to channel the hurt into something, and a painting just felt right in that moment. For me, the process is pretty similar. First, I need to be inspired—right now I am really inspired by my ancestry and healing. The next thing I do is create a container for creation. For me, this is having the paints ready or having a beat to write to. The last thing is, I find the right time to create. My time is almost always at night once the world is sleeping. For me, daytime is for logistics.
What are you trying to bring awareness to through your artwork?
As a South Asian woman born to immigrant parents, it is really important to me to share my perspective as a woman of colour living in Toronto. I truly feel like it is my responsibility to share my narrative and feelings. I believe that this is what my ancestors fought for and not doing so would be a slap in the face to everyone that came before me especially my maa (grandma), and she meant business!
What themes or topics are you passionate about that you address in your music?
My upcoming EP is about belonging, identity and healing. Growing up, I definitely didn’t have the space to talk about shadeism, or boundaries, or colonization. I am creating music that lets you reflect on the things you may not have realized you need to think about. My first single, Holding Space, is definitely an example of that.
What’s next for you?
I was planning a concert for this summer once my EP dropped. Obviously, because of the pandemic, the concert experience will be very different than what I was originally envisioning. I am super excited to explore new platforms and see what kind of experience I might be able to create online instead.