Ezinma: a classical route to the world of pop


This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

I met Ezinma as Meredith Ramsay almost 10 years ago, when we were violin students at the Mannes School of Music in New York. One day after school we were on the sidewalk, talking about the future. She told me she was not going to audition for orchestras. Rather, she was going to become a pop star of the violin.

I remember thinking, “How is she going to do that? You cannot train as a classical musician and have a career in pop music.” But she did. The proof? Ezinma is featured on the cover of the January/February issue of Strings Magazine. 

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Meredith grew up in Nebraska, where she says she never felt the pressure of having to be the best. “Violin was always fun to me. My parents were tough, but I remember it was always fun,” she says. “And I think that is very special because not everybody has that type of relationship with the instrument. Not everybody loves the violin. Some people do it out of duty.” 

Until the age of 14 she trained as a dancer. “I do think that is significant,” she says. “I was not great, but I was pretty serious about it and I do think that there is a connection between growing up doing dance and what I do now. I am a very physical violinist when I play.” 

For a short time, Meredith put away the violin as she wanted to be a doctor. But after starting a pre-medicine program as an undergrad, she switched back to the violin at Mannes. This is where she discovered that she was going to be a different violinist playing different music. 

“At the time I was studying with Laurie Smukler,” she says, “and in the later part of my first year, I remember her saying to me: ‘You know, you are just different. I don’t know what it is, but you should become the Beyoncé of the violin or something.’ What Ms. Smukler said gave me the courage to think that this was possible even though I had no idea where to start, no roadmap, no blueprint.” 

Meredith explored the popular music scene. She worked with Beyoncé for three years and Clean Bandit for two. Clean Bandit is a British instrumental pop group composed of a cellist, a pianist and a drummer.

“Working with them was very inspirational,” she recalls. “They taught me to dance while playing the violin and I toured with them all over Europe. It was a huge gig for me, it was a major time. We were playing in arenas in front of tens of thousands of people cheering. I realized, ‘Wow, it is rock-star life, and a violinist can have this.’”

Meredith feels that going through classical music studies, trying to learn to do everything perfectly, she might have lost the perspective of who she was. “I think there are times when classical music becomes a bit unrelatable,” she says. “I do not really see the classical world reaching out and trying to bring people in. What the popular world does so well is that it does not matter what language you are speaking; it does not matter how old you are. You feel it and you love it.” 

The violinist broke with the classical tradition symbolically when she started going by her middle name, Ezinma. “I wanted to make something new and to have the freedom to create without the expectations of my old identity,” she explains.

“It is interesting because now I go by both names and I see them as two separate things. In this interview, at this moment, I am Meredith, but when I am on stage, I am Ezinma. I have another ego. This has been a necessary step. It offered me protection for creation and experiment.

“For me the coolest thing about entering the pop world is that [when]going to sessions and working with each other, we are having fun. It is not this serious, frightening thing that I sometimes felt when I was in classical. At the end of the day, it is just about sharing, it is about joy, it is about raising the vibration for everybody around you. And this is something that I am working on very hard every day.”

Meredith says she does not remember experiencing much racial discrimination in the classical world. That said, there were times when she got a lot of backlash from classical musicians – some of whom were also people of colour – because of the music she was playing and the way she was playing it. 

“That was something that I think is a little bit separate from being a race issue, but kind of connected to it at the same time,” she explains. “The fact that I play a lot of hip hop is directly connected to my background.

“I like to be seen. I want people to know my background, I want to show where I am coming from. I would love to see a world where your background helps you. I don’t think it should be a strike against you that you are from a different culture or that you are a woman, or that you are perhaps not able-bodied. I think classical music needs to take that and turn it into something positive.

Ultimately music – any music – is not just perfectly played notes and perfectly played rhythm. It is a story of the composer and of who you are as a performer. I think to erase that component of an individual does not make sense. – Meredith Ramsay

At the end of the day, it is just about sharing, it is about joy, it is about raising the vibration for everybody around you. And this is something that I am working on very hard every day.

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)


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