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Born in Italy to Ghanaian parents, sound engineer Grace Esia is in her words a “Unicorn”. From dreaming of Beyonce to single handedly running the tech at the recent Bottle Factory event, Grace is force of nature who lights up whatever room she’s in. We sat down with her for a coffee to decompress after a hectic month, and find out how she became one of South-London’s most talented exports.
So what brought you to London?
I spent the first 15 years of my life in Italy. I moved to London around 8 years ago and have been here ever since. It was my parents decision really, there wasn’t a discussion it was “Your coming”. Essentially the economy was in a bad way in Italy, lack of Jobs and bad business…
I’ve been to Italy a few times and obviously you hear stories..how was it growing up as a person of colour there?
I feel like I grew up quite naively, my main concern back then was to be the popular girl that everybody liked, I didn’t see those nuances of me being a black person. I just had the regular issues that any other 12-year-old girl would have at that time, I didn’t really have a first hand experience of racism.
Coming to London was a big shock. I grew up being one of the only black people in my class and even the entire school, to being just anybody in South-East, one of many!
And did that feel good?
Ummm no.. I didn’t have many black friends in Italy and didn’t get to really experience the culture. Fast-forward to Catford, people weren’t that welcoming. In secondary school people would make fun of my accent, it was hard at first.
I guess it can be hard to fit into the culture, even when you look like you should belong
Exactly, I didn’t have a solid group of black friends till University. The realisation when I clocked that I had found my clique, “I’ve got black friends!!!”
So when did the music start?
So of course I wanted to be Beyonce, I remember I got this one compliment and I thought “Okay cool that’s my life’s purpose”. Studying music in Italy is quite different compared to London, the education system is completely different. For me to pursue a music career and study I would of had to go to a conservatoire, and I wasn’t about to do that…. I took that little dream and put it in a box for a while.
When I moved to London I realised how easier and less stressful it was to have music classes etcetera, so I opened up that box! So I studied Music Performance in college and then switched to production in Uni.
What caused that switch to production?
I definitely still consider myself an artist and do want to release music, but I had a sound engineering module in college and absolutely loved it.
Being in the studio…Mic’ing up, it was so much fun. When I was looking into it I found out about Rick Rubin (Def Jam founder and influential producer), the point is he doesn’t really do much on the console, he’s more of an idea’s guy who helps shape the music.
Then I decided to switch to production, studying performance didn’t really make sense to me and I didn’t feel like I needed a piece of paper which said OK I can sing songs. I wanted to get the technical stuff down. I then moved onto live sound engineering which I love, I guess its kind-of a back-up plan but I can see myself doing shows, festivals, travelling around. My plan is that I’ll be an Audio Engineer and if I then blow up and become the next Beyonce, So be it !!
I feel like there’s a stereotype of ‘The Sound Guy’, is this something you’ve had to deal with in the past?
Here’s the thing, when it comes to anything technical, there is not much female representation, let alone black female representation. Everyone does assume that the person doing the sound is a guy… but it doesn’t bother me too much, be the change you want to see right? I don’t want it to affect me and think ‘Oh my god why do they think I’m going to be a man’, instead I’ll just show up, do my job and show them that I know what I’m doing.
I do wonder why it’s the case, why must any technical, science-related job be only for men to pursue? I’m hoping that with time passing it will change, and I guess my presence will help that.
Are there opportunities and programs to help people like you in the music industry?
Mmmmmmmm (big pause)….No. When you ask me that question I’m thinking of organisations or projects and I can’t see them. It’s different for an artist to find opportunities and schemes compared to a lawyer, there’s less of an establishment. And it’s the same with being a black tech, there’s not an establishment I can go to and say “I’m a black female tech, help me out!!!”. You have to scavenge and research.
Although I did get lucky, during the black lives matter protests the musicians Nao and Mura Masa created a ten-week course for black women in music tech (3T). Which is something that was unheard of. I was super lucky to be a part of that.
It’s mad that the murder of a black man halfway across the world had to be the catalyst for projects like that.
You know what I mean??? But I’m very grateful for what that project gave me, it activated a domino effect which led me to getting a job as an engineer. But at the same time, it shouldn’t have to be like that. I wish it was normalised, I am an actual unicorn! Don’t get me wrong, it feels great and I love the attention, but why? Comments like “oh wow you’re actually really good at your job”. Okay I get it I’m smart, beautiful, crazy and sexy but it shouldn’t be so special for me to be a tech!
I feel like I’m more of an ideas person, I love singing and free-flowing thoughts. But I wanted to force myself to learn the technical stuff behind the music. There needs to be a balance between the two sides of music which I just don’t think is there yet. You can have all these people with amazing ideas, but how are you doing it without knowing the equipment behind it?