The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.
What’s the song that reminds you of the best night you had out with your girls? Or the one that brings the tears as soon as you hear the beat drop? There is no denying the power that music and dance has on our mood. Well did you know it can be useful in therapy too? In honor of Black Music Month, this week we’re chatting all about how music and dance impact our mental health. For this conversation I was joined by Jennifer Sterling, a registered Dance & Movement psychotherapist and holistic nutritionist. Jennifer and I chatted about how she uses dance and movement in her work as a therapist, the concerns it can be useful for, and why dance and music are powerful in helping us heal. I’m also super excited to share a conversation I had with one of my favorite musical artists, Carmen Rodgers, about her experience as an artist and her thoughts on why investing in your mental health is important as an artist.
Visit our Amazon Store for all the books mentioned on the podcast. therapyforblackgirls.com/amazon
American Dance Therapy Association https://www.adta.org/
Where to Find Jennifer
Where to Find Carmen
Is there a topic you’d like covered on the podcast? Submit it at therapyforblackgirls.com/mailbox.
If you’re looking for a therapist in your area, check out the directory at https://www.therapyforblackgirls.com/directory.
Take the info from the podcast to the next level by joining us in the Therapy for Black Girls Sister Circle community.therapyforblackgirls.com
Grab your copy of our guided affirmation and other TBG Merch at therapyforblackgirls.com/shop.
The hashtag for the podcast is #TBGinSession.
Make sure to follow us on social media:
Our Production Team
Executive Producers: Dennison Bradford & Yves Jeffcoat
Producer: Cindy Okereke
Assistant Producer: Ellice Ellis
Session 211: How Music & Dance Impact Our Mental Health
Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for Session 211 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. We'll jump into the conversation right after a word from our sponsor.
Dr. Joy: What's the song that reminds you of the best night you had out with your girls? Or the one that brings the tears as soon as you hear the beat drop? There is no denying the power that music and dance has on our mood. Well, did you know it can be useful in therapy too? Today we're going to be talking with Jennifer Sterling, a registered Dance & Movement psychotherapist and holistic nutritionist. She's also the host of The Bodyful Black Girl Podcast and is founder of The Bodyful Healing Project, a wellness platform that offers body-based holistic support to black women living with depression. Jennifer and I chatted about how she uses dance and movement in her work as a therapist, the concern they can be useful for, and why dance and music are powerful in helping us heal.
I'm also super excited to share a conversation I had with one of my favorite musical artists, Carmen Rodgers, about her experience as an artist and her thoughts on why investing in your mental health is important as an artist. If there's something that resonates with you while enjoying our conversations, please be sure to share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession. Here's our conversation.
Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Joy: I'm very excited to dig into this topic with you so can you tell us a little bit more about what dance and movement psychotherapy is and how you got into this field?
Jennifer: Of course, yeah. Dance movement psychotherapy is a form of psychotherapy that prioritizes the body. When most people think of therapy and psychotherapy, they think of talk therapy, sitting in a chair and talking. In dance movement psychotherapy, we start with the body. And, of course, we can process verbally but we tend to think of the body as the priority and the brain as the interpreter of what's happening in the body. So in a session, you might be invited to notice what's happening in your body on a sensation level, you might also be invited to notice body posture, you may also be invited to move your body. We’re on that spectrum and we can explore in a dance movement psychotherapy session.
I got into it because I was a dancer, simple answer. I danced all the way up through college. And for me, dance was very cathartic and I thought, well, there has to be a way to make this like a thing. Like a job, a profession, like helping people with their emotional concerns and invite movement into the process. And at the time, I didn't know that there was a whole field called dance movement psychotherapy but there is, and once I discovered it, I started moving in that direction.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, so cool that you were able to kind of marry the two of the things that were really interesting to you. You know, Jennifer, we hear a lot about (I think even more in recent years) around like how so much is trapped inside our bodies. Like there are often memories encoded in our body and in our brain that we're not able to access verbally and so movement, things like dance and movement therapy, really help to kind of release some of that. Can you talk about the mechanisms for how that happens?
Jennifer: Yeah. The way I look at it is through the lens of the nervous system. And when we experience something, the nervous system takes that in, our autonomic nervous system, and we can experience things in a place of regulation or presence. The space of the nervous system within polyvagal theory is called the ventral vagal branch of the nervous system; I tend to call it the window of presence where we can experience something and be present with it.
But when the nervous system is overwhelmed, we might experience things that says into a fight or flight response, that like sympathetic nervous system activation. Or we can experience something that puts us in a more depressive place where we start to shut down and that would be the dorsal vagal space of the nervous system. And so the nervous system collects all of those experiences, based on what came up for us in the moment and where we ended up within the nervous system at that time. And so if we experience something similar, the nervous system will trigger us to move into the response that worked for us in the past, whether that be fight or flight or shut down.
And sometimes we don't actually know what's happening in that process because it happens so automatically. So a lot of times, people will say like I don't even know what happened, I'm just responding in this way. And that's because the body is really wisely wired to protect us and so whatever has worked in the past, based on that imprint of experience, we start to move into when things come up in the future.
And memory can be stored in the nervous system in a very somatic way, meaning we feel it in our bodies even if we can't quite interpret or we don't have the visual memory that comes up with it. Especially if it was like early childhood trauma, before the age of five, where we often forget a lot of those experiences that we had.
So when we work with that in dance movement psychotherapy, we come in with an understanding of the nervous system and how the nervous system processes experience. And we invite clients and patients to explore their nervous system responses, so to really befriend their nervous system so that when those somatic experiences come up, when they start to have sensation, we can really curiously explore what's happening there and track it–from sensation, to the brain interpreting what that sensation means, to reaction. And if we can’t retrieve the visual memory, we can still help the nervous system discharge and process and integrate on a sensation level what has happened. That can be through more somatic work, which tends to be slower (kind of meditative work), or bigger movement.
Dr. Joy: I feel, Jennifer, like I'm wondering how people would even know that something's going on for them. Because like you mentioned, things often happen so quickly that I don't think a lot of us are even able to register “I’m having a reaction to a thing.” And so I'm wondering how people even can kind of do a better job of engaging with like these sensations that are happening in their body.
Jennifer: Yeah, it takes practice. We're such a top-down society where we have this hierarchy that the brain is primary. And so a lot of folks that come to see me for therapy aren’t really keyed into what's happening in their body because that's just not the way that most of us live. And so getting in touch with what's happening for us on a sensation level, we can start having daily check ins. I sometimes will have my clients just set an alarm to notice what's happening in their body once a day for two minutes. And that can be anything: I'm feeling hot, I'm feeling cold, I'm feeling some tension. Just to start noticing what's happening there.
And in the therapeutic process, sometimes we move backwards. So you had a reaction to this thing, what was happening before that? And sometimes we can track backwards and then as we move through the process, clients tend to get really good at noticing–oh, actually, I got really hot, I felt really tense and then I had the thought that this thing was happening or this felt familiar and then I reacted in this way. But it takes a lot of practice and it takes being intentional about slowing things down. Because so much of what happens, happens automatically that if we can't slow it down a little bit and create a little space, then we never actually gather the information we need to gather about what's happening and where that's coming from.
Dr. Joy: You mentioned that sometimes it is smaller movements, like more meditative kind of things, and sometimes you use larger movements. Can you say more about what you use and when?
Jennifer: Yeah. If we're working with somatic memories, if we're working with feelings in the body that are coming up for somebody that seem like they may be connected to a traumatic experience, I will start with slower more meditative somatic work–body work. Just to support my client in that slowing down process so that we can gather information about what's happening in the body, sometimes noticing breath or sometimes just noticing if you're comfortable. Really small adjustments.
When we are working with trauma, specifically moving into bigger, more expressive movement can sometimes feel really cathartic but it doesn't always help the nervous system to settle into the space where it feels safe or comfortable or connected. And so that slower, smaller, more gentle movement (micro movements, I sometimes call them) can help the nervous system to get to a place where it can be present with what’s there. Can be present with intense emotion, can be present with intense sensation, in a way that feels less overwhelming for the body.
Dr. Joy: I want to go back to something that you said (you mentioned this even in talking about like your own journey into dance and movement therapy) that you found dancing to be cathartic. And you're saying that sometimes even for clients, it can feel cathartic to move your body in a certain way but it doesn't always help to kind of slow down your nervous system. Can you say more about that?
Jennifer: Yeah. The bigger expressive movement is really great when we're expressing ourselves and a lot of people might notice... I'll relate this a little bit to exercise. Sometimes when we exercise, we feel better, we get our endorphins going, that dopamine action that comes up from having done something and the reward of all of that. And it can feel good for a period of time but it doesn't necessarily mean that we worked through or moved through the thing that needed to be processed and integrated. So just because I go work out at the gym doesn't mean that I've resolved the issue that I'm having with my mom or my partner.
But if I can slow things down and notice what's happening in my body in small ways–the thing that led to the response I had to an argument with my partner, or the thing that led to the response I had to my parent or somebody at work. If we can slow things down, the nervous system actually has time to process and let go of some of the activation that may have come up around that. So if we think of like the fight or flight response. Let's say we get into an argument and our response is, “you know what, I'm not having this conversation anymore, I'm leaving,” the nervous system has all of that energy there from that fight or flight response. And if we can take that, be with that energy and that activation really slowly and in small ways, the nervous system starts to feel safe enough to let some of that go so that we actually get to move through what happened and process what happened on a body level. And then we can process it more cognitively, too, of course. Does that make sense?
Dr. Joy: Yeah. And I would love for you to maybe give us an example of like what this looks like in session. I feel like this is a perfect example because I feel like this is a lot of people's response. You know, like “I'm not going to have this conversation right now, I'm out,” kind of thing. So this flight kind of a response that you're talking about. So how would working from a dance and movement perspective help to kind of manage some of this?
Jennifer: In session, if somebody came to me with that scenario, I would try to backtrack a bit. So what was happening when you felt like you needed to leave? Did you notice anything that came up for you on a physical level? What was happening in your body? And if they can't identify in that particular moment, maybe we go back to other situations that felt similar. But let's say, for the sake of this example, that this person was able to identify: in that moment, I felt really hot, I felt tension in my shoulders, I was clenching my fists. I just felt like I needed to get out otherwise I was going to be out of control. So I might, in the body in session, go back to, “You said you were clenching your fist. Let's clench our fists now, if that feels okay and just be with that action for now.” And then just noticing what comes up from that place. Sometimes if we go back to the action that we took in the moment, it can invite some of those same feelings up or it can just invite some familiarity.
And from a somatic standpoint, what I might also have them do is really, really slowly start to allow their fists to unfold, just on their own, and notice what happens there. And so here we might notice, does your breath change when your fists start to open up? Like what happens in the body as that action is taken, as your fist starts to open? And so we just slow things down a little bit so that perhaps within there, at some point, the nervous system can say, “Oh, it's okay to let some of this energy go,” and start to move through this scenario a little bit. And from a client perspective, the body also remembers so that when we experience something similar and we notice that we're clenching our fists, if it feels safe to do so, we now know what it's like to let go in the moment.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. So the next time you are in an experience where you feel like “you know what, I'm going to get out of this situation,” if it's a safe situation for you to stay in, maybe you then practice gently opening and closing your fists to discharge some of that energy.
Jennifer: Right, exactly.
Dr. Joy: Got it. Okay, that makes a lot of sense. I wonder what impact, you know, like music... Do you use a lot of music in conjunction with the dance and movement work that you do?
Jennifer: I do, yeah. Movement is really great. It helps clients a lot to feel like they're being seen. Sometimes I'll have folks choose a song that validates what they're feeling and if we're doing more expressive movement, then we can move with that song. I also find that movement can be really great for even regulating the nervous system because as we listen to voice and as we listen to music, our nervous system does what's called coregulating or regulating to what we're hearing. And if that sound feels like something that we can connect to or feels like something soothing, it can also support us in coming back to a more grounded and regulated space.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, Jennifer, something I've been paying attention to a lot, especially since the pandemic started, is just how (especially for black people) music and song has played, I feel like, such a big part in us collectively trying to heal through some of this. So we start the Verzuz Battles, Pop-Up and DJ D-Nice with the Club Quarantine. And I wonder if you've thought about or can give any insight to like why that has been so powerful for a lot of us.
Jennifer: Culturally, music is incredibly significant. I know for me and my family, we always had music playing when we were cleaning on Saturday mornings and it was a major part of life. And I also think when it comes to the online music and how folks coped with the Verzuz Battles and all of that, there's community in that. And during the pandemic and everything that has happened, with so many folks in isolation, those types of things were things that we could all get on board with, even if it was just virtually.
And there's a different kind of connection that we make when it comes to music because we can coregulate with the sound and with the voice. And so even though we're in a virtual space and we're not necessarily connected to each other in community, we're all connected to this one thing–this sound, this voice, this DJ–and our nervous systems can tap into that. And that can feel really supportive. So just from the standpoint of like the body and the nervous system, that's how it makes sense to me.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Yeah, as you mentioned, the whole idea around like Saturday morning playlist when it’s time to clean, lik I have an immediate memory of that as well and I think a lot of us do. And so I wonder if you can say more, just about like how much music helps us to store certain memories.
Jennifer: Yeah. Because we take in music from a nonverbal standpoint, the nervous system is tapping into the sounds and how those sounds feel for us and what the experience of those sounds are. So we might notice when you're listening to certain kinds of music, it can feel a little bit off putting. And sometimes that's the voice and sometimes that's the sound or there may be instruments that we really identify with and we find to be soothing or tones of voices that we find to be soothing. The nervous system is always working to figure out what's safe and what's not safe or what's comfortable and what's not comfortable.
And so as we're listening to music, if the music feels comfortable and safe for us and we're also having a safe experience, then that may be something that we register as a more desirable or positive memory, something that stays with us. And likewise, if we're listening to music and we're having an undesirable experience, we'll remember that too. But all of that gets stored because there's so much that we can coregulate with in the moment. If we're cleaning with our families on Saturday morning and we're enjoying that experience, we're coregulating with the music. We're also regulating with the other people that we’re in community with, which is a really powerful experience in the body connection and support.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, and I wonder... As you're talking, I'm thinking about like concert and I'm guessing that that's a part of what's happening as well. Like why so many people are drawn to that collective experience of like hearing some of their favorite artists, and really get this high of listening to the music with other people.
Jennifer: Yeah, so we get to plug into other people for a little while.
Dr. Joy: Right, I can turn myself off and give it to somebody else.
Jennifer: Yeah. That collective energy can be really powerful, yeah.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. So I want to go back to the conversations around like what happens in sessions. And I'm wondering like what is the balance between like dance and movement and then also talking? Like how do you kind of... Because I'm guessing, of course, there is some talking related to like what's happening in the body. What's the balance of that?
Jennifer: It really depends on the client. I would say most of the time it's about 50-50 that we spend really noticing what's going on in the body and talking about verbally expressing what's there–naming what's in the body. And in the beginning, the balance might be a little skewed, where we'll do a little more talking than moving because it takes some time (usually) for folks to get comfortable even with the idea of checking in with their bodies. But typically, we get to a place where it's about 50-50.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. I'm glad you brought that up. When you started talking, I was definitely thinking like, oh, I could see how this modality would be a little... I mean, I think therapy of course is uncomfortable for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. But when you talk about the fact that we are in this top-down society and are even further away from like checking in with our bodies and our sensations, it definitely made me think like it would be difficult for a lot of people to start engaging with this type of treatment. What kinds of things do you do, kind of in early sessions, to kind of help ground people in this experience and help them to become a little bit more comfortable?
Jennifer: In the beginning, what I tend to do is just have folks notice how they're sitting in a chair or how they're standing. And just noticing, are you comfortable where you are? And I think that's a question, or at least in my experience in my work is that folks aren't really used to being asked that question. And so I start there–are you comfortable? Are there any like adjustments that you need to make in order to feel more comfortable where you are?
And it invites an awareness that I find is not too intimidating. I can check in and see if like I need to move my leg or if I need to get a pillow or whatever needs to happen here. And then later on, we might start to notice what's happening with your breath. Are you feeling like it's okay to take a deep breath or does it feel okay to just breathe normally? Or asking folks like how did you feel after explaining that thing to me?
Because in the beginning, we tend to do a lot more talking so somebody will say like “I had this experience at work or I had this experience at home.” And I'll say, okay, well, why don't we just take a minute to just notice how your heart is beating or how you're breathing right now? Or if there are any places in your body where you're noticing tension. And so a lot of folks think like we're gonna come in, in the first session and we're gonna like dance around–and that would be great, but it doesn't always happen that way. So in the beginning, it's like little invitations just to check in and notice what's there, the things that I think folks can sometimes be more familiar with. Tension and breath or heartbeat.
Dr. Joy: And how do most people find you, Jennifer? Is it like they've tried talk therapy and they're like, “oh, I want to do something different,” or like people just kind of have done a lot of research and feel like dance and movement would be a great fit for them?
Jennifer: Most people have no idea what dance movement therapy is. But I have built a small community on Instagram and have done quite a bit of education around what it is. And so most folks will come and say like “it looks interesting on Instagram so I'll try it.” And then we dig into it in really small ways. And then I have a handful of folks who will come in and say “I tried talk therapy and I feel like I need something more,” and we'll take it from there. But most people come in with absolutely no understanding of what dance movement psychotherapy is.
Dr. Joy: And is there anyone for whom dance and movement therapy might not be a good fit for or are there certain things that you kind of like need to do to be ready for dance and movement therapy?
Jennifer: I would say if you're willing to be open to the potential of the body in therapy, then it could be a good fit. I might also add to that, if you've been through an incredible amount of trauma (which I do have clients who come to me having experienced trauma) then it's also best to not only find somebody who has the dance movement therapy training, but is also trauma informed and trained in how to work with trauma and the body. The two don't always go together. But generally speaking, if you're open to noticing what's happening in your body in addition to noticing what's happening in your brain, then as a dance movement therapist, I can work with that.
Dr. Joy: Can you say more about the importance of making sure that the person... Like if you've had trauma, making sure that your therapist also has this experience of trauma informed work in conjunction with the dance and movement therapy? Why would that be important?
Jennifer: Yeah. We spoke a little bit in the beginning about the way the body stores experience. The body holds both good memories, undesirable memories, and the things that were really overwhelming, and the things that we found to be traumatic. And so as you're working with the body, if you're working with somebody who isn’t trauma informed, there could be times at which you're pushed outside of your capacity because they're not looking at things from a trauma informed lens.
If somebody comes in from a trauma informed standpoint, I actually assume that everybody's experienced trauma. But from a trauma informed lens, taking the way in which the body is responding and noticing what's happening as a result of trauma, (what is a trauma response and what might not be a trauma response) is really important. And I think if you have some training and background on what that means, then you can more easily and more safely support somebody who's experienced a lot of trauma.
But there's a lot of variation within dance movement therapy programs in graduate school, and some talk about trauma and some don't talk about it at all. And so making sure that if you have experienced trauma that you know you're working with somebody who knows how to hold what can come up from that in the body and also knows how to support you in completing some of those trauma cycles, and then discharging some of that nervous system activity. So that you're not leaving therapy every week feeling like a raw nerve ending, I think is really important.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Especially with what you've already shared, Jennifer, about like how that is stored in our bodies. It feels like this work, particularly dance and movement therapy, could really wake some of that up in ways that you would not expect. And if you don't know what to do with that, then it could be really dangerous, I think, for people.
Jennifer: Absolutely, yeah.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. So if we are looking for somebody, I'm guessing there will likely be people enjoying our conversation who are thinking, “Oh, this sounds really cool. I'd like to find somebody in my area who does this.” How might people be able to find people who are trained in this modality in dance and movement therapy?
Jennifer: They could go to the American Dance Therapy Association website and they have a list of all of the dance therapists that are registered or board-certified there. And, depending on where you are in the country, there may be more of us but they have a listing of folks all over the US.
Dr. Joy: Got it. And are there any other resources that you find yourself sharing with clients that they find really helpful?
Jennifer: I normally share a few books for folks who are interested in this kind of work. Because I work predominantly with black women, one of the books that I share a lot is called Oppression and the Body. And that book explores the ways in which we are affected by the larger collective and how oppression lives in a body and can affect the body.
There's also Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother's Hands that is like an introduction to some somatic work and just kind of processing through the body, especially as it relates to racial trauma. And for folks who are looking to just start to move or have their own kind of daily practice around movement, there's a book called Bodyfulness that has like little activities that you can incorporate just to get more in touch with what's happening in your body or to start moving a little bit.
Dr. Joy: And is there another activity that you would share? You've already given us a lot, but is there like a favorite activity that you share for people who are kind of just getting started in this?
Jennifer: Yeah, I think checking in with your body as I mentioned earlier. Just like noticing and naming what's there really objectively. And the other thing that I recommend is noticing if there's one part of your body that you're okay moving. Because we have so many experiences that are stored in the body, it may not feel okay to just start to move your whole body all at once. But every now and then, just noticing like is there a part of my body that I might be able to move right now in a really small way? And just notice what happens from that place. So that might be your fingers or that might be your toes. It doesn't have to be anything big. But as we invite more awareness in the body, then we start to notice more frequently what's there and then perhaps from there, we can get support in kind of working through some of those things.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, something else–and I'm thinking, Jennifer, as you're talking–especially when you talk about doing more of the like expressive work. I would imagine that something that often comes up is people feeling really shy about like dancing with not only a stranger but also a therapist stranger. So what kind of work is done in supporting people to kind of, you know, get rid of like that judgment, or understanding that the space is safe enough to do that?
Jennifer: Yeah, it takes time. And also, when we're moving in person, the space that I use doesn't have any mirrors. Mirrors can bring up a lot of things for a lot of people. If we're moving virtually, I'll often ask clients to hide their self-view so that they can't see themselves back in the camera. And virtually has actually offered a really great way for folks to get more comfortable because they can actually step to the side of their cameras and move, so they don't have to have me looking at them the whole time and so that's been really fun to explore.
But in person, it's what do you feel comfortable doing right now? Do you want me to turn around? Do you want me to be close to you? Do you want me to be far away from you? Is there a part of your body that you're okay moving with me watching or witnessing? Or can I move with you? Which sometimes actually will take off some of the pressure. Can we both be silly and embarrassed together right now, so that there's a shared experience and it's not just one person moving and the other person watching?
Or sometimes I'll even start moving first. So it really depends on the client but generally I would say it just takes time in any therapy relationship. We're building trust and so you may not move in the first session and you may not move in the second session, but maybe as we get more comfortable with each other, you're okay doing that.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Yeah, I could see how this space really would be so ripe with like lots of conversations and lots of stuff being brought up for people.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. Well, I really appreciate you sharing all of this with us today, Jennifer. It’s been super helpful. Can you tell people where we can find you, your website as well as any social media handles you'd like to share?
Jennifer: Sure. I am on social media at @BodyfulHealing in most of the places and the website is TheBodyfulHealingProject.com.
Dr. Joy: Perfect. We'll be sure to include all of that in the show notes. Thank you so much.
Jennifer: Thank you for having me.
Dr. Joy: It was such a pleasure to hear about Jennifer's work. Stay tuned for my conversation with Carmen Rodgers after the break.
Dr. Joy: When I think of beautiful soulful voices, Carmen Rodgers is one that comes to mind first. Her brand-new EP, Hello Human, Vol. 1, walks you through the human experience with keen self-awareness through love, intimacy, wonder, regret, and the quest for healing and wholeness. You may have also heard her on the road with Zo! or jamming on stage as a featured vocalist and songwriter with the wildly popular and dynamic Grammy nominated band, The Foreign Exchange. Carmen joins us today to talk about her connection to music, how she stayed connected to her craft during the pandemic, and the emotional spaces she visits when writing and performing. Here's our conversation.
Dr. Joy: I am so thrilled that you were able to join us today, Carmen. You are one of my favorite voices, I wanted to make sure as many people as possible fall in love with you as I have, so I'm very happy you're able to join us today.
Carmen: Thank you so much. I mean, I'm flattered but I'm such a fan of yours that I guess we can just fangirl out on each other...
Dr. Joy: Mutual fangirling! I wonder if you can start by just telling us a little bit about your journey as an artist. When did you know that you had like this gift of singing?
Carmen: Oh, boy! I've known it... All of my life, as far as I can remember, has something to do with music. And you know, my mom and family always said “you were singing before you could speak.” I was the entertainment for my family. I was the little clown, I was the little show pony, like all the things I would put on the show. But I just always loved music and knew it was going to be my path. I didn't know exactly what it would look like but I just knew it was something that I wanted, that I desired. And that no matter what, it was gonna be like a central part of my life. And so I did all the things that you would think. In the 90s, I had a girl group and then eventually started pursuing a solo career.
I'm from Dallas, Texas originally and so I actually came up with Erykah Badu, and the Kirk Franklin Crew and God's Property, like we all grew up together. And so how do you make it in a city that has so much talent but not necessarily the resources and the access? And one of Erykah Badu’s background singers by the name of N'Dambi, who's an amazing singer and artist in her own right, was branching off to do her thing and I started singing backs for her. And that was my first official job in the industry, then I started doing my thing as a solo artist, then put out my first record in 2004 and then I've just been putting out music independently.
Early rejections from the big labels because they were like “We already have her, we already have that one. And you know, we have Jill Scott already,” and saying that there's only enough space for so many of those black women and black boys... Were a little bit of a disappointment but it was still the fuel because I still knew I was passionate about this thing. So I kept moving and just said I will carve my own path one brick at a time. And I own my own label and all of my own publishing and I've built amazing relationships over the years. With those relationships, I've gotten music placed in movies and TV and I've even music-supervised some independent films and some TV and I've been able to do that on my own–and fully own it.
Dr. Joy: And it definitely feels like in entertainment and in other areas of like professional spaces, there is often this pitting us against one another, right? But you're also someone who I've seen be incredibly collaborative throughout your career. So how were you able to kind of maintain that sense of like I'm gonna still work with people even though the powers that be (so to speak) were almost kind of pitting you against other black women in the area?
Carmen: Oh, wow. You know, it's a decision, I chose collaboration over competition. It just doesn't make sense to me. And as competitive as I am, competition is something that I've just always been driven by it but it's been more so to win for me, not to beat someone else. And so collaboration is how also I've been able to stay in this industry. An industry that can beat you down and wear you out, collaboration has kept me not only afloat but it's helped me thrive.
One of my biggest collaborations and one that I'm most proud of is being part of a band called The Foreign Exchange and that band is so popular worldwide. And we, before I was part of The Foreign Exchange, I put out my debut solo album in 2004 within months of The Foreign Exchange putting out their debut, and so we were fans of one another from afar. And when I finally got to meet the band leader (Phonte) and Nicolay, they were like “we want you to be part of this.” And I became part of the fabric of The Foreign Exchange. And part of that was recognizing good people and good music and wanting to be part of it and wanting to be a builder. And I think that's part of it. Collaboration is building something long term with other like-minded people who are trying to do the same thing.
Dr. Joy: Foreign Exchange is also one of my favorites so I feel like that is probably how I got introduced to you and I was like, oh, they're great but who is she? Such beautiful music and I describe the genre of music that you make and Foreign Exchange makes as deep feeling music. Like it puts me deep in my feelings. And so if I feel that way listening, I am sure that there's a lot of like emotion that goes into the production of it. Can you talk a little bit about your creative process?
Carmen: Yeah. You know, there is a lot of emotion because it really depends on what place I'm in too. That's one of the things with being an artist is, you know... When Erykah said “I'm an artist and I'm sensitive about my shit,” I tell you that resonates to this day with artists of any art form because we are. We are sensitive about it because it's one of those things that it comes from this place that is both spiritual as well as kind of the work that we've put in into our craft as well. Some of it, honestly, is work but some of it is we really believe it's divine. Like it's something that was placed in us than given to us and so we end up being sensitive about it because we kind of live it as well as work it. It is us as well as, you know, it's this inward and outward expression of who we are, so we can be sensitive about it.
So during the process of creation, we are sensitive also to the things around us. I know that *[inaudible 0:43:46]. Y’all, this is so messed up. Sometimes I write my best music when my heart’s been broken. And then I look at the music and then I have to dig a little bit deeper to write the music when I'm in a great space and a happy space. To say, okay, what is this music? How do I connect? How is this gonna resonate with people? How am I gonna dig a little bit deeper when the sun is shining so bright and I'm skipping down the avenue? It's like it's so interesting to see kind of my process when I'm able to dig into hurts versus dig into happiness. It's so strange. And maybe y'all can therapize with me and help me unpack all of that.
But in that process, you know, I will wake up to melodies sometimes and I will lay in bed, like reach for my phone, turn on my voice memo and then try to capture that melody so that I won't forget it, and then I'll develop it later. But sometimes I will work with other musicians who will send me just music and say, how does this make you feel? And that music will speak to me and tell me what it's about.
I get inspired in all kinds of ways. I put out a project during a pandemic, recorded during the height of the pandemic, and let me tell you something, that was an interesting process. Because there were days I didn't want to get out of bed so one of my producer friends said you have to remember who you are. Remember who you are and why you're here. And I was just like, you know what, I need this music that is also healing for me; I'm going to also try to create something that can be healing for other people. So whatever space that I'm in, it really does kind of also give me the trajectory of the music too.
Dr. Joy: I'm really glad you brought that up because, as an artist, you are the instrument, right? And so part of you taking care of your instrument is protecting yourself from like all the stress. And there have been so many stressors this year that I definitely have been curious about people who create in these kinds of ways. How do you keep doing and how do you stay connected to that when there is so much stress going around?
Carmen: Oh boy! Again, it's some decisions that had to be made, as well as giving myself grace. One thing, if you talk to so many artists, many of us said the same thing. And we were having private conversations amongst artists because we ended up having to kind of be a different type of support. Because we were feeling things that other people who weren't necessarily artists, we couldn't express to them and we didn't know that they could understand. A lot of my artist friends and I started having conversations privately and quietly about how do we deal with this? Especially considering our industry as musicians, like, was decimated. Like all at once it was just over. So we were dealing with our livelihood as well as dealing with a global crisis.
And so initially, we all talked about how we didn't realize how tired we were. We were exhausted. Especially touring musicians, and I'm a touring musician. When we got shut down, I honestly went to sleep. I went to bed and said, whoa, I have not been sleeping, I have not been resting, I have been going, going, going, going, going. A lot of us realized how tired we were. And so first came rest, the rest that was probably already needed, but also the grace to give ourselves to say, “You're accustomed to working, you're accustomed to going from the plane to the stage back to another plane back to another stage, sometimes living out of an unpacked suitcase because you have a show coming up in just a few days, so why unpack when we have to get back on the road again?” There is a lot of that.
And then of course, still trying to manage just your day to day life while you do those things. So resting but also giving myself specifically grace to say: this is a lot, this is kind of scary, this is literally uncharted water that none of us in our lifetime, we've never seen anything like this. And so it's okay to not know what's going to happen and it's okay to not do. Especially as creators and creatives, we’re told you’ve got to be doing something, you'd need to be creating. So first, I had to give myself grace to say “you don't have to do anything,” and then come out of that and say “when you're ready to do something, you'll know when it's time.” And when the time came, I knew it was time and it was healing for me to do just because.
Dr. Joy: You know, I feel like so many people had that same experience. Like the pandemic, though it has definitely been tragic and like just awful in lots of ways, I do feel like a lot of people have the same story of realizing like how unsustainable we have been living before the pandemic. Like just always on the go.
Carmen: Wow! And it's so Western of us, too. And I think and I believe that it's part of the reason why there's a little bit... And I don't call it a complete crisis, I really call it more of a reckoning. When you look at employment and companies having a hard time finding employees, it's because when people realized they were living a life that was not sustainable, that they were barely making ends meet, that they were working and exhausted for very little return on all of that investment, and they had to sit down. They're making a decision of like what am I going to go back to, now that the world is “opening back up?”
And so I think that all of us, no matter what we're doing or what industry we're in, this last year has taught us so much. And I'm hoping what we take with us, though, is being thoughtful and mindful about how we live and what we consider living, and how we work, and the working smart, and making space to enjoy the fruits of that labor. You know, when I hear people say they had not taken a vacation in years, I'm like I work to vacation. *[inaudible 0:49:49] the vacation. I love vacationing and even if I'm working, I will find a vacation in the work because I really believe that it's important to pour into yourself. My girl calls me the queen of self-care because I'm always like, look, y’all not gonna kill me.
Dr. Joy: It’s so important, that is just so important. I want to go back to something you said earlier about feeling like you write some of your best work when you're like brokenhearted. And I wonder about the emotional space it requires to like perform those songs when you're feeling better. So it's almost like you're kind of having to constantly revisit this hurt. Can you share about that process?
Carmen: It's very interesting. One of my favorite songs I've ever written is called It's Me. It is a song that I wrote out of this relationship that was really just taking me through every roller coaster you can imagine. In the midst of that relationship, I wrote this song because the hook is, “If you would just look beside you, it's me. If you could see beyond you, it's me.” And it's really this song saying to this man, to my partner, like I'm here for you but you're so consumed by all of the things going on in your life and you feel like that I could just never understand and so you shut me out and you shut me out. And now you're filling in with behaviors that are not helping out our relationship.
And that song was written in grief, I wrote that song out of grief of a failed relationship that I thought I was going to marry this person and be sitting on a porch with him 30 years from now. Now, the funny thing is, moving forward, I do this song, I call this song the little song that could because no matter when people hear it, especially live, they connect to it. If it's their first time hearing it or their 500th time hearing it, it's just a song that people feel like, I've lived this, this is my story.
Tapping back into it, though, is not hurtful as much as it is like I was able to come out of that. So when I tap into it even on stage, the memory is more of like, whoa, that was a million years ago but I've come out of that. Like I've grown out of that. I did the song for a crowd in Houston and this particular night, I must have tapped into that old me in a way because I sung for my life that night. And after the song ended... I barely remember singing the song, I felt like I was transported in that moment to give everything in that moment in that song to the crowd. I finished the song and a woman yelled, “He ain't shit.” I was like, “Girl, he really ain’t.”
With these songs, I feel as though it's kind of acting in a way. You know, I've done a little bit of acting and taking classes and all these things. And what you're asked to do is tap into a moment so that you can connect with the role in that moment. And that's what I'm doing. So I no longer carry the weight of the origin story of the song. It's more of tapping into the moment and the feeling of the song to make sure that the audience connects with it, more than it is about me connecting with how it made me necessarily feel at that time. Or the person, I should say, I was at that time. It's really about just telling the story.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. And what did taking care of yourself after that experience look like?
Carmen: You know what? Part of it was just kind of I had to do a release. And some funny things happened, I remember some of it wasn't even my choosing. One, I was touring and had a show with Bilal, who's a friend and one of my favorite artists, and many artists’ favorite artist. Like incredible singer, musician and performer. We had a show in Texas, I had already moved away, I was living in Atlanta at the time. And while I was traveling, my home was burglarized and like most of my favorite things were stolen. But most of my favorite things that were stolen were gifts from this particular person, everything he had ever given me was stolen. Even things we purchased together, stolen.
And it's so interesting because it was a few months after I'd made this decision that I was never going to be able to go back to it. I was like, okay, you know, when God laughs at your plans. I was like, “Okay, the tap on the shoulder, I guess I didn’t listen so you gave me a hammer over my head of letting this thing go.” And that was a big part of my process, was like, okay, now you've removed the things that connected us. Now it's time to start removing the ties, the other ties, some of those soul ties that I felt like I needed to break completely. And that was through prayer, that was through meditation, that was through some purging.
Purging, serious purging. And that purging might have been crying, that purging was reading, that purging was a deep, like getting to know myself. And of course, some of that purging had to be therapy. And I'm a big fan of therapy, I've been in therapy for years. And talking through why. Why you stayed, why you allowed some of those things to happen, why you felt that you weren't good enough to say goodbye when all of the writing was on the wall. And so dealing with some of those things of the “whys” really helped me get to a place of saying, okay, I can really say goodbye to this and close that chapter on my life.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm, yeah. It sounds like that catharsis in Texas kind of lead its way into really kind of saying goodbye to this.
Carmen: It really did.
Dr. Joy: You mentioned that you released your first project in 2004. And so your career has spanned like this time in history where social media has become, it seems, more of an expectation for artists. You've already talked about like your sensitivity and I noticed you mentioned recently that you were kind of hesitant to get on TikTok. So can you say a little bit about your relationship to social media as an artist and how you've kind of navigated that?
Carmen: You're going there, aren't you? Oh my gosh, I have a strange relationship with social media. And it's because it's a tough thing to feel as though you are supposed to give everything publicly, like everything you do is for public consumption. And so my relationship has always been trying to balance what do I keep for myself and what do I share? And technology, just in itself, how it's evolved, so much of how people live, everything they do, every move that they make, every meal that they eat, is now public. But that also creates an interesting relationship with the people that support you.
Because of social media, there's also kind of this misnomer or misconception that now they feel like there's some entitlement to you. Like because they have this access, one, they feel that they know you in real life. But, two, they feel as though, “Okay, I support you. I'm supposed to get this now from you.” And so where I've had a challenge, just full transparency, is finding that balance. Is trying to figure out what do I share? How do I share? How do I make sure that I'm creating a safe space for myself emotionally and mentally?
And so, yeah, I'm a work in progress when it comes to social media because I am fortunate to have people and have followers and have supporters out there that are like, okay, what's she gonna do next? And it’s just like, oh, do I have to get on camera and do all this? Because I don't want to feel like I'm shucking and jiving, I really want to feel as though I'm creating something that I desire to share with them and that it’s good. And so TikTok, for me, has been kind of a gateway because I posted...
And you must be referring to the video I posted just recently in the middle of the night. Because I remembered that feeling of being a little girl and practicing in front of my mirror with my brush and I just put on these full concerts in my bedroom, as a little girl and TikTok almost makes me feel that same feeling of I am in my studio or in my living room or in my space that’s super safe, and just exploring. And so I'm looking at this as it could be the shot in the arm that I needed to figure out how to explore my craft and share that publicly.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, I really appreciate you sharing that because it does feel like it is this very delicate balance. Like you want to be connected to your supporters but, you're right, it does often breed this sense of entitlement and this sense of invasiveness that I think is very difficult to manage.
Carmen: Yeah, yeah. And it's part of the reason why I just feel that it's so important for us as artists to keep something, if not plenty, for ourselves. Still giving. Give the art, that's what we're here for. That's if we want to make a living of this, we have to share our craft, but I think it's just important to keep so much for yourself.
Dr. Joy. Mm hmm. So Hello Human, we have all been anxiously awaiting and we're so excited that we got it this year. Tell us a little bit about that project and what we might expect next.
Carmen: Oh my gosh. Hello Human was supposed to come out in spring of 2020. I started it in 2019 but when everything shut down I wasn't able to record. And again, I just needed to sit down for a little while but then got the drive again to start finishing that project. And I'm so glad I did because a couple of the additions including Say So actually came out of the pandemic. Say So is a pandemic song! It is, definitely. I was ministering to myself, knowing and hoping that I could minister to others with that particular song.
But the project, it’s just kind of a little dive into all sides of the emotions. It was, you know, I have a song about being in love and being central and losing love. You know, probably not being a good person and being the person that you should not date. There's a lot of unhealthy people out there that we want to make them right but they're just not right and they tell you. And in this song, I say, “You know what, I'm a bad idea.”
And then of course there's even the opening song, you know, finding beauty in all of you, even the things that aren't so great. Understanding that we’re whole humans, we’re complete, we're multi-dimensional. And so I wanted to just have fun with that and explore it a little bit. It's in a few different voices, I played with my lower register which I’d never really done before, and just really had fun with this project.
But it was important for me with Hello Human that my reintroduction in some ways, after not putting out solo music, (I've been putting out collab projects over the years but had not put out a solo project since 2015) that it was a reintroduction to me. So that project is really kind of just me, but it is Volume 1. So the good news is there is a Volume 2 coming later this year and it's going to be more collaborative and there will be definitely some prized guest appearances that I think you're going to really, really enjoy and I think the people are going to love. That's all I’m gonna say about Volume 2 but you will see it later this year. I’m super, super excited about it. I just get to party with some of my favorite people on this next project and I'm excited about it.
Dr. Joy: Well, that is definitely the spirit we want to be taking into the latter half of this year. Like just a party and celebratory spirit. I appreciate that.
Dr. Joy: When we can, Carmen, we like to have a segment here called Press Pause. This is just an opportunity for you to invite the community into an exercise or a journal prompt or something that you have found helpful. So are there any like songwriting exercises or things that you might offer to people who might be interested?
Carmen: Oh, my gosh, absolutely! Okay, one of my favorite things to do, I actually have a journal and it's called 100 Writing Prompts. And I've had it for a few years but it's kind of full now so I’ve just started going outside of that. It inspired me–choosing a topic and writing about it. And the topic could be anything from, you know, “When was the last time you took a family trip? Describe what that was like. What color are you feeling today?” And so ask some of those questions to yourself and then explore that. It doesn't have to be in a way of kind of like typical journaling of “you know, this is how I feel today.”
Sometimes it's not about what you're feeling today; it could be an event that happened. Just to write it and explore it, to kind of do a deep dive into some of those feelings, and that can actually bring out a song. It can bring out a story. And it's a great exercise in memory but it's also an exercise in working outside of just how I'm feeling–what am I feeling? So that's a long way around of saying I love prompts but I challenge people to give themselves prompts, outside of feelings but also about events.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. I love that. And where can we find you, Carmen? We need to know where we can connect with you and how we can stay updated on when we will see Volume 2.
Carmen: The best way to connect with me, I love Instagram. Of all of the social media platforms, I feel like Instagram is one of the most fun places but I'm on all of the socials. Instagram, Twitter, @CarmenRodgers. Don’t forget the D. Facebook, Carmen Rodgers Fans. But my website is IamCarmenRodgers.com, you can get my music there, you can leave me messages there, you can watch all my videos and listen to my music there, see a bunch of pictures, get a little more information on my story and my journey.
But I also respond on the socials so hit me up. I hope you guys follow me. Listen to the music, I hope it moves you. The music is on all of the streaming platforms–Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal. Everywhere that music is found digitally, you will be able to find my music. And definitely check out my music as Carmen Rodgers but the collaboration work that I've done also with The Foreign Exchange and with Zo! and with RC & The Gritz and some of my other friends that are making good music out there.
Dr. Joy: We will be sure to share all of that in the show notes. Well, thank you so much for spending some time with us today, Carmen. I really appreciate it.
Carmen: No, thank you. This was so much fun. I appreciate it.
Dr. Joy: I'm so glad Carmen and Jennifer were able to join us today. To learn more about their work, be sure to visit the show notes at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/session211. And don't forget to text two of your girls and tell them to check out the episode as well.
If you're looking for a therapist in your area, be sure to check out our therapist directory at TherpayForBlackGirls.com/directory.
And if you want to continue digging into this topic or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It's our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. Thank y'all so much for joining me again this week. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.