Puma Simone

The Short Walk

In the testosterone-driven world of hip-hop, the short walk up to the mic can be the most difficult steps for a woman to make. It’s a walk New Haven native Puma Simone makes regularly.

Not unlike the prowling cat which inspires her stage name, Simone is calm and strong-willed. As a woman, “you have to know yourself. You have to know the business,” and you have to combat “the assumption that you’re not good enough.” You have to “work harder than everybody else,” she says.

But in 2012, when Simone first started picking up the mic, it terrified her. Even in her slam poetry days at Boston College, Simone remembers getting up on stage, page shaking in her hand. “Back then I didn’t know the power of being on stage,” she says.

After college, she carved out a career producing music for other people’s words. In 2011, while at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival with The Paxtons—an experimental rap group Simone was producing for—she says the band’s manager heard her freestyling and asked, “Do you want to be an artist?”

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Instinctively, Simone said no. But when she returned from SXSW, she found herself with an irresistible urge to perform—an urge she’s indulged heavily. She’s grabbed the mic during Hot Chocolate Soul, a variety show staged at the Bushnell in Hartford, and regularly appears at Stella Blues, where she and DJ Lokash started and ran Something2Do, a recurring open mic, for nearly a year.

Simone labels her music “experimental-soul,” and names influences like Lauren Hill, Stevie Wonder and gospel music, experienced in church from an early age. Her song “Reality” is a head-bobber, full of layered vocals, ambient echoes and evolving beats. She sings about trying to “laugh off” the troubles of reality, but the sorrow in her voice implies mixed results. Her song “Congratulations” has streaks of melancholy, too, about letting loose at a club and enjoying life despite the pressures of bills and “the bad business.” Like in many of her songs, she displays a colorful palette of danceable synth sounds along with several references to New Haven.

“I can’t really take credit for it,” Simone says of her work. “I don’t think anyone can take credit for what they do creatively. It’s just about how receptive you are… When someone’s story inspires you, you can’t take credit. You might just be the person elected to share the message, but it’s not yours. It just comes through you.”

The stories that inspire her most belong to those she sees struggling in her midst. Inspired by the difficulties of family, friends and those who usually don’t have a voice, her music is for anyone struggling. “And not just for people on the street,” Simone emphasizes. “It could be for someone who’s lived a pretty comfortable life.”

Simone, of course, has her own struggles. The work, for instance, “gets overwhelming, especially when you realize there’s not all that much money in it.” She feels too many young artists are being exploited by carrot-and-stick opportunities. “I’ve seen a lot of people spend a lot of money thinking they’re investing in themselves but really they’re investing in others’ business models.” She’s seen artists spend thousands of dollars for the chance to open for a well-known artist, thinking it’ll jumpstart their careers. But it doesn’t do nearly as much as they’d like, says Simone, who isn’t sold by visions of overnight success.

“You need to be smart about how you do things,” says Simone, adding that “there’s no fast way.” But instead of jumping at costly showcase opportunities on the off-chance that there’ll be someone important there to notice them, Simone says that new artists’ money is better spent investing in vocal lessons, studio time or a concert tour.

Simone is now busy working on her next project but doesn’t want to give too much away. “Top secret,” she says about it, laughing.

But if you want a taste, she’ll be premiering new material on Saturday, August 1st, at The Space. Defying easy classification, a wide-ranging group of artists are on the bill, including the slow, dreamy electronica act Bakkuda, the indie rapper Duzzo Dave, the quirky, dance-y Fox Child and of course the cool, strong-willed, grounded Puma Simone.

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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