Manchester-based soul artist Mica Millar recently launched her ambitious and emotive Defender campaign – a multimedia project revolving around her gripping single of the same name. Drawing from its lyrical themes, she devised a concept to explore human empathy through real life stories. Many have been submitted by members of the public, several sourced online and now Mica is on the verge of releasing the project’s second short film ahead of a full documentary release. Few artists go to comparable lengths to fulfil their artistic vision and we can’t wait for her to showcase the live element of the project at Band on the Wall on 4th April. You can stream and download The Defender now and dive into our in-depth interview with the thoughtful and articulate artist, below.
You launched Sarah’s story, the first filmic element of the Defender campaign, on International Women’s Day. What was it about Sarah and her story that inspired you to do so, and can you describe how you felt making an artistic contribution concurrent to the campaign for gender parity?
Mica Millar: ‘I think whilst the discussion on gender parity is undoubtedly at the core of Sarah’s story, the deeper issues that relate specifically to empathy and altruism were what drew me to want to understand and explore her story. In my opinion, it is empathy, or a lack of it, that is at the core of all inequality.
What hasn’t yet been highlighted in the short form documentary of Sarah’s story, (but will be in the full length documentary) is the issue of perspective when it comes to empathy. Sarah was kidnapped by her father at the age of seven and taken away from her mother to a completely new environment and culture she knew nothing about. She was later forced into an arranged marriage so that her father could collect a dowry in order to secure money to pay the dowry for his own wife. As a westerner, my immediate response is to view these acts as completely inhumane and immoral and whilst I can’t say that my view of her father has shifted significantly from this perspective, during the process of filming with her, I found that Sarah has a huge amount of compassion, empathy and an incredible well rounded point of view. One thing she said to me that really stuck with me was that whilst she didn’t accept or forgive her father for what he did, she understood it. And she simply but very eloquently said, “He is a product of his society and culture and I am a product of mine”. When cultural norms are formed, they come from somewhere – they are, in my opinion, circumstantial to the environment, whether that is poverty, political unrest, capitalism or any number of other contributing factors. Once they become societal or cultural norms, especially in countries where strict traditions are upheld, I feel it becomes less a question of morality and empathy and more a question of self-preservation, survival and simply “fitting in” with those norms. Individual responsibility for what is morally right and wrong is somewhat taken out of focus and “societal norms” form a sheep mentality, where one doesn’t questioning their behaviour or the behaviour of other unless it’s opposing the existing, conditioned view. As a result, people simply don’t acknowledge any problem with their behaviour and because of that, empathy doesn’t occur.
Whilst the act of kindness from a stranger (a lady called Majorie, who helped Sarah find her mum) was what initially drew me to the story, it also had so many of these other very complex layers to it which then started to become visible in other stories I explored. It’s finding those similarities that I have found most profound during this campaign. For example, there have been many studies on the “bystander effect”. The story we are about to release looks at an attack in Manchester where onlookers stood and watched a man brutally beaten in broad daylight. It was a young woman called Erika who intervened initially which encouraged an old man and another young woman to step in as well. The bystander effect is a widely known physiological study and the research suggests three reasons why people don’t intervene; “diffusion of responsibility” which means that because there are other observers, people don’t feel responsible. Put simply, if there are 100 people around, we feel like we’re only 1% responsible. The second is “to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways” which basically mean that when other people don’t react, we take this as a signal that a response in not needed or isn’t the “appropriate way to behave”. And I feel this to some degree, mirrors what happens with “cultural norms”. The third is “characteristics”, we don’t know what is happening so we are not sure how to respond. Then we look to others and follow the crowd (sheep mentality). Which perhaps suggests that when people don’t intervene, it has very little to do with a lack of empathy.
So why do some people act? It’s a question I’m trying to answer. In Sarah’s case the woman who responded saw a young mixed (White-British and Yemeni) woman without her mother in Yemen, in an environment where this wasn’t the norm – She was able to ask about her circumstances (removing the issue of “characteristics”). No-one else was helping her (no opportunity for diffusion of responsibility) and since this woman was from the west, the appropriate way to behave was not restricted by a need to fit in to the behaviours of those around her. In fact, culturally, her norms were much more in keeping with Sarah’s than with anyone else. So it could be suggested, that it was as a result of these circumstances that she acted. In Erika’s story, the exact opposite occurred, yet she still took it upon herself to intervene. I’m hoping the other stories I explore, will reveal more and help me try to answer this question. It’s a very complex and fascinating topic and it’s been quite an emotional journey exploring the stories that have come in so far.’
Over the last four months as part of The Defender Campaign I have been searching for and exploring stories of people who have been saved by strangers or have saved a stranger.
Today, on #Internationalwomensday, I am incredibly privileged to be able to share an insight into Sarah’s inspirational story.
Follow my page for more stories, behind the scenes footage, the Defender music video and a full length documentary exploring the nature of human empathy.
If you have a story that you’d like me to feature, please share it using #thedefendercampaign or get in touch direct via my page.
Posted by Mica Millar on Thursday, 8 March 2018
The Defender sounds crisp and fresh but simultaneously calls to mind the classic trip-hop and downtempo styles pioneered by British producers. What was it like having Goldie and James (Subjective) work on the cut, what did the track begin with and what was your overall vision for the record?
MM: ‘I wrote the song around ten years ago and it was only last year that I decided I wanted to release it. It was never intended as a single originally, I was producing it for my album. I’d recorded it a couple of times before but never felt the vibe or the production was quite right. It was only a couple of years ago that I got into producing my records on my own, I’d always done it collaboratively and not at the controls. When I worked on this version it was around the time that I met Goldie backstage at a festival and he had just finished mixing his latest album, we were chatting about it and then he said, “I’ve got it with me, do you want to hear it?” so we ended up sitting in his car for about an hour and a half listening to the whole thing from start to finish. I think I was the fourth person to hear it. I obviously know Goldie’s work well, but with this album and talking to him about our creative processes, we just really clicked. I sent him “The Defender” when I’d finished the rough cut and I was looking for someone to mix it and help me with some additional production and he called me immediately and said he loved it and him and James wanted to work on it. It took about a week and there was very little back and forth because the vision was pretty clear from the rough cut and our discussions. It’s been amazing to work with both James and Goldie on the track. It’s a real privilege to have them credited on my record and I’m hopefully going to be doing some more work with them in the future on their other projects.’
How has the response been since digitally releasing the track and short film? Have members of the public been inspired to come forward with their stories and have you been able to incorporate some of those that have been submitted since?
MM: ‘It’s an interesting question. We started the campaign asking people to send stories in via my Facebook page and we also researched news articles and contacted various people ourselves. We had a lot of people get in touch. The second phase of the campaign (which is still in progress), was asking people to share videos telling their stories about either being saved/helped by a stranger or saving/helping a stranger… and if they didn’t have one, they could simply answer the question “who is your defender”, that could be a friend or relative that helped them during a difficult time. The response from people in all honesty, was largely that they didn’t feel comfortable filming themselves. People were concerned about how they looked (physically) or how they would be seen by other people for posting this type of content on their social profiles. It’s been a really interesting process which I think, to some degree mirrors some of the findings from the other research we’ve done whilst making the documentary. That said, there have been some stories shared though the majority have been sent in directly to me on Facebook.
We are still looking for stories and there’s more information on my Facebook page if people are interested in being involved in the campaign.’
Hearing these stories is presumably inspiring and challenging in equal measure – has the project taught you anything new about yourself as an artist or individual?
MM: ‘It’s been a real journey and as I said, specifically with Sarah’s story it was very emotional and there were a lot of tears between the two of us. Hearing Sarah say that being part of the campaign was a really healing process for her was really inspiring. Initially I had assumed she had talked about the story openly with people around her, but it later became clear that this was the first time she’d really had to revisit it in such depth. I felt quite a lot of guilt at one point, the first time we both cried. I started to question the whole campaign idea and what it was I was hoping to achieve, and whether I was just upsetting this lovely woman who had been through enough already with little benefit to her or anyone else. It was so beautiful to see her listen to the song for the first time and really relate to it. In fact she said she felt like I’d written it for her. Sarah has taught me a lot about culture and a lot about empathy… and probably a lot about my own lyrics too.’
What’s next up in the Defender campaign and what can we expect from the forthcoming, full-length documentary?
MM: ‘As I said, we are releasing Erika’s story next and we will be looking for more people with stories to feature in the music video and the documentary. I also of course, have my single launch shows starting with the show at Band on the Wall on 4th April. I’m also performing at Leaf on Bold Street in Liverpool on 8th April and at The Wardrobe in Leeds on 10th April.’
Music being a force that inspires and uplifts us, what music has really resonated with you this year, made you dance, cry, laugh, think etc.?
MM: ‘I love a lot of old soul music but for new music I’ve been listening to D’Angelo, Jordan Rakei and H.E.R quite a bit recently. I also saw a young artist called Tora when I performed one the same line-up as her at an iluvelive showcase in London a couple of weeks ago and she was amazing. I don’t think she has any music released yet but watch that space.’
Finally, we’re really looking forward to next month’s launch, what can we and the audience expect from your set?
MM: ‘I’m going to be performing with my band but I’ve made some adjustments and additions to the line up which I’m really excited about. I have four amazing backing singers and a string section as well as my usual guys on keys, drums and bass and a new guitarist! I’ll be performing some brand new material that hasn’t been heard outside of rehearsals yet as well as some material people who have seen me before will be familiar with. KSR will be opening the show for me with an acoustic set. He’s a really amazing soul singer from Manchester and Pablo Blanquito (City Whispers) will be DJ’ing some smooth soul and jazz in the intervals and after the show.’