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Beyond Kendrick and Bey: 3 Powerful indie artist-activists you should know

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Meet these three groundbreaking indie artists bringing power to the people.

1 | Messiah Ramkissoon – Poetry Behind Bars

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J. Shotti (jshotti.com)
J. Shotti (jshotti.com)
Photo: J. Shotti (jshotti.com)[/caption]

Born in Trinidad and raised in Maryland, Messiah Ramkissoon’s American dream took flight when he earned a $25,000 scholarship from Oprah Winfrey on the strength of his poetic talent. But just a few years later, the young griot found himself behind bars due to an unresolved immigration status. From then on, he knew he would use the arts to liberate individuals in the prison system. Messiah went on to become a 3x champion of Showtime at the Apollo and appear on stages from NBA All-Star Weekend to the BET Awards. He launched creative therapy and workshops for incarcerated youth from Maryland to New York, and now works as a creative writing coach and youth reentry counselor on Rikers Island. He’s lectured on the topic of mass incarceration at New York University, Columbia University, Morgan State University, the Source Hip-Hop360 Conference and beyond, and is fast emerging as a new voice for an imprisoned generation. His latest mixtape, The Reminder, blasts everything from the criminal justice system to the nutritional-industrial complex. See AllMessiah.com.

2 | Maya Azucena – Global Ambassador for Good

Maya Azucena
Maya Azucena
Photo: mayaazucena.com

Brooklyn-born singer/songwriter Maya Azucena brings an intensity to the stage that is only matched by her passion for global human rights. In 2006, Maya sang at the Save Darfur: Rally to Stop Genocide on the National Mall in Washington, DC, in solidarity with President Barack Obama, Paul Russebagina, George Clooney, Elie Wiesel and numerous others. Her song and video Dance Revolution was commissioned by the One Billion Rising campaign to end domestic violence, an issue she also champions as an executive board member for CONNECT NYC. Maya is also the Artist Ambassador for Bead For Life, a Uganda-based charity empowering women to become entrepreneurs. Musically, Maya has featured on recordings with Stephen Marley, Marcus Miller, Eminem, Joell Ortiz, Immortal Technique, Fitz and The Tantrums and many more, while touring internationally as a bonafide soul/hip-hop star. In 2013, she featured on the secret Grammy Museum stage produced by BET for the Essence Music Festival. See MayaAzucena.com.

3 | Shanelle Gabriel – The Lupus Warrior

Photo: idontdoclubs.com

During its heyday, HBO’s Def Poetry Jam brought trailblazers such as Talib Kweli, Nas and Jill Scott to the stage alongside exciting new talent. Among them was Brooklyn native Shanelle Gabriel, a singer and poet whose artistry landed her on the Rachel Ray Show, HuffPost Live, FOX News and KAYA 95.9 FM Johannesburg to name a few. Just as her career was hitting full speed, however, she received a devastating diagnosis: the autoimmune disorder Lupus. “My battle with Lupus has been tedious, but God has a plan. I want to be a testimony to others that no matter what, faith and determination can accomplish any goal." Since her diagnosis, Shanelle has used her art to step up on a platform of awareness, performing at Lupus walks and conferences across the nation. She has spoken at the National Press Room for the National Institute of Health, performed on Capitol Hill and been featured in several publications regarding her life as an artist living with Lupus. She also hosts a weekly Lupus support group in Harlem, New York, one of the first of its kind. Her mission is to build awareness and attracted research interest in this deadly disease which quietly and disproportionately affects African Americans. Follow her fight at ShanelleGabriel.com.


Collette Watson is a sometimes singer, sometimes writer, always Gemini from South Carolina now in the Arizona desert. A graduate of Howard University’s John H. Johnson School of Communications, Collette spent five years as a copywriter in the New York office of the world’s fourth largest ad agency. She then cleansed her soul by sharing musical stages with Lauryn Hill, Eric Roberson and Talib Kweli (the conscious black trifecta), among others. Follow her journey at cwatsoncreative.com and on Twitter.

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