NICOLE JONJAK knows she is not your “typical” soca artiste.
When Jonjak first learnt about soca music and TT’s Carnival, it was a new experience.
Jonjak was born and raised in Hayward, a small town in the US state of Wisconsin. Most of the town’s 2,000 residents were Caucasian.
It was during a 2009 music recording session, with US music producer Anthony “Palmi” Alexander, that Jonjak first heard soca.
Alexander, who has family roots in TT, played SuperBlue's Barbara and Machael Montano's and Destra Garcia's It's Carnival for Jonjak.
At that time, the singer who was experimenting with multiple genres fell in love with the music.
“When I heard how Destra took Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time and flipped into soca, I said that is what I would love to do,” Jonjak said in an interview with Newsday.
After learning about soca, Jonjak and Alexander experimented by creating soca music that incorporated African, pop and R&B beats.
When Jonjak decided to become a soca artiste, she adopted the stage name “Youni-T.”
Since 2014, Jonjak has visited TT annually for Carnival. She plays J’Ouvert, watches the parade of the bands, and enjoys going to Maracas Beach to eat Richard’s bake and shark. She has also entered the International Soca Monarch annually, since 2014, though she has never made it past the auditions.
While Jonjak did not hesitate to start a soca career, with the assistance of Alexander, she is aware her presence has the potential to be controversial.
“My biggest fear apart from being laughed at was that people would throw things at me. I was warned that TT audiences can get very rowdy when they don’t like certain music. Even if people do not like my music, I hope they can see that I don't take soca lightly. I came to appreciate it, not steal, embarrass, or make fun of soca.”
Though she views her intentions as harmless, she has gained a fair share of criticism on social media. Even more controversial, to some, is Jonjak dubbing herself the “American Soca Queen.”
Asked how this "title" may further affect people’s ability to take her seriously, Jonjak said, “I’m not saying I’m the queen of all soca queens. I am just saying that I fly the soca flag proudly for Americans."
Also fending of any accusations of cultural appropriation, she said, “I feel the only way a person should avoid cultural practices, other than the ones they were raised with, is if they are "pretending to be someone they are not. I take pride in the fact that I have never misrepresented who I am or where I am from.”
Carrying TT’s national flag alongside the USA’s while performing, Jonjak said the intention is to ensure TT is always acknowledged.
“During my ten years of making soca music, I have spent many months in TT, learning the culture, spending time with the people, and becoming inspired by the history of these unique twin islands.”
Outside of soca music, Jonjak has been a teacher since 2017 at Somerset Academy in Florida. In 2019 she created a pan club at the school which has now become a formal class. An avid lover of pan music, she got the idea after learning a family friend had unused pans laying around.
Describing the class, which consists of 12 students and 16 pans, Jonjak said, “The goal when we turned the club into a class was to bring the students to TT for Panorama. Obviously, we were bringing them to watch, you have to walk before you crawl.”
Jonjak’s students were expected to visit TT for this year’s Panorama competition but could not make it due to funding issues.
Most of the students in the pan class are children of Caribbean people or descendants. Parents see the class as a way to help their children connect with their Caribbean heritage.
Jonjak now eagerly anticipates the end of the pandemic so she can once again visit TT.
Before this year’s Point Fortin Borough Day and Tobago Jazz Festival were cancelled, due to covid19, Jonjak was in talks to perform at the events.
At the onset of the covid19 outbreak, in the US, she temporarily moved from her current home in Miami to her childhood home in northern Wisconsin. As she spends time in isolation, she has been writing new music and is in the process of creating a music company.
“Somehow the pandemic has kept me just as busy as before, just in slightly different ways. I've adjusted my perspective on a few things.”
Called Freedom Music Unlimited, the company is expected to be launched at the end of October.
In response to covid19 and in support of the global Black Lives Matter movement, Jonjak has released seven soca-infused songs.
Released in June, the song Black Luv is an “honest, raw, foul-mouthed” statement, made with a defiant attitude, about racism in the US. The song is Jonjak’s call to white Americans to become allies to African Americans.
“I've seen the "ugly" (of racism) and felt powerless. I’ve watched my friends and loved ones suffer in the hands of systemic racism. The message of racism in the US is loud, strong, hideous and unrelenting, even though we try to sugar-coat or ignore it as a nation."
Other recently released songs like Soca Healin, Heaven, WorldWine and Do Something, Jonjak hopes will help to ease the tensions, stress, isolation, and depression associated with recent global events.
“My pen has been busy writing what is in my heart about all the latest happenings. Soca music has the power to bring people together and heal the spirit, not just at Carnival time but during difficult times as well."
While Jonjak continues her efforts to break into TT’s soca scene, her music is being noticed in the US. In 2019 she was nominated for Florida Soca Artist of the Year by the International Soca Awards Committee.
She hopes to secure a collaboration with a local soca artist in the future.
“Every (soca artist) has their own lane, flavour and style. I wouldn't shy away from that and at any given time I would love to jump in on any of those options.”
Jonjak has performed in Miami, New York, and San Diego carnivals.