Cree Myles: A relationship with music
As a direct descendent of the African slave trade and living in a city known for its segregation, Cree Myles explores her identity with a soulful passion in the performance of music. Behind the vocals that should one day bring her national attention, Myles balances her dreams with the reality of life in Milwaukee.
Q: Did you have a role model growing up, and how did that example influence your life?
A: When I was really young I loved Dominque Dawes, that was when the 1996 Olympics happened and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I was attracted to the only brown girl on the team. I also loved Florence Joyner. My grandmother got me the Barbie doll version of her and I took her everywhere. In Middle school I was in love with Jessica Szohr. She was from Menomonee Falls, a model, and my cheerleading coach. I just thought she was the most beautiful thing that’s ever graced the planet. My lineage is also powerful. My Grandmother came from a family of 16 children in rural Mississippi and she has two Masters Degrees. My Mom was the first black female principal in Menomonee Falls, and my Dad was the first black game warden in the history of Wisconsin. I’ve got game changing blood running through my veins.
Q: What is the story behind your namesake?
A: I don’t know for sure. My Dad picked out Cree and wanted that to be my first name. But my Mom was nervous that if I was ugly, kids would call me “creature” so Maria is my first name. It may not be connected, but Cree Summers played on a the TV soap opera Different World around the time my mother was pregnant with me.
Q: What was the experience like to perform your music at homeless shelters, and what led you there?
A: I originally went because I was frustrated with our system. We can find cars that haven’t been registered and are sitting on someone’s driveway, but we can’t feed and house our entire population? A more selfish reason was that I needed to play more regularly and become consistently comfortable in front of a crowd, and I hoped that this crowd would be forgiving. It was interesting, the feedback I was getting from people. I’ve been obsessed with false eyelashes as of late and someone asked me “Isn’t it ironic that you are wearing false eyelashes to a homeless shelter?” And when I would go to the women’s shelters I would often times be one woman of fifteen wearing false eyelashes. The absolutism that we place on being homeless is ridiculous.
Q: You grew up in a nurturing and creative home in Menomonee Falls, so how was your music able to expresses the anguish of the black community in Milwaukee?
A: I’m only connected to Menomonee Falls in the superficial sense. I know where Pop’s is, the Mom & Pop burger joint, and I hold a few of the track and field records at the high school. But that is pretty much the extent of my relationship with Menomonee Falls. Menomonee Falls wasn’t made for me and is not my history. I don’t know what the village was founded on but I can confidently say that it is currently a place occupied by listless, apathetic, and conservative white people. I understand why my parents moved us out there. It’s safe and consistent and that’s important when you are raising a family. But I figured out pretty fast that I wasn’t connected. Connections transcend placement and I’m black. All of my people were in the city, and a lot of them need help. The same system that creates a false sense of reality in a community like Menomonee Falls also perpetuates poverty in Milwaukee.
As far as my home being nurturing, yes it was. My Dad is a blues guitarist. My Mom is one of the biggest Prince fans you’ll ever meet, rivaling my God-mother. My uncle paints and produces. Fluently, he does both fluently. I love them. I love how much space everyone gave me to be loud and obnoxious. I love all of my cousins for being loud and obnoxious with me. We are all creative, non-stop all the time. It’s great, and inspiring. One of my cousins going to college in Tennessee. We talk and just gush about how loved we are, we don’t take it for granted because we see unloved people all the time.
Q: How do you balance being a mother, a musician, and an African American woman in Milwaukee?
A: Being a young black single mother does create occasional insecurities. I often times feel like an imposter at my son’s school, for example. As he is growing I’m realizing the contentment that the education system has with just shuffling him around. They keep telling me he “doesn’t focus” and “we can’t officially diagnose him until third grade but just be mindful” and it’s such a confusing process for me. It isn’t the child I spend my time with, the one that they describe to me. And that’s what I mean by my connectedness to Milwaukee. Those people at my child’s school don’t know I grew up in Menomonee falls. Every time I had a parent teacher conference with his teacher she asked me when I’d finish school. I’ve had my Bachelors Degree the entire time she has known me. They see me like they see any other young black single mother. So I try to overcompensate, then I get self-conscious, and then I feel like an imposter. I really just wish I could homeschool. I need a husband.
I don’t know if I consider myself a musician. I know some amazing musicians, so I just feel like to call me one is an insult to them. I’ll go by musical artist. I create because I feel like I have to. It’s a release and it creates so many connections which we need as humans, connectedness. I think society is backward in that regard. The emphasis should be on the things that create connectedness, not money.
Q: What does music mean to you? And if you had to give it up, what other creative expression would you follow?
A: If there is actually a correct religion I believe it’s art, of all mediums. So if I couldn’t sing I would learn how to draw, I would dance. I write all the time anyway, and I would keep reading. I think I am pulled to music because I can sing and that’s such a personal and specific way to create. You use the ability because it was literally given to you. You don’t need anything to do it, because it is natural and you can do it anywhere, which I do.
Q: Do you see your music as a conduit to communicate social change in Milwaukee?
A: I would love for that to be the case. It’s not so much the music I’m hoping will create change, but me just being committed to myself. I went into this hoping that being myself would in turn liberate others to be themselves. It sort of works, but strong black and beautiful women scare a lot of people. I’m only able to liberate those within a similar frequency to mine, otherwise people are just there to observe. I’d like to hope I’m planting seeds for change at least.
Self-commitment is hard. There are sub-cultures in the black community, we really do have to be twice as good to only receive half the recognition. So black excellence is a real thing and I sometimes struggle with feeling insecure because of it, that I’m not excellent to my people. But as Maria Popova said “…the sole substance of genius is the daily act of showing up.” So I just show up and be me. I think overall it’s received well, it definitely teaches me to just show up as myself no matter where I am. That’s all I can be.
Q: Why did you choose to stay in Milwaukee, and specifically pick the Riverwest area to live?
A: Riverwest is ideal for any creative in Milwaukee and it is so fiercely communal. I’ve met people in the last year who I feel like I’ve known my whole life. And especially the female artists and, especially especially, the black female artists. The experience of the black female is really unique, but as I’ve talked to others I realize the feelings are shared amongst us. It’s definitely a real thing. Black women have a hard time lifting each other up. We are taught to compete with each other, even more fiercely than other women, because they take away so many of our men from us. And there is only one narrative that is told about the black woman. That we are loud, and we twerk, and we fight, and we’re possessive and jealous. While all of those things might be true at some level, we are also creative and we hurt because we are the most disrespected and ignored group. But these black female artists I meet in Riverwest, nothing but love. Real love. We go to each others shows and share each others social media links, and are happy because we really want all of us to make it. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my whole life, where my home base is actually a community of black women who are doing the same thing that I’m doing. I love it.
Q: How is faith a part of your music, and your life?
A: I believe we are all connected. I don’t ascribe to any organized religion at this point, but whenever I need perspective I think of my ancestors. I’m a direct descendant of two slaves named Horace and Fannie. Sometimes I sit outside and feel the sun and think, wow, this is the same sun Horace and Fanny were under. And I think about how oppressive and hopeless their lives were, but they persevered. They had to somehow survive, because I’m alive and that’s humbling.
Q: What has been the biggest personal challenge you face in Milwaukee?
A: Money and motivation. I was recently at a job that I didn’t like at all. Once I quit it I was super excited because I thought I was going to have more control over my time. It is true I have much more control over my time, but that also means I have more control over the outcome of using that time. So when things aren’t progressing it’s my fault, and I rarely feel like I’m doing enough because there is always so much to do.
Q: What is your hope for the future of the African American community in Milwaukee?
A: I hope Moms and Dads commit to becoming mindful parents. I hope there are systems put in place to demonstrate how to be a good parent. I hope little black girls fall in love with their hair. I hope black people continue to organize. I hope we get reparations for slavery. I hope we create more spaces for black children to boundlessly explore themselves and know that they have more options than what the media gives them. I hope little black boys know that they are more than the class nuisance and don’t internalize the feeling of being inconvenient. That showing up as you are with your nappy hair and brown ashy skin is absolutely more than enough. It’s coveted and it’s beautiful. You don’t have to defend you’re existence. You don’t have to educate those who choose to ignore a whole race of people who have shared this country with them for two hundred years. Educate yourself. Read about your history. Exist in self love and spread it.
Q: What is next for your career?
A: I just need to keep getting better. I need to keep learning about myself and reading so that I can express what I’m learning in a way that is palpable. Keep practicing the guitar. Sing everyday. Explore harmonies and learning from my band mates.