A few years ago, actress, songwriter and vocalist Aja Salakastar Dier was going to quit singing. After a slew of studio sessions where she was undermined, gaslit, and, as she puts it, “artistically abused,” she decided it wasn’t worth the grief. The problem was, she had an audition with the esteemed Detroit Opera Theatre lined up. “I was like, okay, I’m gonna go to the audition, but I’m not an opera singer,” Salakastar says. She ended up landing the role. And the next day, sitting in a room with four other professional, classically trained opera singers, she decided that maybe this was a sign that she should keep singing after all. That was one of the many steps along Salakastar’s journey to finding the strong, soulful and ephemeral voice heard on her first solo release, “December 22 (for Jean-Michel).”
The song was written after a particularly grueling experience in the studio. “I wrote this song after being in a really horrible studio session where I was being criticized in a way that made me shut down,” Salakastar remembers. “I couldn’t stand up for myself in that moment – I kind of just froze… so I wrote the first part of this song as a mantra to remind myself that I’m worthy… It was like me standing up for myself after the fact.”
Her lyrics serve not only as a mantra, but an armor and a warning to anyone – including her inner voice – that dares to criticize her. The mantra is introduced in fragments, alongside lush layers of Salakastar’s voice that sound almost Gregorian. For two minutes, the artist chants softly, indiscriminately to her higher power – herself – easing out the core message. Finally, Salakastar’s voice breaks through the hymnal ocean, delivering the mantra as sharp and clear as a diamond: “Watch your tone/When you call on God/Watch the throne/When I step on earth/Calling out her name!”
In a way, the song’s gradual progression mirrors Salakastar’s journey to finding her voice. Though she always loved singing, inner and outer criticism forced her to bury that part of herself deep within. “I felt shame around my voice and I’m not sure why,” she explains. “Maybe it was someone telling me when I was younger, ‘you can’t sing’ or being a Black girl from Detroit – there are a lot of girls like me who can really sing in a particular way, and I’ve always felt outside of that.” So, although singing and songwriting was a deep desire that Salakastar always held close, her younger years were more focused on her talent in acting. She went to SUNY Purchase in New York for acting and returned to Detroit with an index of Shakespearian language and an even deeper desire for self expression. That’s when she began writing songs.
“I moved back to Detroit and I started meeting musicians and writing more and it just happened from there,” explains Salakastar. “With my music… I’m not playing a person, I’m writing my own story. I’m used to telling other peoples’ stories. The process of telling my own has been incredibly scary but freeing.” Part of the story she tells in “December 22 (for Jean-Michel)” is of two of her greatest loves – the color blue, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Salakastar was re-introduced to the color blue very suddenly and all-consumingly. “I was hanging out with a friend psychedelically and I just all of a sudden I looked around and I just kept seeing the color blue so vibrantly.” says Salakastar. “It connected with me physically, like deep down within, in my heart and in my gut.” After that experience, Salakastar started studying how the color blue corresponds with the chakra system and found it represented speaking your truth, purification, using your voice, and transformation. All of this resonated deeply with Salakastar, who was dealing with depression at the time; she says that once she embraced blue, it was like a switch flipped. “Blue symbolizes the possibility of healing and coming out of that,” she says. “Not even being on the other side of it, but the possibility of being able to heal. And that’s really all you need.”
From then on, Salakastar only wrote or created from a space of blue. She painted her walls and doors blue, got a blue light, adorned her space with blue totems. The color became her creative safe space and eventually birthed an entire project: All Blue Part One: Majorelle. “December 22 (for Jean-Michel)” is the first single from this project, an introduction to her healing world of blue, and an ode to one of her other core muses, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
She remembers a distinct moment about three years ago at the Detroit Institute of Arts when she was deeply moved by one of Basquiat’s works. “I was taken in by this painting and I just felt so free and I was just thinking, if I could get to this place artistically, I could be okay,” says Salakastar. She explains how his paintings in particular have the power to draw her in, make her feel that she’s with him, or in the space he was in when he made the painting. The connection is not only artistic but cosmic. The two share a birthday – December 22nd. The song serves not only as a pledge to her own artistic freedom and worth, but an incantation for a kindred artist gone too soon. Bold strokes of piano, complex vocal melodies and distant percussion echo the complex makings of a Basquiat painting, where angelic harp, comforting horns and Salakastar’s sacral vocals aim to reach him where he is now. “I just think about how he never got the chance to fully heal because he lost his life so early and tragically,” she says. “I wonder what he would create today if he had the opportunity to heal.”
This song in itself presents an opportunity for healing, for sitting with emotions or words left unsaid, for reclaiming self-worth and warding off self-doubt. And it’s only the first chapter in the story of Salakastar.
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