Nelly Furtado Q&A: Singer Talks Humanitarian Award, Free The Children, Susan and Mom

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Nelly Furtado will be honoured with the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award at the Canadian Music & Broadcast Industry Awards, May 5, during Canadian Music Week in Toronto. The Canadian singer, who has sold more than 16 million albums and 18 million singles worldwide since her 2000 breakthrough debut, Whoa, Nelly! and single, “I'm Like a Bird,” tells Samaritanmag that despite all her success she still “felt something was missing from my career.”

That changed in 2011 when she travelled with Canadian international charity Free The Children to rural Kenya to shoot a CTV documentary, Road to Kisaruni. There she met Susan, a smart young women who dreamed of becoming a doctor but wasn’t able to get one of the coveted 40 spots at the new Kisaruni All Girls Secondary School. She felt an instant magic with Susan, seeing some of her own mother’s story in her.  Before her visit ended, Furtado excitedly broke the news that she would be able to attend Kisaruni. It is an emotional, unexpected highpoint in her trip. “I’m totally changed and really excited about the future,” Furtado says in the film. “It makes me want to try harder — try harder as a person, as a woman, as a mother, a citizen of the world.”

And she did.  On her last album, 2012’s The Spirit Indestructible, Furtado helped raise money for a new all-girls school, Oleleshwa, in the same community of Narok and donated $1 million to Free The Children, up to half of which was earmarked to match the donations. She has now been to rural Kenya four times with Free The Children and is an ambassador with the organization, appearing numerous times at their massive student empowerment rallies called We Day. Last Christmas, she returned to Kenya for Kisaruni’s graduating ceremony and she’ll be going again this Christmas.

In this exclusive interview with Samaritanmag, just before news of her humanitarian award was announced publicly, Furtado talks about the honour, her first trip to Kenya, the graduating class, her dedication to Free The Children, connection with Susan, as well as the impact of her own mother and the impact of these trips on her 12-year-old daughter, Nevis.

Nelly Furtado: I went to to your website today, Samaritanmag. It’s great. So happy for you because you’ve been talking about it for so long. It’s exactly what you wanted it to be from what I remember from your description.  It’s really refreshing to be able to go to a place and see all the amazing things that musicians are doing. It’s so interesting.

Karen Bliss: It’s been greater than I ever imagined, the things that people are doing. It’s very cool.

So cool.

Thanks — and the little skull with a halo logo ‘cause I’m a rock chick? (Laughs).

Staying true to your roots.

Exactly.  Now, about you…Congratulations on the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award. Obviously you’ve won tons awards for your music.  What does it mean to be recognized for your philanthropy?

I'm just so honoured. I’m really humbled by it, to be honest.  The Slaight family, you look at their track record of all these incredible charitable things they’ve done, it’s pretty mind-blowing. I'm so thankful for the good in the world and the families out there in the world doing incredibly kind things. And then I looked at the list of the people who have received this award, like Bryan Adams — I love Bryan Adams; he’s an incredible human being. It’s an incredible list of Canadians that I respect so much, so I am really humbled by it.  For me, at the end of the day, it’s almost selfish because you get what you give, you know? When you give, you get this great feeling.

I’ve been making music for almost two decades, professionally.  It’s really nice to be recognized for whatever I've done that I feel is what I should be doing and what I feel compelled to do. Giving back is really important to me.  Before I started working with Free the Children, I felt like there was something missing from my career in general. I was like, ‘This is all great, but I feel like I haven’t really made a difference.’  So I feel like I'm inspiring more people now and there's a lot of room to do a lot more.  So hopefully I can live up to that [laughs] – live up to this honour bestowed upon me [laughs].

It’s well-deserved. I don’t think people realize all the good that you've done. 

I'm excited because they [Slaight Family Foundation] also do a donation. They give $30,000 and $10,000 goes to Unison [Benevolent Fund] and $20,000 goes to the charity of the winner’s choice.  I'm going to be putting that back into Narok — the community in which Kisaruni and Oleleshwa, the girls schools, are at. I haven’t decided yet if it’s going to two new learners at Oleleshwa for first year or perhaps to new learners for the vocational training, post high school or maybe the Women’s Empowerment Center. I should know by the time of the award and I can share it with everybody. They’ve [Narok] got a boys school now too actually, so lots happening in the last five years, a real flurry of developments in terms of education opportunities. So the $20,000 is going to go to the Free The Children.

Your career took off immediately with your first album. You must have been asked to do so many charity engagements and events. How did you end up connecting with Craig Kielburger and Free The Children and focusing on just that one charity?

Susanne Boyce from CTV recommended me to Craig and Free the Children for this trip.  Every time I see her she’s like, ‘I knew you we're the perfect fit.’ She's really involved with them as well.  She used to be the president at CTV and at the time CTV was sponsoring the trip over to Kenya and that [TV station] was where the documentary was originally broadcast. I had worked with Susanne previously when I hosted the Juno Awards [2007]. Susanne introduced me and then I got the package sent to me.  It was really weird because most things that I get sent, it takes me a really long time to decide, but for some reasons with this — I got this package and the trip was literally three or four weeks away [laughs] — I looked at it and read it — I had heard of Craig Kielburger from when he was a kid.  He was on TV with the whole child labor focus when it was a news story — and something inside my heart just went, ‘Yes, yes, I'm going.’ I'm like, ‘Yup, I’ll do it.’  It was really weird, just the right place at the right time because I had been invited to go to Africa before.  I'd been invited to do several different charity events, etcetera, etcetera, but it just never really felt the right time.  Perhaps somewhere I knew that my time would come later.

On that first trip, we see in the documentary the story of Susan unfold. This turned out not to just be a visit to see the work that Free The Children do, meeting some students and singing some songs. You got to change a life, quite unexpectedly. Can you recap that story?

Meeting Susan totally changed my life actually and reminded me of a lot of the motivational forces in my own life. The big similarity between Susan and I, and the kinship that we had together, came from the fact that she had a very strong female role model in her life. She’d been adopted by Monica as a toddler, orphan, at the market helping a farmer with a baby tied to her back.  So Monica, out of the goodness as heart and her own compassion, even though she had a full house already, adopted Susan. And Monica, her mother now, sits on county assembly.  Now, she is a politician.  She’s the only woman on the county assembly. When I met her, she was a woman who had made a livelihood out of nothing basically. She owned a small business on her properties, selling meats, and a little barbershop and she had quite an impressive garden. She was already leading women’s group and doing a lot of community engagement.  So that’s the work that led to her current position, which has enabled her and Susan more opportunities. I have my own mother who was a strong leader; she had her own voice; she was opinionated; she always taught me to try my best.  So Susan and I, I don’t know, it was almost like this instant magic between us.

In the doc, we learn that Susan wanted to go to school to be a doctor, but Kisaruni only had room for 40 girls and she was number 41 and also didn’t have the fees. You cry on camera.  If she hadn’t been given that spot while you were there, do you think you would’ve gone home and thought, ‘Somehow, I’ve got to get this girl into school’?

I think so, but for me it’s about opportunity, this idea that if …[she pauses and laughs, getting a bit emotional.] I get tongue–tied every time I think about it.  It still chokes me up, that if you have a dream and you don’t have the opportunity, your dream just gets destroyed and it really kills me.  I think, it’s because, again, my mother wanted to be a teacher and her father had 10 kids and he couldn’t afford to send them all to high school, although my mother had the best grades.  It was like her dream. She subbed and she was a student intern and she just couldn’t wait to pursue an education to become a teacher and her father said, ‘I’m sorry, but it would be unfair to send only one of my children to school and not all of them.’  She was never able to pursue that dream because of lack of opportunity and situation.  I could really relate with that.  It strikes a chord with me.

So with Susan, this young girl of just 14, it was like I was rewinding the past and I could see in her eyes almost the eyes of my mother, you know?  I kind of went ‘Wow,’ and then I really connected too because it’s an agricultural community and all of my ancestors are agriculturalist in Portugal.  I grew up around that and this idea of living off the land and all of these great values that come with that.  I right away connected with these people in this rural community and the farmers and just the people and their everyday lifestyle and the sense of community.

When I met Susan, it was like, ‘Wow, here’s this girl and she has a dream and how amazing she’s going to get to pursue this.’  And what reinforced that is also what I saw in the other girls who were already attending Kisaruni, the girls that already got in; the 40 girls who had started their journey of education seemed already so empowered after just a few weeks at school.  And they were so excited to welcome Susan.  You see in the documentary, there’s a whole pile of us, we walked Susan to her new school. It was her first day. I’ve never actually experienced a greater joy than that — the true feeling of joy that day.

It was so exciting because the whole community was coming together and then we had all these people from Canada that were on the trip like ArtBound and all these great people who had also done a lot of fundraising to get there and build the art wing of the school.  It was a lot of people just coming together in the spirit of joy and community. [Former Canada AM co-host and current Member of Parliament] Shamus O’Regan was there that day and I just send him an email when he won the [MP] seat; we’re connected because of that day. That’s the real joy; everybody was crying tears of joy and happiness.  You’ve seen in the documentary, it’s real.  Of course, the kids totally changed my life [laughs].  I would say that my heart cracked open.

And then, equally, it reminded me of all the good there is the world because I met all these great people like Craig and Marc (Kielburger), Roxanne (Joyal, Marc’s wife and co-CEO) and all these families I’ve met working with Me to We and Free the Children, and all these other musicians that are also ambassadors for Free the Children, whether it’s Jacob [Hoggard] and [his band] Hedley or whether it’s [actress] Marlee Matlin or [champion rower] Silken Laumann. These are incredible people with incredible stories and it all kind of feeds itself, you know what I mean?  It’s really a ripple effect.

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t meet somebody who has been affected somehow by that work — by their child’s involvement in raising money for Free the Children or maybe somebody’s been on trip or maybe somebody’s been doing We Day. And the cool thing about Free the Children is it’s not just about their charity.  They just encourage kids to get involved with whatever they feel or are passionate about. I like that too because I’m a mother so this idea that I’ve seen kids, within my own scope, that have been totally affected by the message of living Me to We and they’ve inspired their friends, it’s totally awesome. It wasn’t until that trip where I really felt truly connected to a nonprofit in a holistic kind of way, that I felt I was making a lifelong partner and friendship there. I’m super grateful for all that.

In the doc, Craig showed you where on the grounds other schools and classes for more groups of 40 girls would be built. Do you know where Free The Children is with that?

There was another school, Oleleshwa.

The one you are raising money for on the last album?

Yeah.  This Christmas will be my fifth trip to Narok.  So last Christmas was attending Susan’s graduation along with all the other girls.  We have a relationship throughout there with the whole graduation class.  That was incredible.  I got to sing and I got to be a part of that. The trip before that was the opening of Oleleshwa. The trip before that was the groundbreaking and the trip before that was the one that you saw [in the doc]. So this Christmas is going to be the graduation of Oleleshwa.

That’s amazing.

It is amazing [laughs].  Yeah.  It has already been four years.  The first class is graduating this Christmas.  The first graduation was surreal. These girls, these women, in the course of four years, their confidence just blasted through the roof.  They were all such go-getters and they’re all so driven and their marks ended up beating all the boys schools. There were all these outstanding academics stories, so pretty spectacular.

Are most going on to college or university?

Some of them will be.  Some of them will also be going back into their communities with their newfound knowledge of agriculture and sanitation and all these different wonderful things and some of them, with their high school diploma, will be able to become school teachers, nurses and a lot of other great careers.  Some of them are going on to trade school and vocational school.

Is Susan going to go to med school? Her dream was to become a doctor.

The last time I saw Susan was last Christmas and she was waiting for her exam result and she was attending computer school.  She’s actually doing technological training right now.  She’s doing some computer training. I’m looking forward to hearing what she’s decided to do, as far as education goes. I’m not sure if she’s going to go on to study at vocational school. I’m sure I’ll find out when I see her again in Christmas.  Sometimes we write letters back and forth too.

Actual handwritten letters or emailed letters?

Actual letters.

That’s so nice.

Good old snail mail [laughs].

You’ve gone there with your family.

It will be my daughter’s fourth trip, and my husband and I it will be our fifth trip.

Have you seen any impact on your daughter since taking these trips?

Incredibly so. I will say that the biggest impact of the trip on my daughter is exposure to incredibly positive female role models in these high school student.  She’s met dozens and dozens of incredible female students.  These students are not only incredible public speakers, but they’re also community activists.  They go into their community; they teach them how to plant vegetation that will withstand draught; they teach their community and elementary schools about sanitation and health; they’re advocates for education for girls.  They’re incredible role models for my daughter.

What’s happened is she’s been exposed to these incredible female role models and leaders and leadership is very hard to come by.  Obviously, there’s always going to be some natural leaders in your life, but just watching girls create opportunities for themselves and pursue their dreams and pursue them with passion and hard work — because these girls get up at 5 a.m.; their day ends at 9 p.m. — they do not take their education for granted for any day.  They’ve never taken their education for granted and I think my daughter, she’s learned from that.  She’s quite a gratitude-built child. She has a lot of gratitude and I’m really think that’s a big part of it.

The first time you experience We Day can be pretty emotional — an arena filled with kids and every single one was chosen by a teacher to be there because they gave back in some way. That's pretty crazy.

Yes.  It really is.  We Day is incredible. First of all, to get a ticket.  Second of all to come home with all these exciting new ideas. And we’re finding a way too to get more families engaged.  This year, there’s going to be some really fun announcement surrounding the idea of adults being involved and all the cool things that the kids are involved in.

I remember when we are on that first trip, Craig was like, ‘Well, wait ‘til you come to We Day; wait ‘til you come to We Day.’  So our first We Day was We Day Waterloo and I remember it because we brought our daughter with us.  I was blown away because at that time they had this child’s soldier named Michel [Chikwanine] and his story was so riveting and then, of course, Robin Wiszowaty who wrote the book My Maasai Life and she’s an incredible speaker too, and Spencer West who I have since developed an amazing friendship with.  They’ve inspired my songs and videos.

So it’s been a crazy journey and built on incredible friendships really.  That’s what it’s about right?  It has to all work with your actual everyday life, right? I think that’s when service can really becomes a part of your life, when it all starts to blend together. 

Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.