British singer-songwriter, actress and producer Em Hoggett has empowered and inspired women everywhere with a deeply personal message in her single, “What I Want To Say To You.” Her passionate, haunting voice in this single, produced by GRAMMY-nominated producer Bruce Witkin, is a response to her rapist. It is a message of healing, and more, it tells other victims that they are not alone.
Originally written as a personal letter to her attacker meant as a healing technique, she decided to share her healing with the world in the form of a song. The response has been overwhelming. Em has chosen to donate the net proceeds of the release to It’s On Us, a US-based charity founded by Vice President Joe Biden, to combat campus sexual assault; and Rape Crisis England And Wales, which promotes the rights of women and girls who have experienced sexual violence.
The all-original song, part of a series of four songs in her EP, is an inferno of musical passion that combines an emotional message with Em’s incredible talent as a pianist and vocalist with an intensity that is unmatched by any other vocalist today. The video is artfully done and expertly produced, and may be painful to watch, as it should be. In today’s environment in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and so many others, Em’s message should not be missed.
The song and the video, “What I Want To Say To You” is a very emotional and very personal story. Can you share with me the story behind that music?
So, I was raped when I was 16 in London, which is where I am from. I repressed it for years and didn’t tell anybody, and just tried to forget that it happened. I moved to New York to go to drama school when I was 18, then after that first semester I went home for Christmas, and everything started flooding back. I expected it to go away when I went back to New York, but when I got back there it didn’t go away at all, and it started to take over my life. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t concentrate on school properly, because all of that was on my mind, every single day. I had told my mum a year before, so I called her and said, “What do I do?” And she said, “You should try writing him a letter.” Not to send it – she said it helps a lot of people just to get their emotions on a page. So naturally, to me, that came out in writing a song. So that’s what I did. In literally about ten minutes, I wrote the first song, “What I Want To Say To You.” I played the first chord, and all the words were there, just waiting.
But it still didn’t feel like enough, and a couple weeks later, I decided I needed to release the song. I was suffering from a lot of denial at the time, which is very common. One of the reasons it was so easy for me to deny it was because nobody knew it had happened. I knew I had to put it out there, and just let everybody know my story so that I could begin healing, so that’s what I did and it changed my life. Then I wrote the second and third tracks, track 2 being “Anger,” which is about the absolute rage you feel when you realize you have been abused in this way. And the third song, “Will It Always Be Like This,” was a song about wondering, is the rest of my life going to be this? Then I started to get better and I moved to LA, and then the whole Harvey Weinstein thing came out and I wrote the song “Get Out,” which was about the idea that this experience always lives inside your body physically, and you can feel it and want to get it out. So that’s the story behind the music.
It takes a lot of courage to share a story like that publicly through music. Was there any hesitance at first? Was it a hard decision to make?
Two years ago when I released that first song, that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. I was shaking as I pressed “post.” By the time it came to releasing the EP this year, it wasn’t so terrifying at all, because it had become such an open part of my life and my story, but it was still a very difficult thing to do, especially the song “Anger.” It was so important to put that on there, because it is a totally natural and healthy emotion, and I wanted other survivors to feel okay in feeling like that and not to feel ashamed, or alone with it. I had to be totally raw and unapologetic and vulnerable in releasing that, but I knew it was important to do it that way.
What has the response been like?
It’s been amazing. Hard Rock Café just gave it a fantastic review and I’ve been contacted by numerous survivors, telling me that it has helped them, or has had some impact on them. One girl told me that listening to the EP has given her the courage to take her attacker to the police, and I had a message from somebody else telling me that it refrained them from suicide. I have received quite a lot of messages like this, and that’s really the point. That’s why I released it, to make a difference.
And there is a very important message in the music for women out there who have been in the same situation. What is it you would like to say to these women?
To people who have been in this situation but haven’t told anyone, what I would like to say is, if you have anybody in your life that you feel you can share this with, do it. And if you don’t, then try to at least express it in some way, whether that’s through song, or writing, or even just screaming. It’s a way to get these emotions out of your body. One of the worst things about it is that we have to harbor all these horrific emotions inside of us. And to anyone who is open about it like I am, I would say, keep doing what you’re doing and spread the message and raise awareness. It’s something that is taboo, and it really shouldn’t be. It needs to be discussed so that we can change it.
You just returned from Burning Man, which must have been an incredible experience, and you performed What I Want To Say To You when you were there. What was that experience like?
Burning Man was amazing! Truly another world. It’s a society based on love and kindness and giving, and it was amazing to be in that atmosphere and to feel safe all the time, and trusting of everyone. It’s funny, because I was asked to perform a set at 5 am, and then I was asked to play classical piano for a two-hour yoga class at 8 am the same morning. On Saturday night, which was the night they set the man on fire, I couldn’t sleep, so I literally went out and watched the man burn and just danced until 4:30 am and went over to the camp, played for an hour and a half, got changed and then played classical iano for a yoga class. It was a really crazy night, but it was a great experience.
Proceeds from your EP are going to charities, including Its on us, which was founded by Joe Biden, and Rape Crisis England and Wales. What led to your decision to donate the proceeds, and to work with those two groups in particular?
I talked with my producer Bruce Witkin, who is a phenomenal human being. I played him the music and we agreed, of course, we’ll donate it to charity, because why wouldn’t we? The whole point of me releasing the music was for me to help people. If I can help more people by contributing money to people who offer services to people in my situation, of course, I would want to do that. The reason for those charities was, I used to do a little work with the Born This Way Foundation, which was run by Lady Gaga and her family. As a reporter for them I interviewed Its On Us, and made a video for them, so I already had a connection there and was aware of the work that they were doing, especially around college campuses where so much rape happens. I wanted to support them because they’re trying to educate, and that’s one of the most important things in making a difference. Then, Rape Crisis England and Wales – I’m from England, so it was important for me to support something from my own country, especially since this is where it happened to me.
You mentioned playing classical piano at Burning Man. Tell me more about your musical background, and when you first decided to get into music.
I started classical piano when I was four years old, so it was a huge part of my life. I was a child concert pianist in the UK, so I had been performing since I was five years old all over the UK and Europe, so that was my life, and it was really an abnormal childhood in a lot of ways, but now I have this ability that I’m so grateful for. I diverted into singing and songwriting when I was about 13, then when I was 16 I started studying jazz and soul. The classical piano life is another world, and I knew I didn’t want that for myself as a career. It didn’t suit me because I am a very social person, and that’s what jazz is all about.
I understand you’re developing an acting career as well, and you’ve been involved with the production of some films? Tell me about that.
I’ve always been interested in acting, and I went to a theater high school in London, and when it came time to go to college I had a scholarship to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston. At the last minute, I had the feeling that I wanted to act, so at the last minute, I auditioned for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, and I got a scholarship to go there, and my degree is in acting. Then I moved to LA to pursue acting, and then I got here and realized how incredible the music industry was, and that music had been less a pat of my life for the past few years, and so I’ve been trying to manage both. I’ve worked for quite a lot of independent and short films since I got here, and I have a feature film coming out in January. Me and my partner Umar Malik, we are in the process of launching a TV series, which is also called “What I Want To Say To You” and it’s about the same topic.
The TV series sounds like an exciting development, at what stage is that project?
We’ve been writing it for over a year now and it’s ready to go, we have the pilot. It’s a mini-series, and we just need to pitch investors and get funding to create it. We think it’s an important story that needs to be told.
It sounds like you have a lot going on. What’s next for you?
I’m hoping to get back into the studio to record. I have another album ready to go, and I might do a couple singles. Either way, being back in the studio is on my radar. I want to do a few shows in LA, and then the TV series is a big focus, too. It’s a lot! But recording my next album is high on the list.
Best of luck with the TV series, Em! I’m looking forward to seeing it when it comes out.
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.