Swarzy Macaly is a professional joy infuser. You may also know her as a radio and TV host, an activist and a cultural curator. The day before our interview, she was fresh off a nomination by Lord Woolley for Prince Harry and Meghan’s Next Generation Trailblazers list and had just interviewed the Rev Al Sharpton. At only 27, I’m beyond impressed. I wasted no time digging into the source of her drive, her strength.
Swarzy walks me past a line of strong women in her family and then settles on two — her paternal grandma and her mother. She reminisces on stories she heard about their lives around the dining table when she was younger which as a woman she now understands the magnitude of: what it must have taken for her nan to have three young boys by the age of 25, to leave them behind in Mauritius and move to the UK where she worked several jobs before saving enough money to bring them over, the hardships of the living afterwards and the way she insulated her family as much as she could and passed on the gift of contentment and love as a daily practice. That ability to love through the details is also what she picks up on the most with her mother. As an example, Swarzy recalls the beginning of this year, when she became quite ill. Her mother had to work, had other responsibilities, but still took the time to care for her down to the smallest details of making sure she made her tea and toast exactly how she wanted it. It was the same thing when she was in secondary school, when her mother wasn’t afraid to stand up to teachers who wanted to punish her for someone else’s wrongdoing or call her Charlotte because they thought her name was complicated to pronounce. In Swarzy’s words:
My mum has always worked hard for us and set the example that you don’t restrict yourself because you are not sure whether you are good enough. Put yourself forward. There has never been a time when I needed her and she wasn’t there. When I look at these women who had a lot to handle but found joy in it, their example reminds me not to crumble.
Strength to me is spinning multiple plates but finding joy in all of the spinning. It’s enjoying work, family and life even when one plate is wobbling and you’re thinking, how does this end, how am I going to make ends meet.”
This reflection has taken us from a younger Swarzy to the woman she is now. So in natural progression, we explore the season in which she stepped into womanhood and what was different about it. Swarzy gives me two instances of being confronted with her femaleness as a trigger for the realisation that something was changing. In the first example, she is a 14 year old girl walking home from netball after school with her friend Dorcas. A man is walking behind them and she thinks he wants to pass, so they cross the road, yapping away oblivious until she notices that he has crossed with them. They cross again and he follows. At that point, she realises something sinister is occurring and grabs her friend to the side of a van, only to look up and see a pale, white man in a hoodie waiting. She says:
I grabbed Dorcas and we ran to the church at the top of the road. I couldn’t believe how strong and quick my legs were. My friend’s mum used to work there so we banged the door until they let us in. When I looked around, the guy wasn’t there anymore. It was as though the innocence had been winded out of my chest. That moment for me will always remind me of the vulnerability that I had as a young girl. Walking home was very different afterwards — I put my school uniform trousers and trainers back on because they would help me to run quick or to adapt if I needed to kick into survival mode.
I’m writing this about a week after a young girl was casually abducted on her way to school in Mitcham, and with the full knowledge that too many women have to be ready to switch into survival mode at the drop of a hat. Her other memory involves the early days of her radio career. She noticed her progression was slow compared to the guys and at first put it down to inexperience, since her way in was a competition. As time went on, Swarzy probed and was told that “girls are there to tell jokes and giggle and not to lead”. Swarzy wasn’t going to let that fly:
I was confronted with my womanhood. Before that I didn’t see how my femaleness could impact my career. I thought I just had to be good. I knew I had so much more to give. So I thought, let me play the game.I’ll listen along and learn how to lead. Then when my time came, I used what I had learnt and stepped in with sauce and all my girliness to prove I could do more than just giggle. It absolutely worked.
This ability to reflect, evaluate and make strategic calculations are a part of Swarzy’s superpowers, which sit on a foundation of knowing her own purpose and abilities and not allowing herself to be limited by others assumptions. There’s no better example of knowing yourself and your worth than her experience with her former agent and how that translated when she came to pick a new agent.
I had a female agent that would say things like ‘you’re not good enough, your profile isn’t big enough, your following isn’t great enough and I can’t help you with some of the jobs and events you want to do. I didn’t always receive the most encouraging words and often went home deflated. I started to doubt myself and on top of that, I wasn’t being paid the money I was earning on time. One of the things that made up my mind further, was a competition that landed in my inbox. I passed the opportunity on to my agent and found out if I won this competition, the prize would be to host the MOBO awards. I was excited until I found out my audition fell on June 14th. This day marked the first year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. I knew there were multiple dates available and so I asked my agent if we could change my interview to any other date so I could attend the anniversary events. But she let me know this wasn’t possible and made me aware I had turned down an opportunity that could have propelled my career. At that point I knew we were not aligned on my goals and what I was trying to do. I gave up a chance to host the MOBO’s to go and volunteer with the bereaved and the survivors of Grenfell because it was what I wanted to do and it would have shattered their trust if I didn’t show up when I said I would. I had a tough time at my first agency, but I collected my lessons along the way. By the time I found my new agent, I remember sitting down in our first meeting and saying, “I’m not here to be pigeonholed as an urban artist. I’m not here to be the black girl on the roster. Here are all the things I want to do and I think you’d be great to work with. If you can help me make this happen, let’s go! But if not, that’s okay and we can leave it here.” He was taken aback by the cool power in my voice. Not arrogance or rudeness, but I didn’t want to waste my time or anyone else’s. He was very frank with me, which I appreciated, and having those honest conversations strengthened me and gave me armour to go into other conversations that led to making decisions for my life.
Listening to Swarzy’s journey of self-realisation and actualisation, you can’t help but be a cheerleader. She gives the impression that no experience is wasted. Her use of the word armour reminds me of a question I usually save for the end: what armour do you wear to go out in the world every day?
My armour is joy.
I think this is why we are speaking now. I’ve hosted enough rooms to have the confidence to go up and talk to strangers so I pay no mind to go up to someone and say, I know we don’t even know each other, but I really dig this outfit or whatever you may be doing. I think this is the reason we’re talking now. When I saw you get off the train, I said to myself, let me go and tell her she is fire flames but at the same time, my heart was going, argh, she wouldn’t remember me! But I did it and we are connected again. Complimenting people has kept me in good stead. You never know what kind of day someone has had, but there’s always that joy that passes when the compliment is received — it can shift something in them.
I never know what the response to that question is but it is often fashion focused, so I am pleasantly surprised by ‘joy’. I do remember the day she approached me, it was the second time we’d met and I was tired. Her smile and spark melted my apprehension at being stopped when I just wanted to go home and her compliment did shift something in me.
I want to know who has widened the sphere of possibility for who Swarzy is. She mentions her GCSE Maths teacher, Miss Bones, who took the time to coach her from being the student who never understood in class to passing with an A. That teacher recently left a voice note for Swarzy, to say she enjoyed that experience because it taught her how well she could teach. The second person Swarzy mentions is Leone Ross, who was her lecturer when studying Creative Writing at Roehampton University. Of her, Swarzy says:
She opened my world to Black Literature. I was mesmerized by her — a woman who knew her stuff and was very strong, but soft at the same time. She taught me to articulate my thoughts and my anger in a way that could carry impact beyond just shouting. She was someone who blew my mind and continues to blow my mind, watching all that she’s doing.
We move into other conversation and Swarzy brings me back. She must speak of her friend Feruza who lost family in the Grenfell Tower Fire and soon founded a platform and photo series called Gold & Ashes. They had met at a church event that Swarzy was hosting and have been inseparable since. She mentions how working through the grief of losing a loved one brought them closer, but also gave her new insight into a woman her own age who is
“an incredible woman. To be able to go through that loss after Grenfell, and still pull a project together that champions people and gives them the dignity to share their own stories of loss is amazing.”
Other than the agent, there hasn’t really been a hint of a negative female figure, so I almost reconsider asking my usual question on conditioning, but then I have to check myself. The question has nothing to do with negative women and everything to do with society and how even the women we love, can pass on stereotypes of womanhood that condition our outlook in ways we have to unlearn in order to truly inhabit ourselves. I pose the question, ‘is there any conditioning you have had to unlearn?’
When I was younger, someone told me I was argumentative simply because I was sure of myself and that stuck. Whenever someone would say it, or even if they didn’t but I wanted to disagree with something, I would start second guessing myself. Also, at school you were a blank screen and you spent the day collecting labels that could dent your confidence. My saving grace was my church youth group. As a 14-year-old I walked in on the first day and joined their running competition. I was so focused that before I knew it, I had run face flat into the ground. These guys were laughing but soon, they patched me up and forgot about it. If that was school, I wouldn’t have been able to live that down, but in this youth group, it didn’t matter how funny I was or whether I was good at this subject or a bumbling fool, there was no sense of having to prove yourself. So I made really good friends who are still my closest friends today, and that feeling of safety and being able to be myself meant that all those harsh comments that stuck, the second-guessing, it all started to ease and melt away.
I’m interested in any intentional unlearning Swarzy has done. She mentions her career and the temptation to always move quickly to the next thing for the sake of clout or some other recognition. This is something she watches against, tending instead to actions guided by purpose:
Justice always boils in my belly. When I see something wrong, I’m like, that can’t run. We need to change that and then before you know it, you’re surrounded by other people who feel the same and then things happen — like you’re on a call with Al Sharpton thinking, how did I get here? I’m a Christian. So I think when it comes to things this world puts a lot of emphasis on — clout, money or image — I’ve learnt to backtrack on that and focus on the things and people that really matter, and I’d hope my achievements are a validation that I am walking in purpose.
What scares you?
Not following through an idea for fear that it may not work out scares me a lot. But I don’t rely on my own strength or intelligence. I’m definitely someone who says please Lord, I am feeling small and I am in need of your help. The minute you recognize your need, it’s quite easy then to let other people encourage and assist you. Rather than being proud about it, you can rely on other people, a good team, to say, we’ve got this together.
God has come up a few times in our conversation, and enough for me to want to unpack Swarzy’s faith story. The short story is that she got caught shoplifting at 14. When the shopkeeper was on the phone to the cops, she had a conversation with God that went like this: “I’ve never believed in you. My mom and dad are not Christians, but if you are real, get me out of the situation. I won’t shoplift again and I’ll follow you.” At that moment, the shopkeeper put the phone down and said, just go. She couldn’t understand it but she ran out and soon made good on her promise. That same week, on a Friday evening, Swarzy walked into the church at the end of her road and was surprised to see young people playing pool and chatting . She was even more surprised that people wanted to hang around after the service was over. The warmth and honesty of those she met eased her shame about her own shoplifting. Little did she know, but this youth group was to become her foundation, not only for a non-judgmental community, but also for her career. It was at church where she learnt how to host a crowd, perform, present, fail and try again — all the skills that propelled her through the radio competition years later in 2016 that landed her first radio presenting job at KISS. We laugh about how surprised everyone was that she won with no radio experience and attributed her skill to this Christian youth club. The serendipity of it reminds me of a Bible verse that says, “all things work together for the good of those that love the Lord.”
It’s no surprise then that Swarzy links her purpose to this pivotal experience of warmth and community.
Joy is my thing so it doesn’t surprise me that I’m a host. I don’t like the word presenter. Host, comes from hospitality, feeding people, making them feel cared for. The moment people come through the doors at my live shows, they are mine to look after. I want them to feel welcomed. That was my experience and I want to share that.
In all this talk of community, I single out sisterhood and ask what it means.
Alice Walker was a huge inspiration to me at uni. I did my dissertation on The Color Purple and studied sisterhood through the characters of Celie, Sofia, as well as all the women and how they stuck together. They may not have seen eye to eye on everything, but that didn’t undo the relationship that they had. This really helped me understand sisterhood. It’s those relationships where there will be days you call your friend and you’re not saying anything, but that doesn’t take away anything from your friendships because you are dealing with people who can read you even when your words can’t articulate your feelings.
Swarzy keeps dropping wisdom and like any smart person or someone who wants to be, I sit back, listen and learn. For my last lesson, I ask if she ever thinks about legacy:
I think about legacy a lot because I like those who have left a good one. Dr Martin Luther King Jr is my favourite. I finished his autobiography the night before Grenfell, so when that happened, it felt very much like the manual of what to do when you need to jump into community. I cry sometimes when I think who am I — a 27-year-old from Ilford with a conviction to do the right thing, and when I do, things around me change. That’s exciting. I hope I will always be thought of as someone who did the right thing, even if it came at a cost, or ruffled feathers. Even if there was only one person who stood with me and a hundred who didn’t.
When I think about Swarzy’s strength, what jumps out most is self-awareness — knowing your worth, being able to ask for help, living in purpose with a mission to spread joy. What’s not to love.
Find out about more of her work at www.swarzymacaly.com and @swarzymacaly.