Suzanne Sterling has recorded five solo albums and performed in front of thousands of people. She has a powerful, passionate voice that seems to channel some fierce goddess. She’s the kind of person you’d expect to be comfortable with her own voice. But it wasn’t always so. The 49-year-old knows firsthand the struggle of being unheard and the terror that comes with fully claiming your voice. (Not to mention the names people call you.)
Sterling is a singer, musician, yoga teacher, priestess, and activist. She has built a career out of working with voice—both her own, through her music, and others’ through transformational workshops. And with her latest effort, Voice of Change, she’s on a mission to help people step into their authentic voice and direct it toward good in the world.
Fittingly, she had plenty to say in our two-part interview. Part one tackles the topic of finding your voice, working with your inner critic, and the fear and bliss of self-expression. Part two, meanwhile, will delve into conscious activism: how to find your purpose, move from caring to acting, and not be afraid to make mistakes.
As a musician and teacher, you’ve worked a lot with voice and inspiring women to find their voice. Have you always been confident putting your own voice out there?
Part of the reason I feel so passionate about it is because of my background and history, which is fairly mixed. I was raised in a matriarchy: My grandmother was a go-getter; my mom was a go-getter. There’s been this very strong female voice. But there’s always been, as a product of its time, a family history of the oppression of that voice. … So I’ve seen both: I’ve seen women step into their power in times when it wasn’t done, and I’ve also seen women’s voice on a very personal level be oppressed and depressed.
In my own story, there was some alcoholism and abuse that I saw happen in my family during my early years. And I was kind of the champion voice of protection in that situation. Because of what I experienced there, I struggled for many years to find my voice particularly around situations of conflict or violence. And it’s something I care passionately about, because I know what it means to swallow your truth, to not be heard, to be threatened with violence or even experience violence because of truth telling. And so it’s a huge incentive for me to encourage other people. It hasn’t always been easy for me. When I first started doing my own music and writing my own music, it was very naked, very raw, and terrifying.
Do you see women facing different issues than men around claiming their voice?
Absolutely. It’s so much more of a women’s issue than a men’s issue. That’s not to say that men can’t and don’t have wounding around their voice, because they do. But it’s so much more condoned for men to give voice, and when women give voice, especially the voice of dissension, the voice of having boundaries, they’re oftentimes called names. I read in Time Magazine how Beyonce said, “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss.” That’s a new idea [for women]. I can’t tell you how many times in my life, as a leader of bands, or a strong personality, or a person of spiritual authority who’s a woman, I’ve been called a bitch.
So you’ve been told your voice was too strong or too much?
All the time. The more I do this work, the work of helping people find their voice, the more I get told to shut up all the time. It’s kind of intense.
So how do you help women step into their unique voice and truth?
If you’ve spent your entire life speaking the truth that you think others want to hear, which a lot of people do—especially people who are wounded and grow up having to be vigilant and hypervigilant in their surroundings—that’s the place you start: just saying that’s not your real voice.
And then for most people, they’re like, "What is my real voice? What is my truth?" So there is a process of self-inquiry that has to go on, so we understand: Who am I separate from who I think I’m supposed to be? For some people it’s very surprising.
Then we can get to the point where they start to really express themselves. Right away I get people using their voice, because just moving the vibration of your own sound through your fifth chakra [your throat chakra] freely and without the inner critic is profound. I figure it’s my job to get people to understand they’re in a safe place, and then to poke them out of their comfort zone, get them to do what they consider to be silly or dangerous, and help them get so uncomfortable they have a breakthrough.
Anybody who has wounds around their fifth chakra, whether they’re raised in an environment of violence or threats for telling secrets or overt criticism, the minute they begin to find their voice, there is a terror that comes up. It’s not rational. And that’s my specialty—finding a gentle way to get people to pass through that barrier of terror and fear to the other side, because what’s on the other side is very natural for us and extremely blissful.
I know many people who were creative children—they sang, danced, painted, etc.—but then left that behind as they became adults. So is this also about connecting back to our innate creativity and joy of exploration?
Absolutely. If you’re protecting your voice, you cannot be as creative as we are supposed to be as human beings. We are supposed to be creative; we’re supposed to be responding to everything that impacts us. If we don’t, we hold it into the body as stress, and over time that becomes disease.
If I was going to encapsulate my body of work into one sentence, it would be to remind us that we’re hard-wired for self-expression in community. We are supposed to be expressing ourselves all day every day. The only reason we’re not is because we have allowed the traumatic experiences of our lives to shut us down. The inner critic comes in and says no, I’m going to protect you from harm and danger and so we’ll be silent. But when we silence ourselves, we silence our artistic outflow. I know what that’s like. I know what it’s like to be so scared to express myself that I don’t. Or to feel like I have to be perfect and therefore I don’t even start.
That’s a big thing for a lot of women, that perfectionist voice that says we have to get things just right before we can express ourselves. It can really hold us back.
It’s huge, and not just for women. I see my job is to just get people into their joyful, childlike self, which I feel is directly connected to their spirituality and connection with source. And to get people playing. So oftentimes I’ll start with the science, so they don’t feel totally foolish. I’ll talk them through why it’s medicinal, why it’s scientific, why it’s important, why it’s healing, and then we get into the play. And then they have more permission from their adult self to play because they know it’s “good for them.”
When you sing, it seems like you embody this primal divine feminine energy. How do you feel when you go to that place of expression?
When I’m teaching and when I’m singing, my inner critic goes out the door, and I’m so grateful for that, because the rest of the time it’s pretty strong. I’m quadruple Virgo, so I have a very strong rational inner critic, and I don’t escape the beating-myself-up thing. But while I’m singing it just feels like opening my mouth and this divine primal feminine comes through, and I have to give her permission, because it is a powerful voice.
When I started doing kirtan, a lot of those female voices were sweet and soft. I’m not that at all. It was hard for me in the beginning, but I have to sing with my kind of intensity and power, and it’s not for everybody. My medicine isn’t for everybody. But it’s inspired people to not be afraid of that primal aspect of themselves: their power, their intensity, their primal feminine. The feminine isn’t always sweet and pretty; sometimes it’s Kali, sometimes it’s Durga, sometimes it’s Diana, and I love those strong female archetypes, myths, and deities, because they give us permission to express part of the feminine that hasn’t necessarily had a lot of space in our society.
I grew up with Midwestern politeness and reserve—the message of be nice and get along—so to explore that fierce side is freeing.
Yeah, it’s totally liberating, but it’s scary as hell. Who will like me if I’m not the good girl? I think a big part of finding your voice is not being afraid of the shadow aspect of the self, not being afraid to explore that.
I think we’re often afraid of what we might find. And if we can’t control it, how do we deal with it? But ignoring it doesn’t serve us either.
What ignoring it does, I think, is it creates the kind of large-scale cycles of violence that are terrorizing the world right now. All of the wounds of the world, all of the racial wars and the wars that we have going on—all that stuff is really shadow stuff. Part of what I think is happening in the world today, especially in the more conscious spiritual world, is that we’re taking responsibility for our unclaimed shadow—the grief and shame and anger and fear and jealousy—so we’re not projecting it out onto others. We’re not beating other people up, and we’re not beating ourselves up. We’re just simply taking responsibility for it. The more we do that, the more we can stop the cycle of violence.
There’s more! Part two of our interview with Suzanne Sterling comes out in two weeks.
Photos by Fluid Frame and Ali Kaukas