The Scotsman Sessions #49: Beldina Odenyo Onassis

Welcome to The Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts world shutting down for the foreseeable future, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on, with introductions from our critics. Here, Beldina Odenyo Onassis performs her song Hold Myself.

Beldina Odenyo Onassis says she has been spending the lockdown “ruminating, creating and panicking in equal measure.” Like most working musicians, the singer-songwriter better known as Heir of the Cursed has seen all her work cancelled or postponed until next year, and is doing her best to spend all this free time constructively. “I’m trying to find new definitions of life,” she says, “and make work that reflects the times and provides succour to myself and others.”

For the Scotsman Sessions she has recorded Hold Myself, a captivating performance of such quiet, intense solitude that you’d never guess she lives directly below a family of six. It is one of those deeply evocative songs of loss that suggests the pain being described could be global as much as personal. “I thread the needle to the edge of the world and scream,” she sings in the chorus, “don’t forget him, hold him for me while I can only hold myself.”

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“I heard of this incredible lady Aileen and her story made the song over a Friday night/Saturday sunrise,” Odenyo Onassis explains. “Aileen’s story is that her son Joe died last year at 11 from cancer. Since then she's been climbing mountains and shouting his name, telling him she and everyone loves him. I watched her videos of her doing this and felt I had to write her and Joe a song.”

Odenyo Onassis grew up in Dumfries, and now lives in Glasgow. Musically she has described herself as a “stoic member of the church of Nina Simone” but her music draws on multiple genres, from jazz to folk, and is as much a kindred spirit of Nico, Jeff Buckley and the Cocteau Twins as it is of some of the famous black singers she has cited as influences, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Joan Armatrading. While steadily building an audience for her live shows, she has also worked with the National Theatre of Scotland and playwright Julia Taudevin. Before the lockdown put so many musical careers on hold, she was a rising star with a unique voice.

She is looking forward, she says, to “holding my family close, dancing with my niece and nephew, eavesdropping at the pub, a camping trip on the beach with my pals, and seeing what the new world is like”. In the meantime, she stays positive by dancing whenever possible. “If that fails, find a cat and hold it close. If that fails, wine.”

As you might expect, the current wave of Black Lives Matter protests has been very much on her mind. “I wept for George Floyd, his family and for America in general,” says the singer. “Not much has changed since the Civil Rights movement and that is harrowing. However, I cannot equate my struggle with theirs. I can empathise and relate as I have been a victim of police brutality and institutional racism. But the racism I've experienced in this country stems from a different insidious tree from America's racism. It's a product of the British Empire.

“I wrestled with the idea of physically protesting but as there's a public health crisis that's disproportionately affecting the BAME community it seemed counterproductive. I'm focusing on honing in on the conversations that are now being openly had about the Empire and looking for solutions within and outwith my community so we can finally have the national self-esteem to accept our ugly collective past and move on to an egalitarian, kind future for Scotland and all who call her home.”