An interview with Phern

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Sophia Brown (junior) writes a song at Occidental College. Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. Nanuka Jorjadze/The Occidental

Sophia Brown (junior), also known by her stage name, Phern, is a singer, actress, comedian and theater major minoring in public health from Oakland, Ca. Between classes, rehearsals and her projects on and off campus, Brown records her music in a dorm-room studio. You can listen to her on Youtube at Phern Brown. The Occidental sat down with the young performer to find out more about her many different projects.

Maeve Secor: What are you most excited about these days?

Sophia Brown: I just dropped a project, which was a song and video that I made. It was more of an extended promo called “Love, I’m Good,” and I’m thinking of making another music video for that. Theater, I’m in a play, which doesn’t have a name yet but it’s with David Crabb, and it’s a bunch of stories of the cast and we make it into a full script. Basically, we write the script, direct and produce it. So I’m excited about that in March. I’m performing at SXSW [South by South West Music Festival] in Texas over spring break with Wyclef Jean, and he’s on one of the big stages. He’s dropping an album that week, “Wyclef Goes Back to School.” He’s got students performing from different schools and out of like 100,000 students, only certain people got chosen. I was one of those people. I’m on two of the songs — one of them is already out, which is a single with Canibus and Wyclef. That’s on SoundCloud, which you can find at PhernEternity. We should be doing like two or three songs, so that’s exciting. Then, I’m performing around school. I’m doing Apollo Night as well and other projects for BSA [Black Student Alliance] for Black History Month.

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Sophia Brown (junior) writes a song at Occidental College. Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. Nanuka Jorjadze/The Occidental

MS: I know you’re also involved in comedy, can you tell me about that?

SB: I did my first real stand-up show my sophomore year. We did it at this guy Matt’s house, off campus. Actually, a lot of people came. I got a laughing track, which was nice, which made me feel good because I do like comedy and I was never a stand-up comedian, but in theater and in music I like to incorporate my humor. I think we’re doing another stand-up show this semester, so I’m excited for that. We’re trying to make a group of comedy kids, and make some type of group on campus to work on it. I do love comedy, I watch a lot of stand-up.

MS: Have you always enjoyed performing?

SB: Always, since I was little. I’ve been doing music since I was out the womb, I feel like. I think I picked up a guitar when I was like 5, just playing with it. You know how in elementary school, they make you play woodwind instruments? I picked up the flute and never stopped after that. As a baby, I was always trying to sing. I was in a music program called the Young Musicians Program for four years. Every summer, it was really intensive training of classical music from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, including recitals and performances. I’ve always just been very inclined to the music and entertainment scene. I was in a band called Sister’s Keeper for four years after that. And then I came to college, and now I’m an individual artist.

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Sophia Brown (junior) writes a song at Occidental College. Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. Nanuka Jorjadze/The Occidental

MS: Can you tell me about your internship at the Grammy Museum?

SB: It was really fun. I loved everybody on the team. I did so much that summer. It feels like so long ago. I got it through InternLA, so that was really nice to have the stipend. I lived with my aunt and a few other people that were around. I really loved being able to work with the artists. In the Grammy Museum, we’d have people come in on Fridays and we’d have our end-of-the-week Grammy event every week. I got to meet The Temptations, Troye Sivan, BJ’s Chicago kid. It was fun, everything was just so casual and nonchalant. I got all my passes and felt very official. I worked as the development intern, so I worked with getting grants and [writing] thank you notes. Also, I worked with marketing and PR, so I was around helping everybody. I did a lot of research on who we should get next and how to get this much money next year. Just seeing the whole process was really cool, getting to facilitate and go to the Grammy of the Legends. I invited my mom. All the perks of it were amazing. It was a great experience.

MS: Can you tell me about your experience abroad?

SB: I went abroad to London at the British American Drama Academy, which is in Camden Town. It’s a group of 35 kids, they break it into two groups. It was similar to the music program I did, but acting instead. It was a very intensive acting practice that I hadn’t done because I’ve always done music. I’ve also always done acting; I’ve been in plays and done school and acting camps. My grandma has always wanted me to get into it. [But even though] I’m a theater major, I’m always going to do music, no matter what. Going [to the drama academy] really boosted my stamina for memorizing. I didn’t ever do Shakespeare before, and I got to really learn about Shakespeare and know why people like him so much. I understood how [Shakespeare’s work] is a whole different language and that it’s beautiful like poetry. I like to write poetry too, so [experiencing] Shakespeare was kind of like, “Whoa, now I know where it came from.” We did voice training, physical theater and a stage combat class. I was cast at the end of the semester as Boudica, who’s the main character. She’s this Icelandic queen who tries to win her kingdom back. She has two daughters who she’s trying to teach how to fight in the war, so I did a lot of fighting in the scenes. I was also the first black woman to play Boudica, and it was our first black director, too. I did go through a lot there, racism is alive and real there. I just got a lot of disrespectful things said to me. Fetishization is a thing, it’s a thing everywhere, but it’s very blunt. I went through some stuff that I’m actually going to talk about in the play in March. Hopefully, I’m going to flush it out and do it in a theater scene about the experience I had in London.

MS: What’s your favorite joke?

SB: Three vampires walk into a bar. The first vampire, she asks for a shot of blood. The second vampire walks in, she asks for two shots of blood. The third vampire walks in, she asks to get a glass of hot water. The bartender asks her, “Why’d you get hot water, everybody got blood. Aren’t you a vampire?” She goes in her bag, pulls out a used tampon, and says, “I’m making tea.”

MS: Who are some of your favorite artists?

SB: Eryka Badu, Lauryn Hill, Miguel, Elle Varner, Frank Ocean. Those are my tops that are influential. Wyclef, Young Thug. I have a very wide range of everything I like in music.

MS: What interests you about public health?

SB: I have a lot of family with medical problems, and I think it’s really interesting. You don’t see many black people in the medical scene — I mean you do, it’s just not as prevalent. I would love to be able to know how to help my own family and know what the problem is and understand why these things happen to them. My mom tore her ACL and meniscus, I had to help her out for months. My brother, when he was little, I always had to be there to help him when he got hurt. When I got here, my first-year roommate almost died of an allergic reaction. I remember she didn’t know what was going on, she had a seizure and I was very quick to act, getting help and calling 911. From there, she got hurt a lot. She said, “You’re really good at making sure you’re quick. Maybe you should think about nursing.” I thought, “Maybe I should,” so from there I started the pre-health track for nursing. I’m an artist so I don’t want to do the whole 30-year doctor track. I definitely want my music to come first, and my acting. Im thinking about nursing later on if this doesn’t pop off.

MS: Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?

SB: I hope to see myself on the big screen, at least on a billboard. I don’t know, maybe that’s shooting too high. Just doing something that I love. I don’t if you know the show “Martin,” or the Jamie Foxx show, but just like little skit shows. Even like Key and Peele. I would love to just be doing something fun with people with good energy.

MS: Is there anything else I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to tell me?

SB: I’m working on a project right now through the URC [Undergraduate Research Center]. I’m creating an album based on my family tree, because of my great-great-grandmother, Allegra King. She was the first black woman to sing “Aida” in “La Traviata” in Chicago. She was the daughter of a slave owner, Atkinson. She moved from Alabama to Chicago to pursue her dream in opera, and she owned the National Negro Opera Company. From there she had seven daughters — one was named Phern. She got tragically murdered. That was my grandpa’s mom. It’s this whole family tree. I’m getting interviews from all of my family. There’s one sister left in the seven sisters. She’s 98. I’m going to try to make anecdotes, put jazz over it and go to the now of R&B. It’s something that works with my interests, my family. We’re here because of our family and how we grew up. I think it’s important to know your background and where you came from, and why you’re here today.