Singer-songwriter Piera Van de Wiel speaks with Sue Smart about the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable women and girls, how the effects of Hurricane Dorian are far from over – and what she is doing to help.
News of the alarming increase in domestic violence against women and girls during the current lockdown has motivated Piera to help in the best way she can. Connecting her new single, Used, to the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women, she is shedding light on this dark issue and raising funds for this important cause.
When the opportunity to interview Piera comes up, I begin my research. The more I delve, the more I am impressed at how hard she is working to help women be heard by telling their stories through her music, writing and films; and to raise awareness and funds for vital humanitarian efforts.
Locked down in the Bahamas
I am curious to find out what motivates and drives this young, dedicated artist and humanitarian, so through the wizardry of video chat, we meet ‘virtually’ on our laptop screens. As sunshine streams through her window and palms dance in the background, Piera explains she was inadvertently locked down in the Bahamas for the past three months (some people have all the luck!). While we chat, I am struck by her vibrancy and readiness to laugh and answer my questions.
Born in England, she was only seven months old when her family moved to the Bahamas. Spending much of her carefree childhood in the Abaco Islands, Piera then went abroad to study and compete in her favourite sport. Accepted into the prestigious New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to study drama (with minors in music and business), Piera graduated three years ago and has barely taken a break since.
Stronger With Music collective
It was the tragic loss of her best friend in a car accident (Piera was only 15 years old) which became a major turning point and motivator in her life. “I was really struggling to express my emotions, when my music teacher suggested I go into the music studio and start writing. The first time I sat down, I wrote a song for my best friend. It gave voice to my grief and having that emotional connection to be able to share what I was feeling, through music, felt amazing. It made me feel stronger with music.”
Piera developed her idea of being ‘stronger with music’ while studying in New York, founding the Stronger With Music collective to promote the importance of music on mental health and social impact. Since then, Stronger With Music has been working with non-government organisations globally, such as: Barefoot College International which trains local women to be solar engineers in rural villages in Africa, Latin America and India; and with Applaud Our Kids Foundation in New York which buys music lessons and instruments for children who are unable to afford them.
Working with the United Nations
It was through Stronger With Music that Piera met Hermina Johnny, founder of the Aspire Artemis Foundation, which works to empower young people to transform into future leaders, change makers and trailblazers. The foundation also works to increase the number of women and girls in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts/Culture and Mathematics (STEAM).
For the International Women’s Day event at the United Nations last year, Hermina invited Piera and her collective to perform their songs on social impacts, and for Piera to present her findings on how music can physiologically and psychologically benefit people. Piera was introduced to delegates and counsellors involved with the UN, and invited to perform at the STEAM and Innovation Symposium in St Lucia this year.
Fundraising through music
United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women
On learning the COVID-19 lockdown has created a dramatic increase in domestic violence towards women and girls across the world, Piera immediately became involved with the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women.*
With the UN Trust Fund’s support, she connected her new single Used (about being in an emotional rollercoaster relationship) to this important cause, raising awareness of this dire situation and fundraising to help.
Although she is grateful to never have experienced domestic violence, Piera has many friends who have endured the pain and carry the scars of this abuse. “During lockdown, the UK charity, Refuge, has experienced a 700% increase in online traffic to its National Domestic Abuse Helpline website. This is absolutely staggering,” says Piera. “It is a shadow pandemic happening in the background. Why are we not talking about this more? Now is the time to help raise awareness and help these women and girls who are at risk.”
Abaco relief song, Come Back Home
When Hurricane Dorian struck the Abaco Islands last September, it was a ferocious category 5 hurricane. Watching the devastation unfold on the news, Piera was gravely concerned for family and friends living there. Homes were flattened to the ground and people were left with nothing.
“It completely decimated the islands,” says Piera. “I wanted to initiate something to share my love for Abaco, to give something to the people there, and to send a message to others to come back home to make sure the family unit was not lost.”
“It is a rally song to empower the community to rebuild for a sustainable future”
Piera wrote and recorded the Abaco relief song, Come Back Home, to raise funds towards humanitarian relief for the islanders. It is a rally song to empower the community to rebuild for a sustainable future and she performed it at a benefit concert in Florida. Come Back Home was later awarded the Silver Medal ‘for Outstanding Achievement in Listener Impact’ at the Global Music Awards for Independent Artists.
“People are still struggling for food and water”
Money raised from the song, concert and other efforts helped build a primary school due to be opened in March, which was the reason for Piera’s visit to the Bahamas. Lockdown then occurred so she was unable to venture to the Abaco Islands until recently. What she saw upset her.
“People are still struggling for food and water and we’re trying to help as much as we can with the money we raised. The Abaco Islands are still in dire straits but people are not talking about it as there is a lot happening in the world. The devastation and the hard conditions have not improved; and it happened last September.”
Crediting her parents and grandparents for showing her how to move forward with love, kindness, a skip in her step and always looking out for others, it is not surprising Piera is drawn to humanitarian work.
“I love writing stories and bringing causes
to the surface through those stories”
As well as singing and song-writing, Piera writes films scripts, and articles for Hers magazine and Ossa (online network). “I love writing stories and bringing causes to the surface through those stories,” says Piera, which ties in perfectly with her love of acting and film-making. In fact, when the COVID-19 lockdown is over, two short films Piera has written and starred in, Tainted Choices and Strip Clara, will go on the film festival circuit.
Piera is also passionate about equality. “For me, it is important that we are all equal; that we have the same rights, equal pay, and understand that love comes in all forms.” Her latest single, Dear Mrs, has been released to celebrate LGBTQ+ and Pride; and she participated in the Gender Equality Attitude Study hosted by UN Women to discuss the importance of diversity and inclusivity.
Persistence and strength come from ski racing
With so much going on in her life, how does Piera stay so focused and driven? The answer, in part, could be due to her other passion, ski racing. For almost a decade Piera attended schools in France and Switzerland, training rigorously in the mornings, doing school work in the afternoons and regularly competing in championships (winning many silver medals!).
“Ski racing is still part of me but I had an accident that ended my career. I’m still able to ski and when I am on a slope, I feel powerful. It has taught me a lot about persistence and strength because when I am on top of that slope and it’s just me who is going down the course, it is down to my performance; what I do, how much I have trained and how much I have endured. It was such a great life lesson to learn from such a young age.”
As we say our farewells, I take one last look at my screen with its stunning blue Bahamian sky and palms trees in the background, and Piera waving to me in the foreground; her smile bright and wide. It is easy to feel energised and inspired by this talented and remarkable young woman with her passion to help people and to work hard to make positive changes in our world. I have every confidence Piera will continue to create ways to give a strong voice to worthy causes and to people whose stories need to be told and heard.
The UN Trust Fund provides life-saving support to women’s organizations, identified as first responders to women and girls who are victims of violence. It is the only global grant-making mechanism exclusively dedicated to eradicating all forms of violence against women and girls. Since the establishment of the UN Trust Fund in 1996, it has supported over 550 initiatives in 140 countries and territories aiming to improve access to services for survivors of violence, changing harmful norms and attitudes to prevent violence and making laws and policies work for women. Every year, approximately 8 million people, including women and girls, men and boys, government officials and the general public, are reached by projects supported by this fund.