I first met Jake Dennis in Perth, Australia. I was immediately struck by his charming, easygoing demeanour – and when I brought up the fact that I was working on an article about Myanmar, he looked up and said, “I’m Burmese.”
Jake has made a name for himself in Perth as a jazz singer and poet. He regularly performs shows with the Mint Jazz Band, belting out renditions of well-known songs from artists like Whitney Houston, Nat King Cole, and Dean Martin. Jake’s soulful voice and charismatic stage presence make for an all-round wonderful show.
The Yangon Literary Magazine is honoured to have such a talented individual speak to us about his experiences as an artist in Australia.
Out in the Open focuses on the stories of Burmese diaspora and exploring what it means to be Burmese apart from the conservative narrative. To start off, could you tell us who you are as an artist, and how do you identify?
My parents are Burmese and I was born in Perth, Western Australia. I am an entertainer who performs jazz, swing, blues, pop, soul, RnB, hip-hop, rock, and funk music as a singer. I have also had my poetry published in literary journals internationally. I am a heterosexual chocolate-skinned gentleman.
What has been your experience with Burmese culture and identity, as someone who has lived in Australia for several years?
Visiting Myanmar as a child was one of the most enriching experiences of my life. The generosity of Burmese people and the kindness, gentleness, and love, are all a part of my personality. Burma’s tropical climate and animal and plant life remain dear to me. In Australia, my experiences with Burmese culture and identity have been limited to the familial, social, and romantic.
As a jazz singer/actor, do you feel that much of your identity becomes a part of the roles you play and the shows you perform? In other words, how does your identity factor into your work?
Only as a poet has my Burmese cultural identity ever influenced my work. Living in a country where you are a legal native but look unlike the dominant national Australian male stereotype has made race a focus of some of my poetry. Like most writers, family history enters my work now and then, as it does in “Evening,” which I dedicated to my grandmother.
What shows are you currently doing? Could you tell us about them?
After completing three themed shows at The Ellington Jazz Club this year (Kings Of Swing, Unforgettable L.O.V.E., and Urban Gold) and a blues show at the Kalamunda Performing Arts Centre (Chocolate Bluesman), I have three themed cabaret shows lined up at Rigby’s Bar later this year: Come Fly With Me, Kings Of Swing, & Gatsby’s Party. These shows all revolve around a theme and feature songs by artists as varied as Eminem, Aretha Franklin, Bruno Mars, Nat King Cole, Drake, Edith Piaf, Sam Smith, Nina Simone, and Ray Charles. Other than these shows, I am booked to perform at a variety of corporate and private functions and at bars and restaurants such as Little Creatures Next Door and Chapels on Whatley.
As you may know, in Burmese culture, pursuing any career in the arts is usually frowned upon. What are your thoughts on this and have you experienced any negativity from your Burmese friends and relatives?
The Dennis family are a musical family. My grandmother played the piano and sang on the radio and five of her sons, including my father who rehearses and performs with me regularly, all perform in bands in Perth. Indeed, I have been tremendously lucky to have been supported by my parents in my arts careers. My mum helped me with putting together private poetry collections throughout high school and she continues to help with the costumes and props set up at shows. My father, who is an awesome guitarist, has helped me in all aspects of music: rehearsing, audio-visual setup, and artist management.
In terms of defying the stereotypes and expectations of what people expect of you because of your identity, do you think as a singer, as well as a person, you redefine what it is to be Burmese?
Colour nearly always affects any relations people have with me. “Where are you from?” is a constant question whether in the street or at an audition. People tend to judge others by appearance. If I dress in street wear, they associate me with racist stereotypes (e.g. uneducated, dangerous, poor, and unlawful). At shows even dressed formally and performing at my best, my “otherness” rather than my work is often the source of the first comment (e.g. “I love your skin tone.”). Females experience this in music as well. As for re-defining what it is to be Burmese, most people I have met in Australia cannot find Myanmar on a map, so there is no stereotype with which they compare me. For those few who have visited Myanmar, or know Burmese people, they comment on the peacefulness and gentleness of the Burmese people.
As a Burmese artist, have you ever felt discriminated against in any of your artistic endeavours (auditions, shows, etc.)? How do you think this should be amended?
In the last few years, I have been working occasionally as an actor. Unsurprisingly, there are very few opportunities for non-Caucasians in Australia’s film industry. Even at the university student films level, there seems to be a lack of cultural awareness. Writers and casting directors simply do not open their mind to casting non-Caucasians other than in mostly background extra roles. Hollywood and the Western theatre’s long history of racism and whitewashing are primarily to blame for this. Many cannot see past the challenge of having coloured Asians play roles written for Caucasians although historically many Caucasians have played non-Caucasian roles on stage and screen. However, a lack of understanding of and an unwillingness to familiarise themselves with racial theory and relations by those primarily unaffected by the negative aspects of racism continues to perpetuate this unfortunate reality.
What ties do you have to Myanmar, and how do you hope to strengthen these ties?
Since childhood, I have wanted to perform in Myanmar as a singer on the radio or even record an album there. These days I would love to put on a concert to raise funds for Burma’s underprivileged. However, the logistical costs are unfortunately preventative (or so I am told) and I am unaware of a market for jazz, swing, and blues singers who cannot sing in Burmese. As a poet, one of my long-term goals is to read well-translated Burmese poetry and travel there for inspiration.
Do you hope to inspire young actors and singers in Myanmar? What would you tell them?
When my cousins from Myanmar visited last Christmas I took them to the filming of a television show. I wanted to share with them an experience they might not have had before. In life we are all blessed with different opportunities and talents and I believe we should share what we can with others. After all, there are far more inspirational Burmese people than me (e.g. Aung San Suu Ski and Anglo-Burmese jazz-pop singer Jamie Cullum). In terms of advice for Burmese artists, if you are blessed with being bi-lingual, use this to your advantage in your career. You will have a wider audience appeal. If not, specialise in being the best at what you do well.
Myanmar as a country tends to have many different faces as well as a complex relationship with its people. What do you see when you look back at the country and its society? Are there things, as a part of the diaspora and the larger community, that you would like to see changed?
I have met two kinds of Burmese personalities: the patriarchal militarised type and the peaceful and generous kind. Anyone who knows me personally knows which I prefer. In terms of Burmese Australians, I think there are some – usually the younger and more open-minded – who have been Westernised in positive ways and then there are the generally older kinds of people who live very close, community-driven lives. I dislike people who migrate to a new homeland but do not allow themselves to be enriched by the multicultural experiences available in their new place of residence. As a liberal humanitarian-minded man I would love to see a new openness in thought for those still shackled by narrow-minded ideologies. It would also be really wonderful if Myanmar became a first world nation to the extent that poverty is reduced because poverty there is – as it is globally – amendable.