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About life in the Czech Republic, traveling and singing

Fast Confession - Tonya Graves: Racism has never bothered me much

Karolína Lišková
28.Jan 2019
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7 minutes

She is short, clever and, moreover, seriously talkative. Tonya Graves came to the Czech Republic from America in 1995. She liked so much she decided to stay here, Prague has been her home for over twenty years. Thanks to her talent and enthusiasm, she has also become a famous singer. She spent many years in the band Monkey Business. Since 2016, she has been on a solo track and her concerts are hopelessly sold out. Shortly after the start of the new year, she made time for an interview with Luxury Prague Life, where she talked not only about her vacation in Mexico and her children, but also about the inconveniences associated with the color of her skin, and her love of music

You‘ve recently come back from Mexico, who did you go with? Did you go there to relax, gather strength for the new year?

I went there with a friend, to relax. But I feel even more tired from the journey there and back than before. I have never suffered from jet lag much, but this time I‘m suffering. Even so, we enjoyed some beautiful moments there.

You were in Tulum, right? It's a great place!

It was amazing, I bought a beautiful ring, my friend makes jewelry there. Look! It's a turquoise and a Mexican opal, I love turquoise and I also love silver. I don‘t wear gold, I do not feel good in it. If I have gold, it must be white. But that is unnecessarily expensive if I can have nice silver.

When you're flying over the ocean, don‘t you tend to make a stop at home?

No, I travel where I'm headed. And when I go to visit my family, I will visit my family...This time I flew from Vienna to Chicago where my sister, brother and niece and nephew live. I was only there about five hours, then I went to Houston where I stayed overnight. The next day I flew to Cancun, which I did not like, there were a lot of tourists. I stayed among local people, but it wasn‘t the right experience.

My friend had some friends in Tulum, where we went on the third day. We were there for about six days and it was great. I spent New Year's Eve on the beach with a lot of people around me. I knew some of them, but not the other three hundred... But there was such a nice energy among us. All day I danced on the beach and enjoyed the Caribbean Sea, I met a lot of new people. It was wonderful. I'm glad I experienced it.

Luxusní byt na prodej s terasou a výhledem
Luxusní byt na prodej s terasou a výhledem, Praha 1

So you left during the most beautiful holidays of the year, you were there with your friend. What about your family?

I spent Christmas here, I was here with my children. I left for Mexico on the 27th of December.

And the kids were with their father?

The children were with their dad. It was so beautiful in Mexico, they had excellent food. I am allergic to wheat and almost everything there is from corn, so I ate good and healthy meals, non-stop avocados and guacamole, that's what I love.

Which reminds me of green, and you're all in green and white...

Green and white power. (laughter)

Since when have you been a fan of Bohemka?

Since forever! Because I love it. (laughter)

Women and football, that is rare.

I'm not such a big fan of football. What I like about Bohemians, as opposed to Sparta or Slavia who have ultras and hooligans, is that in Bohemka they just play football. We're not the best team in the league, but it doesn‘t matter. It's about the ritual, going to the stadium and watching the games with the same people who are always loyal. No one pretends to be what they aren‘t, no one thinks they are better than anybody else. We are all equal. We're there for the football and our club. Nothing is more important at that moment.

There is a good atmosphere there...

Yes! A good atmosphere, yes. But the most embarrassing moment was when I sang the anthem before the match and then we lost to Sparta. But anyway, Bohemka is and always will be. And we're with her everywhere. (laughter)

You came to the Czech Republic in 1995. That was a terribly long time ago, you are basically Czech.

I would say more than American, where I have not lived for over twenty years.

Why did you choose the Czech Republic?

My friend recommended it to me as a good place because it was not destroyed after World War II like other European countries. It was possible to see Europe here as it was ten, twenty or 1500 years ago. We have one of the oldest universities in the world, you will not see such things everywhere.

So the atmosphere, architecture and history intrigued you?

I wanted to see the real old Europe, and the Czech Republic seemed the best to me. Thanks to this decision, I got to see all this splendor - all the old chateaus, castles, and so on. Americans have no idea about these kinds of things. I was so pleased that I stayed here.

What about the people? At that time there were not so many foreigners here, plus you are dark. You must have really stood out here, shined.

When I arrived, it was completely different. But I never thought it a problem that I was black. I was a clear foreigner, if I were Vietnamese or Japanese, it would have been the same. I think I was pretty lucky because there were blacks, but they were more from Africa, and I'm American. We are different, even though we have the same skin color, but that does not mean we are the same.

I understand that, but you were exotic for the people at the time. How did they react?

Initially, it was complicated for me, everyone stared at me and I did not know why. Now it's clear to me, there were blacks here, and there were black people here, but they were not as conspicuous as I am. I am American, we behave differently from Africans. I go wherever I want whenever I want, because I'm used to it. Africans are not. Africans prefer to stay in the background and try to be invisible.

People are the most surprised, or maybe they are disappointed, that I did not suffer any terrible racism here. Of course, good and bad people are found everywhere in the world, and there are some bad ones here, too. But it is about the energy that you draw to yourself. If you share the wrong kind, it will return to you, perhaps in the form of racism. I prefer to be happy and I think that‘s why I attract good things to myself, good people.

Luxusní vila na prodej, Dolní Měcholupy - 616m
Luxusní vila na prodej, Dolní Měcholupy - 616m, Praha 10

And what about the language? Czech is terribly hard. I have not yet heard an American speak as well Czech as you.

I am not a master of the Czech language but I can work with it. I'm chatty, I do not like it when I cannot talk. Therefore, it was necessary to learn the language.

How long did it take you?

I learn every day, all the time. I understand and communicate, but I still have a problem reading. When I get a letter, I don‘t know what's written in it. I cannot read Czech books, which I am sorry about because I love reading. I can manage an article in a magazine, but I'm not perfect in Czech at all.

Do your sons speak Czech?

Yes, they speak Czech, it is their first language.

And what language do they use with you?

They speak "Czenglish", a mixture of Czech and English. I don‘t like when Czechs talk to them English, I always forbade that, which did not work. When Czechs speak English to them, they end up not speaking English properly.

Why? Do Czechs have a tendency to speak English to them because they are darker, clearly foreigners?

No, they think they are smart, that they can speak English and talk to my kids in English. My children speak English so badly that they even sometimes get some twos or threes in English class! (laughter)

But I don‘t care, because they understand and speak, even if they don‘t speak correctly.

Czech is their first language and it is a "superpower" because not everyone in the world can speak Czech. English native speakers are mostly lazy to learn a new language. They speak English because they think everyone will speak English to them. I am very proud of myself for learning Czech the way I did. I can talk, do an interview, I am understood. Who can do that, what American can do that? (laughter)

That's true, even though I say to every foreigner who comes to live in the Czech Republic for a while not to bother learning the Czech language, only 10 million people speak it.

I think it is extremely rude to live here and not to learn the language.

Sure, if he or she wants to live here. But if it's only for a while...

My grandmother always told me that the number of languages you know is the number of times you are human.

Does your family come to visit from America?

My father once came, sixteen years ago. Most of my family do not travel, it would require a passport and an airplane. (laughter)

When did you last all get together?

In one place? In the year 2004.

That must have been great!

I love my siblings, I have four, and I am the oldest. But I think it's because I do not see them every day (laughs).

That's what‘s great about social media. I look at Instagram and Facebook, I see everything that my brothers and sisters do, and that's enough for me. Of course, I'm glad to see them, but they're not in one place. I have brother and sister in Chicago, another brother in Ohio, my last sister in Virginia. Then I have my family in New York, Florida. They are everywhere.

In the fast confession you said that if you had not become a singer, you would be a babysitter.

Before I came to the Czech Republic, I worked in a children's home for children who had run away from home or had some problems at home. The children were about twelve to seventeen years old. We tried to give them the right direction in life, to solve problems with their parents so they could be together again. I like these kinds of jobs, jobs where I can help.

You have become a very famous singer. What are your plans this year?

We had a concert that sold out in two weeks in December. The problem was that we wanted to add another concert the next day, but the next possible date is in May. Some people were sad. But I cannot do anything about it, it is out of my control. My job is to be on stage and entertain people, I like it, it is my gift.

I love it when I can help or make people happy, but I don‘t know how to do it for myself. That's why I think it's a gift and a curse. When I arrived here, I could not work with children because I did not know Czech language. So I could at least become a singer. I'm on stage, people are at my concert and they can forget about things that bother or trouble them. That's all I can do. Or be on television, for example, in a movie.

This year, I don‘t know. We will have a lot of concerts, the closest is February 2nd at the Mersey Music Club in Brno. I will also continue to be the music host of the TV show Drive. It's amazing that they gave me this chance, because when I talk, you can hear it. I do interviews in Czech with Czech bands and it's fun, I can improve my Czech. I'm looking forward to any adventure that awaits me this year.

Tonya, thank you very much for the interview.

Fast confession:

Where do you feel most at home?

Where the most love is found.

The most beautiful memory of Monkey Business?

In December, we played several concerts together after a long time, it was great.

Who is your favorite Czech singer?

I probably don‘t have one.

How many pairs of shoes do you have at home?

More than I need.

The most effective diet?


What is the difference between Americans and Czechs?

We do not have enough time for that answer.

The best phrase of your sons that always makes you laugh?

I recently laughed when my son asked me after I had lost my voice if I could find it again.

What song always makes you emotional?


What new thing would you like to learn this year?

Everyday I would like to learn something new.

The worst racist insult you've ever heard?

I was quite lucky ... but in the time of Monkey Business, that I shouldn‘t sing with them.

Your favorite Czech food?

That's something I cannot eat anymore - cakes with chaudeau.

What would you do if you had not started singing?

I would work with children in some way.

Best piece of advice your mother gave you?

If you have nothing nice to say, do not say anything.

What would you change about Czech politics?

There is too little time...
Interviewee asks the editor:

How many shoes do you have?

More than I need. (laughter)
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