Hip hop artist Saidat Vandenberg has experienced more than her fair share of bullying and difficult times in her life. A mum of two, the Canadian singer is about to bring her anti-bullying programme, Music Movement, over to the UK. She plans to visit schools across the UK in the next few months and spread her message that you can stand up to bullies.
Saidat has worked mainly in the US and Canada until now, visiting schools and universities, but she sees the UK as a place which has done tremendous work on tackling bullying and supporting victims.
Her programme, which began nine years ago, mixes dance, music and drama. The idea came from a classroom discussion about violence prevention. She had been doing youth work in her local church, but wanted to take her message outside of a religious setting. “I felt the positive message I wanted to give was not just a religious one,” she says.
Saidat, who has opened for Fergie, says she has been singing since she could talk, but has had no professional training. She was in the choir at high school and sang in the choir of her church in London Ontario where she worked as a youth pastor, putting on programmes for young people.
She has worked on the programme while balancing family responsibilities. When her daughter was born 13 years ago, Saidat worked in her husband’s family swimming pool business, which was attached to his parents’ house. That meant she could still see the children.
The decision to start working further afield with her youth work was not an easy one.
She started working in schools when her son was two and her daughter was around six and her husband helped out with childcare.
She says being a working mum has been a struggle with guilt since her work involves travel. “I am torn by feeling I should be at home with the kids and forget about my passion. And yet I want to be a good role model for them and make a difference in the community. There is pressure from other parents who say I should be at home with the children and there is pressure to be the perfect mum. I have had to find the right balance,” she says.
On top of the usual working mum guilt, she has also had to face extremely difficult family circumstances.
A year after she started up her anti-bullying programme, her son was diagnosed with non-verbal autism on the moderate to severe spectrum.
Then four years ago her world was blown apart when her husband was hit and killed by a drunk driver when he was walking home. Despite her grief, Saidat has come to forgive the person who committed the crime, who served time in prison. “During the trial I saw his family and all the emotions they were going through from shame to hurt to fear for him going to jail. I saw how so many people were affected by one person’s actions. It helped me to realise that our choices really matter and that we all make mistakes. That’s how I came to forgive him,” she says.
In terms of bullying, she says she has faced various forms of it all her life. At primary school when she was just six she was called a “black dog” and told she was ugly by another pupil. She says she internalised the racism and turned them into “a mountain of self doubt”. “Instead of brushing it off, I think I bullied myself with it,” she says. “I had to learn how not to bully myself. One moment I felt so confident then you question yourself. I realised these were daily choices I could make. Today I choose to stand up for myself.”
For Saidat, coming to that point involved mixing with people who boosted her self esteem, giving herself constant positive messages and turning to her passion for singing. “Finding something you love boosts your confidence and moves you forward,” she says. Helping others in a similar position has also proven very positive.
Recently she has faced another form of bullying – homophobia. Her new partner is a woman and she says this did not go down well in the religious world in which she was mixing. She countered the prejudice by standing up for her feelings. “You have to know what you believe and stand up for it,” she says simply. “You have to agree to disagree and not feel bad or feel you have to change.”
She adds that the fact she used to be on the side of those who disagree with her means she understands where they are coming from. “It’s the way they are trained. It has given me more compassion,” she says. She has also faced prejudice from her family, but says in the end family love you no matter what. “We find other subjects to talk about,” she states. Her children have accepted the relationship, she says. The main issue, though is their continued grief for her husband. “My daughter loves my partner, but it’s very hard for her as for her I am still married to her dad. It would be hard for her if my partner was heterosexual. I’ve tried not to push it on her.”
Saidat’s children have appeared in her videos and her son, who is looked after by a carer when Saidat is away from home, loves music. “It’s a way I can connect with him,” she says. “He loves to dance with me. They are very special moments.”
Saidat says she has received a lot of emails from students and their parents after her performances. She believes they help open communication between parents and children about the issue. The fact that she is not working within the schools also helps children feel safer talking about bullying. If she gets emails about bullying she notifies the schools in question.
Saidat says there is more awareness about bullying which may explain why it appears more common these days. “It has always been around, but it was called something else, like racism,” she says. Raised awareness means parents are more anxious about it though, particularly new forms of bullying via technology. Saidat provides programmes for parents which she often holds on an evening just after she has done a performance for their children. The sessions include strategies to help parents deal with bullying, such as how to spot the signs. She also works with anti-bullying groups, including in the UK.
At the end of this month, Saidat is publishing a book called “Tadias and the Pitbully Tree”. It’s her name spelt backwards and is a children’s fiction book about bullying. “It tells children to talk to their parents and ask for help and to stand up for themselves,” she says. Next month she has a DVD curriculum for schools.
She says that music helps her connect with children. She states: “I use hip hop because it’s music that children love, but with lyrics they need to hear.”