Stepha Murphy, the female half of the band Uruguay, is only 24 years old, but it only takes a few minutes of conversation to realize she has already lived well beyond her years. I first met Murphy via a Skype call, for which she pre-warned me her profile icon was, in fact, her dressed in a pink, furry cowboy hat and a cycling uniform with Drake’s face on it. “LOL,” she wrote me, leading with humor and acknowledging that she, too, was aware of the ridiculousness of this.
At first, her contagious laugh and casual demeanor might be mistaken for young and carefree energy. In some ways, Murphy has achieved her spiritual freedom through songwriting and connecting with her fanbase by highlighting the “realness of life.” But if there’s anything adolescence teaches us, it’s life lessons, and for Murphy, several hit her all at once, and too young. Freedom in America always comes with a price. Working in the modeling world, Murphy was quickly taken advantage of and endured sexual assault and homelessness—and still has to spend most music meetings watching as her male, white counterpart (Benjamin Dawson-Sivalia) is the one that executives look straight in the eye.
Guided by her resilience, Murphy has triumphed her past and emerged shining. She recounts saving up money for a Milky Way bar to give to a man named Africa, whom she befriended during her homeless days. This act of kindness is one of many ways that have helped her continue to view the world without hate, mistrust or fault, even after every challenge. It’s not long before Murphy’s trusting heart, vulnerability, braveness and quickness to befriend this interviewer illuminate how special she really is.
What’s the origin of your band name, Uruguay?
Sadly, we are not from Uruguay—a lot of people ask us if we are. We chose this name as an ode to the woman who owned Amaretto Bakery on 117th and Frederick Douglas in Central Harlem. She fed us when we were struggling and gave us something to look forward to every single day. She is from Uruguay and so we are named Uruguay. Our band came to exist after Ben and I came to NYC—him for production and me for modeling. We were cheated and left homeless for a little bit but got back on our feet thanks to a great support system. Our first single, “Sabrina Segment,” came out of my attempt to write a song to help Ben score a drag documentary, and after it was completed, we decided to work on music together and form a band.
Hard times in New York. What was day to day life like, and how did you pull yourselves out of it?
We weren’t expecting it, but we got cheated out of all of our stuff.We actually weren’t homeless for that long. I’d actually just had back surgery so it was really hard for me. It was hard for Ben mentally. It was hard for me physically because we didn’t have a place, we didn’t have any money. It seemed really hopeless. If it hadn’t had been for people we know and love just helping us as much as they could, then I don’t know what we would have done. I have no fucking clue what we would have done. I’m trying to remember what we did for food. It’s funny how you forget something if it’s traumatizing, but I know one day it was just raining, and we had our dog too, and it was miserable. I was like, “Is this New York? Is it going to be like this forever?”
Were there stories you collected from people that had been on the street for a while that touched you?
Yeah! There was an old lady, Cibil. She was in her 90s, homeless, and she looked exactly like one of my aunts. I remember she always had a smile on her face, and I was just like, how do you stay so strong? How do you stay so happy all of the time? And she was like, “I see the good things, I don’t see the bad things.” And I thought, what!? That’s amazing!
And then there was another guy, Africa. He was homeless. He didn’t have legs because he got drunk and got hit by a car. He lived under the bridge. We would talk to him all the time, and all I could afford then was a Milky Way for his birthday. He was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in my life. His friend went missing, and they all thought he was dead, and then his friend showed up two weeks later and was fine! There’s so many amazing stories and things turning out well for people. But Africa passed away. I remember everybody had this huge memorial for him, and it was just astounding to see somebody who was homeless do so much for the community instead of us doing so much for him. He was our guy.
How long were you on the streets for?
Not long. Like 10 days, two weeks, maybe. In the summer. I was in a situation a few years ago that I wasn’t sure I would get out of alive, and it really made me extremely depressed. It wasn’t until I found music that I felt like everything was starting to realign and rejuvenate. Thanks to everyone who allows both Ben and I to be lil mon-stars: Without this and without you, life would be so dull.
What kind of situation are you referring to?
I had just gotten to New York, and because I was modeling at the time and I was really young, I was out with my friends. It was 1OAK or something like that. I ended up completely getting taken advantage of, just waiting to go home with some friends. I was kidnapped and then really badly sexually assaulted in an alley. It turned out that this person was also responsible for someone else that had gone missing that same night so I literally thought that I was going to be killed. I probably would have been if someone hadn’t passed by. I ended up getting home at five in the morning after being pretty much dragged across the city, and I was just like, “Holy shit, what do I do now?” I feel really bad because I didn’t end up going to the police until maybe a week and a half later. I don’t know if anything came of it. They were shitty about it.
(The girl thought to be deceased was found alive about two weeks later in a hospital.)
What message are you trying to put out into the world?
I’m just trying to set an example. Growing up I didn’t see enough black and Native American girls making it. The black females I did see were always powerhouses, made to look like one-dimensional machines that were perfect. Not multifaceted, vulnerable and complex people. I’m trying to create a space where that can exist. I’m not rich, I don’t know a shit ton of people, I don’t have connections and I’m not made of plastic. But, I am perseverant, talented… and Ben said I was “cool” once. I believe in myself, so let’s see where that takes us.
What did you learn from your experience in the modeling industry? Did you love or hate it?
I definitely learned a lot. Good things: I learned how to express myself visually and artistically in a way that I hadn’t before. Also, sexuality-wise, at the time when I started, it was much more free than the rest of the world that way, and it could not have been more empowering. At the same time, that stuff was very true for designers and people on a certain side of the industry, but for models, it was very much like I had to be a mold. So that was hindering, but being able to translate that into doing a band and doing fashion our own way, that’s definitely the culmination of all the things I learned [put] into a whole project that’s our whole thing. I learned a lot about how to express myself and that sexuality is okay. You know, it’s fine, it’s great, but also that being in a mold is not for me.
How did you first get into music? Are you self-taught?
Ooh, I first got into music when my dad had my sisters and I form a little En Vogue cover band in our living room in front of the karaoke [machine] in true ’90s fashion. In middle school, I taught myself piano based off Regina Spektor songs and then moved to classical pieces.
My Mom would also try to teach me about singing. She did opera. She was my biggest cheerleader. She was convinced my voice was something special, and I never listened to her, and I never sang prior to two years ago. She would say, “God gave you a talent Stepha-doodle, you better use it!” I heard you, Mamaloo.
It’s awesome that Uruguay is an interracial band. How do you struggle and overcome racial profiling?
First, being an interracial band, it’s a blessing and a curse, right? It makes it so there’s almost something for everybody, which, I don’t want to put it that way, but it is that way, right? Everybody can relate to something—we’re a guy and a girl, we’re black and white, native and French… I don’t know what Ben is!It makes it something for everybody, and that’s wonderful. It’s a curse, in that for me, personally, I get to see the difference in how people treat Ben and how people treat me. He gets a lot more chances than I do. People look at him when they talk and when they’re discussing music as in musicianship or technology, whatever. Whenever they assume someone is in charge of stuff, they always turn to Ben.
I run the back end of most of this stuff. I run a small company. We both do, but you know, I need to be included. It’s a curse in that way that I get to literally see, okay, this is how an attractive white male is being treated in day-to-day life. Why is it so different for me? But, being native and black in this industry, I don’t see much coverage of native people aside from the past, you know? It’s like a myth. If I let them know I’m Native American, people are like, really? Like what? That exists? And I’m like, yeah! But then, at the same time, I’m a multifaceted person, and it’s important to show that because that’s not really anywhere right now.
What’s the greatest experience you’ve shared as a band?
A guy came up to Ben and me after a show and was like, “I listened to your music, and it changed my life. It’s like someone understood what I was going through. You all have something special going here, don’t stop.” It was like he filled my heart to the brim with whatever it was I needed to keep going.
You’ve said that your band is an outlet for a “more human experience.” What human experience are you hoping to provide your audience?
With social media taking over the world and such high levels of production and technology, it’s super hard to tell what is real anymore. People often judge our music off of the production quality, which kind of irks me. It’s like a battle of the machines. We are taking a technological music form but making it organic and buzzy. I want to tell stories, real stories of things that have happened to me. I don’t want things to sound perfect—beauty lies in the realness of life. I like to do songs in one take because the first time I sing something is when it will be the most “me.” So, I don’t know if it’s a more “human” experience, maybe, but also an organic experience in an unlikely place.
What inspired your new song, “Pretty Pretty Rampage (death by girl)?”
At the time “Pretty Pretty Rampage” was written, I had all these pent-up feelings about things that weren’t going the way I wanted in my life. I was in unhealthy relationships and losing sight of my “badass-ness” or “badassery” (laughs) and who I was. So, the song literally poured out, and it was my soul rebelling against the bullshit.
Who or what influences your sound?
En Vogue, FKA Twigs, Regina Spektor, Yael Naim, Phantogram, Radiohead, The xx, Banks, Céu… everyone really!
Do you ever feel vulnerable by being so honest in your music?
I feel vulnerable mostly all the time. Something everyone should know about me is that I give everything I have, and if someone didn’t monitor me, I would burn myself out, and quick. I don’t know why. I think I was made of this earth so I have to give all I have to it. I was born on the same day as Janis Joplin so maybe it’s an astrological thing.
What is your collaboration process, start to finish, for one song?
It’s different for every song, but usually I’ll come up with something, and Ben has to coax me into showing him because I’m shy and care what he thinks. Then we will play it acoustically, and the final step is recording it and coming up with the production, which we do together. Ben is also an excellent songwriter, and we’ll be releasing one of his songs next.
What is the worst advice you received in your early career?
Dang, someone used to show us other artists in an attempt at being like, “You should be more like them.” That’s that bullshit. (Laughs.) We are who we are, point blank, period.
If you could open for any artist on tour right now, what would your dream gig be?
Opening for Radiohead, J. Cole, Banks, xx, Ama Lou or Phantogram. We will take any of these on the USS Enterprise! Good Lord, if you can hear me, please make this dream come true! Because if you think about it, who wouldn’t want to hear us and Radiohead and J. Cole while floating through space?
You and Ben have spoken up about how incorporating philanthropy and activism is important to you both. How do you plan to do that, and is there a specific cause you find yourself drawn to?
Philanthropy and activism are incorporated in everything we do! “Sabrina Segment” got a Mayor in North Carolina to rethink the homelessness problem in his city, and that was groundbreaking for us. The Spotify proceeds for “Pretty Pretty Rampage” are going to be donated to the ultimate anti-bullying campaign, which is what’s happening to immigrants in this country right now. It is our duty to help because we wouldn’t be here without that same help! A cause that is dear to me is being active in Native communities, and is one that will remain at the forefront, but there are a ton of things that we are passionate about!
What’s next for Uruguay?
I feel like 2019 is going to be the year we explode! We have so much more content in the works, like maybe a video for “Pretty Pretty Rampage.” (Giggles.) Something else exciting, your Snapple fact for the day: Crocodiles do not die of natural causes… the oldest one in captivity is 140 years old, caught by Steve Irwin himself.