Vanessa Chakour - Million Dollar Baby

Written by: Al Shaw Ki(Downloadz Magazine, May 2008)

Artist. Activist. Athlete.  Vanessa Chakour's background is something out of a movie or storybook.  The Springfield born, Amherst raised, Massachusetts femme fatal grew up surrounded by a family of musicians with hippie sensibilities.  With an unconventional air of peace and free love filling every breath of her lungs, the embodiment of creativity was inevitable.  Chakour received abundant influences from her stepfather, Mitch Chakour, a musician and musical director for Joe Cocker, and has played with everyone from B.B. King to Bonnie Raitt.  Rock, blues, and soul became the fabric of Vanessa's security blanket.  "I was always going to concerts.  My mom would carry me in the bassinet and go to shows!  My stepfather used to open up for people like James Brown.  So as a kid, I would go to those type of shows.  You know, back in the 70's it was different.  They would let kids into clubs." remembers Chakour. "Music is part of my cellular structure."

Like all great heroes and catalysts for change, Chakour underwent a significant, life altering incident.  At age 15, Vanessa suffered severe injuries from a car accident.  She fractured her back and neck and was extremely close to being paralyzed.  Basically immobilized and sporting a back and neck brace for a year, this forced her to look deeper inwardly at herself, even at such a young age.  The accident "Made me who I am in a lot of ways.  Art became my means for survival.  It was where I found that inner strength. I had some soul searching to do, even at that age.  It was the road to becoming very self aware.  When you're immobilized like that, there's no distraction from yourself." recounts Chakour.  Regrettably, the doctors informed Vanessa that she would be physically limited.  However, Chakour insisted on disproving the diagnosis and surprisingly rehabilitated herself.  This self transformation intrigued her, sparking a devout interest in physical fitness, propelling herself into sports, and intense strength training.  "As a woman, I began to really appreciate my body and what is was capable of." says Chakour.  Missing valuable class time and being forced to repeat grades, the uninspired Chakour decided to drop out of high school.  Not wanting to waste time, she enrolled in Bard College at Simon's Rock, (known as Simon's Rock College of Bard), a small, accelerated liberal art college that accepts students before graduating high school.  Soon after she transferred to the University of Massachusetts and joined the crew team.  In retrospect, Vanessa claims that the rigorous, brutal and intense crew training at U Mass equipped and mentally prepared her for boxing.  Yet, still unfulfilled with the absence of her artistic voice, Chakour met a documentary photographer and began dedicating more time to visual art and soon developed heavy interest in social issues. 

At age 20, the self taught artist then moved to New York to pursue her spiritually instinctive endeavors.  "I think a lot of us do things that are spiritual in nature, but we don't necessarily recognize or see that."  Vanessa explains how the agony of sports endurance opened a spiritual gateway and inspired her to persevere beyond physical pain, limitations and expectations.   For Chakour, art was that pure place where you could search within.  "My art is about shedding skin.  It comes from a different place.  It's an uncovering.  It's the inside coming out. You shed surface layers in the process of emptying yourself."

Her unconventional strength can be identified in everything she does.  From professional boxing, boxing trainer, to punching bags with music industry icons such as Jay Z, Q Tip and Dame Dash.   She has become a thoughtful consultant and coordinator for various movements, concerts, events, and fund raisers, as well as develops programs to raise awareness and for various causes. From spearheading the HOPE celebrity charity event to preserve Tibetan Culture with the Dalai Lama and Donna Karan, to resuscitating the Stop The Violence Movement with legendary Hip Hop activist/MC/philosopher KRS One. 

Vanessa Chakour is currently working on a series of abstract portraits called "Visual Verse", where she combines words, thoughts and consciousness into abstract self portrait images.  "As I was transitioning out of boxing, I was writing in my journal.  And when you take out your journal to write, you have to write because the words are really raw and intense.  And as I read through it, I realized that all of my best writing and art was there.  There were these really crazy, intense sketches and doodles…" she reminisces.  "So I had a vision to get a big piece of board and decided to write on it really small so that I wouldn't edit myself.  This was brought together with the process and philosophy of meditating, emptying my mind and emptying myself.  So the process of emptying and self transformation became the art." 

Whether combining spirituality, boxing, art, music and activism into her daily life, it all translates to the same thing for Chakour.  Living your true path from within and pushing the envelopes of progressive movements and mobilization.

"Art is a part of my spiritual process.  Art is how I make sense of the world."

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