“This is not one of us” – In addition to fierce competition, many foreign-born artists face discrimination in Finland 

Mayela was part of Scope x Tiivistämö concert. The event offers a platform for emerging talents performing in hip hop, rap and other urban genres. PHOTO: OLLI NURMINEN, SCOPE HELSINKI 2024
Venezuelan-Finnish singer and actress Mayela has experienced the struggles of trying to succeed in Finnish arts industry. Still, she has found a safe place in music making and performing.

Flor Salazar Martinez

Published 20.05.2024 1:09

Updated 23.05.2024 1:02

Mayela Farias, who prefers going by her artistic name Mayela, remembers her first experience singing in front of an audience. It happened at her hometown Valencia in Venezuela when she was about eight years old. 

Every other Sunday her godparents, who happened to live next door, would install a karaoke machine with microphones and speakers on the front porch of their house. Music was their business and their enjoyment and they wanted to share it with everyone in the neighborhood. 

“It was a lot of fun because as a child you don’t have concepts such as shame,” says Mayela now with a longing smile.  

A couple of decades have passed since. Mayela’s life has brought her from Venezuela to Finland. She has pursued a career in multiple fields of art, and felt awkwardness, shyness and loneliness, but also resilience, pride, and enjoyment in her art.  

She’s been working as a singer and songwriter, as an actress, camerawoman and commercial model. She has appeared in Finnish TV shows and in adverts for Veikkaus and Nokia. She’s learned Finnish and got her Finnish citizenship already seven years ago. 

Still, Mayela sometimes feels that it is not enough. That her foreign background puts her at a disadvantage in front of her Finnish-born peers.  

“As a commercial model, the language is not a big barrier, but acting is a different story”, she explains. 

“I have applied for many speaking roles, but as soon as they listen to my accent, they just decide I am not the person they are looking for. All the roles I have had have been immigrants, sex workers, exchange students or so. All of them have had an accent or have spoken a foreign language.” 

Foreign-born artists have to overcome many difficulties before gaining recognition  

The ability to speak the national language “perfectly” still plays a significant role in recruitment for different jobs in the field of arts, confirms Sari Karttunen, senior researcher at the Center for Cultural Policy Research (CUPORE).

“There’s competition in this field, so language skills have become a simple screening criterion, a way of saying that this is not one of us.”

Another crucial factor is networking: knowing the right people from the field. According to Karttunen, Finnish artists usually build their networks while studying in Finnish art universities. Lack of a Finnish degree can therefore be a problem, even though the degree itself may not be the key issue.

Immigrants of course suffer, but this kind of culture makes things more difficult also for Finnish-born artists, who have studied abroad.

“Their degree does not necessarily help them, simply because they do not have the networks”, Karttunen says. “If you want better opportunities, you have to get into the natives’ circles.”

Also Mayela understood quickly the importance of creating a network. That made her grab every possible little job that allowed her to be in touch with the entertainment industry, such as working as a set assistant or costume assistant.

Lack of knowledge about diversity and equality  

There is no comprehensive knowledge of diversity and equality issues in the arts industry in Finland. The statistics that exist, offer only limited information.

In 2022, the Finnish Actors Union conducted a survey in English, Swedish and Finnish on ethnic and cultural diversity. Only 87 people responded, but most of the answers recognized discrimination and racism in the field. However, it was stated that it often goes unrecognized or there is a lack of will to acknowledge the issue.

In 2021, a group of organizations from the music industry ordered surveys about a wide range of equality issues within the field. The surveys were carried out by Inklusiiv Oy.

Half of the respondents said that they had experienced inappropriate comments in their work. Almost as common was not getting the same wage from similar work than colleagues (47 %), experiencing belittling or not being taken seriously by colleagues (45 %), or stereotyping (44 % of respondents).

When asked about discrimination or harassment based on ethnic background, 14 percent of the respondents said that they had experienced it. This was more common in the age group of 20–35 (20 %) than among persons 35 or older (9 %).

Reports of both surveys have been published online, and the main findings have also been described in Cupore’s diversity report of 2023. In 2020, Cupore itself conducted a research project on foreign-born arts and culture professionals residing and working in Finland.

Adapt, survive, thrive 

Mayela is determined to succeed in Finland. She sees art as a way of channeling one’s emotions, and a way of doing it is through the process of creating. Currently her focus is on making music, acting and modeling projects are on hold. This summer she will publish her new record called CNT. 

After many years of personal growth, Mayela will release her first record. “Being an artist and an immigrant can be as exhausting as rewarding”, says the singer. PHOTO: ANNA IKÄHEIMONEN

She has participated in a program run by Teosto, Finnish copyright society for composers, lyricists, arrangers and music publishers. In the program, called Top 20 – Future hitmakers, Mayela received knowledge on how to make music for Finnish audiences and how to make profit out of it as well. She also found passion for tv and movie music, or how she calls it giggling: “ambience-mood-music, because I like to make people feel different emotions”. 

In January 2024, Mayela performed at the Emergenza festival for new music. There she felt that she had gone full circle. Ten years earlier she had stood on the same stage, at On the Rocks club in Helsinki. Then she was auditioning for the Voice of Finland 2014 reality tv show. 

“The audition was a disaster”, Mayela tells now. “I was inexperienced and nervous, but now 10 years later I can wear my artist suit and feel like a very powerful woman”.  

Mayelas path is unique and unfinished, but as she says in her song No vamo a dormÍ (we are not going to sleep):  

Y si me miras a los ojos sabrás. No hay miedo no voy a parar. (If you’d look me in the eyes, you would have discovered, there’s no fear, nothing will stop me).