On your new EP, Voices, you’ve worked with artists like Merrill Garbus from tUnE-yArDs and you shift your sound throughout from hip-hop influences to blues. Can you tell us about the creative process that was involved with producing the Voices EP?
Well for me, the way I express myself is through my voice and the drums. I didn’t have much electronic sensibility in terms of how to make electronic music that I heard in my head, so I would team up with people who did have the skill set to either use Ableton or to be able to do proper sound design. I remember working with Anthony Saffery who was involved with Cornershop and Portugal. The Man. Then I worked with Merrill who obviously is also the champion of drums and vocals — that’s her sound. Then Alexia Riner who is a Graduate of Berklee College of Music and a very gifted sound designer. And so with them, I would basically come in — either with the idea for the song or little parts of the song — and together we would build the arrangement and blend the electronics, drums, and vocals together. Because that’s really the sound I wanted. I wanted the vocals and the drums to sit above the electronics, but I want the electronics to be the rest of the instruments. I didn’t want it to be a recognizable guitar or a recognizable bass line or piano or anything like that. So even if we did record organ, piano, and guitar, which you hear in “Gandhi Blues,” we manipulated the sound by either reversing them, or processing them and bitcrushing them so they felt like something you’ve never heard before.
The idea of “3D femininity” is at the center of your new EP: a term you’ve been spreading which covers the idea that we, as women, are not only three-dimensional as people, but also as artists. That we should, as a culture, embrace all sides of femininity going forward because that’s true empowerment. What can we do to perpetuate these beliefs to help make young women and men stronger?
That’s a great point. I think that one of the blessings and the curses of media is that it really has the potential to shape who we are and how we understand our role in the world. While it can be a really positive influence, like in my case when I found The Spice Girls as an eight year old in India, I felt for the first time that I was represented in pop culture in a way that felt really empowering and inspiring to me. But then even today as a 27 year old, I’ll listen to trap music and hip-hop and feel really excited about how it makes me feel musically. But then I feel really upset about how it makes me feel spiritually when I listen to the lyrics because often it’s about promoting masculinity at the expense of women. And I hate that.
So in 3-D Femininity, it’s all about us being able to access our fullest range of emotions and our fullest selves, but not at the expense of others. We can be powerful and successful, but it’s not a zero sum game — that for me to be my best self, it doesn’t take away from somebody else.
It’s kind of related to this concept that Gloria Steinem writes about, the idea that we are linked, not ranked. I think in a patriarchal system, the system where we take male values, it’s all about who’s better. And once I’ve beaten you, now I’m better and you’re worse. But what about if we lived in a world where I contribute value and you contribute a different value, and then together, we unlock an even a greater set of value that makes the world a better place. [Laughs] I’m laughing because it sounds like the world that I want to live in.
“So in 3-D Femininity, it’s all about us being able to access our fullest range of emotions and our fullest selves, but not at the expense of others.”
If I called the drum a “social instrument,” what would that mean to you?
I love that. Well the drum is a communication tool. In its earliest forms, it used to be a way to signal various types of things: to communicate peace, to communicate war, to communicate the very human existence in a town. Centuries ago, communities didn’t have telephones or anything like that, so they would communicate by playing their instrument loudly, and what’s louder than the drum? Then another cool thing about the drum is that in so many years of its existence, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of centuries, it hasn’t changed. It’s the simplicity of a barrel with a skin stretched over it and then clamped — that’s a drum. Many of us have a rhythm inside of us, whether a heartbeat or a rhythm that resonates with us, and the ability to strike the most simple instrument — a drum — and communicate with it makes it very social.
Being political has been a constant in your work. How do you feel this has influenced your work over the years? How do you feel your perspective has changed if at all?
It’s about being authentic. I’m very politically minded because that’s how I was raised. We grew up in Eleanor Roosevelt’s townhouse in the heart of New York City. My parents worked very hard to provide for us. It’s a classic immigrant story of them coming from India and really wanting improve the quality of our lives. So we were raised always with the sense of giving back. And often you can give back in many different ways. One of the most obvious ways to give back is through politics. I went to Georgetown where I was encouraged to do internships at the White House and the mayor’s office. This year, I’ve been to the White House three times because Obama’s administration is so focused on empowering women and girls. For me, making music was all about mixing my politics with my means of expressing it. I think all of us have a different way of expressing our thoughts, whether it’s through speaking, writing, singing, or other ways through arts. So this is my coming of age in terms of choosing the best way to express what I think. There was never even a choice about it.
And people often say, “Don’t be political in your music.” I think they say that when they think it’s not authentic. [They think you’re being political] either because they see that’s a trend, so then their advice is, “Don’t be political because the reason that you’re doing it is to fit in and look culturally relevant. That’s not a good idea because people can tell that it’s insincere.” But playing down your politics if you are very politically minded is also the worst advice you can give somebody because no matter what, if that’s who they are, it’s going to come out. So the advice to any artist who even asks me [when they say,] “I feel really strongly about LGBT issues, I feel really strongly about Black Lives Matter,” I always say, “Whatever is right for you, be it. And if you don’t want to be political, don’t worry — we need you to write about what’s important to you because you will find an audience.”
“… playing down your politics if you are very politically minded is also the worst advice you can give somebody because no matter what, if that’s who they are, it’s going to come out.”
A Donald Trump and Pence presidency, for many of us in minority groups, is a very scary future to face because a lot of us feel that his winning legitimizes some very harmful ideas in the eyes of a specific subgroup of Americans. His “locker room talk,” for example, shocked many people, but was also accepted by countless others because of the “boys will be boys” mentality — something which perpetuates rape culture. What is your plan, and suggestions for others, to endure the next 4 years with a Trump presidency? How do we make our voices heard?
I do think that the only benefit of a Trump presidency is that all of us who have been very siloed in our missions, whether it’s trans rights, LGBT issues, people with disabilities, those of minority communities, those who have suffered from xenophobic outlooks in this country, I think we will all come together under a common enemy and out of necessity. I do think that any one group who’s been oppressed, by the very nature of experiencing that oppression, is very skilled at being able to empathize with any other group. I would imagine if I’ve experienced sexism, I can go to people of color or someone who’s been in a wheelchair their whole life and be able to connect on certain planes that someone who has not experienced systemic oppression might understand.
So these are the benefits of a Trump presidency. And so for your point about rape culture, it is true that we live in a ‘boys will be boys’ culture that permits bad behavior, behavior at the expense of protecting our young women. I think the more we speak up about it and the more we teach why that’s wrong, why it holds women back, why we won’t tolerate it, and the more we have women in positions of power, so that we do complain and file lawsuits against rapists, they are seen and punished as the violent crimes that they are.
“I do think that any one group who’s been oppressed, by the very nature of experiencing that oppression, is very skilled at being able to empathize with any other group.”
You’ve said before that women are our future, but I would argue we still have a lot of work to do to make feminism truly intersectional, especially when it comes to educating others on white feminism, white guilt, and white sensitivity — topics which many of our feminist brothers and sisters have difficulty discussing and/or accepting. That said, how do you think we should approach making the movement more intersectional? How do we teach people what that even is? Do you have any stories?
I agree. It’s definitely about empathy and each of us, when we feel upset about something, being able to heal our emotions first and then intellectualize why something feels oppressive and why it’s a problem, so that we can explain it to others. It’s also about recognizing that each of us are oppressed and the oppressor in one, and so in the same way I may experience sexism, I also in my life have probably contributed to somebody else’s oppression — being aware of that is a huge step in being intersectional. But I would argue that in this whole year and a half, even before the election, I worked a lot on menstrual health and hygiene issues, and this is one of the most positive intersectional feminist topics. Because no matter who you are, if you’re a biologically healthy female, you at some point have had a period and can understand why it’s important that we talk about it, and why taboo around something so natural and normal effects all parts of our life. I think these are some of the ways that I try to make feminism in my life, as an American woman, intersectional and why it’s important to me to do so.
“It’s also about recognizing that each of us are oppressed and the oppressor in one …”
In your interview with Papermag, you mentioned that you were writing a book called The Fourth Wave. Can you tell us some more about this project?
I can’t tell you about The Fourth Wave just yet.
It’s already difficult to break into music as a woman, especially if you have radical beliefs that go against the infrastructure in place. With that in mind, what do you think is best course of action for women in the music industry? Do you feel like breaking into the industry will be any more difficult due to the recent election?
Luckily music and the arts, even though they have shady business practices at the most traditional levels, are known for being radical, commenting on culture, and moving society forward. For that reason, I think that more of us should be breaking into fields like music, arts, and pop culture. Because these really are the places where we are given free rein to comment on the things we see on the ground that are not OK. Even watching Saturday Night Live, there are so many amazing actors and comedians on the show who are commenting on the pain we feel and on the problematic norms that things like Thanksgiving and the election perpetuate. So I want to see more women, people of color, and diversity in general in these spaces so that those stories get told and we combat oppression. I don’t think it will be effected by the election because of the fact that it’s the arts.