Some Notes on the Democratization of Art, or, an Ode to Girls on the Internet with Ukuleles.

Hello! The project my heart and brain have been pre-occupied with for a few months now is where I want it to be for the moment, so I am doing what any sensible person would do with a little freed up brainspace: thinking about girls and music and girls who play music. Famous ones, yeah, but also the stealth women musicians who are trailblazing and/or just playin’ around without support from the music industry.

A Christmas or two ago, my parents gave me a ukulele. They knew I missed playing music at school: when we set out for the airport my first semester of college, I left my sax at home for safekeeping, and hesitated about taking formal lessons again because I didn’t want to equate music with a source of extra stress. I wanted it to be an escape, a layer of built-in beauty in my life like it had always been: from the days of Johnny Cash and the Supremes warbling from my dad’s truck when I was way too young to be sitting shotgun, to the doo-wop ballads cassette I wore out from listening to it every night as I fell asleep, to my first-ever Walkman and my first-ever album purchase (Avril Lavigne, Let Go), to the progression of MP3 players that would be my constant companions through chemistry p-sets, identity crises, and 6:55 AM rides on the school bus.

I was never exceptionally good at playing music, but I was lucky to get a lot of opportunities to do it anyway. It sure felt good — even in those troublesome phases when practicing seemed like a chore on principle. And when I wasn’t working up a repertoire for recitals, or for gigs with one of the bands I joined, it was satisfying to just play something beautiful for me. (Even when “beautiful” was actually more like “crushingly average.”) My musical education taught me to like playing concerts more and more over the years, but I was always most at ease with my audience of one. Mastery was never the goal — and still the music was transcendent.

I found that feeling again on a crisp November morning first year, when a friend dragged me to a jam session populated by upperclasswomen — mostly seniors — I’d never met. Sitting on the floor of their hip, impeccably-decorated triple room (they had a wine rack, you guys) with a cup of tepid dining hall coffee, still wearing the contact lenses I’d fell asleep in the night before, I felt like I belonged in a different universe. They seemed impossibly cool and put-together, and most surprisingly, like they didn’t mind me lending my (off-key, unpredictable) voice to theirs. We walked outside, on crunching leaves and gravel paths, pausing on a bench overlooking Lake Waban while nimble fingers coaxed pure warmth out of guitar, melodica, uke.

Every time I played or sang with them that year, it felt like all of us were somehow outside the physical realm and more intensely embodied all at the same time. The rich timbre of many voices is communion unlike anything else I know. And it works not in spite of our raw imperfection, but because of it. Our harmonies light up Tower Court East, and when the last vibration stills, the songs never leave our bodies. We are swimming in music.

I want to believe that everyone gets to experience this feeling at least sometimes in their life. Music, obviously, is not the only way to get there. For me, it’s one of the most intense and reliable sparks. And mastery has never been the goal.

Which is why I’m truly dumbfounded by people — like this dude on in 2012 — who complain about the now-ubiquitous trend of girls and women playing uke covers on Youtube.* I mean first off, for real, you search “guitar covers” and the first page of results is full of teenage boys — but I guess no one sees that as a problem, because it’s just normal teen boy behavior. (I have an older brother, I know these things.) So why is it laughable when girls do it?

If your problem is the fact that they’re all (mostly) cover songs: hello? Performing a well-known artist’s work has been a way for budding musicians to gain exposure since pretty much time immemorial. (Like you’re really going to pretend that the Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower” didn’t kick Bob Dylan’s troubadour butt.) Also, cover songs are a frickin’ great opportunity for artists to make something new or more nuanced out of something that already exists, which to me, is actual magic. (…but more on that later.)

If your problem is the fact that uke is “easy”: please, tell me more about how society is going to fall apart because people who aren’t classically trained or devoted to a life of art are getting more opportunities than ever to create and share themselves with an unprecedented audience, mostly for free. Any instrument (or tool or platform) that makes it less intimidating to dabble with art multiplies those chances we have for a little taste of infinity. You don’t have to be conventionally “good” to be worthy of making art. “Talent” should not be a prerequisite for creation.

All of this is especially important for women (and queer people and people of color), who have a long history of struggling to get recognized and compensated for their contributions to music. If you grew up with limited role models in the mainstream music world (think Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, VMAs, Rolling Stone), but you were given the opportunity to blend a little bit of yourself with the music you loved, to have a moment of flawed, silly transcendence, to brush up against someone else’s heart in this weird digital cosmos without having to “earn” the attention of record companies — tell me you wouldn’t take advantage of that.

*unless you’re thinking about the historical/social/colonial context of the instrument itself, in which case, let’s talk.

“I Would Write, But…”

There’s something about the blank page that always scares me a little. It’s different on a computer than it is in a notebook, with a pen. Like somehow this glowing window expects me to spill out deep insights, fully formed. But some part of me knows better. Some part of me remembers that writing isn’t about recording your most perfect thoughts, and therefore dependent on already having said thoughts in your brain. Some part of me remembers that writing and thinking are not so far from each other — the pen lets you spin out your thoughts so you can see what’s there. Beliefs you forgot you had, revelations you didn’t know you were capable of. And so often it yields gems you couldn’t have dreamt of if you’d tried.

And that magic, that game of chance, that’s what makes writing so scary. You have to let go. For this part of the process to work, you can’t be fully in control. And sometimes things come up that you don’t want to see, ranging from plain embarrassing to painfully self-revelatory. Face to face with my flaws, any notion of invincibility vanishes. Then I panic, before remembering some of my favorite words by Audre Lorde:

“I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

So I keep writing. And even if most of the things that come out never reach anyone’s eyes but my own, I swear this act keeps me alive. Pen to paper, I feel so close to the pulse of human interconnectedness, so aware of forces so much bigger than me. Every once in a while, that loss of control no longer feels scary. It feels freeing.

Somebody asked me once what my greatest fear is. I think I probably answered “spiders.” (Which is not untrue...) But I know the real answer is that I’m afraid I will die never having spoken myself, afraid of giving the world proof of my imperfection. Afraid of what will happen when I open myself to the world, to judgment, to pain, to being taken advantage of. But we do not live to be bulletproof.

“Here,” I want to have said. “Here is me, changing and dynamic and often wrong.” But never silent, for silence is just another way to deny our transience.

Hey, you. Yeah, you. I wanna tell you a secret.

I’m gay.

(Well, actually, I told my family I was bi in the 8th grade because I didn’t have the right words then and I went through high school holding a whole lot of denial in my insides and it took the magic of community with women like me before I could reclaim the word queer — as in, I fall in love with people, not genders — and with it, reclaim myself.) (Also, this is 100% not a secret, I bet none of y’all are surprised.)

This is something I knew to be true before I could give myself permission to say it, as much a part of me as my love of music or the way my eyes squish up when I smile. But I don’t want to talk about how I figured it out, or what it felt like to hide this piece of my identity from people in high school, or what a miracle it was to find other queer people who understood.

I do want to talk about how the queer community — specifically, the “mainstream,” mostly white, mostly middle class queer community — and straight allies can do better. When the Supreme Court decision came out last Friday, it was hard for me to feel the joy of that particular victory with Black churches burning across the South and the wound of Charleston (and Baltimore and Ferguson and…) still fresh in our national psyche. Don’t get me wrong — I’m grateful we made it this far, and the speed with which people’s attitudes changed for the better gives me a great deal of optimism for the future.

But our liberation is not true if it comes at the continued cost of others’ lives and livelihoods. In the wake of this promising step forward, I urge you not to forget the 40% of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ, our immigrant trans sisters fighting deportation and human rights violations, the trans women of color who risk their lives just by existing every day. I urge you to remember that your freedom is tied to that of everyone around you.

No part of our identity invalidates any other, and we are responsible for working towards a world that supports every exquisite layer of ourselves. So, to my fellow queers and allies, please educate yourselves and others. Uplift the history of our movement. Remember that Stonewall was a trans-woman-of-color-led riot against police brutality. Use whatever means you can to resist structures of racial violence. Share resources. Expand your community.

This is how we get free.

(this video is one place to start — content warning for graphic descriptions of racist and homophobic violence)

As much as I love getting my thoughts and feelings on paper, there’s something about the school year that makes me not want to write any more than I have to. (Funny how that happens, eh?) There’s also something about the sheer volume of content on the internet that makes me not want to be louder or take up more space (digitally or otherwise) than I have to. But look — it’s summer, and I’m embarking on something pretty exciting (for me, at least)! So while the sun is shining and the air smells like fresh basil, I’m gonna set those hesitations aside and get back to sharing some content with y’all:

  • I’ve made a few multimedia zines in the past, and I’m planning a few more. I find this format helps me boil down the most important takeaways from classes, research projects, and goings-on in the world. It’s also conducive to presenting important information visually — which makes even the most daunting topics more accessible! You can check them out here: 
  • This semester, I started putting some initial work into a project that I think will stick around for a while: a collection of educational strategies meant to empower youth to create a better world. Education presents a powerful lever for engaging and empowering marginalized groups, while simultaneously helping youth who have access to significant social/cultural/financial capital become more critically aware of inequality. I’ve talked before about the confluence of social justice and sustainability, and this project is an extension of that philosophy, applied in the educational space to optimize its potential power. I aim to release some writing and initial findings about this project later this week, so stay tuned!

Take care, and enjoy the sunshine!

Last night, I performed in a story slam about identity. I wasn’t sure what to talk about at first, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about allyship, solidarity, and what my role is in conversations about issues that don’t directly affect me. I used to think that, as a white person, I wasn’t allowed to talk about race. But if the past year has taught me anything, it’s that being white gives me a vital responsibility to talk about race. 

The first time I had a real conversation with my friends about racism at Wellesley, I was so nervous I thought I might pass out. I remember thinking, I shouldn’t be here. What if I say something stupid? I feel so white.

But I knew my absence would speak louder than words. I could hear the voices of Malcolm X, Assata Shakur,Yuri Kochiyama, Gloria Anzaldua —

We will consider your silence to be consent.

The night after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson was announced, I attended a rally that turned into an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. We marched through the streets of Boston chanting, and stopped beside the South Bay Correctional Facility, where we could see inmates, mostly black, flashing their lights and cheering us on. One man spelled out “MIKE BROWN” in scraps of paper on his window. We raised our eyes and hands to them, shouting “We see you!”

Never before had I made such a visceral connection between problems which to me are so abstract — like the prison industrial complex — and the lived realities of people of color, particularly black people, in this country. I felt my fellow protestors’ words so deeply: the whole damn system is guilty as hell.

We will consider your silence to be consent.

Carried by this current of connection, of seeing and being seen, we pressed on. Before I knew it, we were marching toward the connector to the Mass Pike. And we weren’t alone: a band of blue-clad Boston cops stood awash in the glow of headlights, riot shields raised. The police blocked our way with their motorcycles, helmets, and calculated silence, punctuated only by the command to “Hold line!” And the sea of protesters behind me was not about to turn back.

As the mass of people behind us shifted and pulsed, I found myself face to face with the angriest old white cop I’ve ever seen. I was marching next to a guy who couldn’t have been much older than me, and I was glad I didn’t have to stare down this seething, masked face alone. We held our ground for a while, chanting “No justice, no peace!” But out of nowhere, this cop started pushing back, throwing the man next to me to the ground and yanking him up by the shirt. I swear my heart was audible above our shouts. My lungs felt like two universes collapsing in on themselves. I was sure that any moment could be the one where fist turned to baton turned to gun.

I was choosing to put my body on the line that night. But not everyone is so lucky to have that choice.

We will take your silence to be consent.

White folks, we like to think that if we’re “nice” enough, we get off the hook for thinking seriously about America’s violent racial history and the legacies that are so painfully visible today. We like to think it’s more polite to “not see race,” and act like everyone’s on equal footing in this country. Whatever else we do, we’re not supposed to talk about this. After all, we don’t own slaves, right? So this mess isn’t our fault.

But I can no longer avail myself of that responsibility. When a white professor teaches a history that excludes people of color, or a white student says something ignorant, I can no longer leave it to a student of color to correct them. When toxic social dynamics begin developing in a space, I can no longer wait for one of my friends gets hurt before I speak up.

My inaction is as much a part of this violence as that white cop.

And I want the system to know — it no longer has my consent.

This piece originated as a journal entry on February 6. As my school community gathers to remember our classmate, An, this evening, I wanted to reflect on how this tragedy has impacted my worldview and relationships even in the two weeks since it unfolded. 

Yesterday, Wellesley’s community lost one of our own. She was a sophomore — my age. I never met her, but I knew of her. I knew enough to know that she meant so much to so many. To know how deeply her loss will be felt.

When I got the email announcing her death, I thought there must have been some kind of mistake. People like us aren’t supposed to die. People like us are supposed to take chances and love too fiercely. People like us are supposed to fill our lungs with authenticity and breathe life into these crumbling halls. We’re meant to carry an imprint of these years on our palms.

But I read the message again, and there she was: reduced to a single sentence about her major, her hometown, her campus involvement. All her complexities, all the starlight and suffering she carried, all her personhood pressed flat.

I’m shaken by the visceral reminder that our youth does not make us invincible. But even more, I’m disappointed that this institution did not do better by our classmate and dear friend. Wellesley as a college doesn’t have the best track record for acting with the best interests of students in mind — even its best intentions often feel moored in protocol and financial obligations. Wellesley as a community, though, reverberates with passion and compassion. The incredible people who’ve come to this place demonstrate remarkable tenacity in the face of struggle.

We are at our best when we create and connect genuinely in spite of sometimes-crushing expectations. When we let our authentic selves be seen, like light seeping through the cracks in these old stone walls. Even when it scares us.

And the best we can do for An is to take those chances more, rather than less. The best we can do for An is to love one another fiercely.

When I told my favorite history professor that I was considering a major in Environmental Studies, she stifled a laugh. “Really? I thought that was for the backpacking hippie white kids.” She specializes in 20th century America, and at the time, I was in her class on the Modern Black Freedom Struggle. We’d talked a lot already about my interest in making the world a better place, whatever that means — and while she cares about climate change as much as the next person, I think she was having trouble imagining me “wasting time” saving the whales when I could be dismantling the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

But here’s the thing: it was her class that made me realize how bound up environmental issues are with race, gender, and economic justice.

Last spring, Friday afternoons were kinda heavy for me:

1:30 PM — Gender, Health, and the Environment.

2:50 PM — The Modern Black Freedom Struggle.

4:00 — Lament the state of the universe.

Rinse and repeat.

One Friday, though, it hit me that all these seemingly distinct problems are not so separate after all.

In Gender/Health, we covered the geography of asthma: who gets it, where, and why. We talked about demographic distribution near industrial pollutant sources. We talked about infrastructural gaps that weaken communities by depriving them of resources. We talked about Laura Pulido’s “Rethinking Environmental Racism.” We talked about intervention strategies. Then I rushed off to history in a steady downpour.

Midway through class, my professor got us talking about redlining, the widespread loan discrimination that landed many black Americans in rundown neighborhoods.

At that moment, something clicked: the geography of the US didn’t come from nowhere. The fact that certain communities are deemed at-risk and are often the first to be affected by fossil-fuel extraction or toxic waste disposal isn’t random.

The environment as we experience it has been constructed over centuries by social and economic forces that categorically devalue whole swaths of human life…the same forces driving us to deplete finite resources despite predicted disaster, despite visible impact now.

In that moment, I knew: justice without sustainability is reckless, but sustainability without justice is virtually impossible.