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Feministing Five: Kiran Gandhi

Spoke to one of my favorite blogs feministing.com about being fearless, finding your own voice and trusting your intuition. Full article here:  http://feministing.com/2016/07/01/the-feministing-five-kiran-gandhi/

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Photo by Anna Maria Lopez.

Kiran Gandhi is a force to be reckoned with. At 26, the South Asian New York to L.A. transplant is a dynamic performer, a Harvard MBA grad, and the Artist in Residence at the music start-up Stem.

She has drummed with MIA and Thievery Corporation, been a freelance consultant for music industry projects such as Spotify and Bonnaroo, and spoken at TEDXBrooklyn about the self-created philosophy she embraces to live life to the fullest. She just launched her own musical project, Madam Gandhi, an electro all female band that features dope beats and an incredible message.

All this, and we haven’t even gotten into her radical and heartfelt activism, and the ways she’s calling bullshit on gender norms and fighting for a better future for women and girls in the US and abroad.

Last year, Kiran famously ran the London Marathon bleeding freely to shed light on the fact that millions of women around the world do not have access to proper menstrual care, and that stigma surrounding periods is still very much a global issue. The radical stunt earned her countless headlines and a huge platform with which to address an issue she cares about deeply. She does so often, passionately, and with a mind for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Since the marathon that shot her into the spotlight, Kiran’s been on the move in big ways in the worlds of music, feminist advocacy, and the movement to de-stigmatize women’s bodies. I caught up with this feminist superstar about the inspirations behind her music and activism, what she defines as the “four levers of social change”, becoming fearless, and how she does, in fact, manage to do it all. Read on, and for more Miss Gandhi, catch her on tour this summer in LA and on Twitter at @MadameGandhi!

Senti Sojwal: In a recent article published in Time Magazine’s “Motto” blog, you said, “Stigma is one of the most effective forms of oppression because it denies us the vocabulary to talk comfortably and confidently about our own bodies.” I found that to be such a powerful statement. How did you learn to reject period stigma in your own life, and find empowerment in being open about something we’re taught to see as so shameful and secretive?

Kiran Gandhi: I love that question. It was really two specific instances right around the time I graduated college. I was studying women’s studies, and it was first one of my friends turning me on to “Sangre Menstrual”, which means menstrual blood in Spanish, and they were a radical activist group out of Spain. There were all these images of them wearing white pants and painting their crotches red and marching the streets and going to work and basically just combating and rejecting the stigma and silence around menstruation. It just hadn’t even occurred to me. I was like, “Oh my god! It’s so true! Why the hell are we so quiet about something so normal, and why is there so much awkwardness if all of us around the world who are female-bodied go through this? “ I really felt like that was my first subliminal influence – I thought it was so clever, smart, and well done. All the images of them walking on the streets, and men have their heads turned! If you go on my Instagram, on menstrual health day, May 28th, a couple months ago, I posted their photo. So that’s the first one. My second big influence was Lauren Cioffi, a filmmaker I was close to in college. She’s a filmmaker and cinematographer now in LA. She was the one who was very aware of artists painting with their period blood and celebrating it instead of being awkward and paralyzed by it. I was like, “Painting with your menstrual blood! It’s brilliant!” I haven’t yet painted with my menstrual blood. Those two things specifically, maybe because I’m an artist and a creative, they were the ones that really hit home for me. I just felt like it was so smart. Why don’t we combat period stigma more as a main focal point of a modern feminist agenda?

Senti Sojwal: As an activist, you partner with menstrual health organizations Binti Period and Thinx to improve women’s access to affordable and safe menstrual care. Can you tell our readers more about that work, and if they can get involved in any way?

Kiran Gandhi: In a recent article I wrote for Time, I wrote about how I basically see four levers for social change, as to how we can make a difference in this space based on who we are. All of us sometimes, we like to criticize others for the ways they want to make change. I find this one of the most divisive and problematic parts of any movement – specifically, a feminist movement, where we point fingers and say, “Kiran, why run a marathon when you can just donate pads to rural India?” It’s not about which lever is more effective, because both are good. It’s about, which one can you do? Which one is feasible within your sphere of influence? So the first lever I talk about is radical activism. That’s something that really makes people question their norms – like the two examples I just gave you: menstrual painting or symbolic free-bleeding or actual free bleeding, that kind of thing. The second thing is access to education. Really rallying doctors, teachers, the media, using writers, artists, and educators to shift the narrative. To say, this is a normal thing! The same way you need to learn how the heart works, and the muscles work, you need to learn how the menstrual cycle works. That’s it, it’s normal. Then the third lever is policy change. The more gravity something gets in the media and in the cultural zeitgeist, that’s when policy makers really do feel more pressure to change. Just today, we have an epic update from New York, whereby women in prisons, and young girls in schools, will have access to free menstrual care products! The fourth lever I see is innovation. That’s building a solution. If you can’t talk about what’s happening to a person because they’re so uncomfortable talking about their period, how can an innovator go and build anything? What help is that? Are tampons and pads fine solutions? Yes. Are they terrible for the environment? Yes. Do they cause a lot of people discomfort? Yes. Are tampons always appropriate for places like India and within Africa where women are not supposed to be inserting anything into their bodies? No. So, there’s so much work to be done there. I share those with you as four very specific, tangible buckets because I think it’s like the higher level to your question, which is “how can our readers make a difference.” I think each person can say, which of these resonate with me the most? Which ones are possible for me? That’s the one I’m going to go do, without judgment, without shame. A lot of us think, I have to go get a formal law degree, or start my own company – all these very complicated things. Actually, you maybe just need to write on your own blog, or post on your Instagram. People get overwhelmed and then we do nothing instead of something. I think specific to what you asked, before we even get to mentioning organizations, is just combating your own stigma. Really unpacking for yourself – where are you at? It’s almost like a stigma test. Where are you on the stigma scale? Can you walk down the hall proudly holding a tampon on the way to the bathroom? Are you confident telling your boss, your superiors or your teacher that the reason you can’t make it to class today is because you’re on your period and experiencing cramps? Or you do you lie, and say you have a fever? Do you stop talking about period stuff when a male presence enters the room? Just analyze your own level of discomfort and try to be more confident in talking about it. Try your best not to be apologetic. Share articles and awareness that speak about this issue. Donate to and support organizations that educate young women, offer women reusable pads, and provide resources for those who don’t have them.

Senti Sojwal: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your most recent musical project, “Madam Gandhi”? You’ve described it as a “celebration of female leadership.”

Kiran Gandhi:  I was always the drummer on somebody else’s project. That in itself is very empowering, because obviously women are not encouraged to play the drums. They’re either assumed to be the singer, or perhaps the guitarist. Rarely do we see or encourage young women to play the drums. That was always a source of liberation for me. But the truth is that you can’t really express your ideas when you’re on the dKiran being a badass drummer in action moderums. Of course you can sonically, but I just have so many ideas about a world that I wish I lived in, and how I wish things were different for young women, not only in the global North, but in the global South. I wanted to have a voice, I wanted to start saying these things. I knew the ways I could do this was through speaking, writing, or playing music. It was a difficult transition because I’m not used to being on the mic, I’m not used to singing, I’m not used to performing as the front person, but when you have ideas and a message to send, it ends up being bigger than just you. It’s kind of like, dude if you’re in a position where you can do this, and you have a chance to make a difference, you’re not doing your purpose if you don’t, and that’s not okay. For me, I had to get kind of fearless. I had to learn to speak and get on the mic and drum at the same time, do whatever it takes to share why I think the future is female, why I think more of us need to find our voice, and say what we think.

Senti Sojwal: You do a lot of consulting work around improving gender equality in the music industry. What are some concrete ways we can make the music world a more empowering and safe space for women, trans, and gender non-binary artists?

Kiran Gandhi:  I think music is the biggest destination for trans and gender non-binary artists because music has always lived light years ahead of where we are in the present real world. Because it’s music, and it comes off as non-threatening to people, artists are enabled to say as much as we want and need until people start really noticing that it’s political, it’s effective, and it’s rallying others. It’s not a threat until it actually starts working.Kiran with a mic on stageSomeone like Fela Kuti in Nigeria for example, was very clever to say I’m not a politician. He said that if he was a politician, it wouldn’t really work. He said, how can I use my music in the nightclub where I actually have influence, and talk about anti-colonialism? And he was one of the biggest catalysts for the de-colonization of Nigeria in the 1970s because he used his music to rally people and create anti-British sentiment. That’s what I want to see in the music industry. This is the medium women, trans, and gender non-binary folks can use to express ourselves, to create spaces for the next generation to see us. For me, I saw the Spice Girls when I was eight years old. And even though it was a commercial product, that was the first time where I felt like a product was speaking my language. It was huge! I was blown away by the girl power. They looked cool, and they still looked like women, it was epic. It made me feel like I had a shot. It gave me confidence. Also, something huge for visibility is collaboration. We’re in the era of collaboration right now. Our currency is how many people are following us, rather than how much money we make. If a collaborator who’s maybe more mainstream has the bravery to bring on a collaborator who is trans or gender non-binary, that’s one of the most epic ways to show solidarity and create entry points for those who otherwise have a tougher struggle. I put the onus on those artists who we love and respect to create that solidarity and be open to bring on those who struggle. We need to use our platforms to elevate those who aren’t seen, but have a brilliant message. Someone who’s so good at that is Lady Gaga. I went to her concert two years ago, and there were so many, like 11 year olds who were gender non-binary and trans. I was so amazed. When I was 11, no one was powerful enough, or empowered enough, to come out that early.

Senti Sojwal: You clearly have so much going on as an artist, adviser, activist, and badass leader in the world of contemporary feminism. I’d love to know more about how the theory of “Atomic Living”, which you discussed at TedEx Brooklyn, has helped you focus and be intentional about your passions.

Kiran Gandhi: When I was growing up, everyone said I had to pick one thing. It was like, oh you want to be in politics, this is what that route looks like. You want to go to business school; this is what this route looks like. You want to be a feminist author? You do it this way. None of that resonated with me. I love the intelligence of the feminist community, I love the work ethic of the MBA Harvard community, and I love the passion and gifts that musicians offer. I want all of those things, and no, I don’t want just one. I think in the beginning, if you’re young and you don’t have confidence, you’ll think, well I better take the advice and pick one. But when I was doing things my own way, I felt not only happier but I felt like things were working. I got a job in LA against all odds, and then I got a chance to drum for MIA against all odds, and then, of all programs, I got into Harvard. That’s when I wrote the Atomic Living talk, because I felt like, wow this is actually working. We define success in conventional ways and unconventional ways. And what I was working with, these are very conventional metrics of success, but achieved in a very unconventional way. We have a name for the way millennials are right now, with their passions and interests in so many different arenas – “slashy generation”. We’re all something slash something else slash something else. This needs to be okay, because that’s how we create, that’s how we push the world forward. How do you think food became something worth enjoying, as opposed to just nourishment? Because someone came along and was like, what if this kale could actually taste wonderful? So Atomic Living in short is basically just using spontaneity in a productive way to advance your own happiness and your goals. For me, in terms of your question about being intentional, I have five focal points at any given point in my life. They are allowed to change, because we as humans change and grow and have shifting priorities. For me, in the past couple of years they haven’t changed. They are: feminism, playing music, working on the music industry side, my friends and family, and my fitness and health – taking care of myself. Because all of them are there, if someone’s like, do you want to go party tonight? And I feel, no I want to stay in – some people would feel like they’re lame or old or boring. I feel instead that I’m just choosing one of my priorities, which is my health. It’s just about shifting your mentality. But if someone says, hey Kiran there’s a really famous drummer playing music tonight at this bar, do you want to go? To me, that’s a yes because I can learn something and maybe collaborate with them in future, or take a lesson, or something like that. When opportunities and choices are presented, I ask, do they have the potential to nurture any one of these five things? If they do, I say yes, if they don’t, I say no. I think this way of thinking is so in line with a feminist agenda. As women, the expectation for us to accommodate other people’s desires and choices is far more than what is placed on men. By that I mean, people think women should be the ones making sacrifices before men. Women are not taught at a young age to prioritize their dreams and their goals to the same extent that men are. If you’re living Atomically, you’re asking yourself, what matters to me in this moment? You are actively making your own choice. It’s liberating. It’s powerful.