By Mark Braboy for Vibe
VIBE: One of the songs that stood out to me on your Voices EP was the song “Her.” What’s the inspiration behind that message?
Madame Gandhi: Well, it was the song I’ve made in the quickest amount of time. That song was probably made in 48 hours where we laid down the beat, me and my friend Alexia, who co-produced it with me. I knew exactly in my head what I wanted the beat to be. She was super encouraging and was like, “Just go into the sound booth and start laying down some ideas.” It was the first take and we used it.
The idea behind that song is women are constantly underestimated and pushed around. We take it because we’ve grown up being used to that almost, being passed over for opportunities or people not thinking we’re as good at reaching our fullest potential as we are. It’s kind of as a warning, it’s like, “Look past your prejudices and appoint her! Put the women on in your life, give them a chance because we’re going to do an extraordinary job.” But then then when the sirens come in when the drum solo comes in, and the aggression comes in it’s like, “Naw, now you’ve crossed the line. Now you’ve completely underestimated us, you’ve threatened us, you caused us oppression and harassment, we’re out.” And not only are we out, we’re going to go start our own amazing, alternative parallel universe.
And “Gandhi Blues?” What was the writing process like for that song?
You know, I had to travel [around that time]. It was in the fall of 2015 and I was dating somebody I was really into, I was smitten over this person. I remember having to travel two or three weeks at a time because I was being asked to speak at colleges and universities about menstrual health and hygiene, about women’s equality, about the election coming up, about Donald Trump’s sexism… and obviously, my work is so important to me. But I also felt a deep sense of sadness that I had to keep leaving my own personal life and having to feel like I had to choose.
“Gandhi Blues” obviously references Mahatma Gandhi, who was known for being the father of his own country and liberating India from the British, but was also heavily criticized for being a terrible family man, for not being wonderful to his wife and his kids. That trade and that decision is so difficult for so many activists. If you look at Nina Simone’s life, I share a birthday with her, she’s long known for being in abusive relationships and having to choose between her career and her personal life. So “Gandhi Blues” was a vulnerable song, where I wanted to be honest about how I feel with that stuff. How I wonder if I’ll ever have a full-time partner in my life just because of how my life has been and the constant movement and changes that has to happen for me to do my work.
This idea about being a feminist often paints a very aggressive and angry picture of women or those who have the belief of gender equality. I really wanted “Gandhi Blues” to be in the middle of the album, track three, to say that my brand of feminism is about celebrating our fullest spectrum of our humanity and that the people who do this best tend to be women. Men in society are not allowed to show the fullest spectrum of their personality, but women are and we often get criticized for it. You’re too emotional, you’re too needy. I think emotional strength and vulnerability are some of the most powerful things you can have. So I wanted that song to be there to say you’ll hear me rapping and talking about women’s equality and you’ll also hear me heartbroken and missing a lover like many of us had in our pasts.
It seems like those who follow their dreams eventually must sacrifice love. Do you aspire to have more of that at some point?
That’s such a good question and if I could figure out a beautiful and healthy balance between love and my career, then I would have achieved something really big and too would be able to set an example for others. But to be honest, most men were able to pursue their career and the woman was expected to marry her man and follow him wherever his career took him. He didn’t have to make that trade off, he had the love of his life and he also had his career. Women are the ones expected to make the sacrifice, y’know?
Now we’re living in a world where many young women are accessing the same levels of education and job opportunities as their male counterparts, but obviously, we’re not telling men, “Go sacrifice your career and be with the love of your life,” because we want everybody to have access to having a healthy balance of both. So I suppose one of the biggest challenges for women today is how can you balance your career with your love life, and if I could figure it out it would be a good example for the next generation of young women.
What was one of the most important lessons you learned while working for Interscope?
I give Interscope records hella credit, which is why I dressed conservatively and just did my work. I really did my work and I did good work. I stayed there ’til late, I spent so much time with the numbers on Spotify and YouTube, I was such a young hustler. I would deliver reports to my boss early. I would say, “Look at these patterns that I found between Kendrick Lamar’s album sales and Spotify streams. I would notice that when rappers get arrested for something or when the blogs would go crazy for a rapper, the Spotify streams would go through the roof but the YouTube views wouldn’t be as strong—just interesting patterns.
I was really focused on doing extraordinary work and allowing the work to lead. I had a lot of support from those who I worked with at Interscope and while I do believe that sexism and prejudice exist in the industry, especially for women who tend to present even more feminine, I think that often is a blessing and a curse for them because you can use your femininity to get ahead if you’re working with a lot of different men because men can be easily manipulated by sex and beauty.
I intentionally would dial down my femininity, beauty and wear playful, childish or conservative clothing and deliver good work. That was kind of the thing I learned during my time there. It’s an annoying sacrifice that women must make, but it was kind of effective in me winning the team at Interscope and me having not only having Steve Berman, but Brooke Michael write my recommendation letter for Harvard. And to have so many people in the office support me when I went to go drum for M.I.A. Instead of saying it’s a conflict of interest, they were my cheerleaders.
Why don’t we see enough women involved in music technology?
From a young age, I think women are socialized [to believe] that they’re going to be more valued for their looks. You give one gender 24 hours in a day and you also give the other 24 hours in a day, but society is telling one gender, “Okay, but you better make sure your legs are shaved and you better make sure you have some makeup, and you better make sure your hair is done, and you better make sure you have a nice manicure.” Then whether she realizes it or not, she’s spending 25 extra minutes in the shower, 40 minutes each week to get her hair done at the salon, an hour and a half to get her nails done, let’s just put it all together and say five to ten hours a week just on looks alone. That’s five to ten hours that the boys are putting in playing on their computers, watching YouTube tutorials on how to use Ableton, getting better at mathematics, getting better at their drums.
Overtime, one gender is far surpassing the other gender in terms of their capabilities and skill set. By the time it comes to apply for jobs and opportunities, boys tend to be better and far more ahead of the game because over time they became more comfortable as kids with learning tech and having more access to that than girls. I find it [to be] a really difficult battle because I do enjoy being beautiful, of course. Anyone does, we’re only human. But I think men don’t have to put such a disproportionate amount of time each week on their looks as women have to. So that’s one huge, huge part of it from childhood.
The second part is that I do think a lot of it comes from the men who are still in power to hire women, who choose who gets the role and I do think there are levels of unconscious bias. Not only when it comes to sexism, but it also comes into racism, homophobia and trans-phobia where we think certain people, based on how they look, are more qualified for a job than others. That takes a lot of work, to undo years and years of sexism and racism and homophobia in this country. But I do think that the more—if we even had one person of making it to these top levels, if we had one woman make it to these top levels, I do think she or they or he has a responsibility to see to it that those biases are counterbalanced and more people of diverse backgrounds get hired.
Is that one of your objectives when you include young, women artists of color on stage with you at your shows?
Definitely! I thought that I was going to go to Harvard Business School, graduate and go work at Spotify and be someone of the music industry, responsible for change on the inside. But I’m glad you’re asking me these questions because one thing I’ve been recently saying that I believe more and more, is I’m actually less interested in people of color, women or various marginalized groups applying into these “bro-y” tech cultures. Instead, I want us to just go start our own thing. I want to see women start their own music tech companies that deliver extraordinary value to the communities they serve. Or men, people of color, trans people or queer communities starting their own tech companies to make the world a better place.
Do you have any new music on the way?
Hell yeah! I have a song inspired by Fela Kuti called “Bad Habits.” I have another inspired by a Brazilian trap artist out in São Paulo called Topknot Turn Up, which is about women putting their hair up in a bun and getting their work done. I have a song that I’m about to finish in Detroit, it’s a total lover’s song. It’s about just being so inspired by your lover and just being with them and not really tripping about the rest of the world. So those are the three that I’m most excited about.
How did you first get into music and even playing the drums at such a young age?
I loved music since I was three or four-years-old, because I love pop culture. I grew up in Manhattan, and the bus used to come pull up in front of my parents’ house. I had this amazing funky, black bus driver whose name was Harrison. Harrison would play classical music when he would go and pick up all the kids in front of parents, and as soon as we pulled away, he would change it back to the hip-hop station, Hot 97. We would be in the back, just kids, learning all the rap songs.
He would mute words like the n-word or the f-word, because they kind of felt bad, but at the same time he was like, “Kids, this is educational. You need to know what’s going on in the world.” We would listen to Nas, we would listen to all that. Illmatic was poppin’ at that time. I just remember falling in love with it and I loved that I wasn’t allowed to listen to it because my parents were Indian, they were naïve. It was the Clinton era, [Bill] Clinton had a whole campaign against black America and [promoted] mass incarceration and so he scared a lot of people into believing that there was so much horrible gang culture. That made me love it even more, because it felt like truth. I think that was my first foray into music. It’s that it represented something people weren’t talking about, but that felt honest. That showed me another part of life in New York that I didn’t know about.
The drums were a different story. Whether I play this symbol, that symbol, no one gives a f**k. It’s liberating and I also know it was rebellious for a girl to be playing drums. I felt there was enormous power in it and most people didn’t play drums, so I already felt like as a 10-year-old, I was getting gigs. [Laughs]
Why be independent and handle everything on your own?
I think my dad was good about making us independent. We lived in New York City so he would teach me how to buy a subway card and then force me to go and run the card myself even though I was seven or eight-years old and he could have just easily bought it for us. Just small, street smart skill sets and he was big on us taking initiative. My parents used to use that word a lot and I was the oldest [of three children] so I got that a lot.
How do you go about weaving feminism into your music?
I only care about feminism and music, so it’s easy to weave them. But I will say that one challenge that sometimes I talk about is that I’m a very cerebral person and sometimes cerebral speaking doesn’t have swag to it. So you can’t be bumping hella cerebral s**t while people are just trying to smoke and have a good time and drive around in their car. I think a challenge I’m facing right now is how do I take my intelligence and my confidence in my ability to speak about these issues very well and still put it into a seamless, musical body of work that’s accessible. I find that to be very challenging.
If make something super simple I don’t feel like it’s authentic to me and then if I make it hella complicated, no one’s trying to play it in a club. No one is trying to f**k to feminism. I mean, I wanna live in that world. [Laughs]
That’s legit. In a perfect world, “Her” would be a modern slow jam, because it’s so sensual.
Exactly! One other thing I’d like to say is that my message is about celebrating femininity in every person, because each of us came from a man and from a woman. We have both male and female energy, it’s just that we live in a society where we value masculinity more than we value femininity and it’s so bad that we use it as an insult, like calling someone a “pussy.” Pussy is not an insult, pussy is divine and open and a combination of things, and so many things can go in and out of it, it’s a completely divine organ. We say “have a pair of balls,” but if you even lightly tap a pair of balls they’re completely in pain! So how did that even happen? That’s one thing, if we’re really going to look at anatomy.
The other thing I wanted to say is that my most joyful conversations when it comes to race and gender in America particularly are always with black men, because black men have experienced oppression when it comes to racism and therefore have the empathy to have a conversation intelligently with women to at least have the sense to put themselves in a woman’s shoes to understand what the oppression might feel like. But if you talk to someone who’s never experienced systemic oppression in their life, like potentially a straight cisgender white man, it’s very difficult for them to even believe the kinds of sexism or racism we experience daily, just from looks on the street, to walking into a store, or even simply existing.
Two of the things that I believe hinders a lot of us men of color from being better toward our women is that we have “tunnel vision,” where we knowingly or unknowingly get so caught up in our struggles that we neglect yours, and for others we often fall victim to drinking the proverbial heteropatriarchal Kool-Aid.
I love that you just said that because while I could blame men for it. I want men to take more responsibility, but I do think that if you experienced oppression and then someone gives you power, you are so clinging to that power. If I give you racial oppression, but then I give you sexual power over women, you’re gonna want to take it because it’s the only power we’re giving you in this f**ked up hierarchical society. That’s the reason why black men have stood on the shoulders of black women for so long. It shouldn’t be acceptable and because of the very empathy we’re talking about, you would think that a lot of men would undo it, but I do think that’s why black men have a larger capacity to not contribute to further sexism than white men.
The ranking system is the problem and that’s the concept of “The Future is Female” for me. It’s about women being treated the way we deserve to be treated but more than that, it’s this idea that male energy tends to rank things like, for me to win you must lose and it’s a game, it’s about ego and competitiveness. Obviously, we all need a little of that because that’s motivation, but we’re too far in the extreme of that to where we’re just killing people and raping the earth.
It’s this whole Donald Trump hetero-hyper masculinity thing, it’s very dark. And to me, if you go all the way on the other side, the feminine, instead of the world being ranked, what if the world was linked? Like, you have a skillset, I have a skillset, we come together, one plus one equals 11 now and not two. Where we each can contribute to the joy of delivering value to someone else. I wish we were judged and ranked if anything, based on how much joy and value we are contributing to others, but that to me is the hyper-feminine side of the spectrum.
I also think that this idea that women are too emotional—I think if you go on the hyper side, of course. Can we let our emotions color our vision, 100 percent! But that’s part of our journey as women when to use our emotions for good versus when we must play them down and use logic and reason. But men have the same thing and we don’t criticize men for it, it’s called ego! The male ego is one of the most powerful and destructive forces on earth. It’s the reason we have war, it’s the reason presidents like Donald Trump get elected, because when men go too far on their emotional side of the spectrum it’s called ego and it’s contributing to the darkness of the earth. That’s what men and women can learn from each other. Women can learn from men, but men can also learn from the women in terms of being a little more emotionally intelligent, how to manage that ego and how to be more self-disciplined.
At the Pitchfork Festival earlier this year, you gave an excerpt from Gabrielle Gamboa’s essay “New Rites of Transition,” featured in The Feminist Utopia Project. How did that book inspire you?
I ran the London Marathon, free bleeding in 2015, and this woman in LA compiled this book, found me and gave it to me as a gift. That whole year after that story went viral, so many wonderful people throughout the world were mailing me gifts and/or meeting up in person and giving me something, so I got exposed to a lot of work. But that particular one, I loved how simple the message was and it’s almost heartbreaking. A feminist utopia is just where a girl feels like she can leave her home safely? That’s the f**king utopia?! Damn!
People think that a feminist utopia is that men are dying, women are royalty, blah blah blah. She’s like, “I want to leave the house without someone making fun of my ambition. I want to leave the house feeling safe in my own body. I want to leave the house feeling free and safe enough to voice my own opinion when I have an opinion. It’s like, damn that’s the utopia? Damn! I’m getting emotional just thinking about it, because it makes me so mad. That’s why I picked that piece, because it’s also so humbling and illuminating what we’re talking about.
We haven’t really spoken [in a while]. We did the tour in 2013 and 2014, and I remember when I was in Brazil in 2014 until maybe the top of 2015, I hit her up and I was just telling her I was traveling. She was like, “It’s so wonderful to hear from you, Brazil is amazing, you’re going to love it. Record music while you’re there,” which I did. But yeah, I played Pitchfork with her in 2013 and I got to play Pitchfork as Madame Gandhi in 2017, and it felt like a beautiful growth moment.
Beyond just my relationship with M.I.A., I think the best thing for me that came out of that tour, which I’m only realizing many years later as an adult, is how much I learned when it came to management because I was very dialed in and I’m always very intellectually curious so I wasn’t really paying attention to the fans and that kind of thing. I was more like, how are they managing the tour buses, how are they managing the flights, the hotels, the sound check, the transportation, the in-ear monitors, the mix, the life. What’s appropriate? Are you allowed to change the set list? That is what really inspired me from that tour, because I took everything from that tour and applied it to my own managing skills.
One of the more prominent conversations in and out of the feminist community are transgender individuals. As a feminist, do you consider trans-women to be women? Why or why not?
Of course, 100 percent. Anyone who wants to be female, you’re completely welcome to claim your femininity. Obviously, feminists of the past have been trans-misogynistic, because we often feel the need to say, “No, we’re going to tackle the women issue, and then the gay issue, or then the trans issue, and then the color issue.” You can’t do that because all of these identities are complete, as we say now, intersectional and they’re all related to each other. And that’s why feminism also got such a bad reputation from other women, because it was exclusionary and we are absolutely not talking about that in 2017. A fourth wave feminist message is 100 percent inclusive and it’s celebratory of femininity in all of us.
I would also add that I rep “The Future is Female” and many criticize it for being trans-misogynistic because A: female refers to anatomy, which maybe someone doesn’t have even though they claim their own femininity. And B: because the person who started it in the 1970s did have a trans-misogynistic background where she wasn’t interested in including members of the trans community. I am a firm believer in new generations ascribing new meaning to phrases that have political relevance and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. To me, “The Future is Female” is about living in a world where we value femininity, but we value being collaborative and being emotionally intelligent. We value feminine traits and if anything, the transgender community has been light years ahead of this message. So for me or for anyone to exclude anyone from the transgender community, it would be completely asinine given that they’re the ones who have been brave enough to carry this message long before many feminists themselves.