By Elyssa Goodman for Billboard
“I want music to make feminism culturally relevant. I want my music to make gender equality culturally even more relevant.”
The word disruption is thrown around a lot these days, in tech, in business, to describe upstarts’ interruption of the status quo with something better. But maybe it should be used more often in the music world, too; especially to describe someone like Kiran Gandhi.
On a warm summer evening in the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art, flocks of people have gathered to see Kiran Gandhi, aka Madame Gandhi, perform. The crowd is a sea of city dwellers in neutral tones and tourists trying to dress like them. And soon Madame Gandhi appears, a vision in bright yellow, her bleach-blonde hair with dark roots twisted into braids, yellow glasses on her face, body painted from neck to ankle in yellow, white, black, and red triangles (“Hierarchy is like this,” she will say later, joining her thumbs and forefingers into an upward-facing triangle.
“If you flip hierarchy,” she says, making a downward-facing triangle, “it’s like the female energy. It’s like a pussy. Hierarchy-free.”). Yellow, that color of brightness, of boldness, of joy, is a fitting one for Gandhi, whose first name actually means “First Light of Sun in the Morning” in Hindi and Sanskrit and who seeks to cast her own light upon those surrounding her. Speaking with a forceful presence and clarity into a yellow microphone, she introduces herself.
Gandhi is a self-described electrofeminist artist who blends not just electronic, but rap, trap, and pop influences to, as she says, “celebrate and elevate women’s voices” through her music. Both a musician and an activist, she has been influenced by a wide range of artists, from ‘90s riot grrrls, Nas, and Spice Girls to tUnE-yArDs, TV on the Radio and St. Vincent. Walking across the stage with purpose, defiantly staring into the crowd, Gandhi possesses a confidence and charisma one might not expect from someone who had spent most of their 28 years behind a drum kit, a skill she acquired after “hundreds of terrible shows”, she laughs. She’s still on the drums as Madame Gandhi today, and there are two different kits on stage, one standing with congas and cowbells and one without, which she plays in between singing and rapping or at the same time. Throughout the performance, she’ll also use the looper pedal, perform spoken word poetry and read from feminist texts. “I want to build songs and visuals that encourage women and people to be their most free and authentic [selves],” she says of the Madame Gandhi project. By offering up authenticity and honesty, she feels she can forge a direct line of communication that has the potential to change someone’s point of view. “I want to live in a world where I’m using my art to actually show young women and men especially that they can be whomever they want to be, they can express themselves how they want to, they can and should pursue their craft to the fullest.”
Gandhi began the project in 2015 after her highly-publicized London marathon run, during which she free-bled to bring attention to the period-shaming and menstruation-related injustices women face around the world, like inability to access hygiene products and stigma against the body’s natural processes from their communities. After doing so many interviews about her decision to do this, Gandhi felt she could instead be reaching out to people in her own way. “I realized I had so many ideas that one way to express myself was through interviews, through speaking, but my main other way to express myself was through my music,” Gandhi says. “I really wanted to write a body of work that achieved that.” The Madame Gandhi project has existed since then, so named for the term of respect used for women in high-ranking, powerful positions: Indira Gandhi, India’s first and only female prime minister, was Madame Gandhi; Hillary Clinton was Madam Secretary.
Yet these are only a few of Gandhi’s disruptions to this point.
Gandhi began playing the drums when she was eight, on a Mapex kit she actually still used until last year (she has since switched, perhaps accordingly, to a gold and yellow DW set). Women on the sticks were rare, she saw, and she loved the rebelliousness, the freedom of the instrument, a far cry from the right-and-wrong she had previously known on the piano. She drummed all through college at Georgetown, even doing an independent study in the instrument her senior year. At night, she’d go out to places like 18th Street Lounge to hear Thievery Corporation and eventually got close enough with the band to sit in for them when they needed a drummer during Bonnaroo in 2010. She moved out to L.A. after graduating, playing in local bands while working as the first ever digital marketing analyst at Interscope Records. A casual joke to M.I.A.’s representation during a meeting at Interscope about how cool it would be if the singer had a drummer on her next tour turned into a year-long gig for Gandhi as M.I.A’s drummer (all while Gandhi was making her way through Harvard Business School, which she completed in 2015 with an MBA). “The idea of going to a place [where] no one’s competing because the opportunity doesn’t even exist yet, creating the opportunity, felt really joyful to me. It felt like it was pushing boundaries, it was also collaborative, it was…how can I take what I do really well and add value to whatever you’re already doing so that I get to work with you?” she says. “That was the case for drumming for M.I.A., that was the case building out the digital marketing analytics aspect of Interscope Records…Now it’s the same thing in the music industry.”
Madam Gandhi’s debut EP, Voices, was released at the end of last year. A vulnerable wave through the intricacies of love, power, femininity and heartbreak, Voices was Gandhi’s way of beginning this journey of expression, of showing that what are thought of as traditionally “female” qualities, so frequently demeaned as weak in both American and global culture, are actually far more powerful than anyone may have dreamed, women themselves included. Voices features both “Her,” an ode to women in leadership which currently has over 100,000 plays on Spotify, and “The Future is Female,” which became a viral hit after the D.C. Women’s March earlier this year. “The Future is Female,” Gandhi has said, is a message of hope that one day we will live in a world where women’s qualities are valued and praised equally to men’s, where emotional intelligence outweighs ego, where collaboration is celebrated, where women are linked and not ranked.
Gandhi promotes these qualities in her songs but also in her performances. At MoMA, for example, she assembles a coterie of talented women onstage to perform with her, from L.A.- based electro-pop singer Quiñ and rapper/songwriter Gizzle, to Berlin-based electronic/Afrobeat DJ Sarah Farina and New York bassist Taja Cheek. They’re a rainbow, wearing blue and pink and white and red, a collective of powerful women Gandhi brought together. “When I work with women, I feel it’s a lot more peaceful, collaborative in the flow, it’s more dialed in, people are picking up and reading emotional cues while still being productive,” Gandhi says. “It’s actually still so unique to see a bunch of alpha women work together.” Gandhi prefers to work with women not just onstage, but off—her agent, sound engineer, costumer, merchandise manager and tour manager are all female as well.
It seems Gandhi’s instincts are leading her in the right direction. Her South by Southwest performance was named one of SPIN magazine’s favorite of the entire event; she performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival, Hopscotch, and Lightning in a Bottle this year; and she recently performed on an episode of Amazon’s new series “I Love Dick.” Yet despite her successes, there’s so much more Gandhi wants. “I want music to make feminism culturally relevant. I want my music to make gender equality culturally even more relevant,” she says. She wants to put out music faster (though she has another single coming out with Gizzle at the end of September), she wants to grow her team, she wants to learn how to put her work comfortably in others’ hands, she wants to inspire people to find their own voices. But while she tackles these dilemmas, she maintains her original sense of disruption, of knowing exactly how to make a space for herself in a market and a social climate that needs someone like her. As she says, “I’m trying to contribute something that doesn’t currently exist because that’s what I do best.”