By Ilana Kaplan for Tidal Magazine
Photographed by Kourtney Kyung Smith
Rather than view her solely as a musician (though that is how she got her start), it’s far more accurate to view Madame Gandhi as a cultural phenomenon. The Los Angeles–based artist launched her career after sending British rapper M.I.A. a homemade video of herself drumming, a bold move that would land her a spot on the star’s tour…while attending Harvard Business School. It was such an astonishing feat that she was asked to make it the topic of a 2014 TEDx Talk, the first of several and the gateway to her parallel life as a thought leader and philosopher (google atomic living right now). But at her core, Gandhi, who was lauded for running the 2015 London Marathon on her period without a menstrual product, may be most driven by activism. Every incarnation of her work reveals a hunger to fuel representation and challenge oppression, including her 2016 debut EP, Voices, and subsequent tour with feminist icon and singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco. We sat down with the 30-year-old Renaissance woman to talk about her upcoming EP, being woke as a toddler, and feminizing the patriarchy one feel at a time.
From a music standpoint, what does your next release look like?
I’m putting out a short EP soon, which is definitely an evolution from Voices. The standing title is Visions because I definitely believe in manifestation: bringing what you want for your life and for the world to reality. It’s very drums-oriented, sort of a Thievery Corporation–Portishead vibe. Lyrically, it covers themes like being the best version of yourself, being critical of the political system, knowing your personal power, and getting shit done. One of the songs I’m probably most excited for is about wellness and criticizing the capitalist system that forces us to eat badly. As for the longer-form body of work, that takes time; I’m working on it as often as I can. Blood Orange [a.k.a. Devonté Hynes] is the one who’s inspiring that album the most, because it’ll be a collage of my talks and my spoken word.
You consistently work with female producers on your projects. What is that like?
Every single day I’m trying to connect and collaborate with female producers. When I work with women, I always find it’s a true collaboration in the sense that both parties know what they’re bringing to the table, but nobody is trying to fight for credit. When I work with men, they have no problem taking more credit than is due. With women, both parties are giving to each other. I really thrive in a mutually supportive environment.
You toured with Ani DiFranco. Talk about that experience.
Oh my god, it was amazing to open up for someone whose audience is so thirsty for modern feminism. Ani was able to put out albums that were constantly commenting on the times. Also, knowing she is so prolific inspires me and reminds me to keep releasing music. At the time of the tour, she’d put out 40 albums, which, in this day and age is unheard of.
A lot of people recognize you as the woman who free-bled in a marathon. How do you feel about that?
I feel really grateful. I think it’s a metaphor for stepping into your own personal power and freedom. My feminism is deeply rooted in my passion and desire for power. Even if I’m at a group dinner and I feel like I can’t leave because it might be rude, that makes me feel like I’m not free. I want people to remember that we don’t have to adhere to social norms or codes that don’t work for us, so being known for free-bleeding makes sense.
Talk about the evolution of your interest in social activism.
My activism came before I learned to do anything musical. I was always fascinated by gender and have understood gender inequality since I was three or four years old. As a kid, I used to enjoy dressing up and wearing bright patterns, but at the same time, I liked to dress like a tomboy because it was comfortable. I understood that there were gender power dynamics I didn’t want to participate in. That was the root of it—and also having two parents who are very social-justice-minded.
In terms of our current political climate and economy, what daily changes are you making?
We haven’t built an alternative economy yet, so we are all participating in a capitalist system. But there are ways to radicalize it: We have the ability to vote with our dollar and give our money to black-owned, female-owned, and queer-and brown-owned businesses. And the reason why that’s so important is that if we don’t do that, our money will most likely go to white men who oftentimes are the ones contributing to our oppression, whether intentionally or not. I do that in many granular aspects of my work. For example, I have a birthday party coming up, and the person who owns the [venue] is a woman named Heather. The person doing my cake is a woman named Alison. We’re working with female-owned winemakers, queer-owned brewers, a female-owned bar. We have the choice to design our own lives and give our money conscientiously. I try to be extremely intentional about that.
What else have you been up to?
We just put out my TED Talk two weeks ago, which felt like a major win. It was about being aware of blind spots around diversity and inclusion. I talked about how, in my position, I might be talking on stage about an intersectional movement, but at the same time, playing music means potentially excluding hard-of-hearing folks. So I had an American Sign Language interpreter come up and not only bring the words to life but the melodies as well.
I’m also flying to London this week to work with Adidas on a campaign for a fragrance they’re launching. The focus of the campaign is that we are multidimensional beings: We operate in social settings, fitness settings, cultural settings. I felt really understood when I saw the deck they sent me. I was like, This is definitely my day: boxing, producing music, and practicing the drums.
When you look at the big picture, what is the impact you’d like to have?
As women, femmes, and folks in oppressed identities—LGBTQ identities and non-binary identities—oftentimes we think that we have to masculinize in order to win within the patriarchy. Or folks think that in order to be CEOs or presidents, we have to masculinize, learn to be unemotional, wear a suit. I really want to rip that paradigm and that assumption apart. I don’t think that strategy will lead to our happiness or our liberation, because it reaffirms the notion that masculinity is more desirable than femininity. Imagine if we prioritized emotional intelligence over ego-driven aggression. That’s the idea I espouse in my feminism.
Stylist Debbie Gonzales, Set Design Angeline Woo, Makeup Kris Jung, Hair Stylist Tanya Melendez, Producers Charlii Cruse And Masha Spaic.