Words by Jasmine Bourgeois For Tom Tom Magazine
Photos by Maggie West
Activist and musician Madame Gandhi is making major waves around the world with her newest album Visions. Visions is not only a collection of bops, but a call to action. Each song has a different powerful message about feminism, action, and getting work done. Gandhi’s brightness pops throughout, and combined with her outspoken advocacy, Visions draws a picture of hope moving forward.
Gandhi’s vision for the future goes beyond just her lyricism. In an effort to center feminine power, Gandhi recruited an ensemble of femme and GNC folks to work on this album. The video for hit single “Top Knot Turn Up” was made by a female-led team, which was crucial for Gandhi:
I think when you’re talking about political issues that femmes and female-identifying folks tend to face, it’s important to have the art itself made by folks who might have actually experienced that trauma and oppression in real life.
Visions invites us to think about change in ways that are tangible. Making change can be hard, and it can hurt — Gandhi is right with us in the struggle. But change doesn’t need to be about giving things up. Change can be sharing what we love, and letting that love for ourselves and others manifest.
You can’t just wake up all of a sudden and think, “I’m gonna be an activist today.” But you can wake up any day and say, “I really want to contribute to making somebody else’s life better, and I’d love to use something that I already have the fuel to do…
We need to do work, but we also need to take care of ourselves. Visions is a testament to the importance of energy and the necessity of care; care in our words; care in our actions; and care in our intentions. Making meaningful change is a process, and Visions asks us not just to think about where we’re going, but how we’re going to get there.
Tom Tom is happy to share the music video for one of her singles off her album, “Top Knot Turn Up”, as well as some behind-the-scenes footage. We talked with Madame Gandhi about her new album and her related projects.
TTM: The video for “Top Knot Turn Up” is so sick! I’d love to hear more about the creative process behind the video.
The video itself was made by a female-led team, which was really important to me. I think when you’re talking about political issues that femmes and female-identifying folks tend to face, it’s important to have the art itself made by folks who might have actually experienced that trauma and oppression in real life.
I also think that our creative industries have an inherent bias whereby if I put out a call for directors… for cinematographers, for any kind of creative rule really… the names that will come back to me are Tom, Michael, Harry, James, [and] Henry . But if I go out of my way to make sure I’m sourcing femmes and queer folks and women to work for me then, those are the folks who will get the opportunity, and I think that’s really important in this era and this culture.
My director, Justine Raczkiewicz, is a very very brilliant director. I think one thing that she did so well was push me — what does it mean to tie your hair in a top knot? What cultures is that hairstyle present in; what genders? Have we seen this hairstyle on all genders? And of course the answer is yes. How do we tie this symbolism of tying your hair in a top knot to the spirituality of connecting with your third eye; your own personal intuition; your own personal power? And that is obviously represented not only in the atomic hairstyle that I represent in the music video, but also of the virtual effects, the animations of electricity that runs through my hairstyle [and] our other actresses hairstyle, as well as some of the drums… Those themes were really prevalent.
And then of course there’s a whole political undertone of reproductive health, reproductive rights, [and] reproductive justice. In my music video, it’s important for my audience to understand that just because I show up for my body and my rights doesn’t mean I won’t show up for everyone’s body and everyone’s rights, regardless of your gender identity and belief system. I think those are some of the themes that my team really helped me bring to life.
Visions explores fourth wave feminism a bit, correct? Could you tell me a little bit more about what this means to you?
I think for me, past waves of feminism often taught us that we have to masculinize our identity in order to be taken seriously as leaders, and I think in certain constructs that strategy really did hold true, but I think it’s ineffective. I think the best thing that we can do is lead from our feminine, regardless of [our] gender identity. I think we have to be proud and brave to be collaborative [rather than] competitive. We have to be proud and brave to be emotionally intelligent instead of brute force aggressive, like number 45 in the white house showing and doing, and it obviously doesn’t work. I think, as Gloria Steinem said, we have to show that we are linked — that everyone has a purpose and something to offer, and that when we see the cooperative value in that, we all kind of rise together.
I think that fourth wave feminism and fourth wave femininity aspires to female styles of leadership, which is why I’ve always liked the phrase “the future is female”, because it puts femininity as something that’s aspirational, as opposed to something that’s constantly trying to catch up to what the men are doing.
When people ask me, “Kiran, how do we have more folks, more women, breaking into hip hip; how do we have more women breaking into CEO positions?”, my answer to them is usually [that] I’m not interested in where the men are going. I’m not interested in what the men have made, because those systems were never designed for us to begin with, so why would we aspire to something that was meant to exclude us when we can aspire to something that we’ve built ourselves with the intention to evolve and create inclusive spaces for? There is such a thing as toxic masculinity, obviously, that is often critiqued in society, and of course there’s such a thing as toxic femininity — I think we need a balance of both. Right now we live in a world that far more values the masculine, and my work seeks to challenge that.
Something I’ve always appreciated about your art is that it’s so seamlessly involved in your politics and activism. It feels like the various projects you’re involved in all feed into and off of one another. Can you tell me about some of the campaigns you’re working on right now, and how they tie into Visions?
I appreciate you saying that. I think that’s very much an intentional choice. I’ve never wanted to be… [in a] situation where I make a bunch of music and then later in my career I decide that I’m an activist. I think I want my music to challenge current viewpoints of the times and offer an alternative in the very lyrics and the music; the body of work, and also the people that are working on the music itself. My record just now had a 50/50 gender split, and even saying 50/50 feels inauthentic because some folks identify as female, some as male, but many folks also identify as gender nonconforming on the record too, which is very powerful.
I think that my experiences — bleeding at the London Marathon, or volunteering, or teaching, or even sampling direct quotes from my speech as I did in “Waiting for Me” is very intentional, so I can bring those two aspects of my life together. Every two weeks I go into the prison system and I’m teaching younger kids in the juvenile hall how to DJ [and] how to drum, and putting some of those ideas into music, like [the] lyrics in “Young Indian” or lyrics in “Waiting for Me”. [This was] really really important to me so that people are also motivated to challenge their everyday norms.
And then of course the other campaign that I’m also working on and with is menstrual health and equity. I have lyrics in my work that are like, I will own my voice and say it no matter what phase of the moon I am on that day — that’s in “Young Indian”. In “Top Knot Turn Up”, [I sing]: “my time is not your property when I’m productive like my ovaries” — that’s another very femme-forward lyric. Those kinds of [lyrics] are where I rep my commitments to the pursuit to menstrual health and equity.
This album is largely a call to action, and encouragement for folks to make the world a better place, even when it seems really hard to do so. What are some tangible steps folks can take in that direction?
That’s a great question. I think people think they have to do something on a major scale, but I think the most important step is asking yourself, what is your sphere of influence? Who are you interfacing with everyday? Whether it’s on your social media, or it’s your own community. I think it’s actually way harder to try and influence your own family and friends than it is to just blindly post on social media to some audience that you don’t necessarily know. I try my best to have interesting and difficult conversations with family members and friends so I can practice explaining my own values and viewpoints of the world with kindness and with empathy.
I think [something] that people can do is identify what gives them joy. How can they optimize for their own joy? So often we feel guilty for being able to do something that we love, but guilt is such a wasted emotion. If you’re in a position of privilege, instead of feeling bad that you have privilege, or trying to act like it doesn’t exist, you should own your privilege fully and say: how do I take that privilege and turn it into something that can do good for others? Because no one can wrong you for that. No one can blame you for where you were born or what privilege you were dealt, but I do think each person has a responsibility to take the privilege they were given and do something meaningful with it. In my case, I do think it’s a privilege to play my music, to sing my songs, to perform all over the world. Taking that privilege and actually saying something with the music and having a message is how I try my best to make a difference with it. I think that’s something that people can think about more critically, and apply to their day-to-day life.
I think it’s also hard to shift. You can’t just wake up all of a sudden and think, “I’m gonna be an activist today.” But you can wake up any day and say, “I really want to contribute to making somebody else’s life better, and I’d love to use something that I already have the fuel to do because I love dancing or I love gardening or I love singing; I’d love to use something that I already enjoy doing… and share it with somebody else to make their day better.” Not in a way that’s condescending, or that makes the other person feel like charity, but more in a mutually enjoyable way, where the other person can see you’re just doing something you love and you’re trying to share it with them.
Watch the video for “Top Knot Turn Up”, as well as footage from behind the scenes, below!