By Perfect Number for Perfect Number
Visuals by Julia Mayorova
“One of the biggest problems I see in our culture is that we associate masculinity with strength (i.e. desirable) and femininity with weakness (i.e. undesirable). We first need to reframe that idea of what is feminine and what is masculine in a way that each can appeal to all genders.”
Musician and activist Kiran Gandhi, also known by her stage name, Madame Gandhi, may have first gone viral after free-bleeding during the London marathon, but she’s been breaking boundaries and challenging outdated notions of gender her entire life. She’s triple-majored in math, political science, and women’s studies at Georgetown, received a Master’s from Harvard Business School, toured with M.I.A. as a drummer, and drummed for artists like Krewella, Lizzo, and Kehlani, all while working on collaborations in the world of electrofeminist music and art.
Most recently, Kiran, who is based in Los Angeles, has focused on celebrating and elevating female voices, urging culture to place a higher value on femininity through her music (her EP Visions was released in October) and public speaking on fourth-wave feminism, modern gender equality, and menstrual care access.
Watch the new video for Madame Gandhi’s single”See Me Thru” and read PERFECT NUMBER’s interview with the rising star below.
PERFECT NUMBER: Can you tell us how you came up with your stage name?
MADAME GANDHI: My given name is Kiran Gandhi. I knew that I wanted to keep my last name in my musical project, Gandhi, because people often have a stereotypical understanding of what it means to be Indian. There’s not much diverse South Asian American representation in music and media today; I wanted to show a richer perspective.
Wherever you travel in India, people call you Madame. I like that. I also chose Madame because I wanted to give a nod towards feminine styles of leadership. When you have a female prime minister (or if we have a female president), we say, “Madame Prime Minister,” or “Madame President.” For me, Madame means leading, but leading from your feminine side. We still teach women and girls to aspire to masculine constructions of what it means to be assertive or be a leader. I’m not here to perform masculinity. I wanted Madame in my name for that reason.
PN: After so many other musical projects – like drumming, working with M.I.A, etc. – how did you decide to start your own project?
MG: When the story of me running the London Marathon while free bleeding went viral, I was asked around the world to speak about my viewpoints on gender liberation and menstrual equity. Once there, they’d often ask, “Can you play us songs, since you’re a musician?” I always told them I was the drummer for other people and didn’t have my own songs. But I realized after a while that I was in a fortuitous position: people already wanted to hear what I could create musically. So, I started producing my own beats in 2014 and over the next three years, I used my ideas to write and produce my own music.
PN: Your music career and political views became quickly intertwined after the London Marathon, it seems! How do you think about the fluidity between your music and political beliefs now?
MG: I very intentionally use my music now as a vehicle to talk about gender liberation. Many musicians feel they have to wait until they’ve made money from their music before they can give back via activism. It’s almost the reverse for me; I choose to make music because it’s such an effective way to communicate important ideas about peace, self-awareness, and equality.
PN: How does rhythm or musicality help to deliver an idea?
MG: When the rhythm is good, people listen more closely and are more likely to receive the message.
PN: Have music and feminism been intertwined for you your whole life?
MG: Yes, since childhood. I remember loving certain beats and music so much, but when I listened to the lyrics or watched the music videos on MTV, I’d be disappointed because the women were often represented in a two-dimensional way that reduced them to sex objects. I was critical of that from a young age. When the Spice Girls came around, it was the first time I connected with an artist in mainstream media. They were promoting girl power and everybody was with it. They also represented different types of femininity. I loved that.
PN: What other artists did you grow up listening to and inspired you?
MG: I loved listening to Lauren Hill. Thievery Corporation, TV on the Radio, and Fela Kuti from Nigeria. These were all my favorites, not just because the music itself was amazing, but also because they wove their ideas of how to make the world better into their music.
PN: Through your music and overall life experiences, do you see ways to explore femininity without being constrained to norms?
MG: Definitely. One of the biggest problems I see in our culture is that we associate masculinity with strength (i.e. desirable) and femininity with weakness (i.e. undesirable). We first need to reframe that idea of what is feminine and what is masculine in a way that each can appeal to all genders. For me, femininity is being self-aware, empathetic, and dialed into the body language of the people around you.
PN: Both of your short form albums, first “Voices” and then “Visions,” grapple with how to still be community-oriented in the midst of a very troubling world. Could you talk more about how you explored that in “Visions” specifically?
MG: “Visions” is about looking inward in order to imagine and create your best self outward. So often, we turn to Google or something outside ourselves to find the answer the question, “Who should I be?” There’s no problem with gaining inspiration from people around you, but the real work is in taking time to ask questions of yourself in a meditative, introspective way: “What is it that gives me joy?”; “What is it that makes me happy?”; “What is it that gives me fuel, so that I always have something to give back to make the world and my community a better place?” That is really what “Visions” is about. It’s about figuring out how to enact change in the world by using ourselves as individual vehicles for good.
PN: Once you have a sense of who you want to be from that introspection, how do you enact that in your day-to-day life?
MG: As creative people – or, really, as people in general – we have a choice of how we spend our time and how we spend our dollar. Every dollar we spend on something, whether it’s the clothing we put on our body or the bite of food we put in our mouth – is an implicit validation of the thing that we are consuming. For example, right now, I am trying to be intentional about partnering with brands who align with my mission to elevate and celebrate feminine voices and rebrand gender – which is why I was drawn to Perfect Number. I think it’s important for a clothing brand to be deliberate about the shapes and silhouettes they create, and the team that works behind the clothing.
If someplace like McDonald’s wanted to give me millions of dollars, I wouldn’t do it because I don’t agree with harming people with bad food just to make a quick dollar. Thinking about all this in regards to your normal, every day life is a way to define your position clearly and lead from who you really are.
PN: This brings us full circle to something you mentioned at the beginning: that taking the name “Madame” was a way to lead from a position of femininity. What does leading from that position mean to you overall?
MG: I understand it to mean leading with emotional intelligence, instead of brute force or aggression – something we see a lot with this current president. It means leading with a collaborative spirit instead of a competitive spirit. So often, the culture in our country insists that an individual must act alone in order to be successful. It’s a fallacy that for one person to thrive, somebody else has to suffer. I believe your value should be derived by how much you give, rather than how much you oppress.