Ms. Magazine: Madame Gandhi on Creativity and Feminism—During COVID and Beyond

By Karla Strand for Ms. Magazine 

In 2015, I read an article about a woman who ran the London Marathon that April while on the first day of her period and without a tampon. That woman, Kiran Gandhi, finished the 26.2 mile race (her first) in 4 hours, 49 minutes and 11 seconds.

That was also the year that Gandhi completed her MBA at Harvard, while performing as the touring drummer with musical powerhouse M.I.A. Because how do you choose between a Harvard acceptance and a national tour? If you’re Kiran Gandhi, you don’t; you do both.

The Ms. Q&A: Madame Gandhi on Creativity and Feminism—During COVID and Beyond
Madame Gandhi. (Savanna Ruedy)

By 2019, Gandhi had released two EPs as Madame Gandhi, opened for Ani Difranco, toured with Thievery Corporation, played Bonnaroo and numerous other festivals, and been named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in music for 2019.

I was lucky to talk with Madame Gandhi on the eve of DJing (for the second time) the Ms. Foundation for Women’s annual gala event, Feminist Block Party “Roar for Women“—being held virtually this year due to COVID. We talked about the pandemic, creativity, bravery, ecofeminism and more.

Madame Gandhi: I really am craving live. I really miss connecting with people and the excitement of travel. It only makes me feel more grateful for the time that we did have 2017, ‘18, ‘19 traveling the world and being with people. It makes you really feel so excited for whenever that possibility will happen again.

In this moment, there’s two kinds of virtual experiences: one is truly live, where I’m on Instagram or Facebook, and I can see the comments coming in. And so people are watching and engaging simultaneously. Those are actually fulfilling because they’re still a connection and, in fact, the connection ends up being intimate in a different way because the folks are reacting in real time and asking questions in real time and feedbacking in real time. Whereas when you’re performing, there’s of course cheers and dancing, but someone can’t ask you, “Hey Kiran, why did you write that lyric?” Or “Hey Kiran, where did you get that shirt from?” Or “Hey Madame Gandhi, this is my favorite song of yours.” They can’t say that if I’m on a stage, so that part is unique and is special and I am digging into that. I do go live pretty much every day either for a performance or an interview with somebody. So I love that.

The second kind of virtual is when I have to do something pre-recorded and then submit it. And I really don’t see much value in that. I’m happy that I tried it out a couple times, just to be able to give [it a try], but I don’t think that that kind of content is interesting. I just don’t connect with it as much. It’s a prerecorded thing and people are just watching it and unless it’s produced really nicely, I don’t know if it delivers value to the audience.

So I think the best way to do it is truly live instead of pre-taped from an iPhone.

The Ms. Q&A: Madame Gandhi on Creativity and Feminism—During COVID and Beyond
Madame Gandhi. (Djeneba Aduayom)

KJS: I appreciate virtual and I hope it sticks around actually after COVID, because I think it opens these types of events up to a whole new audience as well. 

What have you found helps you stay creative and stay inspired? I think it’s been harder for some of us to stay inspired through all of this. 

MG: Basically I think that there’s two main things that help my own personal creativity.

One is true alone time. Because I’m usually always around people, which means I’m stimulated by what’s directly in front of me. I’m stimulated by the fact that we’re on a plane, and now we’re going here, and now we have to check into the hotel, and now we’re gonna get ready for the show—and all these different things are immediate stimuli which makes it harder to actually go to a creative place.

With both a mixture of time on my hands and and being truly alone in my own loft, I find myself just singing a lot more. So I think one thing for those of us who are quarantining with people, finding that time to be alone—going for a walk, singing into your iPhone—for me, that’s the best way I’ve been writing new music. It actually feels a lot easier to write in this way instead of having all the immediate stimuli that require my attention in the present.

And then the second thing I rely on for my creativity, ironically, is a routine. When I was here in the first couple of weeks, it was like a new life! I wasn’t used to being in quarantine and by myself, so to develop a routine was really good. I do the same kind of daily flow every day and that marks my evenings for time to do creative things, and I really do love that.

The Ms. Q&A: Madame Gandhi on Creativity and Feminism—During COVID and Beyond
Gloria Steinem and Madame Gandhi at the Ms. Foundation Gala in 2017.

KJS: Super excited for the Ms. Foundation for Women Feminist Block Party tomorrow. Can you tell me how you got involved with the Ms. Foundation and what it was like to meet Gloria Steinem?

MG: So, the first time I met Gloria was after I ran the London marathon. And it was a meeting between me, Gloria, Jennifer Weiss-Wolf and Miki Agrawal at Gloria’s home on the upper east side of Manhattan. She’d invited the three of us over because we each were tackling menstrual health through different lenses: mine was through my music and activism, and Nikki’s was through the company that she had built called Thinx, which is period underwear, and then of course Jennifer Weiss-Wolf through policy and actually fighting to combat the tampon tax in [New York state].

Meeting Gloria was powerful because this is someone who’s been doing this work for decades and is so brilliant and leads with love and leads with kindness and leads with intelligence and she still has that energy all these years later. She still radiates with this beauty; she’s very beautiful—and I don’t mean that in a Hollywood way, I really mean it in a soul-shining way. So seeing her again and being able to DJ and watch her dance, that felt really rewarding when I did the Ms. Foundation gala [in 2017]. And I don’t know if she’ll be watching tomorrow, but I hope she does and I hope to play some songs that make her dance.

The Ms. Q&A: Madame Gandhi on Creativity and Feminism—During COVID and Beyond
The group of menstrual activists —Miki Agrawal, Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, Gloria and Kiran—at Gloria’s home in 2015.

KJS: I want to talk a little bit about your feminist awakening. I know that seeing strong women in music and in pop culture had really helped you in this exploration. I’m curious: How would you describe your feminism?

MG: I would say my feminism comes from a place of positivity. It comes from a place of love. It comes from a place of valuing the feminine and what feminine energy brings to the table.

I think we are constantly aspiring to masculine standards, instead of being brave enough to see what it is that femininity brings to the table. I’m interested in valuing emotional intelligence and valuing collaboration instead of reaffirming these problematic norms that come out—like brute force aggression and competition and things that are constantly reaffirmed by patriarchal norms today.

So my feminism really is about valuing the feminine regardless of gender identity.

And then the second is using social media, and the fact that in this fourth wave, we have social media to really unify people around gender liberation and gender-nonconformity.

KJS: It’s such a great tool.

You mention brute-force patriarchy and you don’t have to look any farther than COVID and how it’s been monumentally mishandled! And we see, as usual, the effects are felt most by women and those of other historically marginalized populations, and this is devastating. But Sonya Renee Taylor, in the virtual commencement event you did with her last week—which was awesome, by the way—she and others have mentioned that we don’t want to go back to the “norm” before COVID. 

MG: Right, it was problematic!

KJS: Right, because the “norm” is patriarchy, is violent, is individualistic, is consumerism—so I wonder if we can look at COVID as presenting us with opportunities for change. What role do you see feminism or women more generally playing in that change-making?

MG: I think it’s the bravery to genuinely seek the best outcome for as many people as possible. The political system forces most politicians to have to think about their own re-election, their own candidacy, instead of just thinking about optimizing for the greater good. I think there is a feminine spirit, maybe it’s the fact that we are mothers—there’s something about the feminine spirit that calls for care.

And like I said, the more that that spirit wins out and is effective, the more all genders adopt that spirit. It shouldn’t be a feminine thing, it should be something that everyone aspires to have. But unfortunately, we are in such a world that takes so much offense to being feminine, that we try not to be. We try to perform aggression or violence even when we can clearly see it’s not working.

I think that fluid forms of business wanting to unlock value, and believing that it’s possible to unlock value for all parties involved, is something that I really enjoy and prioritize instead of trying to think of how we can exploit the other party for our own gain. That’s not sustainable and it only hurts us in the long run.

So these are some of the ways that I would love to see a shift in a post-COVID world. I really do think we are experiencing a feminization of the planet with the fact that we can’t go out and use our cars, or the fact that nature is rejuvenating because we are manufacturing less and consuming less.

The Ms. Q&A: Madame Gandhi on Creativity and Feminism—During COVID and Beyond
Madame Gandhi. (Rikki Wright)

KJS: One of the things you’ve talked about in the past is how we all have unique characteristics, and you need to find that thing you’re good at and you find joy in—then use that to provide a service even or to help support people or organizations in new ways. You’ve done that throughout your entire career.

But I think finding that ‘thing’ and building the confidence that you have something to offer can be hard for girls. I wonder if you have any ideas about how we might encourage that in them.

MG: I think it’s about encouraging risk-taking. I think it’s about encouraging creativity. I think it’s about fostering safe space for self-expression because someone won’t even know that they love something unless they’re given the chance to try it.

But a lot of times in hyper-competitive environments, I would see a lot of people not doing something that may have given them a lot of joy because they weren’t already the best at it—which is a ridiculous notion because if somebody else is good at something, it has nothing to do with you! I remember myself, even as a young person, not really trying out a lot of activities because you would see other kids already excelling at them.

So I think it’s about creating parental strategies, classroom strategies that celebrate differences and foster psychological safety, so that kids can be free and learn.

KJS: It also helps to see women like you in popular culture as well and free-bleeding as they’re running a marathon! That is so powerful. 

MG: Yeah, I know I get inspired by seeing other girls or women who are brave. It makes me happy. A lot of times we’re all forced to conform.

KJS: I think it’s also in the way we talk about it, and I appreciate that you are talking about bravery as opposed to fearlessness. Because I’m not fearless—I’m afraid of some things. I appreciate you using the word bravery because when someone tells me I need to be fearless, it doesn’t feel like I can do it. I can be brave, even if I am not fearless.

So, where do you see feminism heading into the future? Or where would you like to see feminism post-COVID and beyond?

MG: I want us all to be free to be the mixture of genders that we are. I think the future of feminism is gender liberation, quite honestly. I think it’s about moving past the binary. I think it’s moving past ascribing certain behaviors to gender.

When babies are born, they are given a color, a gender, a thing that they didn’t choose. You are born with a certain anatomy—but let us be so bold as to say that anatomy doesn’t dictate the entirety of your gender identity.

I think it’s cool that in the same way we can wear different clothing or color our hair or be good at different skill sets, I would love to see a world in which we express our gender without fear of being made fun of, or being repressed, or even being sent to jail as we see in some countries.

KJS: I know you’ve mentioned ecofeminism is really important to you as well. Can you stay a little bit more about that? 

MG: It’s about consuming less and consuming at the pace the earth actually creates.

I think it’s tough because while I say this, I’m also very much living in the capitalist world where I think it’s normal to expect that there’s guavas available at the grocery store 24/7. That’s not normal! That’s capitalism saying, ‘Yeah, we’re going to fly in guavas from some other country so that you can buy them in whatever moment you want to buy them.’

I would love the discipline of actually having a food market that’s only providing what’s actually available by the earth within a certain radius of where I live. That feels radical to me. That feels honest and self-sustaining. Even eating things that are local to you is powerful.

Now, the reverse argument is that many folks don’t live in an area where they grow their own food or that has nutritious options. So of course, there’s something to be said for having access to food that is brought in from outside, but I would love to see a more balanced approach to how we consume food that’s not fully money-driven.

KJS: And women, especially feminists, are equipped to do that in so many different ways. 

MG: Yes. I would love it if you would share a link to my song, “Waiting for Me.” It’s an ecofeminist anthem about returning to the planet. It’s definitely very relevant to our conversation.

KJS: Absolutely! 

And here it is:

 

Be sure to check out Madame Gandhi online at madamegandhi.com and on the socials: @madamegandhi.

The Ms. Foundation Feminist Block Party “Roar for Women” will be held Wednesday, May 20, at 7pm EST.


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