Harvard Business School: Keeping the Beat w/ Madame Gandhi


Artist and activist Madame Gandhi on writing music in quarantine and migrating musical events online.
Listen to the interview here.

“I definitely don’t think that virtual will ever cannibalize the real thing. I genuinely don’t see that happening. That’s some people’s fear. But I do think the benefit is that we are educating the consumer and the fan to be comfortable with consuming musical experiences in a virtual format.”
Kiran Gandhi (MBA 2015)

Dan Morrell: Artist and activist Madame Gandhi got her big break in the music industry when she was invited to join the group MIA on their world tour—which launched at the same time as her first semester at HBS began. She decided she could do both, which mostly meant going to class during the week and touring on the weekends. But there was one week in November when Gandhi had to fly back and forth between Boston and New York every day—she’d be in class until noon, then on a 2 o’clock flight back to LaGuardia in time for an evening show, then 5 am back at Logan, stopping only for a coffee at Spangler before rushing to class. That was also the week she had her first cold call.

But somehow, she says, she made it to her EC year. By then she had a taste for touring and decided to use the privilege of her education to elevate feminine voices in the music industry. Gandhi has released two albums of her own since graduating from HBS and is working on her third. She is also a public speaker and a 2020 TED Fellow—work that, like her music, celebrates gender liberation. She talks to associate editor Jen Flint in this episode of Skydeck about what it’s like to be an artist, navigating a world without live performances, and working alone in quarantine.

Madame Gandhi (MBA 2015)

Jen Flint: Kiran, I know you’ve been living alone in Los Angeles, can you talk about what it’s been like for you as an artist in these socially distant corona-times?

Madame Gandhi: I think in the producer community, the sort of ongoing joke is that we’ve been preparing for this moment our whole life. I think the solitude of being in your emotions in order to write music that is honest and introverted and has depth to it is deeply important to most folks I know who are making their own music and spreading their own lyrics. And then even on the production side, whether you’re here in the studio by yourself or you’re even in a collaborative space, you still have to spend hours editing drums, programming vocals, writing the synth line, deciding what the bass line is going to be. I think there’s enormous discipline, you know, beyond the fact that I’ve been able to feel safe in this time, that my family is safe. It’s a luxury to actually be able to enjoy or to experience, I’ll say, this quarantine in the context of self-work and self-productivity as opposed to one of one of sadness. There’s definitely a collective conscious and a collective sadness that I feel and that’s been influencing my work and my music. But I think the overall answer to your question is simply that as a musician, as someone who has a lot of things to say, I’ve been using this time to write more music, and I feel grateful for that.

Flint: You mentioned that it’s influencing your music and the music that you’re writing, say more about that. How so?

Gandhi: Yes, lyrics like “I’ve been letting go.” You know, or lyrics like, “I’ve been holding out strong from a past life, I’m holding out strong it’s gonna be alright.” These are lyrics that are 100 percent inspired by this time of waiting, this time of uncertainty, this time of actually being able to go deeper into your own personal trauma, your own personal darkness, and saying, what is it that I can actually leave behind in the past that no longer serves me? Now that I have the time to even confront these personal demons. All of us have a version of that, but I never drop into it because I’m like oh, I’m a happy kid. I get on my stage, I play my music. I play my drums. I share joy with people, and then I go home. The ability to actually be in quarantine fully alone—in my case, I don’t have roommates and my family doesn’t live in L.A., so I really have been experiencing the discipline of an honestly solitary quarantine. I find it enormously valuable to say what am I feeling, because if I’m feeling it, there’s a chance that somebody else is feeling that thing, too. And so how brave can I be to actually share those emotions in my work and in my music? Or even things like forgiveness, like, “I’m so sorry for all things I’ve done. But baby, I learn to take those, so I can dance all night with you.” You know, like romantic lyrics. Like all of it. All of it. So these are some of the lyrics that are coming out in the new body of work. And I’m happy to have both the emotional depth to write the lyrics, but then also the physical time to produce the melodies around the lyrics.

Flint: You mentioned you’re working on a new body of work, what can you say about what that album might be?

Gandhi: Vibrations will be the third E.P. of this trilogy that I’ve been working on. The activism in Vibrations looks different than the more on-the-nose feminism and activism of my first two albums. My first two albums definitely had more songs like “Young Indian” or “Future Is Female” or “Her,” which have sort of spoken or rapped lyrics, if you will, that directly combat things like patriarchal oppression, control, financial systems that benefit some and not others. Criticisms even of elite education and where it is of enormous service and where it does disservice. But this album is more emotional. The activism lies truly in the desire to want to be the best version of ourselves. To want to lead from love. To want to be so honestly vulnerable about the things that we need to work on so that we inspire others to do the same, instead of feeling the need that we have to prove that we are better than we actually are.

It’s funny because in a way, I was like, man, is this not a feminist album? And then I was like, no, the feminism is this evolved feminism of wellness, of kindness, of the divine femme, of leadership traits that I do equate more to the EQ, to the side of the gender spectrum that lies in the feminine. We see it in nature. We see it in this corona-shift. My feminism has really been laying in that lens, and that’s what I think Vibrations is turning out to be.

Flint: I’m curious what this current situation has meant for you and your plans. Obviously social distancing is kind of the nightmare scenario for the music industry more broadly with concerts and festivals and nightclubs, everything shuttered. So what has this mean for you and your plans and your thinking about this album?

Gandhi: Honestly, I’m hype. I really am. When things got canceled it was upsetting in the beginning because we had a really strong 2020 lined up. I just had come off the bat from touring with Oprah from January, February, and March. I was getting ready to tour in New York City and perform at the Fifth Avenue Apple Store, go to South by Southwest. This year I was invited to be a TED Fellow in the class of 2020 and speak on the TED mainstage in Vancouver, which happens in April. We had an incredible, incredible couple months lined up. So of course there is that heartbreak of losing the enthusiasm for something that was going to happen. And now there’s only a virtual available.

But now that I’ve had some distance from the loss of those things, I feel hype and excited by the challenge of having to map what I do in the real world on to the virtual. To actually think: How do I hold space for folks in a Zoom, in Instagram Live, on Facebook Live? How do I make my concerts and my performances adapt to meet virtual instead of desperately trying to make virtual feel like the real thing? Because it never will. And I think when we try to make one medium look like another in an aspirational sense, we usually fail because they’re by design very different.

But if we instead say, OK, virtual actually has opportunity, it has the opportunity for me to engage with fans on a real-time basis. I can perform a song and then folks can literally ask me questions on Instagram Live about the song I just performed. That would never happen in a big live festival setting. I would just perform and it’s a one way conversation unless the audience is clapping or cheering or whatever. But there’s not an Instagram Live experience where someone can say, Hey, Kiran, what inspired the lyrics for that song? Or, Hey, Kiran, I really love the drum solo, where did you record that and what mic did you use? You know, I’ve experienced these performances where people were asking these really thoughtful questions that I’ve never been asked before by my own fans because there’s never been an opportunity to. So I’m really excited about saying, how can I take what I do as a musician, as a speaker, as a thinker, as an activist and really continue to hold space for folks in a way that is meaningful, but that looks completely different than the way I’m used to doing it.

Flint: Say more about what that Instagram Live experience is like for you.

Gandhi: Some people hate it. I just love it.

Flint: It’s so different from performing on a stage in front of an audience in person. What is it like for you?

Gandhi: Don’t get me wrong, you know, nothing can beat the real thing. Nothing can beat the real thing. But I will say this when I open up my Instagram Live and I’m doing either a takeover, which is when a brand has asked me to perform and engage their audience via their Instagram. That means I’m logging on to Doc Martens shoes and performing from their Instagram. I’m logging on to Deepak Chopra’s meditation center and doing a meditation from their Instagram. Those are powerful for me because I’m reaching audiences that I would never have reached otherwise. And the difference is a couple things. One is I introduced myself multiple times as if it’s a radio show. Imagine different people tuning in at different moments. So you have to continue to remind people what it is that they’re even watching. Otherwise, you’ll lose their interest because they’ll be like what the hell is this, you know, they’ll move on. Then I also make sure to talk about the intention behind my music. I take more time saying how I made the song. I take more time sharing things that I think are relevant or interesting to that particular audience. And I engage. I watch the comments and I respond to them. I say, “Oh, welcome DJ 422, I’m Madame Gandhi visiting you from downtown L.A. Oh, you like the white Doc Martens? Those are actually the ones that I’m wearing right now.” So there is this strange virtual intimacy that’s happening that I fully step into and thrive in because I see the value of it.

The other side of the Instagram Lives that I like doing is saying, I know so many incredible thinkers, artists, activists who are very powerful and very good at what they do. How do I have almost like a Facetime call with them, but make it public, which is exactly what Instagram Live or going live with somebody else looks like. It’s a split screen of two people and we’re just having a conversation. But the only difference is that people can watch the conversation and comment. And so what I’ve been doing is interviewing people like Chani Nicholas, who’s a very famous queer astrologer and saying, “What have been your healing routines?” Or interviewing different artists in my community, “What does your discipline look like? How are you making things or are you not making things? What are your needs right now?” So these conversations are so healing to people and I find that’s the way that I can serve my community right now. So I do it.

Flint: What do you think musicians can learn from these virtual experiences that might be helpful on the other side?

Gandhi: I definitely don’t think that virtual will ever cannibalize the real thing. I genuinely don’t see that happening. That’s some people’s fear. But I do think the benefit is that we are educating the consumer and the fan to be comfortable with consuming musical experiences in a virtual format which didn’t exist before. It almost feels cheesy or lazy, but now it’s the new normal because everyone is used to hopping on Zoom. Everyone is used to hopping on Instagram Live or Facebook Live, or these virtual experiences. It’s the new norm and people are comfortable with it. They have better Internet connections. They’re charging their phones. Whatever it is, they see the value. So I think for me personally, I can see myself being like, oh, I have an opportunity. This opportunity is in Sweden. Sweden only has $3,000 for me to go get on a plane and speak to their audience and come home. Five years ago, I would’ve said yes. I’ve never been to Sweden. I have three grand to go and speak my truth on a stage, and I got a free trip to Sweden? Hell yeah. Now, five years later in my career, where I need to be a little bit more judicious with my time, I can say, hey, I’m an experienced public speaker and performer. Why don’t I accept that $3K, but do it from the comfort of my own home and deliver enormous value in a virtual capacity. So I think that’s how we can see this as an auxiliary form of revenue that benefits the artist while still delivering value to the consumer.

And so diversifying my source of income, whether I can teach a class, whether I can drum for somebody else, whether I can give a speech, whether I can perform my own music, or whether I can DJ, whether I can teach something. You know, these are all different revenue streams of skill sets that I’ve cultivated over many, many years so there’s always opportunity. And even more specifically in music, things like streaming royalties or scoring for something are things that I can do from my bedroom that I have the skill set to do—versus performing, which is no longer bringing in income in these corona times.

May we be so brave as to come out of this pandemic consuming at a pace that is more in line with the rate that the Earth produces natural resources. May we not be so greedy as to steal from the future. May we be wise enough to learn from this moment. May the artists who are listening and the creatives who self-identify that way, may we be brave enough to go inward and say something honest. We have to be so vulnerable as to score and to soundtrack the truths of the time, the collective feelings of the time. That’s another reason why I wanted to do these Instagram lives and have a daily schedule of going live with someone who inspires me, because then I get to really have an honest ear on the pulse instead of just operating in isolation. Because my truth is not somebody else’s truth, but there are a lot of similarities. And so I feel like I’m almost in a data-collection phase to make sure that when I put out my album Visions, it does have this almost mild research component to make sure that whatever it is that I’m singing will truly resonate, as opposed to feeling like it was just my experience alone.

Edited by Craig McDonald for the Harvard Business School