Not Turning Up To The Sound Of My Own Impression: A Conversation with Madame Gandhi

Interviews
12/05/2019
Dusty Henry
photo by Jim Bennett (view set)

KEXP's Sound & Vision airs every Saturday morning from 7-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear more stories in the new Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday. Subscribe now.

Listen to the full segment at the 10:10 mark and watch video from her performance below.

 
 

“I don’t want every day to turn up to the sound of my own oppression, you feel me?” Kiran Gandhi says on “Waiting For Me,” the opening track to her latest EP Visions. The quote, taken from a keynote address Gandhi gave at the LWT Tech Conference in 2017, might as well be a thesis statement for her work under the Madame Gandhi moniker – and then some.

Gandhi is hard to pin down to just one thing. Her roles and titles are constantly expanding. Beyond just writing and performing her own music, she’s an in-demand drummer who’s worked with the likes of M.I.A., Kehlani, Lizzo, and Thievery Corporation. But even that is just scratching the surface of what she’s done and where she’s going. She triple-majored at Georgetown University, got her MBA at Harvard, made it on Forbes’ “30 Under 30,” given TED Talks, and so much more.

Then there’s her activism. Gandhi garnered international attention when she ran the London Marathon while free-bleeding on her period to protest stigmas against menstruation. This iconic moment isn’t isolated from the rest of Gandhi’s work. In everything she does, she’s an agent for change with feminist theory at the forefront. Her music gleefully tears down barriers, envisioning a future steeped in equality and banging beats. Visions advances this mission, utilizing her powerful prowess as both artist and activist for a collection of songs that feel relevant musically and forward thinking in the ideas they push forward.

At her recent set during KEXP’s broadcast at Iceland Airwaves, we saw firsthand just how seamlessly Gandhi blends together riveting performance with cultural dialogue. It’s part party, part keynote address. As she interacts with the audience, she speaks on the messages she’s trying to convey in her music but never lets the party die down. If anything, she gives more reason to celebrate.

After her Airwaves performance, we sat down with Gandhi to talk about how she uses art for social change, reframing pop music, and the power of feminine energy. 

 


KEXP: It's hard to know where to start talking with you because you've done so much – from music to activism to data analysis and like a million other different things. But I wanna start the music first. I read that you started drumming at summer camp when you were 12 years old and you saw the drums as sort of this boyish instrument and you wanted to battle against that idea. Could you talk about what it was like to first play that instrument and why it stuck with you?

Kiran Gandhi: I remember at the summer camp, all the kids had to do a lake activity in the afternoon, and I really didn't want to go in the lake. I was like kind of a New York City rat. So I remember escaping to the theater cabin and seeing this drum set there. And I was like, 'Oh, cool, they never find me here. I'm so far away.'

I sat down with the drums and I started kind of messing around with them and there was a maintenance man in the room who I hadn't noticed before. And I was like, 'Damn, he's gonna turn me in for sure.' And then it turned out that he was a drummer. And so he ended up just teaching me how to play drums. And I think for me, the first thing that I remember was just how like naturally I took to it. I remember I had learned piano, I had learned all types of instruments growing up. They give kids different instruments in school. But that was the first time where I connected with something almost instantly.

And it definitely... I knew was a boyish instrument. I liked that it was a rebellious thing for me to be playing it. And I really respected my father for really supporting it. My mom supported it, too, but my father was the one who went out and said, 'Let's get Kiran drums for Christmas,' and things like that. I think with the drums you are like playing with your full physicality. And I really liked expressing myself that way.

Feminism is strong at the center of your work. When did you first feel like you became aware of the need to challenge patriarchal norms and see a need for change?

I think it was growing up watching pop culture, which is why I choose to use music as my message. I noticed, you know, I'd be watching Aladdin, which is one of my favorite movies, and Aladdin is the one who's grown up in poverty and yet he's the one riding all over the magic carpet, living his best life. And Jasmine is the princess and yet she's not living to the fullest of her potential if you ask me. And as a kid, I think I picked up on these discrepancies, which just didn't make sense. Why do the boys always get to have the really interesting storylines and the girls get reduced to either being the princess or the love object of the main character? So things like that really stuck with me and I felt critical of them.

And then I think other things too would be growing up in New York City. I had this bus driver, Harrison, we were in kindergarten, and as we'd pick up all the kids in front of the parents, he would play the classical music station. But as soon as we would drive away, he would turn it back to the hip hop station. And so I was growing up to Nas and to all these incredible artists. But then when I would watch the music videos, I'll be like, 'Oh, this is so upsetting.' You know, you're reducing the women simply to their sex and sexuality. And so I think that was another way that I really grew up being like, wow, I want to make music, or at least I want to be drumming for artists who don't contribute necessarily to the objectification of women and who are doing something a little bit more nuanced with their music.

I think you kind of mentioned that on the song "Waiting for Me." That song starts with a clip of you talking about not wanting to "turn up to the sound of your own oppression." Do you wanna speak some more about that?

Definitely. I think every time that I go to work out or to a different club or whatever it is or listen to the new music that's coming out, I love the beats. I love the production. And I usually love the flow and the artist. But then the lyrics have so much misogyny embedded into the song that I'm like, 'I don't want to have to turn up to the sound of my own oppression.' It's not fair. And like I said earlier on the stage today, I'm not trying to tell other people how to make their music, but I am here to provide and design the alternative. And so that's why I wanted to start off not only that song, but the entire record I just put out, Visions, with that sentiment.

 

From music, you moved into activism, pursued a lot of education, and you studied political science, women's studies and mathematics at Georgetown University, you got your MBA from Harvard. How has your education informed your art?

I think my education has allowed me to actually thrive and succeed as an artist because I feel like I'm driving my own ship. Many times some of the most talented artists have been vulnerable to the claws of the industry. If you don't know something, if there's an information asymmetry whereby one party – the business party – knows more than the other party – the artists – that allows for exploitation.

And so going to get my MBA, studying mathematics, studying the music industry, working in the music industry, taught me a lot of tools that I didn't know that I would end up using to the extent that I do. And I love being able to wake up every day and be like, wow, am I working on music today? Am I producing? Am I scoring for somebody else? Am I writing lyrics? Or am I managing the project? Am I thinking about the horizons? Am I thinking about the next goals? Am I calling up my friends at Spotify and ask them to play the music? Meeting friends at KEXP and saying, 'Hey, if there's a song you connect with, will you play it so that we spread this good message?'

So I think educating yourself with as many tools as you can is vital if you want to be an indie artist these days.

Activism and music overlap clearly in your music. What do you think music can do as a vehicle for change that other mediums can't?

Music caters to the emotions. Music opens you up and makes you feel something so that when someone talks to you you're moved far more than you would be if you were listening to some sort of political speech or something that has a financial engine behind it. I think that in the same way, we tolerate much of the misogyny in music today because the music is so good. What if we use a similar strategy where we make excellent music, but then say something positive with that music? So that's what I'm trying to do.

I love that. And it comes through so clearly through your music. I read a quote where you talked about wanting to see a world where we value femininity as much as we value masculinity. Where do you think that change starts and how are you pushing this forward with your music?

I think it's really about us as femmes, as folks with feminine energy, regardless of your gender identity, to step into the power of that. I think for so long feminisms of the past have validated and reaffirmed masculine styles of leadership as a way to advance yourself. For example, telling folks [that] if you want to be a CEO, you have to be more aggressive and you have to wear a suit. You have to look the part. But if we're aspiring to masculinity, we will always lose as folks who are more in our femme because we're trying to be something that we're not.

So what if instead we said let folks who are authentically in their masculine lead from that. But let folks who are authentically in their femme lead from something completely different? And for me, it's about valuing emotional intelligence over brute force aggression. Like we have number 45 in the White House, just like tweeting and being aggressive at every opportunity he gets. Being collaborative instead of competitive. 'We're gonna kill it! Slay it! There's only number one!' I've never operated that way. Anytime something good has happened in my life, it's not because I beat out a bunch of people. It's because they helped me out, you know?

So I think for me, my feminism is really about reaffirming femininity and positioning what women and femmes bring to the table as something that is aspirational.

Everything you say is great. You just released your second EP, Visions, coming off of [your last record] Voices. What were you hoping to convey with this record and what conversations looking to expand upon?

I'm so happy you asked me this question. Visions is really about looking inward in order to imagine a brighter future outward. For me, it's about wanting to be the change you wish to see in the world. And every song addresses that theme on a different level. So the first song "Waiting For Me" is on a very global, macro level. How do we make sure we're using sustainable practices in our own backyard? How do we make sure that we're not contributing to the mass consumerism of the world and filling landfills and things like that?

The second song, "Top Knot Turn Up," is about putting your hair up in a bun and getting work done. How do we stay focused and inward in terms of our own personal missions? You have "See Me Thru," which is about envisioning the relationship you wish to have for your own life. Finding healthy love regardless of your own gender identity and whom you are attracted to.

And then the fourth song, "Young Indian" is very much a personal anthem [that] criticizes education, but also by being self-aware and still very reflective. How do I be my best self in this system? And the final song on the album, the grand finale, is "Bad Habits." Like, all my bad habits have got to go. I've got to be the best version of myself if I intend to make any kind of social impact. So this is the identity of Visions.

 

In your live performances, we see firsthand the different hats you wear. You're literally doing it all yourself. Would you want to convey from your live performances and what type of environment are you trying to create?

I think when I perform alone, I think what translates is the ownership of the project. I think it allows my audience to really connect and say, wow, this is someone who is putting their all in every detail. Whether I'm drumming, I'm expressing myself. The clothing that I'm wearing is my own clothing line. My own nerdy dance moves are my own nerdy dance moves... So I like that version of the project because it's very raw and pure and it's challenging so then people respect you for that.

But I also really enjoy the more recent iteration of my project where I've been able to perform with a full live band of queer and femme-identifying folks and musicians. At my album release party, I had nine musicians in a circle around me playing the record entirely live with no backing tracks, no DJ. And that was super, super empowering because it's embodying that very collaborative spirit that I'm trying to see in the world. So those are my two sort of variations of the show and both achieve different things.

 

You've worked with a number of other artists to MIA, Kehlani, Lizzo, and Thievery Corporation. How has working with those artists impacted your own work?

I think my favorite was working with Kehlani because Kehlani really represented the sort of ownership end-to-end of her work that I wasn't expecting. She has a huge engine and a huge team behind her of folks of all gender identities, but she definitely is still very much the leader. And I really respected that. She talks directly to each band member, each dancer, each management entity to say what she wants. And I loved that and really incorporated that into my own project.

When I worked with Maya, MIA, Maya's so brilliant. The thing that I learned from her is that you should always be iterating on your live show. Maya would stop tracks in the middle of the show if she didn't think the audience was feeling it. One time we played a show in Montreal and when we were driving into the city the bus had passed through little India and she like sent me on a homework assignment before the soundcheck to go and bring Hindu prayer bells back from Little India to the show so that I can play them on the stage. I mean, things like that make you constantly create and have that muscle flexed all the time.

When I worked with Lizzo, Lizzo was very, very professional and really good at managing her own energy. We did a video piece together with Girls Who Code and Lizzo didn't arrive on set until the absolute moment that she was needed. And she was very protective of her energy. When she felt tired, she said, 'I need five minutes.' She would go to her own space, be with her own team, take a snack, take whatever she needed and then come back so that no matter when she was on, she was fully committed to being on. When she was off, she was fully committed to being off.

So I think, you know, the most fun part about working with people you respect is that you get to mix and match the best of what each person brings to the table and provide that to your own project.

At the top, this interview I mentioned, you do so many things. What's next? What are you working on now?

Such a good question. I think, you know, I really want people to connect with the music as much as possible. And so then the business side of my brain is thinking [about] how does the music reach people? And one way that I love to consume music is through music videos. And so really being intentional about the music videos that I'm putting out has been really fun for me.

We just put out "Top Knot Turn Up," which was a huge production and something that I was really proud of because it really came together. "See Me Thru" is the romantic kind of R&B love song that I'm going to put out next. "Young Indian," we did a music video that promoted and showcased the merchandise. "Bad Habits" was shot in the desert where we built like an alternative Gandhi school in the middle. And then "Waiting For Me" will have a video soon that I'm hoping to shoot in India. Fingers crossed. But that's really what's immediately next. And then continuing to travel and share the music with folks who will inspire and energize.


Madame Gandhi performs at Clock-Out Lounge in Seattle on Dec. 7. Tickets available now.

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