Why I Am Starting Uncomfortable Conversations With My Audiences in 2017
by GoGirls Co-Executive Director rorie kelly
This post is part of #BlogMarch2017, a monthlong “march” of blog posts curated by Robin Renee. The goal of the blog march is to raise our voices and promote freedom of expression, knowledge and information. It is also to start conversations. Please check Robin’s list here to access the other bloggers and their ideas. Please share the thoughts that these writings spark in you — everywhere — in blog comments, on social media, at the dinner table. Yesterday’s blogger was David Jamison at Infinite Destiny, and tomorrow’s blogger is Susan Billmaier at Susan with Pearls.
The way I talk during my shows has changed.
For many years I let my songs and my lyrics speak for themselves. I’m a pretty unapologetic activist in my writing, and I have never been afraid to say what was truly on my mind with my songwriting. For a long time, this felt like enough to me — songwriting, I felt, was the best way I was equipped to share these ideas.
But another side of the truth is that it’s safer to save the tough topics for song lyrics — sheltered amongst melody and rhythm from my voice and guitar. It’s one thing to sing a protest song — most people agree that protest song are needed right now. But, I’ve noticed that many people who love the protest music of the 60s and 70s are less comfortable when directly confronted with the nuanced sociopolitical problems of today. “We need another summer of love, more protest songs. Wake up, sheeple!” they say in one Facebook post. But 5 minutes later they’re revealing just how uncomfortable they are when faced with a political protest that is not packaged in 3 chords and a great hook. “What is this black lives matter thing?” they ask irritably. “Don’t all lives matter? Seems very divisive to me.”
It is indeed time for we the sheeple to wake up, but it seems that most of us are not morning people. It’s easy — dreamlike, even — for us to sway along to a protest song that vaguely urges us to love one another and give peace a chance, but it’s more challenging to deal with the discomfort of facing up to the ways we, individually, may need to change to bring about true equality. If we really want it to be true that “all lives matter,” then it’s time we started listening to and signal boosting voices of color, instead of telling them that standing up for themselves and being open about their experiences with racism is “divisive.” If we want equality, we need to commit to not just talking vaguely about how nice equality is, but really looking at what large and small mistakes we are making that cause equality to break down. Because, news flash: everyone wants equality, but we clearly don’t have it yet — so it’s time to get honest and look at what we’re doing wrong.
When I say “we” I am talking about not just the global we — institutionalized injustice — but also about you and me in particular. We have to take responsibility for all the tiny, unintentional things we are doing to let injustice flourish. Common figures of speech and assumptions that we’d probably prefer not to examine, but that add up to create a real problematic pattern. We have to be willing to pick apart our own habits if we are going to really create change in the world. We, the sheeple, have to wake up. And we have to stay as woke as possible, even when it gets uncomfortable (and it will get uncomfortable).
What does this have to do with the way I talk onstage during a performance? Well, I guess I’ve committed to the idea that we all have to do more than just sway to the music. Don’t misunderstand me: music can be a tremendously powerful instrument of social change. Experiencing music also brings us together in a way that plain conversation cannot, and that is important at a time that we feel very divided. But, if we all come together for an hour and sing about how the world needs to change, and feel cathartic and then just go back to our daily lives, we have failed. We need to feel that inspiration and togetherness but then we need to do the work.
Part of doing the work for me is speaking very honestly and specifically about why I am singing the songs I’m singing. Our role as artists is not just to entertain — it is to bring people together, to raise consciousness and to focus in on what is crucial and important. Not every musician considers herself political, but at a time when politics is getting very personal for many of us, we need to remind ourselves that the personal is political. Sharing honestly, asking the tough questions and talking through the answers with curiousity and compassion — this is what “doing the work” looks like.
One year ago, I introduced most of my songs simply. I let the lyrics speak for themselves, and they certainly had plenty to say. But now, I am embracing the discomfort of starting conversations around these ideas instead of just singing about them. Every time I go onstage, I have an opportunity to shape the conversation I am going to have with my audience, and I am using it for all it is worth. I am still singing about empowerment and encouragement because we all need those things — but now I am also taking it upon myself to be the alarm clock that helps us sheeple wake up.
“It’s time that we started helping refugees instead of creating them,” I say when I close out The Cranberries’ song Zombie at a cover gig. When I am about to play an empowering feminist song of my own, I share, “I wrote this song because right now as women we are facing more pressure than ever to look and behave a certain way and not to complain about it. We are expected to hydrate and deal with it. I wrote this song to put a different point of view in the world, because women and girls need to know that their voices and ideas are important and necessary.” Does this kind of honesty turn some people off? Probably. But it also wakes some people right up — they lean in to the stage, refreshed that I’m taking the conversation to such an honest place. Others, I’m sure, fall somewhere in the middle — and if my words come back to them later in the week and make them consider something from a new perspective, then I feel I have done my job.