The World According to ANOHNI, or: how we learned to stop worrying and love the drone bomb.
ANOHNI, or the artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons fame, has — for some — set off a trigger of panic with her latest album Hopelessness. ANOHNI has constructed a work that ricochets to the core, and feeds off some of the more calamitous issues of our current political and cultural landscape. In releasing a protest album so authentic, brutal and damning, it wouldn’t be a stretch to draw a parallel to Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin, at least in its overt political relevance. Look out kids, Dylan’s gone electric! The first single off the album is like a detonation, a declaration that this is the benchmark set for the album as a whole. ‘4 Degrees’ paints the picture of the earth becoming devastated by the affects of climate change and the complacence of the humans that have contributed to it. In the track, ANOHNI’s own acquiescent nature is highlighted to illustrate the ways in which even the self-aware individual is complacent in the damage we are doing to the planet. This is fifty-three years after A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, and I can’t help but to draw a comparison to Dylan’s classic. Not only do they both make references to the burden of humans on the earth, but the theme seems even more agonisingly relevant today than ever. Ecocide is not exactly a common topic to sing about in popular music, but in 2016, when we have Beyoncé taking an inter-sectional feminist approach to her own music, it feels as if the rules have been reset. Antony Hegarty, who now goes by the name of ANOHNI and identifies publicly as a trans-woman, did in fact do a cover of Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love, and perhaps these parallels are no mere coincidence.
With its heart-wrenching lyrics of lemurs burning, and rhinos lying, crying in a field, ‘4 Degrees’ is just the beginning of ANOHNI’s observations of the nature of the world today. Other topics covered under a critical guise on the album include terrorism, drone bombs, domestic violence, state surveillance, and capital punishment. The first time I heard Hopelessness it crushed me, I wept, I felt the need to let out a guttural cry for the ruinous exploits of human beings, just as ANOHNI apologises on behalf of those who have committed war crimes on the song ‘Crisis’. Beyoncé is singing about feminism, but who is singing about drone bombings, ecocide, and domestic violence? The more cynical listener may view Hopelessness as an activist or social justice check-list, each song is thematic, and in a way this could be a criticism. But the way this is crafted is like a concept album, and the earnestness boils to the surface, ulcerous and twisted, but not completely without hope itself. There is a self-awareness about this thematic approach that feels incredibly genuine.
The second single, ‘Drone Bomb Me’, with a video featuring Naomi Campbell, has pushed some buttons. “When we first started playing ‘Drone Bomb Me’ on FBi, someone tweeted at us, having taken serious offence,” says Beth Dalgleish of FBi Radio.
“I had to reply, explaining what I thought was the rather obvious intention behind the track, but the tweeter still refused to engage with it — ‘well, that doesn’t come across in the music.” Dalgleish says.
This is not exactly the first time ANOHNI has been condemned in the Australian media. After her appearance on Q&A in June 2015, where she voiced her criticisms of uranium mining on indigenous lands, the Murdoch press had a field day.
“I was getting literally hundreds and hundreds of emails from people all across Australia saying thank you for saying that. Literally, some of the most mean press I’ve ever seen, actually calling me, one newspaper called me a fat slob. Like an amazing attempt, a desperate attempt to assassinate my ability. Who is this fat slob coming in to try to tell us how to handle our indigenous affairs?” says ANOHNI in a Q&A with close friend, Australian artist Lynette Wallworth on 29th May 2016 as part of Vivid Live’s Artist Talks. Unfortunately the message ANOHNI was trying to convey was soon overshadowed by a controversial question from audience member Zaky Mallah, the first Australian convicted of terrorism charges under the Howard government. The public conversation following that Q&A blew up, focusing on our collective fears of terrorism, and acting as a diversion for perhaps more important issues.
ANOHNI’s engagement as a British-born artist involving herself in the conversation of post-colonial land rights issues in Australia did not stop with ABC’s Q&A program. At the time of publishing this article, ANOHNI is undertaking a 180km 8-day walk across the Western Australian desert with roughly 100 indigenous Martu people to protest a government-approved uranium mining project sponsored by Mitsubishi and Cameco. ANOHNI’s fearlessness to speak out about politics reminded me of another instance of a British artist criticising our government. In 2011, Portishead came to Australia as part of Harvest Festival, and during their song ‘Machine Gun’, an image of Tony Abbott shooting laser beams out of his eyes appeared in the songs breakdown. This was well before Abbott went on to fuck up our country for two years as Prime Minister, and the crowd went wild for the bands audaciousness to depict him as some sort of devil robot.
In her performance at the Sydney Opera House in May 2016, ANOHNI presented Hopelessness, not so much as a concert, but as an opera for the 21st century. I felt as if I was watching a modern-day Edith Piaf take to the stage. Lynette Wallworth describes the show as a ‘ceremony’, in which ANOHNI is veiled in black for the entire performance, and a miscellany of women lip-sync to her songs in a video work above her. The way in which this was presented makes reference, or subtley critiques, the great drag pastime of lip-syncing. The raw emotions revealed on these women’s faces stirs up so much more than any RuPaul lip sync for your life ever could (well excluding maybe this one, or this one). But the women in Hopelessness connect their personal truths to lyrics that are thematically huge to say the least. These women are artists, writers, actresses, activists, models, academics, doctors, choreographers, professors, critics, friends, aboriginal, transgender, but most importantly they are all women. They are from varying nationalities and ethnicities, and we are given a glimpse of their struggles and their lives. “To have these representations means you are engaging with those who don’t fit into the ‘normal’ aesthetic of stage presence. Giving a platform to us ‘minorities’ shows we are not that, but the majority,” says Bex Djentuh, of Davis Box oceania collective and LISTEN co-director. It is this emphasis that holds it all together, this bond of women from all over the globe baring themselves so nakedly to the audience.
New York artist and critic Lorraine O’Grady delivers a terrific performance, with the medley of women also including Cinema of Transgression rocker Kembra Pfahler, Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat and of course, supermodel of the world, Naomi Campbell. The Vivid performance opened with a twenty minute video of Naomi Campbell dancing and moving to unheard music in what looks like an underground car park. She is dressed in a phenomenal outfit, with a black crown evocative of lady liberty, the lights in the Joan Sutherland Theatre slowly dimming as the music drones and the camera alternates between close-up and wide shot, voyeuristically hovering around her. We’ve never seen Naomi Campbell like this before. She looks more vulnerable and fearful, yet at the same time incredibly strong.
“Working in a very male dominated industry, I am always appreciative of female inclusion in performances,” says artist liaison Claire Patmore. “Seeing females depicted in a way that doesn’t play on their sexuality as a sales tool is empowering and should happen more often. Sadly, when it does happen, it is too short and often overlooked. The visuals in ANOHNI’s Vivid performance were flooded with strong female representations — minimal makeup, dramatic makeup, stark lighting, blank backdrops — the women were the focus, the storytelling tool,” Patmore says.
In a world where the media is playing with our fears, snaking their way into our minds, manipulating us to think our safe havens are under threat by ‘them’, telling us that transnational companies need land that does not belong to them, that Target and Wallmart are evil and corrupted for including gender-neutral bathrooms in their stores, etc. A world in which the most famous (or infamous) transgender woman Caitlyn Jenner endorses Donald Trump, a world where we are told that coal is good for us, and a world where our governments are dropping drone bombs on innocent civilians without consequence. This is our War of the Worlds, and ANOHNI is one of those few artists that can see straight through it, and can uncover the the lies with poetry, in the guise of a ceremony of voices.
The way in which ANOHNI has re-titled herself as a one-word artist, she has proven that her voice in our world today, both audible and symbolic, is of equal importance to artists such as Madonna. Prince. Beyoncé. With Hopelessness she has truly cemented herself as one of the most important voices of our time.
“Jesus is a girl, the church cannot be redeemed until such a day as Jesus is a girl, Allah is a woman, and Buddha is a mother,” she famously says.
And ANOHNI is an angel.