We Need to Talk: A Conversation with Emmy the Great

On a grim winter day, I sat down with the musician to discuss activism, self-care — and talking itself

Talking at the Tate.

Photographs by Katie Bagley

When I initially approached musician and friend Emmy the Great about this magazine piece in the fall of 2016, it was going to be about her music. We started an email exchange that quickly became quite random — from Hong Kong recommendations to her remembering the “happy/sad memory” of being interviewed for the second edition of said magazine, Oh Comely, and “living in my favourite apartment I ever lived in and recovering from some weird stuff.” [That old issue is sold out, but it was so sweet.] As our back-and-forth progressed, world news went from bad to worse to apocalyptic, and as the US election happened, it was all anyone could talk or think about — including us.

The more confused, worried messages we exchanged, the more we felt like we should find a different angle for this conversation. Should it be the environment, or women’s rights, or refugee rights, or …? There are many urgent issues to turn our attention to, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of news, think pieces and social media updates about what’s happening in the world. It’s equally easy to feel powerless and disenfranchised. We realised we should start at the beginning: are we even talking to each other? How did we not see this coming? How to turn our talking into activism? A lot of horrific chains of events have happened between this conversation — held right before Trump took office — and the issue going to print in early spring, and even more between then and me finally posting it.

Marta Bausells: Hi, Emma. Let’s go back and start by looking at the impact of 2016 and the US election on our conversations.

Emma-Lee Moss: After Trump won the US election, I was in New York, where I live, and I was flooded with emails from people I knew and people didn’t know, saying “let’s get around and talk,” or “I’ve just put together a women’s forum to speak to each other.” Suddenly the need to speak became so urgent: the first instinct was to talk. I had some of the most intimate and present conversations with my friends that I’ve had in a long time. There are so many levels of conversations going on around the world now — one-on-one, privately but remotely, publicly, on different Whatsapp groups, etc. I think we are realising the dangers and limits of a purely digital social life, and are learning to integrate all these conversations better.

And then I’ve been receiving emails from all kinds of different people and media talking about taking stock. And maybe that’s the most effective thing to do, to gather your brain and re-set your connections with the people in your life. Just to remember what you’re fighting for, when you have to fight.

Not looking awkward at all.

M: Yeah, it’s really important to remember that if you’re not healthy emotionally and physically first, you can’t really do much for others. And if you are expected to take care of others, it can be difficult to justify to take time or energy for yourself. Especially for women of colour, the Audre Lorde quote “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” is especially true right now.

E: What I’ve been perplexed about is: why has 2017’s buzzword so far been self-care? It’s been co-opted so quickly; like everything, I suppose. I think you do have to radiate a strength from yourself before you can do anything else. It’s a reminder that although the news on your phone is horrible and you can’t avoid it, you can switch it off for a second, and in this moment, if you can breathe and drink water and have a great conversation with a friend or whatever, that is to be cherished.

M: In that sense, some of the two pieces we are recommending at the end of this article are illuminating. Like Jonathan Safran Foer writes, the most generous thing you can give somebody is your focus.

E: Yes. And what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her piece is so important: assert yourself from a position of strength. I’m so glad that more people are articulating this. After the election, so many people were questioning themselves deeply … I think it’s about time that we do feel confident in our opinions, in our minds. I’ve been raised to believe that racism is wrong — not just by my family, but by society. We should be strong in our convictions.

M: How we read is also important. I find it hard to keep on top of reading online articles and books and newsletters, and so much more. I’ve been focusing a lot more on physical books and I feel calmer, and not less informed. I worry about our dwindling attention spans as well. Apparently every time we get distracted, it takes a full 20 minutes to regain focus…

E: I’m becoming more protective of my brain. I won’t just click on something unless someone I trust recommended me an article. Last year, my boyfriend became so “woke” that he’s having to sit down and stop knowing the root of everything in his life. Maybe it was good to suddenly have all this information available and to see the world in such a storied way, but now, the next thing that happens is consolidating all that.

Benches.

M: When does talk become action?

E: Firstly, it’s really important to tell the truth. This reminds me of a story my dad always told me — that he had a budgie as a kid — or so I thought, but he now says he didn’t! So now we aren’t sure if he actually did.

M: Oh no! It could be an alternative fact.

E: He’s post-truth dad! [Laughs]. Conversations have always been like that. But we have to work hard to try and keep the conversations we have about activism in a very factual place. That will lead to something. The effort to remain truthful and consistent is now beginning to show itself in my normal life. Like writing to my MP for the first time ever because I had been talking about it for so long that I realised now I actually have to do it. Maybe that’s how we turn it into commitment. We need to have more accountability because this expression “fake news” is being branded around like a weapon.

M: I also really like compilations really good people have put together giving tips on how to take action: pick your battles, get organised, research how your skills could be used best. This is such little space for so much to discuss, but I what you just said about accountability is key. What should this chat lead us to do?

E: Maybe the outreach that we should do is engage the digital natives in our lives in a conversation that takes their attention for 20 minutes! That does turn conversation into activism. Because the moment we concentrate, we suddenly are able to make decisions that are mature and richer, instead of being like “I’m going to retweet this thing, I’m so scared!”

No matter what happens, you’ll always be able to look to the person sitting next to you on a plane, on a train, at this café, and you’ll always be able to speak to them and find something that you have in common. Let’s start from there, and see if instead of being afraid of each other we can build bridges. If you meet someone who doesn’t agree with you, actively speaking to them in an open and empathetic way is the only way that you’ll ever change their mind or understand their point of view. Us Millennials have grown up afraid of confrontation, we’re afraid to disagree with each other, but in disagreement, really interesting stuff happens.

M: Let’s commit to doing that, especially in situations where it would be more comfortable to shut up and let it go.

E: And we’ll touch base in a month to see how we’ve actively had those conversations.

UPDATE:

Marta: We talked a little over a month ago, but it feels like a year has gone by. Trump was inaugurated, and every day since has been mad. We are living a “worst case scenario” constantly. I’ve encountered situations where people flaunted their veiled racism in front of me, and one particular occasion in which extremely privileged people who call themselves liberal made light of Trump and Brexit just for fun and for the sake of provocation, because they don’t feel remotely threatened by either. I made a bit of a scene by calling them out on it, which made everyone uncomfortable and made me be the “killjoy” of the dinner party (as you are bound to be if you bring up stuff like sexism or racism in any social situation). And I was so glad to be. I’ve thought about my own privilege more than ever, and have tried to talk to activists from many different local groups. They are excited about the enthusiasm of the millions of newly “woke” people, but also say it isn’t without its challenges.

Emma: Since we last spoke, I’ve been in New York, with a brief visit to DC for the Women’s March. It’s been chaos here, and finding a balance between engaging and my old routines is hard. The things I find solace in are correspondence and conversations. I see people and communicate with friends more than usual. I’m getting better at listening and I’m less afraid of confrontation. I hope my perspective is widening as a result (i.e. on the origins of ‘self-care’). I’ve also been thinking about tall tales. Those little lies my parents told me were part of a grand tradition, and they made the world more colourful. It was nothing like the doublespeak practiced by politicians right now. I’ll continue to be more accountable, but I’m still going to lie to children every now and then. Oh, and our day out at the Tate Modern is still one of my best memories of recent times.

Further reading: Jonathan Safran Foer: ‘Technology is diminishing us’ (The Guardian); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘Now Is the Time to Talk about What We Are Actually Talking about’ (The New Yorker); ‘Timed Conversations’ (Lenny); Ann Friedman: ‘Was This Your First March? Don’t Stop Now’ (New York Magazine); Rebecca Solnit: Hope in the Dark.

Podcasts:The Civil Conversations Project’ (by the podcast On Being); Call Your Girlfriend, the Very Important Things video series; Another Round; Still Processing; Mystery Show.

Newsletters: actionnow, easy action.

This conversation was held in January 2017 [and its follow-up in February] and it was was first published in Oh Comely magazine. This interview has been condensed and edited.