AJJ / Kimya Dawson gig addresses race, gender inequality
Art is criticized more for its political correctness, or perceived morality, than its quality, a recent New York Times Magazine piece argues. In short, politics is a bigger part of the entertainment world than it’s ever been.
Conversations about social justice are shaping art and vice versa. From Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump speech at the Golden Globes to Childish Gambino’s Grammy-award winning “This Is America,” our political and cultural worlds are at an interesting, exciting, sometimes uncomfortable and confusing, intersection.
But it’s important to understand that “politics” doesn’t just mean which political party you bubble in on your ballot, or whether you fall left or right on certain issues. “Politics” bleeds into our perspective of right and wrong, especially when it comes to issues of social justice, and creates an ever-evolving etiquette in creative spaces.
On October 13, 2018, at an acoustic-indie-punk gig in Woodstock, New York, I witnessed an ethical conversation that seemed to be going on for quite awhile — and with that conversation, an open, supportive environment to share ideas through music.
Setting the Stage
Folk-punk band AJJ and indie singer/songwriter Kimya Dawson have been around the block a few times — AJJ formed in 2004 and Kimya Dawson has been playing since the ’90s (famously as one half of the Moldy Peaches from ’94 to ’04 and then briefly in ’07 and ‘08). Both artists are known for lyricism that digs deep on issues such as anxiety, addiction, and social justice. Their openness on all these topics, I believe, helps create a warm, amicable atmosphere at their shows because, hey, people can relate.
The two acts headlined the sold-out show at Colony in Woodstock a few months ago. A crowd of mostly twenty-somethings packed into the hip bar/music venue, either shoulder to shoulder under its bulbous, orange string lights or casually gazing down from the second-level balcony. With a barrier-less stage so low to the ground that the bands and fans were practically eye level, and especially after openers Shellshag and Rozwell Kid totally tore it up, this felt like a punk show with a classy atmosphere. It wasn’t the aggressively rebellious punk rock we normally associate with the genre from its origins in the ’70s. It was a gentler, kinder rebellion.
Today, music addressing social justice particularly strikes a chord. AJJ and Kimya played songs that touched upon race and gender issues in the United States — and since their music blends folk and punk, which both have a history of speaking out against “the system,” it makes sense that they’d dig deep on such issues. I’d like to argue that their sensitivity and awareness of these topics helps build trust among their generally younger fanbase and breeds a community of safety surrounding these issues. (A safe space, if you will. More on that later.)
The Art of Listening
When indie-punk vet Kimya Dawson took the stage, she expressed wishes for the crowd to sit during her set. The suggestion was immediately met by a fan shouting, “Let’s do it! Let’s try it!” Slowly but surely, we sunk our bottoms down and wriggled to get semi-comfortable on the hard, wooden floor. Others preferred to stand in the back, but regardless, we were all closer than ever at this point.
Kimya made her way through songs that no one seemed to know the words to, but the audience was no less excited just to be present as she bared her heart through a distinctly raspy voice, acoustic guitar and foot-stomping, hand-tapping rhythms.
It was her A Capella song “At The Seams” that really hit home, addressing racial discrimination in the United States. The chorus is a straight-forward, four lines that borrows some phrases from the Black Lives Matter movement: “Hands up don’t shoot I can’t breathe/Black lives matter no justice no peace/I know that we can overcome because I had a dream/A dream we tore this racist broken system apart at the seams.”
That catchy chorus familiarized the predominantly-white audience with the issue before the 46-year-old woman of color dug deeper into the issue of police brutality:
“You tweet me my own lyrics, tell me to stop
Letting a few bad apples ruin the bunch
Don’t minimize the fight comparing apples to cops
This is about the orchards poisoned roots not loose fruits in a box
Once the soils been spoiled the whole crop’s corrupt
That’s why we need the grassroots working from the ground up
And we look to black twitter to stay woke and get some truth
Instead of smiling cops and black mugshots from biased corporate news
’Cause if you steal cigarillos or you sell loose cigarettes
Or you forget your turn signal will they see your skin as a threat
Will they kill you and then smear you and cover it up and lie
Will they call it ‘self defense,’ will they call it ‘suicide.’”
At various points during this verse, there were isolated shouts, cheers and snaps of approval for the tactful way Kimya addressed institutionalized racism. At other points of the song, many audience members began clapping to the rhythm in support. Kimya shook her head for them to stop, not wanting to pause her predictably emotional performance, but they didn’t seem to get the message. She eventually had to quickly say “stop stop, no clapping,” and everything was cool. She explained her reasoning for it afterwards — it just messed with her rhythm.
But she also gave us, the audience, a real opportunity to sit down and listen.
The Art of Singing Along
As indie, folk-punk four-piece AJJ set up on stage, lead singer Sean Bonnette whet his whistle. While the water poured into his mouth, a few people up front began a friendly chant of “Hydrate! Hydrate!”
Shortly after, the band busted into their 2011 song “American Tune,” in which Bonnette recognizes his white (straight, male) privilege. Although significantly louder and faster than Kimya’s stand-out performance, the song bares a few similarities.
First, the singable chorus: “If I see a penny on the ground, I leave it alone or fucking flip it/I’m a straight, white male in America/I’ve got all the luck I need.”
Then, the verses dig deeper into the issues. Bonnette also addresses racism in law enforcement — “I can drive through any neighborhood I please/At any hour, and the police don’t do a thing.” — as well as gender discrimination.
“I’m a guy getting paid more than a girl with a degree
And I can walk down the streets after dark
No one wants to rape me
And I can get a girl pregnant
And just as easily flee
Just like my straight white male dad did to me”
While I personally can’t speak for people of color, I do know that as a woman, hearing a male vocalist recognize the areas where I face bias is comforting to me at a show. I know that, generally speaking, I can worry less about creeps in the crowd.
As fans got rowdier, bandmates reminded them to watch out for each other in the pit.
Actions as simple as drinking water, making sure the people around you are comfortable, or respecting a performers’ wishes compose the etiquette or moral politics of a show. In this case especially, that etiquette was reflected in the artists’ actual political opinions, as evidence by their music’s lyrical content. The vibe in the room was not only generally supportive but included people of color, different gender identities, citizenships, etc., in that support system. At this point, etiquette and politics blended together, fostering an inclusive space — or a “safe space,” a place defined by Merriam-Webster as “intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.”
Shows like this are not official safe spaces. Most places aren’t and don’t even come close. In general, people in favor of “safe spaces” recognize the struggles that under-represented, minority groups face and know that all they want is a place they can go and feel heard, wanted and understood, as we all do.
The environment that Kimya Dawson and AJJ fostered that night in Woodstock may offer a window into what folk-punk shows are like these days and how they strive to make the world safe for all people. It’s not just folk-punk. Any genre of music coupled with this type of socially-conscious songwriting can create a similar space for people to come together and understand each other’s different lived experiences.