Suit, ruffle blouse, green bikini top, earrings: Vintage from LIDOW ARCHIVE, All other jewelry: Renato Cipullo
Fresh off her tour opening for Oprah’s ‘Vision 2020’, and the drop of her latest single “Freedom” ft. Trakgirl (Spotify EQL Session), electronic music artist, activist, and unapologetic feminist Madame Gandhi took the time to meet with BlackBook to share a bit of herself, especially insights on her music and her message. We managed to fit in an exclusive photo shoot just before her appearance at Brooklyn’s Elsewhere, and, incidentally, just in the nick of time before the COVID-19-imposed social distancing guidelines made such live gatherings verboten.
Whether onstage, or as she poses in front of the camera, you can feel her passion to perform. She is also a musician with a message, and she communicates it by any medium possible. The Georgetown and Harvard Business School graduate has actually been named a TED Fellow: “Young world-changers, academics and trailblazers who have shown unusual accomplishment and exceptional courage in their respective disciplines…who collaborate and share new ideas and research across disciplines to create positive change around the world.” We could not possibly more strongly agree.
As quarantine began to take hold around us, we dove into both her art and her message, as well as how to achieve some sense of Zen in the time of coronavirus.
(N.B. Madame Gandhi’s TED Talk is scheduled for release this July.)
There are empowering messages in your music. What influenced that?
Anything that I’ve learned about politics or history—about the walk or journey of somebody else’s life—has been through music. As a kid, growing up in Manhattan, I would listen to Nas or Lauryn Hill and be learning about somebody else’s journey just thirty or forty blocks north of me in Harlem. Being able to use music to pull somebody in because of the beat and the melody and then share with them my thoughts on gender liberation, my thoughts on happiness, my thoughts on personal wellness, my thoughts on empathy, are the kinds of strategies and tools that make music so effective.
You worked with M.I.A., who is notably outspoken.
I worked with her, Thievery Corporation, and TV on the Radio as their drummer, and those three are so effective in making incredible music that inspires people, not only because it’s good, but because they’re saying something with that music. M.I.A is teaching about what she calls “third world democracy.” Thievery Corporation is teaching about corruption in the White House. TV on the Radio is teaching you about love and romance. So that is why I have chosen music as the medium through which I can communicate my views on gender; because I truly believe it is the most effective medium.
Tell us about your experience drumming for Oprah’s ‘2020 Vision’ tour.
So for the first three months of this year, every Saturday we would travel to a stadium and open up the day of Oprah’s ‘2020 Vision’ tour with the Daybreaker group. Daybreaker hosts a morning sober dance party where from 6-7am you do yoga, and then from 7-9am you dance as if you were in a nightclub to DJs, drumming, and live instruments. It’s a nine city stadium tour and then Oprah comes on to the stage to talk about wellness, her own personal fitness journey, her journey about her being on her path, and to just inspire her audience to also live out their own 2020 vision. And for me personally, it was the first time I’d ever performed in a stadium, it was first time where I’d really felt seen by someone so successful in their career as Oprah. It felt like I was really serving my purpose by using my drumming and dancing to give joy to the audiences we were performing for.
How did the audience respond?
We took people out of their minds and into their bodies, which is an important and underestimated activity—especially as we all grow older and we tend to think that we can’t be in our bodies to the extent that we really can. And I thought that was really important and inspiring. On the last day of the tour, Oprah was getting ready to give her speech, and as she was approaching the little podium she saw me and she just scooped me into her arms and gave me the most extraordinary hug! I’ll never forget that moment because I felt really seen, and I will never forget the lessons I learned on that tour. I can’t wait to take them and practice them on my own touring opportunities after this whole [COVID-19] experience calms down.
Has your sound evolved or developed from the inspiration of artists who came before you?
Definitely M.I.A inspires me because she’s constantly evolving her sound, and yet you can always tell when it’s an M.I.A song. The same is true for TV on the Radio and Thievery Corporation. I think that’s really important to me to continue putting out music, so I really hone a sound. For me that sound is taking my vocals, my drumming and the message, then putting warmly produced electronics underneath it. I usually always have something to say with my lyrics, whether it’s being really vulnerable in my emotions, or being really empowered by my passion for gender liberation.
Does the music act as a kind of therapy for you?
Fela Kuti’s music, like we were blasting during the BlackBook photoshoot, is a constant source of daily inspiration. Not only do I feel like it’s good for my mental health, and chemically shifts my brain to feel happier and more productive with my day, but it also shows me how I can take my views and put them into a really sexy musical body of work, one that gets people dancing and feeling happy, while still opening up their channels to learn and receive new information.
What particular issues are you most passionate about?
I’m really passionate about people feeling their best and being their most empowered selves. I remember when I was younger, I would go through phases of feeling my best self and then feeling bullied by other people, and I never want anyone else to feel like that. I’m passionate about women and femmes and gender non-conforming folks and queer folks being able to feel the true empowerment of our spirit. I want us not to constantly talk about our oppression, but rather to use our gifts to operate in a space of joy.
Suit, Bracelets: Vintage from LIDOW ARCHIVE, Shoes: Repetto from LIDOW ARCHIVE, All other jewelry: Renato Cipullo