Anohni Honors Her Femininity in Prolific New Protest Album
“I know people are making little gestures, but honestly, we don’t have any time left. The root of our lives is collapsing around us,” Anohni says halfway through our 45 minute phone call last month. It’s an usually bold statement that’s not often heard from musicians these days, but Anohni is no ordinary musician. The artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty, of epic band Antony and the Johnsons, is on the verge of releasing her first studio album in five years, and the first under her “spirit name,” Anohni. Aptly called Hopelessness, the 11-track protest record is an ethereal call to action on political issues—a musical equivalent of the CNN news ticker. It tackles everything from President Obama‘s legacy and global warming, to NSA surveillance and the death penalty, with an electronic pulse that makes you want to throw out your arms and dance until the world ends. It’s also a far cry from the chamber music she created with the Johnsons.
When Anohni stepped into the studio to start recording her new album, she brought along electronic musician Oneohtrix Point Never and Kanye West-affiliated producer Hudson Mohawke to help craft a new, sonic sound that’s a complete 180 from the type of music she’s been known for during her 16-year career. Although it’s a new direction musically, Anohni is no stranger to giving her lyrics a socially conscious bite. Nearly a decade ago, she cried out, “I need another world, this one’s nearly gone,” on the 2008 track “Another World.” This year, she became the second transgender person to be nominated for an Oscar for her song “Manta Ray” in the ecology doc Racing Extinction—although she famously boycotted the ceremony after she was asked her not to perform.
“I’m the kind of person who was always transgender. It’s not like I transitioned at 60 with a wife and six kids on my back trying on my first pair of nylons.”
It only took one viewing of the video for “Drone Bomb Me” back in March to know that, for her return to music, Anohni would be coming back stronger than ever. Art-directed by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, with tears provided by Naomi Campbell, the song’s lyrics—written from the perspective of a nine-year-old Afghanistani girl whose family was killed by a drone bomb—transfixed us, backed by a beat that makes it hard to sit still. It’s all part of a new strategy that’s giving Anohni a larger audience than ever before, and we think she’s exactly what the world needs. By the time we got off the phone with her, we’d talked about everything from Hopelessness and the murder of innocent people, to political complacency and Bernie Sanders. Read on for the musician’s unique take on the world today.
When you were making the “Drone Bomb Me” video, did you have a chance to meet Naomi Campbell?
Yeah, she came to my house.
Oh my God. How was that?
She was really amazing. She was really animated and sweet and beautiful.
Did she have any deep-felt personal feelings about the drone program?
I think her participation was in itself her kind of take on it. She didn’t give a quote beyond saying that she was up for it, you know? I played a bunch of songs from the record, and wanted to get her really familiar with the content of the record, so that she understood what we were going for, and she was game. She’s also really good friends with Riccardo [Tisci], and he encouraged her to do it. So I think the combination of her own political tendencies and her friendship with Riccardo was what prompted her to do it.
Do you think people really understand the extent of the government’s drone program in the United States?
No, I think it’s been done fairly covertly. In America, they’ve fought to minimize the extent to which a visual reality of the wars that we’re waging overseas enter the minds of Americans. I think that after Vietnam, they learned that if you let a war enter the living room of American television[s], then you’ll have a reaction to it. All of the interventions in Iraq and the Middle East have been really visually minimized. People don’t really have an idea in their minds of the extent of people that we’ve killed and murdered in the name of our country’s goals. You’re never going to erase the stain of resentment and hatred that killing innocent people will generate.
This album is your first under the name Anohni. What’s changed from your last album to this new record?
Well, I’m the same person I ever was, but I’m the kind of person who was always transgender. It’s not like I transitioned at 60 with a wife and six kids on my back trying on my first pair of nylons. For me, taking the name Anohni was just about doing a sort of rite of passage, formally acknowledging and honoring my feminine point of view.
You’re one of the most political musicians I’ve heard in a long time. Why don’t you think more musicians aren’t focusing on these critical issues?
First World culture and, specifically, American culture, appeals to the addict within us. So much of our lives are set up around dopamine responses to media and reward systems. It’s difficult to extricate oneself from that compulsive addiction—I can hardly do it.
What do you think people and other musicians can do to get out of this complacency?
I can’t speak for other musicians, but you can go on Netflix and see a documentary about every subject on this record. My ideas are not new information. They’re studying it in school everywhere, and young people all know this stuff. For me, my goal as an artist was to draw a circle around this larger panorama of issues and try to show the interconnectedness and interdependency between these issues.
As a musician, I wanted to use the emotionally affecting medium of pop music as Trojan horse to get some of this stuff across. It was an impulse to choose this kind of dance music as opposed to the style of music that I mostly did in the past, which was pastoral and would’ve been completely morose and boring in this context. The album has a lot of anger and I wanted to do something less passive. I wanted to do something more galvanizing.
How do you think queer politics play into the overarching issues in the world?
For me growing up in the period I grew up in, the alienation I experienced at the hands of the Catholic Church set me up to look for other ways of perceiving the spiritual world. I reach toward more Earth-centered and Pagan systems. In the ’80s, that was almost a typical subcultural stance to take in California.
It’s hard for me to separate these things. Had I not been so ostracized as a young queer person—specifically from the church and that mode of perceiving the spiritual world—I might never have reached a different way of seeing the world. When I was a student, I took a class with this teacher who wrote a book called The Celluloid Closet, which was about gays and lesbians in cinema. This was 1989 and he said you can’t be a gay activist or fight for gay rights without being a feminist—the oppression of gay people is built on the shoulders of the oppression of women.
It got to a point for me later on where I started to think that you can’t be a feminist without being an environmentalist. The interconnectedness of these things is the most striking to me and most useful.
Do you think that climate change is the biggest issue facing the world right now?
Yes. It’s the only issue that will matter in a hundred years. Climate change and biodiversity are the only issues that anyone will care about.
“Hopefulness and hopelessness won’t determine whether this comes to pass. What will determine it are our actions.”
We’ve seen young people rally behind Bernie Sanders this election, but at this point it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll get the nomination. Do you think that the political revolution he’s created is going to stop or will it empower people to keep engaging in politics after the election ends?
The problem with Americans, and with people generally, is they tend to operate in little fits and bursts. They put a tremendous amount of energy into something, then it’ll diffuse and they’ll go home for supper. The kind of dramatic transformation that is required for us to really change our trajectory at this point is going to require a sustained pressure the likes of which I’ve never seen before. A sustained effort that’s an undefeatable effort and a persevering insistence that you might’ve seen in the push to end slavery or the Suffragette movement.
Do you think people are capable of that in such an oversaturated, pop culture heavy market?
I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but the Occupy movement was so profound. It felt like wildfire. When people started waking up to this idea of the 99%, it was an idea that was crushed by the media, but it impressed upon me that, under the right conditions and with sufficient ingenuity, we can still do this. It’s a bit David and Goliath but I think it’s definitely possible.
I’d like to be hopeful about it.
Hopefulness and hopelessness won’t determine whether this comes to pass. What will determine it are our actions.
Anohni presents the world premiere of ‘Hopelessness’ at the Park Avenue Armory on Wed. May 18 and Thu. May 19 as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival.
Photos by Alice O’Malley at the Bronx Zoo orphanage with Fennec fox. Kathleen LaMattina, orphanage director and handler.
Stay tuned to Milk for more galvanizing musicians.