2/1/2021 0 Comments
Folks, if you haven’t heard about Reena Pang, then you are missing out on some of the best queer indie folk this side of the Stonewall. She’s the local ukuleleist behind such albums as “Songs for Sapphic Sweethearts” and “New Home,” and recently performed on campus during the rallies preceding G.E.O. 's strike. On October 17th, 2020, we sat down to discuss her illustrious career. At the start of our conversation, everything seemed fairly standard. By the end, the secrets of the universe had revealed themselves to us. We hope you enjoy - we certainly did.
J. Gillis: What is your creative process like?
Reena Pang: I started writing music in 2013, but that’s not really the music I think back on and enjoy. I started with my tenor ukulele, and the thing that you do when you’re learning the ukulele is that you learn the chords first because it’s easiest to get the chords down and then you work around that. So what I ended up doing was learning all sorts of songs to play on the ukulele. Eventually, I started realizing that a lot of these songs had really similar chord structures and it wasn’t actually that difficult to play the ones that I wanted without having lyrics attached to them. Then I decided to start, y’know, “What if I wrote a song about this internship that I’m doing? What if I wrote a song about this or that experience?” and it started becoming a thing.
It was around 2016, which was my second year at the University of Michigan, that I started actually writing music that I really enjoyed on my Bandcamp (which everyone can check out if they have the time. There is music that I wrote back in 2015 to 2017, and it’s all in the “Songs For Sapphic Sweethearts” album that’s out there). The process for writing music- a lot of it was based on relationships or ideas I had about relationships. A lot of them were very basic love songs, very basic stuff that I felt flowed off of the tongue in a way that was both somewhat whimsical and comforting, what-have-you.
Back then, I didn’t really have any ambitions of being this big musician; it was just music that I did in my own time. I did want to record them at some point and put them online, because that seemed like a reasonable thing to do and also I am Terminally Online. Posting stuff on the internet is something I’m used to doing because when you grow up on the internet, the internet is like a social space in the same way as going to a performance venue or in the same way as going down to, I don’t know, whatever people did before the internet was around. Going down to the park or busking or what-have-you. I feel like when you post your music online, you are internet busking in a way. I know there is stuff like streaming music for views and subscribers on Twitch, but I think even the process of publishing music and taking it and going, “I want to post this online,” means, at the very least, if you’re making money off of it, it’s some form of busking, and if not, you’re just sharing your content with the world. I think it takes a little bit of confidence to do that.
I eventually got to the point where I was like, “Okay, I can post this stuff on Soundcloud and people don’t seem to judge it badly. People seem to enjoy the covers that I’m putting out (and mind you, this was like one or two people that were looking at my things on Soundcloud and leaving likes or comments or whatever).” I don’t have a very large internet following, but I think even having little bits of people coming up and going, “Hey, this is kind of cool!”- it’s really nice, and it gives me the drive to go, “Okay, so it looks like my music is actually reaching and actually influencing other people. Let’s see where I can take this.”
“Songs For Sapphic Sweethearts” partly was written as a bunch of personal songs, but as I was writing them, I started to think, “What are the larger themes that can be covered in the musical world? In what ways are people represented in my life that I haven’t seen represented in music before? What can I do to approach that topic?” Of course, in 2016, I came out as trans, so that obviously had a pretty big impact on some of the music I wrote. The song that I sort of consider my “single” on “Songs For Sapphic Sweethearts” is a song called “I’m Your Girl,” and it was something that I wrote that was in pretty stark contrast to everything I’ve written before. I feel like when I wrote it, it was very much me going out of my way to be like, “You know, I think that I’m ready to start calling myself this.” It’s not that uncommon to hear from other trans people that this experience of not quite being able to say, “I am a woman. I am a girl. I am what-have-you,” because there’s a lot of anxiety there. There’s a lot of frustration. There’s a lot of worry that, even if you say it, it might not be true. There’s a lot of internalized transphobia. All of these things that are interacting with you. Using music to sort through that was something that really helped me to sort of reify myself as a person, to sort of go, “You know what? I am this, and I know that I am this because I can sing this. And I can sing this music at parties or what-have-you and people enjoy it because they actually legitimately like it, and it’s fine!” That’s sort of the fun part of that, so I think that writing that music, posting it online was a really nice first step for songwriting.
Obviously, the last couple of years I’ve been writing more and more music geared towards very specific experiences, trying to cover things that are more outside of what I’d considered “normal” love songs, which is a thing I associate with a tenor ukulele. I think that instruments like these are very good for telling things that are sweet, short-ish. They can be used for other reasons, but I feel like the sound of the ukulele (generally speaking)- I dunno. Not to insult the ukuleles, because I think they’re great, but you can’t write heavy metal with the ukulele, unless you’re using an amp with a lot of pedals or doing something really intense to change the sound. I think that ukuleles’ strength lies in the softness that you can use for a number of different reasons. So I started music that was a little less “soft,” so to speak, stuff that was starting to tear away from the sound that I was used to.
I think a lot of the songs that I wrote in 2017, 2018, were very much entering this space of, “This is kind of dark. This is weird mental health stuff that I haven’t explored in music before. What do I do about that?” What I ended up doing - I went out of my way to purchase a baritone ukulele, and this is the instrument I have been using since. <At this point in the interview, Reena retrieves said ukulele from somewhere beyond the camera’s field of vision.> This thing was probably one of the better purchases that I’ve made because I really think that it deepened the sound. I think that the lower strings sort of service a more serious experience. It sounds so much richer.
J: I’ve never heard a baritone ukulele before. To be honest, I thought you were using a guitar on that whole album.
R: I actually don’t know how to play the guitar. If you look at a baritone ukulele, it has four strings, which are basically like the four top strings of a guitar (the bottom two are absent), so it kind of retains a similar tuning with the ukulele but in G instead of set in C. Seven or eight semi-steps lower. What that means for the sound is that you can do something more interesting. I think you can settle into something more cozy and also do stuff that is veering more into guitar-ish sounds. At some point, I may or may not learn how to play guitar- that’s still sort of in the works, and obviously purchasing instruments in 2020 is complicated. But after getting this instrument for myself, what I ended up learning was that the music I was writing was sort of fitting a little more into the stuff that I was doing, stuff that I was feeling in the moment, which was really nice and also let me write stuff that’s still pretty light-hearted.
Come 2019, I have a lot of very personal things going on in my life. As a result of that, I end up publishing “New Home,” which is a collection of a bunch of music that I wrote immediately after moving out of my parents’ and into where I live now. And it’s weird, because I feel like I felt a lot of things I didn’t expect to feel by moving into that space, and I want to catalogue that experience. That’s where “New Home” comes into play, where there’s a lot of different feelings about family, there’s these feelings about the potential of living somewhere else. There’s obviously a lot of angst going on there. There’s all sorts of stuff that’s happening. I wrote some of the songs as very explicitly for myself. I wrote some of them as a very clear, “This is something that I would have liked to hear as somebody who is trans two years ago,” and then there are some songs that are sort of a hybrid, an in-between. My music process is always, “What is my audience? What do I want to cover? How do I put those things together, and how can I make it musically interesting?” That’s sort of the process that I went for “New Home,” and it’s really great to be able to publish that online and to see people’s reactions. It’s honestly really sweet to see that there are so many people who like my music. I was really happy about that.
I published “New Home” in March-ish/April of this year. It ended up being what I thought, like, “That’s where my new music is going, it’s time to write another album, it’s time to do more work,” and then of course there’s a pandemic, there’s all sorts of things happening here, there, and the other. I feel like I’ve always been tangentially involved in politics since I started learning stuff in college, particularly in 2016. I took a class in Social Ecology. That really opened my eyes just on how much the concept of the United States empire, the way that climate change is very distinctly connected with capitalism, all these different leftist themes. “New Home” kind of does The Thing, where it’s very clearly showing my inclinations on a political level. If people were surprised by me saying that I’m a leftist, they obviously haven’t been listening to my music (laughs).
I feel like it’s always been an important part of myself. Ever since I came out, you know- there are certain political ideologies that are just incompatible with being trans, in my opinion. The process of queer liberation, the process of trans liberation- all of these ideas are leftist in function. You cannot be a centrist and liberate yourself. You can’t be a conservative and espouse the same ideologies about this fundamentalist stuff and expect that that will go well as a trans person, which is a little complicated, obviously. The thing is, obviously, there are trans people out there that are conservatives, and I’m not necessarily shaming them, but I also think that, as a trans person of color who has watched a lot of things go down, it’s just a very irresponsible position to take. Because if you were paying attention, then you would know that the ideology that you’re aligning yourself with is fundamentally opposed to your basic interests.
The complicated part about writing music for, say, a movement- for instance, I played “I Don’t” for the rally. I also played two songs that were clearly very geared for the rally. I wrote a song about Schlissel. I wrote a song that I ended up sort of tweaking and sort of framing the way the University was treating people in relation to letting people back onto campus so recklessly, which I think was a fucking stupid decision. It was absolutely uncalled for and probably the most unconscionable thing I’ve seen done by a university, and done by such a huge economic apparatus. Everybody knows it. The cases around Ann Arbor are mounting considerably, so I think that I’m fully justified in the way that I wrote the music to describe the situation. It’s absolutely kind of really messed up that that happened.
J: Taking an already apocalyptic situation and making it even more apocalyptic.
R: Right. It’s almost blatantly transparent that there is a lot of money that went into that decision. People have talked extensively about how Weiser, as one of the regents, also happens to have massive investments and potentially owns university buildings, apartments around campus, and has a vested interest in keeping those doors open for students, even at the cost of human life. When you see things like that, it’s really hard to not be angry about it. Obviously, I had a very specific idea for music for “New Home.” For writing the music that was very anti-University - the one thing that you have to do when you’re writing music like that is that you have to pinpoint, “What are the specifics? What are the things that you’re angry about, and how can you put that into your music?” It’s sort of a recognition that this is very clearly geared towards such a specific audience. This is geared towards a specific experience, just like how “New Home” is sort of geared towards a specific experience. It may obviously stir up some similar feelings and sentiments, but I don’t really expect it to necessarily impact, say, the trans movement in the seventies, the way that people were fighting for their rights before the turn of the millennium. So much is relating to the people that are growing up now, dealing with all of this stuff that is happening now, so when I say that I write music for trans people, I think that there’s a caveat there about trying to recognize that it’s a very imperfect encapsulation of an experience. There’s so many different kinds of trans out,there’s so many different kinds of anti-establishment and leftist music. I’m just one flavor out there, and I want to make sure that that’s something that is in play.
J: Your music was very interesting to experience. Not exactly like a lullaby, but more gentle and more poised and precise in certain ways. There’s a major evolution from your first album and the second, both tonally and lyrically. The first one - it’s a very good album, you can tell it’s more personal and a bit lighter- but as soon as you hear those opening notes of that first song [off of the second album], it’s like, “Oh, shit! This both feels like a fairy tale, and also, I’m going to have a really emotional experience in the best way possible.”
R: Honestly, I had so much fun writing the intro and outro to “New Home.” I don’t know what compelled me to write that, but I have a background in theatre. I graduated from the University [of Michigan] with a double major in theatre and psychology, so I have a lot of experience with really evocative intros. It’s very clearly performative in a very specific way, and I wanted that to start the album because I was like, “This is the way that I want to open. This is the way that I want to close. I want to have a bookended situation.” My specific idea with “New Home” was to try something new. Not to do a Genius episode where I’m explaining the lyrics, but there’s a lot of little bits that I threw into the intro and outro- there’s a little more in there that I’m referencing on a literary level than in any of the other songs, which I guess is also new for me.
J: I didn’t know how, but the image of the stone mouse throwing itself against the glass wall definitely felt like something I’d read in a poetry book somewhere.
R: Obviously, there’s a lot of metaphors being used in that music specifically. I think that there is this function of angst, particularly in trans experiences. I’m not going to go into specifics, but I had a very turbulent experience with my family. There is this process where I was on the University, and then I was not at the University, and then I was sort of in between the University and the home. The tension that’s building up in that space was something that kind of exploded, which is part of the reason that I think I wanted to write about that in a way that was literary because it really felt cataclysmic to me. It felt like this literary thing that was happening. It felt like I was watching “The Glass Menagerie.” Tennessee Williams is one of the best playwrights of the United States of the twentieth century, hands down. He’s done so much good stuff out there, but I think that the tension that is written into “The Glass Menagerie” was something that was very potent to me particularly, and I sort of attached to that. I went, “Glass- of course! Glass is the thing that shatters under pressure, so of course that’s the right way to bookend the music.” You can probably figure it out from there how the process looked.
The kinds of music that I was listening to immediately before I wrote this album probably give you an idea of what that looks like, what kind of musical experience I was going through. I had just started listening to Against Me!, I was listening to Mitski, who in my opinion, is one of the best lyricists in our time, honestly. Left At London is also someone that is more of a personal inspiration to me (Love you, Nat Puff!). I was listening to a lot of trans artists to get a sense of what other people were writing at the time. Listening to Black Dresses, I was listening to Antony and the Johnsons, which was a band that my friend Carta Monir basically offered to me as an option to listen to. I discovered Bikini Kill, there was Cutting Room Floor, which is a local Ann Arbor band (or Ypsi, can’t remember). They have an album called “Sink/Swim” that is really good. It definitely Did The Thing of being in your face, “Here’s your feelings, we’re gonna talk about a lot of personal stuff.” There’s just a lot of beauty in the way that the lyrics are written. I think the fun part about doing punk is that you kind of let your music and your lyrics be one in a lot of ways. It’s really fun! I felt like I was diving a little bit into that when I was doing “New Home.”
J: I was going to ask you questions about punk, but I didn’t want to risk assigning labels to your style.
R: I don’t really know what to label it either. I would describe it as more punk-ish if there was more instruments involved, if I wasn’t just playing on my ukulele. But I have to say that those were such a huge influence on the music that I wrote that if someone wants to call it punk, then I’m not going to disagree with them. I just have a lot of personal hang-ups about genres. The thing that really hits me about the music that I wrote is that, in incorporating folk stuff and incorporating punk stuff, all of these different little pieces, I was able to make something that was very representative of who I was at the time, what I was feeling. I feel like it very clearly has Midwestern influences, which, for better or for worse, is in there now. I look back on it and I go, “Yeah, that’s great!” I can’t put a label on it necessarily, but if people want to call it punk, sure, that’s what it is! I was messing around with a whole bunch of ideas for what to call it on Bandcamp, and what I call it on Bandcamp is “trans folk,” which I think kind of makes sense, because there’s music in there that sounds like it is attempting to come from the root of something... At the risk of positioning that album as something more important than it is, I think that calling it “folk” gives it a- it’s grounded, it’s using traditional instruments, it’s using the type of music structure that is expected of folk experiences. Sure! There’s some songs in there I feel like if, fifty years down the line, if somebody were like, “I’m gonna do it! This is me, a trans girl in the cyberpunk future, and I just discovered this really old band out there. We’re gonna play ‘Birdie’s Lullaby’!” It’s doable. I can see it being something that people are like, “I’ll just play this like it’s a standard.”
J: Have you ever heard of Beth Elliott by any chance?
R: Yes! That’s really interesting that you bring that up because I feel like Beth Elliott very much is also a big inspiration for me. As you know, she was one of the few trans lesbians at the time. Reading about her history is really fascinating because just the way she just went up and decided to perform even when there was so much vocal opposition against her, that is so inspirational for me. I did listen to her music, and I did really come away with a sense of awe almost. Like, you go, Beth! You did it! I never learned any of the songs that Beth wrote, but when I listen to it, I’m like, “Yeah! This is a thing that was probably really important to a lot of people back then,” so that’s cool! If that’s the space that my music ends up occupying in the future, then I will die the happiest woman alive, because that means that what I’ve written actually resonates with people, and that’s really cool. That’s really cool! I’m already very humbled that I’m actually being interviewed.
I feel like there is so much potential for rich storytelling when it comes to trans experiences, narratives, tragedies, and it’s a shame that they’re not being told more. It’s a shame that we don’t have the opportunities to tell those stories more. I feel like the burgeoning culture of trans people coming out and realizing, “You know what?I do want to tell my story. I do want to put it out there. I don’t want to be invisible anymore,” is something that I feel as well, very intuitively. A couple of days ago, somebody randomly contacted me and was like, “I want to use your music for a documentary about a trans person,” and I was like, “What? That’s so weird, but I’m into it! Use my music, whatever you wanna do!” And it’s little things like that that definitely bring me to a certain point of optimism. As this cultural space gets developed, people are going to curate different sounds, people are going to cultivate different ideas of what that is. There isn’t really one unified trans culture anymore. Not that there ever was, but I feel that for the longest time, there was this, like - catgirls, being Terminally Online (which I still am as a person, but still). There a lot of archetypes about trans people on the internet, and the reality is that it’s never been that way and honestly, it’s probably never going to hit that point again. And that’s a good thing because the culture is so rich and so diverse. Part of the reason why I was excited about putting my album out was because I was seeing this trend of like, “Oh, yeah! There’s a lot of trans people that like doing electronic music, and I really like that. I love Black Dresses. Absolutely!” And also, writing something that was very distinctly this amalgamation of all the things that were personal to me was like, “I think that there is a space for people like me. There is a place for trans people in the world who have parental issues” *Laughs*. We’re always going to have people that more people know. We’re always going to have people that are more popular. We’re always going to have voices that are more prominent, and that shouldn’t take away from the fact that there are so many different iterations of what it means to be genderqueer, to be nonbinary, to be all of these different things.
It’s a really weird time for musicians. Even for working on music now is so different. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to write “New Home” at the time because that was very much the right time to do that. Since then, most of the music that I’ve been writing in serious is stuff to use in protests, stuff to use in demonstrations. I’ve written maybe a couple of songs that are up in that level of scrutiny. I’ve written music for Blaseball <a popular app about fantasy baseball in a fantasy-stylized world>, but that’s something completely different. That’s something you don’t have to worry about.
J: You’ve written songs for it or about it?
R: Yeah, so Blaseball is this weird community of people that are just really weird oddballs, and it’s really hard to describe exactly what it is without going into a one hour rant about it. I used to also LARP, that was also a big part of my life. From 2018 to the end of 2019, I was writing a lot of music for this LARP. Obviously, the creative process for writing music for a fictional world is really interesting, because you’re like, “What can I do to build upon something that technically doesn’t exist and reify that through music?” I think that was also relatively formative in the experience of “New Home” because of the fact that, again, it’s easier for me to, after writing music for a fictional universe for a couple of years, to come back to reality and go,“You know what? There’s some great stuff that’s ripe for writing about!” I feel like writing music for Blaseball is kind of like writing music for LARP in that I am writing something that’s entirely fictional. Before I was doing really serious music, I was listening to musicians like Johnathan Coulton and Steam-Powered Giraffe. Jonathan Coulton does comedy music that is also folksy in nature. He wrote a song about IKEA, he wrote a song about a parody of zombie films and stuff. He also wrote the end credits song to Portal and Portal 2, so the music featured in both those games, that distinctly is Johnathan Coulton’s lyricism. Steam-Powered Giraffe is also a very interesting musical project because they were these busking automatrons and then they went out of their way to write six albums. Talking about them is weird- it’s just hard to describe. I think the thing about talking about the music that I work on is interesting because I almost feel like there’s a distinction between music that I write for myself and for, like… There’s music that I write that is evocative, that is very specifically, “This is my experience with these feelings and this personal stuff that I’ve dealt with,” and then the next day, I’m writing about a fictional baseball team and I’m writing music about these fake characters in this fake universe. Obviously, that’s a different part of my musical life. I’ve done a lot of really weird stuff in addition to doing the music that I do.
It’s hard for me to know what specifically is the right way to be a musician because I feel like I am split between so many experiences of music that it’s hard for me to explain in a concrete way. I guess the easiest way for me to say is that I’m a weird person, and that’s fine. I sometimes wonder if, when I am being interviewed for stuff like this, if I am supposed to be putting on a front like, “Ah, yes! It’s Reena, the Midwestern Trans Folk Singer That Also Goes To Protests.” Or am I also supposed to be Reena, The Person That Is Way Too Online And Spends A Lot Of Her Time Writing Honestly Really Silly Music? And I think that the balance of those personas is really interesting.
At this point in the interview, Reena offered to perform a few songs for you lovely people. The following videos contain live performances of some of her (absolutely delightfully devastating) works.
SONG #1: SLEEPY NIGHTS IN AUGUST
SONG #2: BRAINDEAD
SONG #3: NAME WITHOUT AN ‘H’/VICTORY LAP
R: I haven’t been able to do a lot of live performances because of the fact that it took me a while until I was able to get comfortable with playing my music around people at venues and stuff. The biggest venue I ever had (barring the rally which was interesting) was Frog Island of Ypsilanti. We were doing a block party, and it was basically a coalition of a bunch of leftist groups that came together. I ended up playing a lot of music in front of a lot of people, and that was probably my biggest audience ever. The experience of playing music while there are so many people watching you is just really gratifying. You’re just like, “Wow. These people are actually vibing. They’re vibing to what I have to put out, and that’s really cool!” I would play at co-ops and stuff before COVID, and people seemed to really like the music I was singing back then, too, but I was sort of like, “The reason that that’s happening is that we’re all college or college-adjacent kids. Of course you’re gonna like it because we’re all the same age demographic.” Not to shortchange people who like my music. It’s still kind of weird to me, like, “Wow, there are people that actually like my stuff.” I have a problem with accepting compliments and stuff like that.
J: How would you describe the music scene of Ann Arbor?
R: It’s hard for me to describe because honestly I only started getting seriously into music recently, and I’ve always wanted to go to more concerts. I know that there are certain musicians who tour in the area frequently that had their origins in Ann Arbor. One band that I’ve been listening to a lot recently is Vulfpeck. They just totally took the funk world by storm, Joe Dart being an absolute madman on the bass, but the thing is, I frankly don’t know a whole lot of music. I know scattered bits and pieces. Like, there’s Cutting Room Floor, there’s Vulfpeck, there’s this band that’s sitting on my desk called Sabbatical Bob. It’s got an interesting sound to it. I bought their CD when they stopped by. The music scene- I don’t really know how to describe it because honestly, I haven’t really been around that much. I remember I would go to the Top of the Park and there would always be very good musicians. A lot of them were out of state, but they always had a couple that were local. I think the thing that Ann Arbor has that makes it really easy for outside musicians to come in is that there’s a lot of venues that allow you to do that from an outsider’s point of view. You have the Ark, you have the University buildings (the University gets lots of musicians in all the time, they play, it’s great). There’s clubs like the Blind Pig, there’s a number of different venues that are available for people that are touring. The complicated part is hosting local talent. I don’t really know what that looks like, but what I’ve heard is that it’s a little bit difficult. At least for people that are trying to Do The Thing to be the punk scene, the rock scene, I know it’s kind of not a great place to be in comparison to Lansing or Grand Rapids. The DIY scene in Michigan, in Ann Arbor specifically, is a little bit muted. I don’t know why that is, but I have to assume it’s associated with housing prices, because it’s really hard to afford housing in Ann Arbor. There are some really good musicians who come in to perform from Detroit. [For] the musicians of Ann Arbor, why is it difficult for you to feel like there are places for you to perform in?
I am not a musician that is super experienced, so I can’t necessarily speak to everything. I don’t know every opportunity, I don’t know everything that happens. I know that the Ark used to do open mic nights before the pandemic. I know that the University likes hosting various different performers. I know that sometimes there are musicians that come in and play the Michigan Theatre. That’s great! Those opportunities are great, and it’s wonderful to be able to have those talents come in. I’m just curious how local talent can be cultivated and how people can better have that happen.I remember being added to a bunch of different chats in college about like, “Oh yeah, this is a record label that a bunch of university kids are putting here. Here’s another thing that people are doing.” I remember just seeing all of them and going, “Yeah, that’s cool,” and never having time for it because I was a college kid. I can talk for ages about the a capella scene, because I was a member of Maize Mirchi for a couple of years. Technically speaking, I suppose that’s a musical subgenre in and of itself because a lot of the Michigan a cappella groups will do recordings and put them on Spotify as well. The GMen have a couple albums up, I know that Amazin’ Blue had a couple that they put up, Maize Mirchi has been publishing music for a while now. I don’t know so much about the other ones; I haven’t been paying attention to the scene recently. I could talk about it for days, but it’s not necessarily representative of the larger community. It’s complicated. Music is complicated.
I feel like, in a lot of ways, I am an extrovert, but in regards to finding places to perform, it’s difficult. It’s a weird time. Actually, there were some venues that were interested in having me. Just other co-ops and stuff. I feel like, if the pandemic hadn’t happened and I would have gone to these, I would have a better sense of what the music scene in Ann Arbor is right now. As of right now, Aalot of the opinions I have right now are a combination of hearsay and just being an Ann Arbor native. I’ve pretty much grown up here my whole life, so for better or for worse, I know this place and not many other places.
I’ve been involved in politics in the Washtenaw County area for a while now, and I can tell you that the University is such a powerful institution. The way that they treat people, from their workers to their investments and what have you- it’s frankly unacceptable. I was involved in a climate action group a year ago. The best way to frame the situation is this group of kids and grad students and what have you, they’ve gone through every avenue they can get. They went through student government, they’ve talked to the admin multiple times over. None of these changes are being made, none of the factor changes to go carbon neutral, none of this is actually happening. The university set up a climate council, and the council includes someone from (I think) BP. There is a representative from one of those energy companies, I can’t remember which one it was, but there were two representatives from one of those big conglomerates. It’s weird because the university itself, even the climate scientists in the university, published a number of things that needed to happen in order to make the university climate neutral, and the administration just totally tossed those out. It is honestly quite despicable, and it’s frustrating that when kids decide, “You know what? I actually do want to make a difference. I want to speak up and say this is bad. We can’t keep disregarding the environment like this,”that people send the police to arrest everybody that’s trying to do that. I was there. There were middle schoolers in there, and they sent the police. The police were like, “We’re going to arrest everybody if you don’t leave.” That the university would rather try and use its own security force as a means of avoiding the problem instead of actually dealing with the consequences and being a proper steward for the environment… Because the university has the power, as an institution they have so much power, and they could easily put forth the changes to make the university carbon neutral. I can’t even remember the statistics, but I know that out of all the Big 10 universities, Michigan is one of the worst when it comes to carbon neutrality. And that’s really disappointing because they always advertise themselves as “The Leaders And The Best.” What’s really happening is they’re trying to shove all of this actual work that needs to be done under committees and oversight boards and things like that that are just obscuring the actual problem. And on top of all that, the university does have a hand in the ways that poverty affects people in Washtenaw County. It has an impact on the way that housing is distributed and priced. Obviously, they’re not the only ones that are involved in it. The fact that the university has a hand in the gentrification of Ann Arbor and the gentrification of Ypsilanti… this is stuff that people in the university have studied and have gained some insight into, yet can’t figure out how to solve. They can’t figure out how to deal with it or can’t get the administration to agree on a set of agreements that actually allow that to happen, to alleviate the suffering that people are going through. I wish I had the numbers in front of me because I’m not just saying these things because I’m trying to sound “anti-establishment,” but because there are people who have looked into the mechanism by which the rent around the university increases. As the rent increases in Ann Arbor, Ypsi landlords start increasing their rent as a response because the university’s response to students that need affordable housing is to send them to Ypsi. That’s a thing that they’ve openly admitted out loud to graduate students. It’s not surprising that there’s so many students that are unhappy with the administration. It’s not a surprise that people in general have been generally miffed with Schlissel’s performance and the regents’ performance on the situation. If MSU is doing a better job at quarantining their school than the University of Michigan… if you really wanna say that you're the leaders and the best, then why are you exposing your students to coronavirus?
I’m of two minds about student activism. As someone who’s no longer a student, I think that students do have a certain amount of leverage on the university experience. People say that the Central Student Government doesn’t actually do anything, but the Central Student Government used to be in charge of the Ann Arbor Tenants Union in the eighties. There was a time where students had a pretty big influence on the university. The way that the power structures shifted makes it so that the university funded their police force to an absurd degree and designed buildings so that they could suppress student activism. They did all sorts of things.
J: Wait a minute- they designed buildings to suppress students?
R: You know the Fletcher Administration Building? It’s the one that’s near the Cube. All the administrators go there for regent meetings and stuff. It is designed like a fortress for a number of reasons. It’s not very obvious from the get-go, but there’s a reason why it’s shaped sort of like a weird, oblong tower. It’s because of the fact that these doors are designed to be very difficult to… basically, if the students try to occupy the building, there are multiple ways that that can be circumvented. If this thing happens in this way, the university can go, “Oh, there’s a door that we can just open. There’s a service door that we can crack open.”
J: Sounds more like a Swiss Army Knife than a building.
R: It’s designed also to keep students out. It does both things. It is really fascinating. Which is interesting, because Fletcher, who was one of the presidents at the time, was generally one of the ones that was more interested in listening to student activists and having conversations with them. So to name an entire building, a building that ostensibly is just this fortress, after the president that did their best to fairly dispel student protests but in at least in a more amicable and understanding capacity, is really interesting.
The university was also built on native land. That’s been brought up repeatedly, but there’s so many little bits of U of M culture that are so, when you dig into it, like, “Oh, man, this is just such a hostile environment,” or, “It’s an environment that's geared towards suppressing students or student movements.” I like to think that that’s partly possibly the reason why so much of the furniture that they’ve put in buildings, they’ve moved towards those weird, rollable chariots. They’re rolly chairs that have desks that swing on front. There’s a lot of them in East Quad. They obviously replaced “desk” desks and I feel like one of the big reasons that they’re coveted by universities that have student activism is that you cannot use them to barricade doors. It’s just impossible.
J: JEEZ! That is a lot of thought put into chairs!
R: I mean, I don’t think it’s that difficult to come up with the idea of, “Oh, yeah! It’s a rolly chair, you can’t lock the wheels, people can use it because it gives that creative freedom. Also it has the added benefit of being really, really difficult to be used against the university.”
J: It just seems so innocuous.
R: I have to assume that that maybe is part of the reason why they’re designed that way. There are so many things that are intentional about the way the university puts together buildings, the way that they make these decisions. The term “hostile architecture” is a thing that I’m sure you’re familiar with, right?
J: No. This is my first time learning about it, and it’s something I’m going to spend way too much time thinking about.
R: Hostile architecture is infrastructure designed specifically to make interactions and ways to interact with buildings and areas complicated. You can see this in, for instance, the way the benches have been made these days. Benches used to be wooden benches that you could sit on, y’know, it’s fine. A lot of places have been replacing those benches with spiked areas. You will see it on the side of university buildings that have corners. There’ll be metal platings that are attached every five or ten feet or so, you’ll see a nice, L-shaped metal piece. Those are designed to prevent skaters from doing [skateboarder things]. If you ever see a bench that looks kind of uncomfortable, and you’re like, “Why is it designed that way? Can I actually even lay down on it?” the answer is no, you cannot lay down on it because it is designed that way. They went out of their way to make sure that homeless people couldn’t stay there. You see it a lot more obviously in downtown area, actually, because there are areas where there’s just spikes or random metal pieces that are sticking up that look like decorations but actually are there specifically to prevent people from sleeping there. People have found some really creative ways to prevent people from sleeping in areas. People put bike racks in places that are very clearly not designed for bike racks, people have put spikes (which are more obvious). It’s really weird, and it’s really egregious, particularly in really populated cities. Ann Arbor you see it a lot too. That’s the reason why I suspect those chairiots are designed to be “student protest-proofed,” because there’s just no way that that’s [not] happening.
J: Do you consider yourself an optimist?
R: I think that I have to be an optimist, honestly. The reason that is give that answer is because when you transition, when you make the decision that you are trans and when you decide, “I am going to prioritize my own health, I am going to prioritize my own well-being over being an outcast potentially.” When you are doing that, on some level, you are holding out hope that this is the right choice. It’s possible to be a pessimist, but I think that most of my life, I’ve always been an optimist, and the reason that I even decided to transition to begin with was because I was an optimist. I think that a lot of the political beliefs even that I hold -and you can feel it when you listen to the music that I write- are very optimistic. They have to be because I believe in those things, and in order to believe in those things, I have to, on some level, maybe believe that those changes that can be made can be made, that those things will happen if we all believe it and we all agitate in the right ways, then it’s possible.
It’s hard to really have any hope in the United States in the year 2020. It was always hard to have hope in the United States, period, because the United States is the center for imperialism and capitalism and what have you. No other country has stifled so many revolutions, has caused such destruction, have advanced the stages of global warming, have endangered the lives of so many people through nuclear proliferation, the list goes on and on. The United States is objectively one of the not-great places to live. It probably isn’t the worst place to live, but any wealth that the United States sits on was extracted. Because of that, on some level, whenever I think about the place that I live, whenever I think about the country, I just am reminded that things are bad. If I was a pessimist, if I was somebody who decided, “No, I can’t do anything. No, it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it to take all of these things that I know about the United States and reconcile that with my moral compass.” If I were to look at that and go, “I can’t do it,” then I think that I would not be the person that I am. I don’t think I would have transitioned, I don’t think that I would be a leftist, even. I think the cynicism that the United States just generates as a political and national identity very much lends itself well to pacifists. Not to get metaphysical about it, but I truly think that people who think that there’s no other way out have to make do with what exists, and what exists is this inept political system. What exists is getting a high-paying job so that you can move into a county with a high tax bracket so that you can send your kids to a better-funded school. If you’re a pessimist, then that means you have to make due with (and maybe even support) the fact that the United States plays what it seems to be a zero sum game where they go to countries that are not in the Western sphere and establish military operations there to extract resources for multinational corporations. I think that an optimist doesn’t fall for that. An optimist doesn’t simply accept the way that things are. An optimist in the United States has to believe that there is something better that can happen. That there is something better than homeless people living in a country that has more than enough houses to house them. I have to believe that we don’t have to have concentration camps. It’s one of the reasons why I think reading theory, reading leftist writers, being involved in activism is always about hope, I guess. I understand that, as an individual, I don’t have a lot of power. Even as a collective, I think that it will be difficult to enact the changes that need to happen in order to live and exist in a better world. I tend to reconcile that with… have you read any Albert Camus [prolific philosopher and guiding voice within the school of absurdism]?
J: Not yet.
R: I think that absurdism is a framework with which to fit other moral philosophies and ways of thinking. I consider myself an absurdist. I’m an absurdist and an optimist because I recognize that, two thousand years down the line, the human race might not exist. Two thousand years down the line, whatever contributions that I have left on this Earth will probably not be remembered, for better or for worse. Two billion years from now, the planet probably will be uninhabitable. What does that mean? In the scope of time, what does my life mean? This is a struggle that we all know the end. We all know what happens in the end. So what do we do? We explicitly go out of our way to do things that we think are meaningful, to create our own meanings, to recognize that there is no inherent meaning, and to experience life the way that needs to be experienced, specifically to spite death. That’s what I think absurdism is. I think that it is this decision to go out of your way to say, “I am going to die. I am going to go make the most out of my life,” because that is the way to defeat death. That is the way to actually exist with the absurd, with knowing that you are going to die: to be constantly aware of it and also seek to undermine it at every turn. It was helpful for me to read ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ because I think Camus does a very good job of writing the philosophy behind it by saying, “We are all people that are pushing our own boulders up these hills, and one dsay, we’re gonna watch them roll down. What are we gonna do when it happens? What are we going to do?” And Albert’s argument is that you have to find the joy in watching the boulder roll down. You have to find the joy in doing the action, in watching that absurd realization, and it’s a difficult balance.
I don’t think about my mortality that often. I should be thinking about it more as a marginalized person living in the United States. The thing about being alive is that it sucks. It sucks in all these tiny little ways, and it’s also this really, really amazing thing. I’m not super religious; I might consider myself spiritual in some capacity, and I don’t know if this is the right place to go into that. If I were to sit back and think about the ways that my life is getting worse, in the way that my standing as a citizen is steadily deteriorating, and just absorb it and not believe in something, I wouldn’t have written this music. I wouldn’t have done this interview. I don’t know. I have optimism, and I have hope because I know that I am not alone in this. We are all going to go at some point. We are all going to, one day, go back to where we came from or to somewhere else. But we won’t be here sitting at our desks talking to each other, we’ll be somewhere else. But the fact is right now, you and I are talking to each other. And the fact is right now, hundreds and thousands of people are marching on the streets. And the fact is right now, that even when things are getting bad, there are people that care and look after each other and love each other, and that the struggle didn’t end in the nineties. It hasn’t ended. It still isn’t over. Even if there is only one other person that believes in the things that I believe, I think that that’s more than enough for me to have faith. I really do have a lot of faith in people. I don’t believe in the United States, I believe living in the people of the United States. I don't believe in the University of Michigan, I believe in the people that exist in the University of Michigan; the workers that are going out of their way, that are putting their lives on the line to help other people. The doctors and nurses that are very much risking themselves in this process. The people that are finding ways to give groceries to one another in the midst of all of this.
I was part of a group of people that stopped an eviction. I remember standing there very distinctly and looking at these other people that were around me and the way that we were all ready to do what needed to be done. Regardless what affiliation we had, whether we were random members of the community or parts of coalitions or what have you, we were there for that person and we were there to make sure that that person was okay. And when I see stuff like that, it's hard for me not to be an optimist. You see that stuff and you’re like, “Yeah, that’s what we need,” and we need more of it. We need people to understand that, even through all of this, that we do have some kind of leverage, that we do have some kind of power. We can say “Yes” and “No” and we can make those decisions. It doesn’t have to be this way. I see little bits of that every single time that I wake up and I read the news or I check in with my friends who are doing some amazing stuff. It’s good stuff. If I have made a difference in one person’s life, if I have made a difference in a group of people, if someone has listened to my music and gone, “You know what? I want to do my own stuff with this,” or, “I want to write my own music,” or, “I want to be motivated by this to go do something very important for myself,” then there we go! That’s it. I’ve already done what I needed to do. I don’t want to be someone who dies young. Definitely don’t want that. But I will take what I can get. I will take what I can get.
SONG #4: BE