Protect Our Activists

activist emotional landscape

wet blanket

Wet Blanket

I just finished watching and listening to a fabulous rendition of La Bamba  with folks from all over the world in their own places, hooked up and coordinated somehow, all wearing headphones and playing and singing in the same groove. It was organized by Playing for Change, an organization that organizes there cross-globe musical collaborations to “inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music.”

It is a nice thing. Whether or not this can directly bring peace to the world, it certainly brings some pleasure, fulfillment, artistry and connection to the participants.

But something bothers me. In the whole video, which has at least a dozen musicians of diverse ages and ethnicities, from a variety of countries, mostly in Latin America and Africa, only one musician is a woman. She is a great singer, but I note that she is the only singer who is not also playing an instrument.

I visit Playing for Change’s website and find similar productions. Over 200 musicians have participated, but women were distinctly in the minority, with the number of women playing and singing at the same time extremely small.

The only piece I saw on their website with a preponderance of women musicians playing instruments was recorded especially for Women’s History Month. And it’s entitled Pluto, King of the Underworld (i.e, a male) and had a male percussionist.

This thing about men being the ones to play instruments  comes up often. I myself play and sing,  and repeatedly find myself in a group of musicians jamming together or playing music for a singalong of labor and other movement music. Invariably it is men who run these sessions, usually not by bossing women around, but by jumping in, taking over, starting to play, getting in a groove with one another, choosing piece after piece, taking up the space and the air, making it very hard for women (and shy men) to jump in. Very frustrating and not much fun, but I find it hard to raise an objection in the midst of all this creative jollity. Hard not to feel that I sound shrill and whiny.

Women participate heavily in choruses, choirs and as soloists–where there is facilitation and all are expected to participate equally. Nonetheless, the instrumentalists are mostly male. Men often accompany themselves with instruments as they sing, but women singers generally do not. There are exceptions, of course–Nina Simone’s amazing piano playing comes to mind–but they are just that—exceptions.

Why is it so rare to see women playing instruments? Why is music about peace and change so lopsided is terms of gender participation?

And, is this important? Is anyone else bothered by it? Am I making too much of it? How can I criticize what is so obviously a necessary way for the movement to expand its reach and inspire and unify and connect people?

Should I shut up and stop being such a wet blanket, making a fuss that this otherwise fine effort has failed in this particular aspect?  Somebody does a nice thing and all I do is find fault with it!

Well, here’s the thing. I’m tired of it. It weighs on me, not like a wet blanket but more like one of those leaden blankets they put on you when they take X-rays.

Just as the continuous minimization of people of color is wrong, no matter where it happens, it’s wrong in movement music milieus for women not to have equal participation. This makes the thing I would normally appreciate much less enjoyable.

And it puts me in a bind. If I point it out I risk being thought of, even called, a complainer, a nitpicker, a wet blanket.

Same thing, though even more pronounced, with professional sports. I enjoy a good baseball or basketball game. But the attention given to male sports is so overwhelmingly disproportionate, with women’s events rarely on TV or radio except for occasional international events like the Olympics, that I find it hard to be enjoy watching games or getting enthusiastic about teams.

I won’t say I don’t enjoy the event or the music, despite the glaring inequality. But it rankles; it grates. It’s like trying to enjoy a beautiful beach but your suit is full of sand, rubbing you raw. 

But, is a wet blanket always a bad thing? Maybe it is helpful, draping us in something that might be heavy, might be dampening, but  maybe that’s not so bad. What if a wet blanket wraps us in a soft, cool, damp embrace that encumbers us just enough to make us look more carefully at what we’re doing, so we can be sure we’re doing no inadvertent harm to ourselves or others.

In so many many areas of life I have to say, “Well, they’re trying,” or, “What can you expect from a capitalist-sexist-racist society.” But for our own movement for social change, we need to expect more.
That’s why I was happy, at a recent gathering at a local urban commune,  to point out this common pitfall to the very open-minded male convener, and to suggest that a little careful facilitation could ensure more equal participation. He did. It did not totally fix the issue, but it did go quite a ways toward interrupting the usual dynamic of a few men taking over the music, which had already started.

What would it be like if we could all simply level the playing field, kind of like the ADA? What hurdles does oppression set up in this situation? Hm, let’s see…
Okay, we need to build a bridge here, fill in a pitfall there, make a little workaround over here. There! No fights, no blame. Just making things right for everyone.

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