Feelings aren’t facts in Anohni’s debut solo album Hopelessness (2016)—but that doesn’t mean they’re useless. Her eleven new songs speak frankly from the heart and lay a rhythm for direct action. Creating friction with upbeat electronic tempos and chilling lyrics about downbeat issues, Hopelessness has been called a protest album. Artforum.com managing editor Lauren O’Neill-Butler asks the singer for her take.
Hopelessness seems to suggest that violence shouldn’t be understood or theorized as an abstraction but rather as something increasingly commonplace, a lived reality with an extensive history. How were you trying to frame violence in this work?
I collaborated with a group of women in New York City a couple of years ago and we developed this system of tenets that we called “Future Feminism” because we were all concerned about the future, basically. The first tenet was “The subjugation of women and the earth is one and the same.” The time-honored enslavement of the feminine now climaxes in the virulent decimation of the biosphere. Our propensity for warfare, violence, and hierarchy—born innocently enough out of some survival—now ushers us along the path to ecocide. Judeo-Christian religious texts have been rooting for an apocalypse for thousands of years. But these patriarchal death cults had to wait until the twentieth century to find the technology and capitalism that could finally make their dreams come true.
While acknowledging histories of violence, the album offers what might seem like love songs, flirting with the NSA or a drone bomb. Could you describe some of your processes for writing lyrics?
When I was a kid, one of my means of self-defense was to disarm perpetrators with a confounding display of vulnerability. I guess some of these songs come out of that impulse. They used to recommend that if you were being raped you should act like a wild animal and scream and gnash their teeth, hopefully jolting the aggressor out of his stupor and giving him a fresh moment of perspective, or at least giving him a moment’s pause in which you could escape.
The lyrics for this album were an attempt on my part to be more vigorous in the ways that I used my influence. Honestly, I was sick of writing pastoral songs. It felt too passive in the face of what is happening. I wanted to try to model another approach and see how far I could push it in terms of content. Once I dove into the idea of singing harder lyrics against euphoric dance tracks and got past the phase of self-censorship, the first draft of the work came pretty quickly. It was easy to write lyrics about these subjects, which have preoccupied me for such a long time. In that respect it is actually a very personal record.
Did you feel like pop songs might speak more powerfully about drones, for instance, than news reports or even protests?
Music is a different way of communicating, using our voices expansively to communicate a depth of feeling, or an impassioned belief. It reaches a different part of the psyche, and so it can be useful.
Listening to the album I was reminded of Eugene Thacker’s writings about our increasing indifference to the planet (which he calls “the world for us”) and the planet’s increasing indifference to us (“the world in itself”), as well as the “world without us,” a horrific endgame. Do you think at this point the world would be better off without us?
I don’t imagine the earth as indifferent to us. She suffers inexorably for us. Only a mother who loves her children would offer them the fat from her body, the water from her eyes, the clothes off her back, at the cost now of her own life. So I do not think the earth would celebrate being rid of us, which would also necessarily require the eradication of biodiversity itself, of forest systems, of ocean systems, of so many complex and interdependent aspects of life on earth. We will be among the last to go, if it comes to that. Suggesting that the earth would be “better off without us” is not a useful fantasy. It denies the extent of the disfiguring damage to the earth’s life systems that we would need to inflict in order to make the planet uninhabitable.
Is there any hope in Hopelessness? Do you think the album urges a fundamental reorganization of society, perhaps from the ground up?
I experience hope and hopelessness both as feelings rather than facts. It’s important to be honest about how I feel. But it will be our immediate actions and not our feelings that determine the future of the life on earth. The case for the necessity for hope or the need to deny feelings of hopelessness sometimes feels like a red herring. Plenty of destructive people feel bountiful hope. And a lot of really effective organizers and activists feel at times a terrible sense of hopelessness. But that doesn’t stop them from continuing to take action.
The album gives us a dark image of our era; it also has mystical moments (lyrics about wanting to be born into the past, seemingly directed to a higher power, for example). Is there room for mysticism these days given our grave, real, and non-abstract problems?
I don’t think of spirituality as something abstract. I see it as inseparable from the world/universe in all its most tangible aspects. I think the separation of our ideas about spirituality from the practical face of nature and life is one of the ways we have been hoodwinked into behaving virulently, believing that true spiritual value lies elsewhere, on another far away plane, perhaps in heavens.
Our current issue is themed “Art + Identity.” Do you think identity politics is back (or if it ever left)? What might this term mean now?
I tend to feel that many of us have been manipulated in the US into thinking that identity politics is the endgame and that beyond it lies the utopia of social justice. In the ’80s, I remember watching as half of America voted for Reagan out of fear that gay men would otherwise be tainting the water supply with AIDS. But Reagan’s actual legacy was neoliberal capitalism and the dismantling of legislation that had long protected the working class. Now we have a vastly poorer general population, with significantly diminished access to education, advocacy, financial security, healthcare, or truth in media. Here comes Trump, a billionaire, still harnessing working-class people across the country who fantasize that he shares their often-bigoted points of view, when really he is just another mogul trying to pull the wool over their eyes. It will take stoicism to root out the carcinogenic individuals and institutions that manipulate us into compliance with easy-to-digest morsels of fear and pedestrian bigotry. My teacher Vito Russo used to say the three phases of a plague were denial, blame, and then finally, fear.