In early October, August Pioneer Works Music Resident Amirtha Kidambi and September Music Resident Shayna Dunkelman sat down to dive deeper into ideas generated by both Kidambi’s public roundtable she facilitated at Pioneer Works, “Systemic Racism in the Arts,” as well as Dunkelman’s 24-hour performance Answer to (XX)—part of a documentary film she’s creating with producer Irina Dvalidze (Bustle)—that explores power dynamics between “band leaders” (henceforth referred to as XXs) and herself.
There are a lot of systemic issues that we, as a community of musicians, have faced. It seems like a humongous force that we are fighting against, so what can we do locally?
Yeah, I'm very curious about that because what would you, in terms of your documentary, identify as the power structure? What is the power dynamic that you're fighting against? Who is the oppressor and how does that power dynamic form?
I think there are several layers in the power structure here. There is the music industry, and then how the music industry treats the oversupply of musicians. Everybody wants to be a musician, everybody romanticizes it, and they want to be a rock star. There's so many of us that it's very easy to be abused, because somehow we have built a society that believes being an artist is such a fortunate and lucky thing...
A non-essential thing!
Non-essential, exactly! And so in a sense people who hire you to do music seem to have this misunderstanding that they're doing you a favor by hiring you. Like how many times have you gotten emails like, "This is good exposure, so you should do it!"
Right, right, and death by exposure. [Laughs]
There is this bigger structure that's screwing us over, so when I look at the smaller unit of this bigger structure it is kind of screwed already...like band leaders lowballing or just cutting your fees right before the tour. It's not just money, but rather it’s the power over you and the sense that you can't speak back because that's your next paycheck!
What I'm interested in, and why I was specifically interested in having this panel on systemic racism, is that the structure you're naming to me is capitalism. Capitalism, patriarchy, racism, imperialism, colonialism, are completely inextricable from each other, because we think there's scarcity. Capitalism rewards the people who already have things.
Capitalism, patriarchy, racism, imperialism, colonialism, are completely inextricable from each other, because we think there's scarcity. Capitalism rewards the people who already have things.
It rewards the wealthy and allows them to continue. Everybody is modeling the behaviors of the oppressor, right? Because you don't want to become the oppressed. It's human nature. We all screw each other over, but we've had these systems that are so entrenched they're in every industry. The music industry is not only part of capitalism, it is part of its collapse. It started early or something, and we can see it very clearly in how none of us are signed to major labels, or very few of us. You know, back in the day everybody had an agent or a manager.
Yeah. I had some similar ideas because, you know, what is capitalism? It's basically allowing the free market to go wild. Statistically speaking, the ratio of the wealthiest, the richest, the whitest people benefiting is much higher and that's what the systemic issues are. That is like a macro level issue.
So that's a really good point. The free market decides so much and it really just benefits the very top. You could say that it's fair because the market speaks, but it is not moral at all. When the bigger picture is not moral that behavior is just trickling down to even the smallest relationships. How do you even regulate morality, right? It's like this world has been battling this for the last seven months, like how do you do that? The Me Too movement was really essential, because even though it's sometimes criticized as just a hashtag, it did create this fear within people who are in power. It's like, oh, I don't want to get Me Too’d so I'm going to behave in a certain way. And what is the equivalent of that in our world, that it's not necessarily about gender but maybe it's about capitalism? And the free market is just destroying the music industry...
And then there’s fairness in the workplace, right? To me, one of the biggest issues is the fact that we don't have a way to organize as musicians. I don't even know what our musicians union is. We don't fit the union for Broadway theatre workers or orchestral musicians. Most of us don't fit any of these categories. If you have a union, you have lawyers. If you have a union, you have a body that's negotiating your contracts. If those contracts are violated, the union has lawyers to deal with those violations. Like the union has HR mechanisms, you know? Like speaking on Me Too, I think we talked about this a little bit on the panel, but there was this collective called We Have Voice that is dealing with gender in the jazz community via various venues. They made their pledge a contract rider, but it was very symbolic. You know, it was like YES, there is this venue adopting this, we're attaching this to the contract and everybody's signing it. But at the end of the day, if someone violates this honor system agreement, who do you go to?
Nobody! That's the thing. The structure is so easy for the abusers to abuse that you feel powerless. I was criticized by my band leader, because I was basically sexualizing myself onstage, and that's why I was getting more attention. And of course like you said, I was like, is it because I'm a woman? Am I doing something wrong?
Exactly. It’s the portal of gaslighting, gender-based discrimination. I mean that's textbook. If you worked in a different environment and somebody said that to you, that’s grounds to face consequences.
Right. I fought back but in this really understanding way, when usually they should just get fired, you know? Then, I felt like my livelihood was at stake. I couldn't fight back, and I felt silenced. It went past race or gender for me. I thought I was unique, you know? But, I think it's not a unique story, and that's kind of the point.
Exactly. I mean, that’s because you wouldn't be thinking so deeply about how this would jeopardize your career or your future if you were just generally being treated well, paid a decent living wage, and had healthcare. You know, we live in a system where a lot of musicians in our situation, if you look at us on the economic scale in America, we're working class.
I'm interested in how we bridge the macro and the micro? What powers do we have and how do we organize? Do we form a union, a task force, or committee? If we actually had a very diverse task force of people trying to address this problem, you've got to take into consideration all of these things. But if it's constantly going to be decided top-down from some white board members at some organization who are putting out these Black Lives Matter statements, I don't see it moving. I don't see it changing.
I'm happy to hear these discussions happening in public. We're talking about similar problems but from different angles, while prioritizing different things. And this is just to me a starting point for dealing with it.
Yeah. Even if you talk about systemic racism it all kind of falls down to the economics of it right? There are decisions made based on gender and race that are stripping away experiences and opportunities that we could all have if that wasn't the case.
Even if you talk about systemic racism it all kind of falls down to the economics of it right? There are decisions made based on gender and race that are stripping away experiences and opportunities that we could all have if that wasn't the case.
If, for instance, the macro level does trickle down to the micro level, we could become the majority!
I think one big takeaway for me is how we solve these problems, because interestingly we talked about DIY and collectivism and collectives [in the roundtable]. We need collective power whether it's a union or forming an organization. Like you say, we need to be a majority, how do you form a majority?
It's very hard to organize people. You could do it in many different collectives, many small collectives. It doesn't have to be one big organization. It keeps coming back to collective power, so how do you do that?
Yeah. It works backwards in terms of...I was so scared. I was verbally abused and couldn’t fight back because my livelihood was at stake. OK, what if there was a backup for me financially? Then, I could be like It's fine, I don't need your money, I have a union to back me up. I could actually talk back. It gives me less anxiety, more comfort, and you know right now we're protected by PUI [Pandemic Unemployment Insurance]. It freaking took a pandemic to do that, you know?
Then I think there’s power in voicing it. That's why the hashtag #MeToo thing was so smart, because everybody could do it from their desk. Everybody could voice it. People were ousted.
I think the reason it's effective is because it starts to be like public opinion. It's a shift in terms of this idea of the majority, but imagine if you were, like, Shayna Dunkelman, and you were part of some alliance and it was all of these different musicians, and some venue fucks you over. And you go and you bring this forward at whatever, some—even if it's not an organization, but more of like all these musicians saying, "We demand this." And then you have all these people to back you up, you know? And you all put up a hashtag on social media. Part of it is like, it’s not even just the anxiety of the bank account, but this fear of speaking up, because oh, if you speak against this organization they'll never hire you again. But if you have someone to back you up? I think about boycotts and I know it's maybe a little extreme, but I think, you know, what if it was, well, I'm not going to play at that venue either because I'm in Shayna's collective and none of us are going to play in your venue, and there's several of us, you know? Whatever it is.
You know, there's a difference in numbers that's better than hiring lawyers. Also, that's another capitalist issue which is that it's so expensive to hire lawyers. It just doesn't freaking end. [Laughs]
Right, we can't afford it. We can't afford to fight. So my big takeaway from what you did and the systemic racism panel, was certainly about collective power, organizing, and where do we look for examples of where it has been successful, whether it's the labor movement, women's rights, or civil rights activism. I think there's a lot of models for organizing.