Imagine a world where there was zero, and I mean zero, shame and stigma associated with being feminine: whether actually identifying as a woman, allowing yourself to be emotionally vulnerable, dressing a certain way, having your period, or simply not having to constantly battle for safety and space in this patriarchy.
Enter Madame Gandhi, a.k.a. Kiran Gandhi, a musician (she’s toured with M.I.A.) and activist, who you may recall ran the London Marathon last year on her period and free-bled the whole way to combat period stigma. She’s teamed up with sound designer Alexia Riner for her debut EP Voices which just dropped today.
At first listen, Madame Gandhi’s sound is almost minimalistic, but the music is textured and dynamic, with layers upon layers of percussion including electronic drum, a live drum kit, or spoken beats. The lyrics rest over the tracks almost like incantations. Those rhymes are political and feminist as fuck, embodying what Gandhi calls “3D femininity,” an embrace of the full range of emotions and aspects of the feminine. For example:
“I am just talking ‘bout loving the femme, I ain’t talking bout nobody else
Toxic masculinity has to end, I’m just talking bout loving ourselves.”
Not only is Madame Gandhi chipping away at the glass ceiling with her lyrics, but as a project, Madame Gandhi is doing so just by the nature of including minority women working in electronic music. “It’s not every day that you see a) someone as talented as [Riner] and b) who is female and c) who is a person of color,” Gandhi says of her collaborator. “She is such a unicorn in that way.”
“People who hear a Madame Gandhi track are like, ‘Oh, so who’s the producer? Where’s the dude?'” Riner said. “They expect it to be some white man making all the beats and we’re like, ‘No, that’s actually us. We made those.’”
I spoke to Gandhi and Riner over the phone earlier this week to discussVoices, which drops today. Even the way they converse hints at the way they collaborate: Gandhi speaks richly and at a fast tempo, packing in a lot of information. Riner speaks at a slower pace, deliberating just a bit longer.
This dynamic is also clear in their live performances. Earlier this month, at a fundraiser hosted by South Asian domestic violence organization Sakhi, Gandhi traveled from loop station and mic to drum kit to congas on stage, dancing all the way, while Alexia was more stationary, holding it down like an anchor with her laptop and electronic pad at her booth, swaying and nodding to the beat.
“I think when you’re starting something from scratch and there’s no traction, someone who is able to see the vision early and is down is all I could ever ask for,” Gandhi said of Riner. It’s clear that their unique chemistry is a microcosm of Madame Gandhi’s sound. “It came from this very beautiful place of each of us having something to show, then marrying the two.”
Read the full interview below, in which Gandhi and Riner discuss being women in the electronic music scene, shamelessly loving Justin Bieber, embracing the femme, and the election.
How did the album come together? There’s definitely a theme of embracing femininity, but how did the vision become Voices?
Gandhi: I think I have always wanted to be able to express myself musically, but as a drummer I have always had a backseat role on someone else’s projects, and so at the end of last year, especially after the marathon went viral, I was really able to step into my own shoes and say, “Now is the time for me to create.” And I’ve always been passionate about electronic music. And Alexia came into my life at the most perfect time.
Riner: We were able to use our strengths, mine as a sound designer. I was really happy to be able to help in that way and put my skills to use, and we have such a great balance between us. Kiran always says that we’re like yin and yang. I have a very dark sound, and Kiran, her sound is more uplifting and happy, so merging the two created this beautiful sound that is the Madame Gandhi sound.
Gandhi: And I think there’s an honesty there. Because each of us do experience moments of dark and light, and I want to make music that allows those feelings to exist, for both to exist. We talk often about this concept of three-dimensional femininity, breaking down previous notions of what femininity is and allowing us to be our most vulnerable at times and our most strong at times. And so on the record you’ll be able to see that “Gandhi Blues” and “Moon in the Sky” are deeply emotional, whereas “Her” and “The Future is Female” are far more powerful and more of a celebration of strength.
Who are your musical influences?
Gandhi: I think tUnE-yArDs is a big one and [singer Merrill Garbus] is featured on “The Future is Female.” Her sound is really vocals and drums, which is how my sound started before Alexia joined me. Those are the main two ways I know how to express myself based on my skillsets. And then obviously M.I.A. is a big influence. We talked about this yesterday, because we had written in our bio that we’re electronic musicians but people mistake that for EDM, which has a very specific formula, which we aren’t at all.
We’re not like Avicii. [We want] the option to tune into the politics or to really just create beats and music that are taken from influences from all around the world.
Riner: From the sound design perspective, definitely Radiohead is a big influence in the way that we process Kiran’s vocals. And also Drake. It’s really interesting because sometimes Kiran will just send me a Drake song and say, “Alexia, I really like this,” or “I’m inspired by this.” We’ve been listening to a lot of music and whenever we get inspired by something we study it, we try to apply it in some way.
Gandhi: We shamelessly love Justin Bieber and Drake. It’s interesting that two of the biggest male acts in pop today are two of the most vulnerable artists we’ve ever seen. Drake and Bieber are extremely vulnerable when it comes to their emotions, which is part of the concept of 3D femininity, which is part of this concept of everyone possessing female energy—but social constructs of what it means to be male teach them to deny those emotions. There is something to be said about that and what “The Future Is Female” means.
What does that phrase mean to you, given that you chose it as a title of a track on the album, and it’s Madame Gandhi’s battle cry—and in light of the discussion about how the more appropriate take on the phrase would be “The Future Has No Gender?”
Gandhi: They mean one and the same. When people say, “The Future Has No Gender,” they’re combatting the construct of gender, rejecting the notion that there is a way to behave for everybody. That I 100% agree with, and that’s what “The Future Is Female” means. It means that in the same way we love male qualities, we love female qualities. Because that way if we love both what is masculine and feminine, we would enable everybody to express their authentic mix of both. I like to think that being feminine is a wonderful thing in the same way that being masculine is a wonderful thing.
What have your experiences been as women of color, as a drummer and a producer, in a very male-dominated environment?
Riner: For me, as a producer and a sound designer, often we are faced with this whole thing that people who hear a Madame Gandhi track are like, “Oh, so who’s the producer? Where’s the dude?” They expect it to be some white man making all the beats and we’re like, “No, that’s actually us. We made those.”
But I think it’s kind of empowered us in a way, because we’re just like, “Oh, okay, you don’t believe in us? Well, that just makes us want to push ourselves even further and be even better.”
Gandhi: It’s very important for me to showcase how much female talent both on the stage and off the stage is part of the project, bringing it to life. We have an enormous amount of very powerful and talented women working on this project, which on the music creation side and the music business side is so rare.
And as a drummer I think the act of a female drumming is an act of rebellion unto itself. It’s an act of combatting gender constructions from the get-go, and I love that. It’s symbolic to have women producing tracks on the stage, doing everything live and playing the drums. The two of us are exemplifying the change and shattering gender norms and also actively talking about them and talking about the world that we want to drive towards.
The song “Her” says, “If you feel it in the air, then appoint her.” You’re releasing the album 10 days before Election Day—what’s the deal with that?
Gandhi: Well, the album is called Voices. This whole year, one thing that I have learned from the marathon is we oftentimes don’t realize how powerful our voice is. The fourth wave of feminism that we’re seeing now is the idea that social media is enabling people to have more courage than they did before. The obvious criticism of that is one of apathy, that someone might just retweet a political tweet and they don’t care, but I think there’s a positive there because people are engaging more than they used to. It’s easier to access politics and to access your own opinion. And it’s safer. And this notion of Voices is owning your voice. Don’t be afraid. Use your voice, it’s powerful. The fact that we live in a country where you have a vote is a privilege. We’re intentionally releasing it 10 days before Election Day as a call to action, to make sure everyone participates in this very historic election.