Anohni Talks Tax Dollars Paying for Bombs & How the Sam Smith Oscars Backlash Was 'Really Unfair'
On Hopelessness, her recent album of arty electro-pop, Anohni introduces some characters you don’t often meet at dance parties.
The 44-year-old singer formerly known as Antony Hegarty -- leader of the chamber-pop outfit Antony and the Johnsons -- plays an Afghan girl begging for annihilation (“Drone Bomb Me”), a U.S. citizen finding comfort in government surveillance (“Watch Me”), and a condemned inmate embracing the death penalty (“Execution"), among other doomed souls.
“The idea was to create a Trojan horse that would be seductive to the ear,” Anohni says one recent afternoon in New York City, where the England-born, California-raised artist has lived since 1990. “Then the content could be imparted more stealthily.”
Thanks to her co-conspirators, producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, Hopelessness obliterates the image created on albums like 2005’s I Am a Bird Now. As glossy synths replace pianos and cellos, all that remains is the singer’s voice: a gorgeously mournful tenor that’s sometimes too much to bear. She even unveils a new name, Anohni, which she’s been using privately for years.
“There are plenty of transpeople that live in a space that's identified as a transgender space," says Anohni, who isn't actively transitioning to become a woman physically. "More and more -- especially the younger generation -- are functioning outside the binary concept of gender. That's just next-generation stuff. Fifteen-year-olds are doing that now at high schools in Minnesota. It's amazing. It's so inspiring. There are many versions of a trans experience. Mine isn't one of dramatic transformation. To take a different name is a formality, a rite of passage."
Many fans learned of the name when Anohni refused to attend the Academy Awards, where her tune “Manta Ray” from the eco-documentary Racing Extinction was up for Best Original Song. In an online letter, Anohni said the boycott wasn’t simply a response to not being invited to perform. She was protesting “a system of social oppression” used to silence transgender voices.
“It was about reclaiming a little bit of space for my dignity,” Anohni says, adding that it was “ridiculous” and “really unfair” for category winner Sam Smith to be lambasted for incorrectly guessing he was the first openly gay person to snag an Oscar.
But Anohni has bigger things to worry about. With lyrics linking American capitalism to war, terrorism, pollution, and mistreatment of women, Hopelessness is a danceable treatise on Anohni’s Future Feminism movement, which seeks to upend patriarchal systems of government.
On “Crisis,” one of the album’s blunter offerings, Anohni explores how bombs that her tax dollars pay for help breed terrorism. “All ‘Crisis’ is about is my part of the story,” Anohni says. “I paid to have people executed. That's my complicity. I don't know about their million-years wars. But I know we killed half a million people after 9/11. That's a large pile of corpses.” [Note: Anohni's number might be conservative -- a 2015 study from the Physicians for Social Responsibility put the death toll of America's War on Terror at around 1.3 million.]
The album’s severest track, musically and lyrically, is the grinding synth dirge “Obama,” about how the POTUS let her down.
“We were afraid he was going to be assassinated, he was so good in our minds,” Anohni says. “What we ended up with was a [Bill] Clinton-esque bipartisan compromiser.”
With another Clinton vying for the White House, Anohni says electing a centrist woman like Hillary over a fear-mongering man like Donald Trump won’t save the world. For that, we must rethink ancient power structures and make a “symbolic return to the feminine.”
“If we're going to overcome what we're facing right now, it’s not going to be through evolution,” says Anohni. “We don't have time to evolve any more. It's only going to be through a radical transformation.”