With 'Visions' out now, the artist-activist speaks on everything from Harvard's patriarchy to queer commodification.
Two years ago, Los Angeles-based electronic artist and activist Madame Gandhi was in Denmark, singing and rapping her message of future feminism at Roskilde Festival. Following her set, a young woman approached her at the merch table. There was a lot more than t-shirts on her mind.
"She said, 'I've been waiting to run for Danish parliament for three years, and I've held back. But after seeing your show, I'm doing it. I'm going to run,'" Gandhi warmly recalls. "Just this past year I heard back from her via Facebook that she'd been elected -- she'd received the seat she was campaigning for and is fighting for climate change."
If that Danish politician can cite Gandhi's jubilant, thoughtful art as the reason she's working toward a better world right now, Gandhi herself can point to a New York City school bus driver named Harrison for introducing her to the transformative power of music when she was just a kindergartener named Kiran Gandhi.
"When he would pull up to pick up each of the kids from their parents, he'd play the classical station," she remembers with a smirk. "And as soon as he would drive away from the parents, he would change it back to the hip-hop station, Hot 97. Listening to Nas and Lauryn Hill… as a young person, it instilled in me a sense of empathy and storytelling I didn't have access to anywhere else. I loved feeling like I was learning about somebody else's story."
For a lot of creatives, that might lead them to craft inward-gazing narratives focused on their individual experiences. But the personal has always been political to Gandhi.
"For me, it's been the same forever. Music and feminism is all I've cared about. I've had phases, but music and feminism have been part of my passion and thought process since I can remember, since childhood," she says. "As a young person, music had such a positive influence -- that's why I wanted to use it later in life to influence other people to be the best selves they can be."
And she freely admits that "music is very much a vehicle through which I deliver my message. Music was always a means to an end – it wasn’t the end itself." That's not to imply this medium was haphazardly selected; she's long nurtured a genuine affinity for playing and an adoration for others' music. Learning the drums at summer camp in her youth, she realized later on that her ability to play could connect her to artists whose music inspired her. "Oh – I don’t need to just be a fan, I can participate, this is so cool!" she recalls of her epiphany. Naturally, as her tastes skewed toward artists who shake people out of conformity, she soon found herself sharing the stage (while pinching herself) with boundary-breaking personal heroes like M.I.A. and Thievery Corporation.
Even then, being the focal point of the band was nowhere near the front of her mind. In fact, it wasn't until after she graduated and went viral with her free-bleeding run at the London Marathon in 2015 that her two passions became entwined. The move, designed to fight menstruation stigma, attracted international interest, and Gandhi was suddenly fielding offers: "People were asking me to give a speech, but also, can you play us a few tunes? But I didn't have any of my own music. I was like, 'I'm just a drummer!'" Fortunately, a few mentors advised her to trust her musical instincts and give composing a shot.
Fast-forward to today. Madame Gandhi is releasing Visions, her second EP, and it's an exhilarating rush of global styles and future-thinking politics. From the blissed-out, spacey "queer femme love song" that is "See Me Thru" to the non-conformist Brazilian trap banger "Top Knot Turn Up" to the impish synths and shuffling rhythms of the Fela Kuti-inspired "Bad Habits," Visions aims high. "It's an introspective album about being your best self and serving your community," she explains.
If that sounds like there's a lot going on both musically and thematically, well, there is – and she's more than aware of that. "I'm still trying to figure out how not to be so heady and literal with my lyrics," she admits. "There's an aspect of being literal and clear I do derive from Fela – he wanted to make the message clear and understood by all people. But there's a part of me…" she trails off, sounding a little reticent – but as always, she opts for candor. "M.I.A. used to almost make fun of me, she'd say, 'Don't be so heady.' And I always hear that in the back of my head when I'm making music – how do I make sure I'm not being too literal and less artful?"
Gandhi needn't worry too much. Visions opens with "Waiting For Me," a brainy bop that mixes hip-hop beats and Indian polyrhythms while she tackles climate change, capitalist excess and womxn's history – but thanks to Gandhi's ineffable charm, it never sounds like pontification. Instead, she demonstrates handily that you can make people think and move their hips at the same time.
And even when she is literally preaching, it's still pretty compelling. If you haven't seen her speak live, you can get a taste of it via her strategic approach to releasing Visions. While it is a five-song studio set on streaming services, the CD, vinyl and Soundcloud version includes four extra tracks of Gandhi in speaker mode, holding court on everything from unconscious bias to owning your voice on various stages. Of the decision to release her short-form album differently based on platform, she explains, "On Spotify and Apple Music, people are playlisting [songs], they're going to shuffle play -- they're not listening to full bodies of work the way you would on CD or vinyl. So I didn't put the additional songs on that."
Her music business acumen isn't shocking – she's a Harvard Business School grad, after all. She readily labels the institution's biz school as "the breeding ground of the capitalist patriarchy," but she acknowledges it taught her emotional intelligence, how to read the body language of a room and to be acutely aware of one's own limitations as a leader. While she hardly appreciated the way the school rewarded the loudest (usually male) voices in the room regardless of whether they were correct, there is absolutely no hostility or disdain in her voice when she talks about studying within a system she doesn't agree with.
"It allowed me to be critical of the kinds of leadership we as a country and culture value and which styles we don't value, and it gave birth to my whole music project. So it's worth it," she says with a laugh.
And truly, the world could use more activists and artists with some business savvy. Staying indie in order to have control over one's art and message requires planning, and Gandhi has a strategy. "It's important for anyone indie to diversify their source of income," Gandhi says. "When I'm not coming off an album, the things bringing in income are syncs, public speaking, drumming, DJing, producing other people, scoring. The best thing you can do is diversify your source of income so each of these revenue streams are coming back to reinvest in making more and better art."
Having a firm foundation also affords her the power to turn down the wrong opportunities. "When a brand is licensing our song, I ask, 'What's the leadership team? What are they doing for womxn and nonbinary folks or queer folks?' And at all the levels -- at the c-suite level, the employee level, the level of manufacturing."
While her outlook converges with some brands, she acknowledges "there's been times where I've had to let stuff go. How can you talk about something and then not actually do it?"
Well, some certainly do just that, but she's reliably putting her money where her mouth is. She only works with companies (both American and international) whose clothing is sustainably made when it comes to merch, and she's careful that her musical collaborators hold values that align with hers. For instance, she's a self-professed fan of baile funk, but admits she's not so thrilled with the way some genre practitioners speak about women. So before teaming up with Rio de Janeiro producer Ruxell for "Top Knot Turn Up," she made sure he was comfortable with and supportive of her "future is female" lyrics and concept (for the record, he fully embraced it).
"There's no situation where the beat is so amazing where it offsets the fact that they're using the b word to refer to women," she states bluntly. "The second I hear that, even though it's become a normal part of our culture to call women that word even if it's not intended to be degrading, I don't resonate with it."
She's similarly uncompromising when it comes to her queerness. Gandhi acknowledges the value of celebration and representation but felt skeptical toward much of the Stonewall 50th hoopla.
"With commodification, it's this whole thing of all these brands jumping on it. I don’t want to bastardize my queerness to participate in an inauthentic partnership," she says.
And she doesn't reserve her skepticism solely for corporations – she's more than comfortable applying it to the LGBTQIA+ community at large. "I very much identify as queer," Gandhi says. "But 'rainbow' never connected with me. A lot of the LGBTQIA+ movement is very powerful and so positive… but many aspects of the rainbow feel like a previous generation. Coming up in this generation, it feels like the conversation is around being queer, rejecting the gender binary, exploring all different types of relationship structures – polyamory is so common in my friend group. That's the conversation that's so interesting. So yes, we have to fight for many basic rights, but let's continue to push it forward and keep evolving."
Today, that personal evolution continues for Gandhi with Visions, a short-form album that's a thoughtful ray of sunshine (the English definition of the name Kiran, incidentally) in an uncertain world – especially as we eye the 2020 U.S. presidential election. "It's playing on the idea of 2020 vision," she says. "But instead of hindsight being 2020, we can be proactive about designing the future we want to live in."