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Interview with rapper Eternia: "Sexism doesn't seem to get people up in arms, especially in hip-hop"

jesse mintz

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Eternia, with t-shirt reading My Favourite Rapper Wears a Skirt

Another new entry today in the Verbatim series, the transcripts we provide of our Listen to This podcast. (Just a reminder that you can catch new, original interviews every other Monday—you can subscribe with any podcast listening program by grabbing the podcast rss feed, or easily subscribing through iTunes.)

In today’s interview, associate editor Natalie Samson talked with Eternia, a Canadian rapper whose music and volunteer work challenge gender-based stereotypes and injustices, including sexism in the music industry, violence against women, and rape. Eternia was in Toronto two weeks ago for the People’s Summit, the alternative gathering to the G20 leaders’ conference, where she performed for a rapturous crowd. Eternia’s newest album, At Last, a collaboration with Canadian producer MoSS, came out on June 29, 2010.

Q&A

Natalie Samson: You were involved in the People’s Summit in Toronto last weekend. Can you let me know how you got involved with that?

Eternia: To be honest with you, it was as simple as them reaching out and asking to book me. When they initially reached out I was under the assumption that it was more of a gender equity conference and then they changed the name of it. So my assumption is that they thought to reach out to me just because they were discussing gender equity issues and I’d done a little bit of work in that area, touring schools, and then also the fact that I am a woman and I do what I do—it’s kind of a nice slant on the gender equity narrative, and that alone is kind of cool for people.

Natalie Samson: I was wondering, too, what you think your role is when you get involved in these sorts of events like the People’s Summit. It’s obviously political and an activist event.

Eternia: My show is super-high-energy and it also—if you listen to my lyrics—there is a certain slant to my music as well. But it’s super, super-high-energy, super-empowering, super-integrational, super-positive. People were listening to speakers for, I don’t know, a couple hours before I went on stage. The room was clearing out when I went on stage because people had been there for so long listening to speakers. So I think a main thing of what I do—other then being the physical manifestation of a walking anti-stereotype, which is what I like to call the music that I do—it really just gives people a chance to get up, to stand up, (they had literally been sitting the whole time) put their hands up, and literally be like “Yeah!” for something that they believe in. If you look at musicians that perform at rallies and musicians that generally do that circuit, that’s what they do; they get people riled up, they get people riled up for their cause.

To me, the definition of good music is music that makes you feel. And that relates to all different areas, including music that makes you feel angry about the current state of affairs in your country ,and music that makes you feel inspired to change things that you don’t like about your political system, or globally. I don’t view myself as a political activist in any way, shape, or form, or overly involved in a lot of these issues. I kind of feel ignorant to a lot of these things that are going on—I shouldn’t say that but its true. At the same time, the music that I make is music that inspires a whole bunch of people that are not ignorant to what’s going on, that do need change, that need a soundtrack for that. I feel like at the end, when I do perform at these kind of events, its like a soundtrack for the dialogue. That’s what it is. And it gets you feeling and it gets your blood pumping, and it gets your emotions rising, and it gets you ready to do something about it.

Natalie Samson: You kind of touched upon it a little bit earlier about your involvement with Oxfam. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the work you’ve done with Plan Canada.

Eternia: This is the first time that I can recall that I’ve been directly booked and involved with Oxfam, although of course their reputation precedes them and I was really honoured. I believe that was based off the work I did with the 4 in 1 Initiative for change with Plan Canada. We toured high schools for many months, thousands of kids—over 10,000 kids—speaking about girls’ rights. We also did AIDS awareness, but specifically with Plan Canada it was about girls’ rights. That was just literally about bringing awareness about the situation of women and girls around the world and bringing it home to girls that are in grade 5 all the way to grade 12. We wrote content specifically for the tour that was educational but still entertaining at the same time for these girls so they could rock out with us and put their hands up, but that they’re also hearing things that make them think. So I think based off that and some of my other material that I have, for example my Amnesty International violence against women song that I dedicated to that cause, “Love,” stuff like that is probably what made Oxfam consider me for the gender equity summit.

Natalie Samson: Going back to the 4 in 1 initiativeve with Plan Canada, why did you get invovled with those initatives in the first place?

Eternia: I jumped at the chance to speak to people. It’s a situation I could relate to, number one. I’ve been through—I guess we all face—gender discrimination we just don’t know that we do, but I’ve been through specific things. Whether it be because I’m a woman in hip-hop, which is male dominated, or whether it be because I’m a woman growing up in this society in general,  I think other people can relate. I think other people have experienced that as well, especially young girls that I’m speaking to in these schools, and I think they need to hear from someone they might look up to as a role model or a mentor or a star, whatever they view us as, and hear what’s going on, and how to deal with it, and what to do, and how you can get involved.

Basically what I mean to say is that I’m a woman, and so on a personal level issues relating to women really impact me and affect me and I care. In the end it was one of those things where it was like. this is what I want to be doing—this is what I want to be doing more then regular rap concerts. I don’t want to fake the funk, I don’t want to speak about things that I don’t personally feel passionate about or relate to, and that is why the girls’ rights and the gender equity issues are so near and dear to my heart. And especially speaking about violence against women, instances of sexual assault or physical abuse in a woman’s life—you know the stat about one in three women will experience abuse in their lifetime, it’s that serious–stuff like that hits home for me and I can relate to it just for my own personal life story. I don’t know if that answers your question other than I relate to it, I feel it and I want other girls to know they’re not alone when they’re going through things.

Natalie Samson: I did want to touch on something that you mentioned, that you do face a lot of gender discrimination in your profession and in general in your life. I was wondering if you could speak to that a little bit more and maybe give us some examples of the barriers you’ve had to face and overcome doing the work you do.

Eternia: It’s so subtle, and that’s whats interesting: it is so prevalent and so subtle, so it’s hard to pinpoint one example. There is a lot of ego in hip-hop, I think people are hesitant to co-sign for a woman for whatever reason—generally because the statement “girls can’t rap” or “I don’t like female rappers” is not even viewed as problematic. Whereas if you were to fill in those two words with something else, like exchange rapper for guitar player and exchange female for a certain race, that would be extremely offensive. I was speaking about this last night with another interview, there is something about sexism specifically that doesn’t seem to get people up in arms or offend most people, especially in hip-hop. So its like the little things that happen all the time, little statements, little experiences, I find that often times when it comes to technical stuff, like mixing and mastering a record, my opinion’s not really taken seriously, but if I get my male manager, my male business partner, my male representative to be my mouthpiece—to open his mouth and say what I want him to say— they will listen to him. But the people that are being my mouthpiece are people that have way less experience then me. So the male who has way less experience then me is listened to over the women that’s been in the industry for 15 years.

Natalie Samson: Is that where your campaign, My Favourite Rapper Wears a Skirt, comes into play?

Eternia: By the way, that’s just one example of thousands. I don’t want you to think that’ the big example. “My Favourite Rapper Wears a Skirt”—somebody said that to me one day and something went off in my head the minute I heard that come out of his mouth. So it was really a kind of organic thing, I didn’t really sit there thinking about it. But what is awesome about the shirt is it really creates dialogue and gets people talking. So when people wear that shirt the assumptions that come out of it, like if a dude wears it it’s just funny. If a man wears my shirt other men will come up to him like, ‘what, your favourite rapper is gay, your favourite rapper is a cross-dresser.’ They still assume he’s talking about a dude, meaning they don’t even consider that he could possibly be referring to loving a female on stage.

Natalie Samson: People come up to me, even, and ask that question when I’m wearing that shirt.

Eternia: Really? That’s awesome! So not even men. I assumed that when girls wear it people would assume girl-girl but that’s just my assumption. So, yeah, exactly, even when you say my favourite rapper wears a skirt people still assume it has to be a man. You know what my next slogan may be? When I was doing the girls rights tour we were in middle schools, we were spitting all these stats at the kids, lots of stats and information while we’re performing and at the end we asked “what did you learn from the presentation?” and this one little boy puts up his hand, and he’s got to be like grade 6, and he’s like, “I learned that sometimes girls rap better than boys.” That was the highlight for me because it’s not what we taught him, but it’s so awesome that he would get that from the presentation. And not just on an ego level—its not just about me—but that is kind of what were talking about when we talk about gender equality and inequality. Most people don’t ever consider that. So that was pretty cool, that might be my next shirt: “Some Girls Rap Better Than Boys.”

Natalie Samson: It’s an interesting approach to the issue of gender equity and gender justice.

Eternia: It really felt fitting the first time we did the girls rights tour, George Nozuka was performing and so was I and so was Masia One. But the cool part was George Nozuka, he’s, you know, a man, he was doing very sensitive, soft, you know, if you saw me in heaven playing the guitar-type strumming which, you know—gender roles generally say the sensitiveve stuff, the mushy emotional stuff…you know where I’m going with this. Then the women were rocking out in the show were all high energy very—for lack of a better word—hyper-masculine in a way, you know: ego, bravado, strong. My voice alone is very strong. And so I just felt that it was so fitting, without us even stating it, it never had to be mentioned that we were doing a tour on issues of gender equity and issues on women and girls worldwide, and literally these are the roles, and it was a role reversal. I thought that was really cool, that men can be emotional and soft and women can be aggressive and hard. To be honest with you, I think girls seeing a women on stage rapping, without it having to be said, is like, okay this chick wants to be a skateboarder, or this girl wants to be, you know, maybe she wants to be a biophysicist, or whatever. We talk about the fact that guidance counsellors and people in schools will often gender-stereotype you and put you into this instead of that. Girls will put up their hands and share their stories, and so it’s really awesome that even if they don’t want to rap, they see a woman doing something normally defined as a male task or a male occupation, and I think it speaks to their lives directly.

Natalie Samson: Music: it’s obvious how candid it is and how rooted it is in your own personal experience. You bring up issues like abortion and violence against women and domestic abuse. How have you been able to do that–to go up on stage do after day and address these issues?

Eternia: It’s very freeing. There’s a song on the album—it’s the most personal I’ve ever done in my life—and it’s called “To the Future,” it deals with a lot of things I haven’t mentioned in previous songs, even though I’ve mentioned a lot of stuff. So, like, specifically relating to sexual assault and abortion as well, and my father being violent to my mom. So to answer your question, once it’s written and once it’s recorded, I don’t want to say I’ve kind of grown numb, but by the time I’m performing it on stage I’ve heard it a million times. So it’s one of those things where it’s like I put myself in the moment and I feel it but it’s not like the first time I wrote it.

What will often happen is I will write something personal and kind of devastating and I’ll cry when I write it and when I get in the studio I’ll be frustrated. The song I’m referring to now, I did in one take and it really knocked the wind out of me—like it really knocked the wind out of me. After I was done I was on the floor of the booth like “Yeah, not doing that one again.” But once I get on stage it’s freeing. It’s the most amazing feeling ever, and so it’s kind of like what a therapist would tell you to do. You need to work through your shit and you need to write it down and that’s what I do. So by the time I’m performing it I can see the impact that it has on other people, which is amazing and I don’t take that for granted, but for me it’s like I am a woman working at becoming, I guess you could say, healthy, adjusted, and whole. And a part of the process of becoming whole is writing this music. I’ve always been an open book so it’s one of those things where it’s like, “Yeah, this happened, yeah this happened, yeah this happened.” No shame. And guess what: you shouldn’t have shame either.

Natalie Samson: Have you ever faced any difficulty with any of your collaborators, or anybody in the business, for getting this message out because of the content? Because you’re talking about violence against women and these kinds of issues?

Eternia: The only thing I would say is my first album got criticized for being too personal. One of the most running critiques of It’s Called Life was, “Great album, great album, too personal.” So it’s almost like people don’t want you to go that deep, almost like it made them uncomfortable. But I can say for the most part people really relate and appreciate having someone else speak their story. What I often hear is, “You took my life and put it in your song.” Sometimes it gets really overwhelming when you’re making people aware of an issue and there are so many elements to it—it’s complicated and it’s not simple. The music that I do is very personal to me, so when I start doing it in relation to a lot of issues I kind of just feel like I’m one narrative. The only difference between me and the people I’m rapping to—for example at the Oxfam event—is that they gave me a microphone. But everyone could technically have a very moving compelling personal story that would call you to action. And that’s what it’s about: it’s change. Let’s not be satisfied with the status quo.

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