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14 July 2016

Anohni explores a complex relationship between the self, politics and pop

Anohni’s latest project, the album Hopelessness, is the most explicitly political work she has produced over her career.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Pop is having a political moment. From the specific thoughts on the state of racism in America from Kendrick Lamar, to vaguer “girl power” vibes of Meghan Trainor and Little Mix, social movements have infiltrated the mainstream music scene. Where does that leave the artists on the margins? For Anohni, the Mercury Prize-winning artist formerly of Antony and the Johnsons, it means pushing the boundaries even further on how we understand those issues, attempting to use music to see the connections between a variety of global concerns.

“[It’s] been refreshing, to see that resurgence,” she told Dazed. I just wanted to push that thinking into other arenas too. I also wanted to illustrate the connectivity between all these different things, how all these different issues exacerbate and amplify one another and climax in ecocide.”

Anohni’s latest project, the album Hopelessness, is the most explicitly political work she has produced over her career. While songs created under Antony and the Johnsons contained raw observations on domestic abuse, queer culture, and the environmental crisis, Hopelessness has a new directness that is sometimes jarringly literal. In “Obama”, Anohni addresses the US President in anger and betrayal (“you are spying / Executing without trial / Betraying virtues”). In “Drone Bomb Me”, she imagines herself as a child orphaned by war, wishing to die and join her family in the afterlife: “Drone bomb me / Blow me from the mountains / And into the sea”. In songs like these, she takes us one step further than PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project or Joni Mitchell’s “If I Had a Heart”. Strangely, this music is also irresistably catchy.

These lyrics have a bluntness that can almost feel too on-the-nose. The climate change-denying narrator of “4 Degrees” speaks with a desperate hunger for destruction: “I wanna burn the sky / I wanna burn the breeze / I wanna see the animals die in the trees”. Is this caricature of a global warming sceptic overly earnest, or cynically misrepresentative? Perhaps, until you realise that here, as in many places in Hopelessness, Anohni is actually talking about herself. In a note on Facebook, she wrote that in the song she was, “giving myself a good hard look, not my aspirations but my behaviors, revealing my insidious complicity”.

This approach has its own ethical thorniness. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Anohni noted that, despite the wide-reaching political scope of the album, her jumping-off point throughout Hopelessness was her own self:

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For me, it was about keeping the focus on myself and describing feelings from my own point of view. There are some cases where I veer away from that on the album, but in most cases I try to keep the focus on the first person. That tends to be how we relate to the world. I tried to find the emotional narrative and spiritual narrative through the idea: What’s my relationship to this stuff? How am I complicit in some of these things?

The album therefore functions primarily through a kind of radical empathy: “I’m only alive one time, and I wanted to try to live expansively.” While songs like “I Don’t Love You Anymore”, “Violent Men”, “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?” and the titular “Hopelessness” explore structural violence against women and the alienation of the human race from the natural world, songs like “Drone Bomb Me”, “Execution” and “Indian Girls” (which does not appear on the album, but is part of Anohni’s current setlist for live shows) draw on experiences that are outside her own – the latter in particularly graphic language (“You burned Indians at stake / Drove the stick from anus to mouth / And raped girls in bleeding lines / Of heaving spines, of sobbing spines”).

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This is when Anohni’s music begins to make me feel uncomfortable – are these stories hers to tell? Is there a point where identification can slip into appropriation? I am reminded again of Mitchell – this time of the notorious interview she gave last year, in which she said, “When I see black men […] I really feel an affinity because I have experienced being a black guy on several occasions.”

But Anohni also has a self-awareness that suggests this audience discomfort is intentional. She challenges us to consider how we intentionally distance ourselves from violence for which we are culpable, in order to absolve ourselves of guilt: to genuinely answer “Crisis”’s repeated question, “If I killed your mother / With a drone bomb / How would you feel?”

The most thrilling and troubling moments on Hopelessness come when Anohni condemns her own involvement in the violent structures she condemns. “How did I become a virus?” she sings on “Hopelessness”.

As much as she puts herself into this record, Anohni is also acutely aware of how the absence of the self can be more powerful. She made headlines this year as the second openly transgender person nominated for an Academy Award, for her song “Manta Ray”, written for the documentary Racing Extinction. When the Academy Award organisers failed to invite her to perform – despite requesting performances from all the other nominees for Best Original Song – Anohni boycotted the ceremony, writing a powerful explanation of her decision on Pitchfork.

She told Dazed she was inspired by previous boycotts: “My favourite moment from the Oscars was when Brando didn’t attend and sent a Native American woman to talk about Wounded Knee. It was one of the greatest moments in American television.”

This deliberate self-effacement continues in live incarnations of Hopelessness. Her recent shows at the Barbican began with a 15-minute long video of Naomi Campbell, dancing slowly as a growing rumble envelops the audience and the lights dim. When Anohni herself finally emerges, she is hooded and gloved, hidden beneath metres of flowing white fabric. Meanwhile, a giant screen behind her plays close-ups of a wide range of different women’s faces, who mouth along with the lyrics. The eye is drawn to them far more frequently than to Anohni herself. Perhaps true empathy involves both a projection of the self, and the erasure of it. “I don’t care about me,” she sings on “Hopelessness”.

Anohni ends her concert with a video of the aboriginal artist Ngalangka Nola Taylor speaking directly to the audience. “What is happening to the world?” she asks. “How can we stop? How can we work together?”