Medusa Mixes Myth and Reality with Allegory of the G/Rave

It all began with a post on Tumblr.

“Medusa was defending herself,” explains Medusa, a Buffalo-based trans-nonbinary, intersex music producer and visual artist and winner of the Audiofemme Agenda Grant, about how they got their name. “And then I read the things that people were saying in the notes about how Medusa was attacked by Poseidon and then demonized and turned into a monster and then banished from the place that she had called home for her entire life, and I was like, this is very familiar.”

Medusa came to the Greek myth by way of isolation. After being stalked on campus at their university, many of their friends felt they were making the whole thing up. They delved into the internet and started tinkering with Audacity, the early manifestations of their present musical practice. 

With their grant, Medusa is producing a short film to accompany an upcoming concept album entitled Allegory of the G/Rave, a queer retelling of the story of Medusa. They latch on to those themes of isolation and self-protection in terms of the queer experience – by chronicling Medusa’s life, transformation and persecution, Medusa intends to contribute to the emotional needs of of their young divergent audience, and to galvanize their self-worth, providing them with the representation necessary for self-actualization.

When they started playing music, they had never even been to a show. “I didn’t know what an XLR cable was,” they say. “I played with the EQ on my computer while my music played. And then sometimes I talked when I was brave enough to talk over the music, and then that was my first show, and then it just sort of snowballed, and it turned into this community, this melding of my own self-discovery and the connection with my community.”

Medusa’s birth as a musician came with their realizations that they were both queer and intersex, things they found out very publicly because they were making music about them. “That brought me more community than I ever lost in the first place. Which is and has been the biggest – I don’t know if I should say blessing, but I’ve been very lucky.”

That they hone in on this myth while adopting the moniker Medusa adds layers to the narrative, particularly given that their musical practice is driven so organically by emotion. “Auditorily it’s not quite what people call synaesthesia, but when a song is stuck in your head and affects your mood,” they explain. “That’s how it happens for me but backwards, writing. So when I’m having an emotion, I’ll hear music, not necessarily in a hallucinatory way, but the urge to translate that into actual tangible, audible sound.”

They call them “transmissions” – when they’re “having a feeling or realizing that in the background of my mind, there’s been a song playing the whole time that I have to then go check to see if it’s real, and it exists and it’s stuck in my head, or if I’m writing subconsciously because of the feeling that I’m having. And then I’ll run over to the computer and I’ll get it down…I’ll figure out oh, what song does my subconscious want that to go in?”

In that way, they update the myth for the community they have built online, imparting a certain wisdom that while being different may be off-putting to some, it’s actually a source of power, a means of self-protection if harnessed well. And because they learned it the hard way, Medusa seeks to pay it forward with this narrative film of the concept album, split into eight music videos that will run a total of thirty minutes.

“The story of Medusa being something that she didn’t ask to be transformed into, something that she didn’t want to be necessarily, and then turning into that was very relatable for me. Because after that point, you start to harness it. In an effort to protect yourself, you are different,” they say. “Do I have to be alone forever? What does the process of re-opening yourself up look like, and is it even possible? So this has been a big process of self-discovery, but translating that in a way that is useful to other queer people is not just comforting, but also inspiring.” 

Follow Medusa on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for ongoing updates.

Ikwe Forges Her Own Path to Healing with the MAKADEWIIYAASIKWE Project

“What does it mean to be a Black woman? What does it mean to be an indigenous woman? And what does it mean to be a Black and indigenous woman, like myself?” asks Kelsey Van Ert. She creates art under the moniker Ikwe, meaning “woman” in Ojibwe, the indigenous tribe rooted in her heritage, and these questions are central to her work as a storyteller, composer and performance artist.

A winner of the 2022-23 Agenda Artist Grant, Van Ert aims to complete a project she began in 2018 that ultimately got stalled by the pandemic. Entitled MAKADEWIIYAASIKWE (meaning “a Black woman, a woman of African descent,” in Ojibwe), the piece is a 90-minute sound poem backed by Ikwe’s original music. She began piecing it together at residencies at the Shed NY at Hudson Yards Open Call Artist in Residence Program and the Wyckoff House’s Protest Garden Residency, and hopes to finish mixing, mastering, releasing and celebrating the work with her Audiofemme grant. 

The piece is a vehicle through which she grapples with her identity as a mixed race white, Ojibwe, and Black woman from St. Paul, Minnesota. It connects the history and healing process of the Native American and African American people, while shedding light on the Euro-centricity of Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief – you know the ones: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – through the melding of Black music genres with Ojibwe hand drum music, personal narratives, the sharing of shrouded U.S. history, and film. 

Her mother is mixed white and Ojibwe and her father is Black, but she grew up mostly disconnected from her Black heritage in her father’s absence, though she notes her mother was sensitive about things like taking her to a proper Black hair salon. “I grew up reading a lot of Black literature and indigenous literature and seeing narratives about white and Black mixed people, or native and white mixed people, but not really seeing myself,” she explains. “Whenever I visited the rest of the reservation my family is affiliated with, there are mixed Black people, [but I wasn’t] really seeing us being represented.”

She finds herself at a particularly complicated intersection, given the historical prominence of social policing like the One Drop Rule and Blood Quantum measures. As you may or may not know, the One-Drop Rule emerged in the 20th century as a racial classification system, wherein if you had even “one drop” of Black blood, you were considered Black. As Van Ert puts it, “I don’t really say that I’m white, because that’s not how the world sees me… You can’t not be Black, and I think that defines a lot of how I relate to my culture, because I did not grow up with my father and his family.” It has colored a lot of her experience growing up in the Midwest, from her sometimes fraught relationship with her family’s reservation to a particularly egregious incident as a student at the University of Wisconsin, where someone called the police on her, even though she was walking around campus wearing a school sweatshirt.

While the One-Drop Rule was a means of control and classification, the Blood Quantum rule was developed as a tool for the erasure of indigenous communities. As she explains it, it’s “a measure of how much Native American blood that you have. And so it’s a measure of when you’re no longer Native American. And this idea has been adopted by most Native American tribes, and it’s a huge debate and a huge conversation right now, because blood quantum is doing exactly what it was built to do, which is to eliminate indigenous people.” It grows complicated in the sense that there are benefits on the line for indigenous people, like scholarship money, and as more and more people establish interracial families, these bloodlines grow more and more diluted.

“The thing that happens is because there’s a lot of mixing, so much time has passed, and the population that was 100% is now less than 1% of this country, you could be a quarter Native American, but you’re one eighth of this tribe and one eighth of another tribe, and then you can’t be part of any,” she explains. “Our blood quantum is actually off by a generation, because my great, great grandfather denounced his status as Native American to get a job at the post office.”

So when you embody multiple ethnicities, and are simultaneously labeled just one while actively erased from another, where does that leave you? For Ikwe, this is where the stages of grief come in, particularly as this commonly held system erases multi-cultural traditions of therapy and healing. Existing as a minority in a country as hostile to minorities as America is an actively traumatic process – people of color bear the weight of centuries of mistreatment and abuse, while also being constantly confronted with racially motivated violence and hatred on both the news and in their day-to-day lives.

“Right now, the main way to heal for everybody is this very Euro-centric way, through European-style therapy, knowledge, analysis, and cognitive behavioral therapy, that kind of stuff,” she says. “And then there [are] these stages that you go through. And then once you go through these stages, you will be alright. But what happens when you’re from a minority community that keeps having to restart the process over and over again, because you keep experiencing racism or trauma continuously? There isn’t, like, an indigenous map for dealing with grief.”

And so Ikwe has set out to map her own grief and healing through the MAKADEWIIYAASIKWE project, which she was inspired to begin, in part, by her great grandmother. “She was the last one to speak Ojibwe fluently, and when she had Alzheimer’s at the end of her life, she only spoke Ojibwe,” she explains. “But she didn’t teach my grandmother, or my mother, because she was afraid that they would, like, get taken and put into a boarding school. So my grandmother and my mother and I were doing a lot of learning. Part of my process was learning how to make hand drums, and learning songs. Healing songs, stories, every group is very different.”

But most importantly, she notes that when it comes to healing, “Everyone has a way.” And in an attempt to help others like her find their way, Ikwe is finding her own, too.

Follow Ikwe on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Mafer Bandola Paves the Way to the Party for “La Venezolanidad Immigrante”

“As Colombians have places to dance or play Cumbia or Merengue, or Cubans have places to dance Rumba, or let’s say the Brazilians have places to play Samba or Choro or Forro, there’s no place for Venezuelan musicians,” says María Fernanda González, known professionally as Mafer Bandola, of the contemporary dance scene for New York City’s various Latin American communities. “It was missing that.”

But she’s trying to change that. A winner of the Audiofemme 2022-23 Agenda Grant, Mafer Bandola is an instrumentalist, composer and pioneer within the Joropo Llanero genre, an Afro-Indigenous tradition from the High Plains of Venezuela. She’s already known as an innovator occupying a unique place in her field, having performed at institutions like MassMoca, WOMAD, Womex, TED, NPR TinyDesk and more. Born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, she moved permanently to New York City this past year, where she began to teach dance workshops for her particular genre of music.

That she is able to teach the dance to fellow Venezualians in New York City is integral to her mission. As she explains, Joropo means “party,” but most importantly, “party doesn’t happen without the work of the community.” When she came to New York, she noticed that the people attending her performances were just “sitting to listen to the musicians playing and singing. And now I’m trying to organize this… This is music that you can dance to, but you have to learn how, so I started teaching.” While these workshops are open to anyone, she says she would “specifically like to connect with Venezuelans. I’ve been teaching Venezuelans who have been living here for the last 30 years, and they felt that they didn’t have this space even to learn, or even to meet and talk about what they are doing.” Furthermore, she places great emphasis on teaching the children of these immigrants, so that the tradition can be passed on.

Joropo is a mix of indigenous, African and Spanish traditions, one rooted in resistance. As she explains, “during colonialism in Venezuela, enslaved indigenous and African peoples saw their own Spanish enslavers dance waltzes inside their mansions. As a joke, they created their own dance, making fun of the waltz by exaggerating its movement. Thus, Joropo was born as a kind of resistance against the oppression of the enslavers.”

With her grant, she envisions a “portable community house” of music, song and dance, a multicultural meeting point of Venezualan immigrants, musicians and the general public in New York City, which has become an epicenter of the Venezualan diaspora. Because of the economic crisis in Venezuela, she notes that the recent exodus out of the country is the largest migration that has existed in the history of the Western hemisphere. She says that by the end of 2021, 7 million have emigrated, which is only slightly less than the population of New York City itself (8.4 million). She sees the creation of a flexible community “space” as being crucial to maintaining traditions of “La Venezolandidad Immigrante.” 

So too does she inhabit an interesting intersection in this space – in general, women do not play the bandola in Venezuela. She is one of the only female players of this instrument in the world, and as such, she works to actively promote the integration of women who perform professionally using traditional Venezuelan instruments. In addition to the big ways she does this – actively creating community and teaching this style of music and dance – she does it in small ways everyday as well, oftentimes babysitting the children of fellow female musicians so that they can rehearse and gig. Being a woman in a male-dominated role can be isolating in any regard, but especially when you are one of the first to do so.

“It’s been really challenging for me to actually create a path for oral tradition and professional musicians, because I didn’t have that role to follow in Venezuela,” she says. “There is no female adult playing this instrument professionally. So when I received this grant with this idea, that actually is helping me to be at peace with my traditions, because somehow, I don’t represent my traditions.” 

Her “portable community house” is already underway, in some respects – every fourth Sunday, Mafer Bandola hosts Pipiris Nights at Barbés in South Slope, both in-person and streaming online. Those who’d like to join the party – and support her mission – can catch her next Joropo event is this Sunday, May 22.

Follow Mafer Bandola on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Shara Lunon Finds her Voice Among the Noise with “Bitter Fruits”

“A lot of the goal with my art is to eradicate this idea of homogeneity, of Black people all experiencing and feeling the same thing,” says Shara Lunon, NYC-based multidisciplinary artist and one of the winners of the 2022-23 Audiofemme Agenda Grant. “I’m starting to think all the pieces really focus around the feelings that I felt in particular, and it’s not necessarily how all Black people felt, but just specifically how I felt in my environment.”

Lunon is a Black, Jewish and queer improviser, poet, vocalist and composer. She grew up splitting her time between Florida and New York, where she moved full time to pursue and complete a graduate degree in Performance and Composition at the New School this past year. In her artist statement, she refers to herself as “the product of a culture deferred – a simultaneous mixture of erasure and mutation,” her ethnic identity split between two historically oppressed communities, though as she clarified in an interview with me, “There are different cultural references that I have, but… it’s kind of the same in the sense that if you’re Black, you’re Black.”

She is hard at work on “Bitter Fruits,” a multiform song cycle created in response to what cultivated the “Freedom Summer” of 2020, and the triggering of intergenerational trauma that surfaces when viewing a lynching. She says it is the largest piece she has written to date, examining the idea of what Black people “are” or “should be,” something not only forced upon her but something she has strived to be as a multi-racial individual. She explains that “what ‘I should be’ and how I felt has always lived in conflict.”

The piece features a wig of ten-foot braids that encase wiring, programming of photocells that change sound patterns between pieces, and choreography. While hair is an integral and oftentimes emotionally fraught aspect of the Black female identity, she digs deeper here, explaining that hair – and braids in particular – “has been used as coded language, for maps for people to escape from slavery, or to hide food within it. So I feel like the braids became this secondary way of communicating, not just through my voice, not through the sounds that are coming out of it, but also a representation of Black culture and history, and to transmit other messages of solidarity and pride in my cultural history.”

In other words, it’s a vehicle in which to speak her truth without having to explicitly explain, an emotional labor the Black community has been tasked with since time immemorial but particularly in the racial reckoning that occurred in the wake of the George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery murders of 2020. For many white allies, particularly those too young to have lived through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, this was a moment of realization of the trauma people of color have lived with for generations, leading to a sudden burst of energy and activism that many BIPOC knew couldn’t be sustained. But while white allies could relax back into their identities once the burst of energy fizzled out, Black people remain Black, and must continue to deal with these multi-generational traumas and issues whether they want to or not. Watching white friends and colleagues wake up on Instagram or in the streets for a few months and then retreat back into the ordinary was an isolating experience.

Lunon explains that the piece has “less to do with the protests, and more to do with the feeling of understanding what an ally could actually mean and those feelings of isolation or sadness. They’re very deep and generational, and combined with this very ‘in the moment’ mission of the allies that for me was like, I will already see the end date before people want to realize.” She says the work is “very reactionary, in the moment and organic to the space that I’m infusing the technology outside of the machine itself. I’ve been building my own little tiny embroidered oscillators. I like the way it responds to motion.”

Photo Credit: Daniel Dorsa

Her practices “parallel my focus on the Black individual, as a way to negate the narrative of the homogeneity of my people – we are all having a human experience.” No one’s art should be limited in theme to their identity, and neither is Lunon’s. While we wait with anticipation for her to unveil her “Bitter Fruits,” she premieres “Sankofa” this weekend at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens’ Biophony, a walkabout listening experience conceived by the Grammy-nominated collective Metropolis Ensemble. This will feature more than twenty groupings of musicians stationed throughout the gardens to perform fifteen new works of music inspired by birds.

Shara Lunon contains multitudes, more than can ever be encompassed in identity descriptors like Black, Jewish or queer. Even when the work deals explicitly in these themes, the medium is always the message.

Follow Shara Lunon on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.