on representation and artistry

Every once in awhile, usually when I’m in the middle of a slew of pieces about assault, my mom will check in with me about my writing. “You are taking the time to write happy music, right?” she often asks. It’s a time-honored song and dance—she asks, I reassure; lather, rinse, repeat. Less often, she echoes a sentiment I’ve also heard from my friends and my own internal monologue: I don’t want, theoretically, to be known for my assault work and nothing else.

That sentiment is a difficult one to wrap my head around on a good day, but I’ve always understood it on a fundamental level. I don’t want to only be approached when someone’s looking to dive deep into the dark; I don’t want to be known as the girl who doesn’t write music for more straight-ahead performances. And while I maybe won’t always write work that’s best when programmed on a vanilla concert, the underlying idea is stark: don’t close doors that might stay open if I picked more palatable subject matter. Put more bluntly, don’t brand as broken.

So far, at least, I’ve managed to strike a balance that really works for me. I make my own angry music when I feel like it, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with a number of performers and commissioners on pieces that allow me to give voice to issues and perspectives they care deeply about. The aggregate is a body of work I value deeply, that covers a range of topics I don’t see enough of in our concert halls. Though I do check in with myself periodically to make sure I’m doing regular music things, overall I’m pretty happy with my output.

I’m not, however, as thrilled with the circumstances that got me here. I’ll never be remotely pleased that I suffered my first sexual assault before the age of five. I’m always going to have some fire to spit about the people in both classical and jazz circles that subtly told me my only options to make myself relevant were to either be technically perfect and artistically forgettable or artificially hypersexualized and excessively performative. I won’t start being okay with the systems, institutions, and gatekeepers who perpetuate the Othering I and so many others are forced to tolerate if we want any semblance of a career or a life. And while each of these realities inherently shaped my artistic development and the work I choose to create, they’re also why I never make my narrators carbon copies of myself.

Though the projects and subject matter I choose to take on revolve around issues and ideas I hold dear, I almost never make them about me. Yes, I draw (at times heavily) on my own experiences, but I also borrow from friends and research and Buzzfeed quizzes. (Really.) Every narrator I christen carries part of me, but none of them are carbon copies. The differences between them and me—and, more specifically, the importance of maintaining that separation—are also a nontrivial part of why I don’t always perform those narratives myself. Maintaining that distance between myself and my audience matters to me, especially because it reinforces one truth: my face and voice isn’t representative of an entire gender.

I’ve been ruminating on this more since the top of the new year in part because I’ve had the immense joy of teaching artist statements to one of my community college classes this semester. My students are inquisitive, enthusiastic, and willing to dive deep into their own artistic practices in pursuit of the hows and the whys of their art. Working with them as they crafted what for many were their first artist statements has been a phenomenal adventure. And while I’m exceedingly proud of their work, the process was enlightening for me—in the end, it was a reminder of the ways success and artistry differ early on.

At one point during class, we ended up having an extensive conversation about representation as an artistic goal. While I’ll never tell marginalized folks they shouldn’t view their impact in terms of representation, I did make sure to note that representation shouldn’t be the only way any of us frames our artistry. Although there have been times in my life when I leaned on that a little too hard, as a teacher, it didn’t take me long to make an important point: that I never want any of my students to feel like their only notable contribution to their artistic canons is existing in their own skin. They should never feel like they have to sacrifice their artistic development for their minority status.

The other realization I came to, somehow, was that although I’ve been pushed toward token roles in the past, I’ve made it this far while still retaining control of the music I make and the subject matter I take on. Yes, I run the risk of branding as broken, but I also get to craft compelling characters and point audiences toward stories and ideas that make them think. Yes, I’m sort of known as the woman making the assault music and raging about gendered violence and systemic misogyny, but in doing so I get to work with friends and collaborators who I know believe in the work I’m doing. Yes, I constantly toe the line of pissing off the men in power around me, but even many of them admit I do what I do for the right reasons.

I think, in the end, this matters because the things I’m known for (good and bad alike) extend beyond “she’s a girl.” Yes, that was the jumping-off point for many of the things I’ve brought into my artistic life, but now I’m someone who can talk about performance ethics and responsible pedagogy and inclusive classrooms and intentional programming and tell you why all of that matters beyond getting my own foot in the door. I can tell my own stories, but the goal isn’t just to share them—it’s to encourage folks to think critically about how they treat the people around them and where they benefit from power imbalances. I can commiserate with the marginalized people in my life, but I can also bring those issues to a wider audience without putting anyone specific in danger of retaliation.

And yes, this is partly about the music, but it’s also partly about what I do for my community of musicians. Artistry and representation aren’t just about what we do on the bandstand; they also encompass what we do and who we include off of it. When we make choices to let our music or our social scenes include other people, we are implicated. Our artistry isn’t just our musical power, it’s how we wield it and why.

So in the coming weeks, as we dive deeper into power imbalances and systemic injustice, keep that in mind. When I’m looking at these things, I’m looking at inclusion and equity as an extension of artistic practice. I’m not just complaining for the sake of complaining; I’m operating under the assumption that it is not our job as artists to restrict who gets to be artists. I’m poking at things, yes, but if we’re really going to say we care about everyone and we value diversity in our communities, I’m asking why we aren’t putting our money where our mouths are.

And if that’s my legacy, at least it won’t be “she was a girl.”

Thanks for reading! If you learned something from this post and would like to tip me, head on over to my Ko-fi page. For more analysis and commentary like this in your life, check back again soon, and consider subscribing to my mailing list (at the bottom of the page or in the sidebar) for quarterly update emails on my biggest projects. To support the long-term work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.

Just a quick note: April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so beginning April 4th, I’ll spend four weeks focusing directly on those topics. Regular, garden-variety abuses of power will pick up again in May.