Words & Illustration: Dana Kats // @danakats13
Black Lives Matter.
Read it again. Say it again.
Black Lives Matter.
Now repeat forever.
The strength of a movement is defined by the length of its momentum and its social impact. A pandemic that brought live music to a screeching halt has unavoidably proved to be challenging for everyone, especially the independent music industry. It has been incredibly heartwarming, nonetheless, to see how quickly most started responding to the Black Lives Matters movement; in light of the recent instances of police brutality in the US.
Instead of keeping the issue local, the movement has quickly spread to most parts of the world and is now starting a global conversation.
Artists are a part of the cultural backbone of our society. Thus I have decided to tread curiously and approach people working in independent music. My aim is to explore their ideas on tackling racism, plans to support the movement, as well as an overview on any issues that have now found the light of discussion.
The first band I talked to are Bristol-based Fräulein, whom have just released their new single “Drag Behind” on Bandcamp. The profits from the digital copies of their song will be donated to The Black Curriculum.
Fräulein are a two-piece Bristol-based band that have channeled all of their creativity in their music. They managed to create experimental, post-punk/grunge tracks that resonate to their audience through rebellious drums and strong female vocals.
I sat down with Joni and Karsten on a lovely, socially-distanced Zoom call and asked them to introduce themselves.
Karsten: Joni and I met through The Bell’s open mic night, introduced by a friend. On the night we first met, Joni played one of her songs for me, and I was immediately gripped. The odd note groupings and intervals, the dark sweeping vocals, mixed to make a sound that I genuinely hadn’t heard before. After that, I invited Joni to come round to mine and we could play some of her songs and share some music together – this is where I first heard PJ Harvey, The Pixies (I know, I know), Jeff Buckley and the likes, and I began to piece together the sound that Joni was after. We’ve been active as a band for about a year and a half since, sharing music and creating together.
Joni: I picked up a guitar after an age of wanting to do it. When I was 21 I finally said ‘fuck it’ and bought the cheapest one I could from Dawsons. At first I wanted to play covers, but then songs just started coming out. I had been writing and keeping journals since I was young, and with putting these words to music, I finally had a way to express myself. I was a ‘closet musician’ for about 2 years before I had the courage to actually play my original songs for anyone. I had the name ‘Fräulein’ since the beginning. I played with some other musicians, but I always felt like it was a struggle. I met Karsten and I immediately saw how talented he was, and how much he brought to the songs. It seemed very special.
I was intrigued by their unusual band name and questioned them, sensing there was a story there. Joni proceeded to explain, giving me insight to the band’s evident rebellious nature. She stated that she was always intrigued by the term Fräulein and would fantasise about naming her future band that. This was perhaps due to her love for the musical “Cabaret”. When visiting Berlin, at age 21, Joni found herself surprised that the title was no longer actively used. Upon further investigation, she realized that in German the term is in fact diminutive to ‘Miss’. “Fräulein” essentially refers to someone as “little woman” or “less than a woman if unmarried”. This was dismissed by feminist movements in the 60-70’s. In respect to their views on feminism and equality, the band knew that no other name would suit them better.
‘Drag Behind’ is a wonderfully explosive track which carries a rebellious, Sonic Youth-esque essence; it was recorded, mastered and mixed in their living rooms.
The lyrics on the other hand, were conceived a while before that, despite echoing a close relevance to current events. In their own words:
Joni: Drag Behind is a song I wrote a long, long time ago. I woke up the morning after I went to a party and immediately started writing the lyrics. For me the song really is about not feeling good in your own skin. It’s about not feeling smart enough, not pretty enough, not interesting enough… the list could go on. I have a real problem with comparing myself to others and making myself feel small, and I think that’s a learnt behaviour for me.
Karsten: Drag Behind was exclusively recorded at my house and Joni’s, entirely with two microphones (an SM57 and Audio-Technica X3, if you’re interested). I’ve been recording myself for the last three years and now that experience is coming in handy, although challenging to get the best sound possible! Furthermore the artwork and the mixing/mastering, was all exclusively done by us. We wanted to create something that was from top to bottom, a project by the two of us and something that we were both confident and proud in releasing.
There is a wonderful surprise to this quarantine release as well. Anyone can download their song on Bandcamp and all proceeds will be donated to The Black Curriculum.
I asked them to give us some more information about their choice of organisation and their vision:
Karsten: The Black Curriculum aims to address the growing gap of Black British History in modern schooling by focusing on Black history. They are providing teacher training and campaigning, and they aim to give everyone (and not just the privileged) an opportunity to be recognised in history and thereby, education. We want to help bring identity for BAME people within governmental institutions and society, and a lot of that begins with re-education.
Joni: I feel like we’re living in a time where we are having a complete shift in mainstream thought, and I really think it was a good thing that we decided to release a song like “Drag Behind” that is lyrically about being ‘othered’. I think a lot of my insecurities stem from feeling different, like I don’t fit in or that I’m ‘less than’… I’m half-Irish, half-Jamaican, and growing up in Belfast the only other people of colour I saw regularly (let alone Black people) were my immediate family. So I noticeably felt like I stood out, and not always for the best reasons. I’ve been having these racial conversations for a long time, but I only felt comfortable to discuss it with those I trust. I’m lucky enough to have a really great and understanding friendship group where these topics are addressed regularly. These feelings of inequality are not new for Black people and I’m glad now that it is in mainstream conversation. I think that growing up we all could have done with learning about Black history in the UK. Not only for white people to be educated and confront their own unconscious prejudices, but for people like me too. If I was a teenager seeing, hearing and learning about other Black people in culture and the arts maybe I wouldn’t have felt so isolated. I think it’ll give young Black kids a chance to really embrace their identity and see history from a different, important perspective.
Which then raises the questions: Are people within the music industry somewhat ignorant to the influence Black Culture has had on many different genres of music? Should Black History also be added to musical education?
Joni: I can’t speak for everyone but personally for a long time I was ignorant to the influence of Black Culture on music for sure. Growing up I was listening to a lot of rock music. I remember being a kid and actually searching online for answers if it was ‘weird’ for me to be into rock music, mostly because I didn’t (and still don’t, although it’s getting better) see Black faces in modern rock. I was exposed to a lot of roots reggae and soul growing up from my dad’s record collection, and I instinctively knew where that came from. But as a kid, I didn’t realise that when I was dancing to artists like Little Richard in my living room, that they were pioneers of rock’n’roll. Luckily when I was around 11 I got into listening to The White Stripes; Jack White has always been super vocal about his blues influences. I started doing research and listening to people like Son House and Blind Willie McTell and got really nerdy about music history. Only then did I realise… wow, I am allowed here. I belong here. It’s written into rock’s DNA. I think more people should dig into music like this, because Black people invented or had a stake in every modern piece of music we hear today, across all genres.
Music is closely linked to social & personal identity, and we adopt a lot of qualities from our preferred genre. Our favourite music could influence the way we dress, the company we keep, and even our choices of entertainment. We therefore tend to make assumptions about what music someone may listen to solely on the basis of appearance. In the same respect, I was curious to see if artists think people may be quick to categorize another musician’s genre based on skin colour.
Joni: For sure. Something that sticks out in my mind is Tyler, The Creator’s recent interview after he won a Grammy for ‘Best Rap Album’. He really summed it up. Black artists pushing boundaries nowadays are placed in ‘Urban’ or ‘Rap’ categories, even if they’re producing genre-bending music. I think we need to zoom into Black rock’n’roll artists of the 50s and 60s too. Their songs were literally covered and sanitized by white artists, who did not credit the original Black artists and only then would they appear in the ‘Pop’ charts. It’s really ingrained in the way that the music industry works.
A major part of the Black Lives Matter movement is serving as a wake up call, aiming to identify and redirect white privilege. One may even be overwhelmed by whiteness that predominately coats the indie or rock scene. A brilliantly enlightening article to reference here would be Sarah Sahim’s “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie”.
I found myself interested in what Fräulein thought about identifying white privilege in the independent music scene and how artists must be made aware of this.
*Important sub-note to all white people: YOU must make YOURSELVES aware of your own privilege. It’s YOUR own duty and no one else’s to teach you. Please educate yourselves for everyone’s sake – resources attached at the end of the page.
Karsten: In all honesty, I couldn’t tell you what that metric would look like. How much of it can be attributed to a band’s success? Of course, racial prejudices exist, yet we’re coming together to create music, this is what we’re here for. To what extent this is affected by external social factors is unknown to us. I don’t feel like we’re particularly qualified to comment on that.
Joni: Yeah, I can’t really say how you could identify it, but I do think there is an inherent privilege in just having the confidence to start a band and put yourself out there, not thinking about the consequences of it. It’s easy as a white man to see yourself on stage in front of a crowd… there are countless examples of it. There’s not as much second-guessing yourself, I guess.
What can independent artists do/continue to do to support the Black Lives Matter movement and not let it lose momentum?
Karsten: Music has always been an important facet for culture based on self-expression through experience. We have seen more fundraising and donations in this unprecedented period of time because COVID has highlighted institutional racism as well. As I said, music is based off of self-expression through experience, and to properly integrate support for BLM with that in mind, self-education is vital; engage with this information, with statistics, with injustices – besides the fundraising and donations, which of course are crucial to their support, one must also understand why they’re supporting BLM. Bringing this awareness and this knowledge to the music scene will create more inclusivity. From there, creating opportunities for others to support these movements can be done.
Joni: I think it’s really important to just… give people who don’t look like you a platform. As an independent artist, you’re really in the palm of promoters in the music industry, as well as gig-goers. I think if you’re in a position to give people gigs, features, promotion or support, try to diversify your sphere. Look out for people that don’t get as much representation in the mainstream. Black people, like everyone else have very individual, personal experiences. Give us a platform to share those experiences and we’re off to a good start.
Stepping away from artists, we must also look at the moral obligation the music industry has to support and promote diversity as well as actively celebrating Black Culture. What must the independent music scene do to celebrate Black Culture?
Joni: Again, just… put on more Black artists. There are a lot of amazing up-and-coming bands that include Black people, womxn, queer people, trans people. It’s not super hard to find, so just ensure that a gig isn’t 100% a white male line-up. Diversifying is key.
On a more romantic note: I am deeply intrigued to see if artists believe that changing the world would consequently change music. Throughout history, we observe music having an active participation in most social movements. This goes from leading marches to having songs start whole revolutionary movements (see Rodriguez and the documentary “Searching For Sugar Man” which actively inspired the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 70’s).
As we are witnessing and fighting for change, I extended my idealistic pursuits to Karsten and Joni. I asked them their thoughts on the effects of changing the world and if that would change music:
Karsten: I definitely do, to take COVID and BLM as examples, we’ve seen a number of artists respond to these situations with their own art. Among them include Noname & Anderson Paak, who have each written their own songs specifically in response to the crises at hand, and that’s only of the two I can think of right now! I think with this period of under-performing economics, creatives will find more time to express themselves and to create.
Joni: As I said, I think that the Black experience is not a monolith, but making the world a more thoughtful and caring place might encourage more people to believe that they can actually succeed, and it might mean we’re hearing from a lot of different perspectives. Music for me is a conversation, if I can get people to engage in that conversation with me when we’re playing live, regardless of if they relate to me on a physical level, then we’re getting somewhere.
On a more personal note, do you find yourselves personally interested in socio-politically charged music?
Karsten: Absolutely. From a young age, Rage Against the Machine and System of A Down have been among my favourite all time bands. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more about the politically active music of Sam Cooke and Nina Simone from the mid-20th century, to old and new rap artists alike, such as Saba, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Isaiah Rashad, Joey Badass, Souls of Mischief, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie Smalls, Quasimoto, Noname, Tyler and MF Doom. These people have played a large role in starting my own personal dialogue and intrigue in racial issues.
Joni: I do listen to some socio-politically charged music, a lot of punk bands. But I also listen to a lot of female-driven music like PJ Harvey and Hole. I think that sometimes just being the (unfortunately) rare woman in music can be inherently political. Writing honest lyrics about your personal experiences is in itself a political act, whether you identify as feminist, or anti-racist or not. Just forcing people to pay attention to your experience as a Black woman, even if you’re not explicitly writing about being a Black woman, can be thrilling.
Are you planning to continue supporting the movement through your art or do you prefer keeping socio-political issues separate?
Karsten: We’ll continue to support causes that we feel our goals and views align with, yes.
Joni: Personally, I’m going to keep writing music about my individual experience, because that’s the only perspective I have uninterrupted access to right now. I write music as a way to get out things that I need to express. I don’t think about writing my politics into my lyrics, but as I said before, I think it’s kind of inherently in there, whether I intend it to be or not.
What does the rest of 2020 hold for Fräulein?
Karsten: On a slightly more personal note, I’ve been accepted into King’s College London to do a one-year Master’s course in September! Past that, we do also have a number of things set to release this year. We spent some time last October in Cassidy Jones’ studio to record some tracks with him and we couldn’t be happier with how they sounded, especially after being mastered by Noel Summerville, who’s mastered albums for The White Stripes and Aphex Twin! They should be out before the end of this year and we can’t wait to share them with you when we feel the time is right. For the near future we do also have a demo recording of our track “By The Water”, recorded in a friend’s London basement, so do keep your eyes and ears peeled for them in the future.
Joni: We were planning on releasing the EP in the middle of this year, but with the coronavirus situation and live music not really being a ‘thing’ anymore, we’re regrouping. We loved playing gigs. There was nothing like it and we were working so hard on becoming a really, really tight live band, having fun on stage and bringing the audience with us. But now that level of connection with people has been paused, we’re focussing on creating visuals with our music too. We’re going to keep focussing on this self-recording project, by doing demos of really old songs and hopefully by the time we’re ready to release the EP we’ll have a bunch of new material ready to release too!
Finishing this conversation with Fräulein has left me interested and further intrigued. My aim is to follow independent artists as they create in an effort to enable and promote social change and equality. It is wonderfully fulfilling to see a creative community come together to serve as magnifiers for the voices of others, whilst also enabling an atmosphere of inclusiveness. Diversifying the music scene should be a priority for both the record and the live industry, and especially the media. Following this article, if you did manage to make it all the way through, I hope you have managed taken two things from it:
- Straight after this you will be looking at Fräulein’s amazing work and socials below. You should support their music and their cause! Go buy yourself a copy of their new single and spread the love by supporting The Black Curriculum
- You have started, or continued, a conversation with yourself about where you stand against racism and what you plan on doing to help break down a system that has institutionalized hate for far too long. Please never let this die down, we owe it to each other.
Black Lives Matter Resources:
Bandcamp / Drag Behind: https://frauleinmusic.bandcamp.com/track/drag-behind-demo