Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus on Marxism, White Supremacy, and Finding Hope in Listening

Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus on Marxism, White Supremacy, and Finding Hope in Listening
Tune-Yards by Pooneh Ghana

I’ve long admired Merrill Garbus’ work as Tune-Yards. Along with her partner Nate Brenner, Garbus has made some of the 2010s’ most thought-provoking and strident-sounding pop music, sometimes polarizing audiences that come in contact with how it sounds as well as the values she represents.

It was great to hop on the phone with her for an hour last week in what she described as “My first interview in a long time,” and even though there was a promotional jumping-off point for our discussion—the new single “Nowhere Man,” which we certainly discuss to a point here—our conversation was more free-flowing and ideological, touching on Marxism, white supremacy, and the necessity of listening to others as white people in a world thoroughly poisoned by bigotry and structural violence.

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You mentioned while we were getting started here that you’ve been reading Klaus Völker’s Brecht Chronicle. What do you think we can learn from Brecht right now?

Obviously, we’re discussing more and more about who gets to write history, but the problem with reading history is that it’s basically just like, “Then the Great Depression happened.” You don’t get to read a lot about what daily life is like for anyone during that time.

So it was really instructive to read about Brecht’s literal life. He fled Germany and didn’t stop writing or producing plays—over decades! It’s one thing to work over decades, but another to do so while moving your home and from several different cultures, and in Hollywood of all places. It was really nice to be inside the world of an artist who kept at it and didn’t feel like they couldn’t do the work because the world was in chaos. If anything, the work became more crucial.

Also, something we absolutely need to be paying attention to is the role of the word “communism” and the idea of it. It’s still somehow so much of our political narrative, and what I find so important about Brecht is the constant attention towards the working person, as well as his real belief in communism. But there’s a constant betrayal by political systems, too. Believing in the rights of the many over the rights of the few doesn’t seem like a radical point of view.

But put the word “communism” in front of a person, and suddenly it’s anti-American. To be in a discipline where we’re studying justice becomes equated with anti-American sentiments in this world we live in. Another instructive piece that’s maybe too relevant for the near future is Brecht testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. It’s about how to believe in oneself in the face of bullshit.

You scored Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and he’s always been very politically outspoken. Where do your ideologies intersect and where do they depart from each other?

When you’re scoring a film, you’re very much working in service of the director’s vision, and we trusted Boots’ vision so much and wanted him to do his thing with a capital-T. When I first read the script, which was around 2016, I thought, “Good luck making a film where the punchline of the story is so directly tied to a Marxist view of the world.” Then, when it came out, it felt so spot-on. That’s why it resonated so hard in our culture at the time. 10 years ago, 20 years ago, those ideas were getting screwed at capitalism—people would roll their eyes at it. Now, you hear the word “capitalism,” and capitalism coming into question, so much more than when I was growing up.

I don’t think Boots and I have ever sat down and compared notes on our political beliefs, but there was the question of how overt an artist wants to be about their politics in their art. For a long time, I wanted my music to come from a place of unity, and I didn’t want to preach from a pulpit. But times have really changed since I started doing art. I get the sense that people are searching for answers so hard that I feel more compelled to offer possibility, and that’s what is so beautiful about film in general. In this totally fantastical way, Boots showed us a possibility. It’s very powerful.

When were you radicalized politically?

There were a lot of feelings I had as a kid about general injustice. It might have started with the environment. I feel a lot of grief about how long we’ve known [about climate change]. I was born in 1979, and there’s a lot that happened around that time that brings us to this very moment—the last year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, so much knowledge about greenhouse gases. I grew up very aware of those things and volunteered at our local nature center. I was very concerned about recycling and pollution, as well as general injustice in the world.

I grew up in really wealthy town. My parents weren’t wealthy, but they moved there for the public schools that were really highly rated—and we could get into how that was racist later on. [Laughs] We were outsiders. My parents were playing folk music in New York, and I didn’t particularly feel like I belonged there. My dad’s side of the family are left-leaning Bronx Jews, although there was a lot of dissent about whether or not they should belong to the Communist party, or if all religions and political systems were just opiates of the people.

That was the culture I was brought up in. I still haven’t read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital—it’s next on my pandemic playlist. [Laughs] “Garbus, you gotta get on this.” I’ve read so many interpretations of it but never the actual thing. My first interactions with Marxism was through working at Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont when I was 19 or 20—the ethos of collective living, collective being, the value of work and workers. It’s hard to say “radicalization” now because it plays into the hands of people who denigrate “social justice warriors.”

But my political awareness came from Brecht and Bread and Puppet, as well as a curiosity about how we create collectively—and that lends itself to bigger questions about how we live collectively. What tools can art teach us that we don’t have under capitalist society when it comes to living with one another?

These days, it’s easier for younger people to log on and consume ideologies and interpretations of Marxism through a simpler way than reading books or talking to intellectuals about it to educate themselves further. Are there pluses or minuses to the ease of access when it comes to information and potential disinformation?

Have you seen The Social Dilemma?

Not yet.

You really need to watch it. It’s very well-made. We haven’t gotten all the way through it because I can’t watch too much of it before bed. A thousand people have plenty of way more informed opinions on this than me, so I’m just going to speak for myself as a 41-year-old. As I work around my own whiteness and how white supremacy lives inside of me—as I live through needing to set boundaries around my own mental health for social media—I fear that we’re detaching more than we already were from our bodies and lived experiences.

My desire to live in a world where people are more equally treated than we are now comes from lived experience of witnessing poverty, injustice, and suffering, and wanting to live in a different world. It would be way more powerful if people learned what was happening in our society if people were going to volunteer to deliver meals to unhoused people living in encampments in Portland. When you see what human beings are going through right now, that can be lived experience that you can speak to. That’s a crucial part of working through racism and white supremacy as white people, and I’m venturing a guess that that also might be crucial for us to heal the world.

What’s your experience been like participating in the protests and helping out with your community over the last several months?

Nate and I went to one protest in downtown Oakland. I have a lot of “should”s around protests, and I know I’m not alone in this. Especially since when the uprising started, a lot of white people were like, “If I were a good white person, I should be putting my body in front of a cop.” And I think that needs to happen. More white people need to be putting their bodies between people of color and the cops.

For me, my work was getting together a group of white musicians to begin to untangle how white supremacy shows up in music culture. It had been in my plans, and it became, “OK, don’t wait to get this right, just get it right right now.” For virus safety, there were certain protests that felt unsafe—that’s when we didn’t know much about the virus early on. But I’ve had to honor the places where I do feel comfortable. Everyone needs to get it where they fit in, and there’s a place for all of us in the uprising—giving money to mutual aid, using my social media presence to call for white people to defund the police, educating myself through training on unlearning whiteness and white supremacy.

Even as I’m saying all this to you, I’m thinking, “Aaaaand it never feels like I’m doing enough.” But fuck that, man! That’s part of white supremacy and capitalism—that sense that you’re totally powerless so you might as well let the rich run your life. I feel tired of hearing myself shame myself for all the things I haven’t done. Talking to each other and having tough conversations with other white people—challenging each other to stay engaged about race—are hard conversations, and they take up emotional energy. That’s a lot of what I find myself doing. Oh yeah—and writing music about whiteness. [Laughs] Which it turns out is an ugly, uncomfortable, time-consuming process.

Your music has always sounded political, even as “indie” seemed particularly apolitical throughout the 2010s.

When people were like, “You finally got political on the last album,” I was like, “Have you been listening to anything I’ve been singing over the past decade?” Tune-Yards has always been about [asking questions like], “Why is a white woman with a voice so clearly influenced by Central African yodeling doing with an Afrobeat rhythm on one of her biggest songs?”

It does not feel gratifying to live in a time where I feel prepared regarding my practice of showing up and being able to talk about the issues that our music raises politically. Everything is political, it’s just that white people—and white men in particular—have the privilege of naming things as “apolitical.” But it’s always been political, and now that the system of what all other culture is compared to is coming into question, and the trance of whiteness is being lifted…it’s really painful for lots of people.

Being a musician is a ton of work, but we also need to do work around unpacking our whiteness. We don’t walk around thinking about being part of the dominant culture. But it’s in me, because I’ve been bred as a dominant white person in this society. That’s part of what’s so frustrating about conservative and liberal narratives about destruction of property. That’s what it fucking takes! It takes helicopters, and it takes smoke. And sometimes it takes being cancelled and shamed.

In general, I think the idea of “calling in” rather than “calling out” is more effective, but there are a lot of people of color who have no patience for that, and I don’t blame them! They’re rattling the internet’s doors to say, “Wake the fuck up, white people!” I think it’s really tough to talk about how white people suffer in a racist society, because you immediately run the risk of “white womans’ tears,” or showing a white person’s suffering in inappropriate company. I ought not go cry to my Black friends about how I suffer from racism, because that’s harmful. But if I don’t deeply explore what my investment is in dismantling white supremacy, I won’t have fuel to fight this fight, and there’s so much reason to keep that going.

Tell me about the new single and video “Nowhere Man.”

I really appreciate that [video directors] Japhy Riddle and Callie Day are really into handmade objects. That’s not particularly celebrated these days. Being a child of the ‘80s, I feel these really strong connections to early claymation and PBS’ handmade animation work of the ‘70s and ‘80s. I said I wanted to explore paper animation, so Nate and I shot in our garage with a borrowed camera, and Japhy printed out 2D images of some of those shots—that’s how the animation was done. It’s so insane how time-consuming it was for him, and the result was exactly what I wanted it to be.

Mainstream audiences have tuned their ears to glossier pop stuff—and that’s in indie, too. “I just wanna hear a beat and the magic of a song.” I want to hear how a human did this. It’s the same with me doing loops on stage. I want you to see how it’s made. There’s something about that that empowers other people. That handmade quality has always been really important to me.

What gives you hope in the world right now?

A vast percentage of my hope comes from the Brown sisters’ podcast How to Survive the End of the World. Also, the brilliant leadership of Black women and Black trans women brings me a lot of hope. There’s a lot that we forget as white people, especially that as being white we’re not aware of the history of other people—and, in fact, our own history oftentimes. How many people have been or are currently surviving apocalypse? That’s enough for me to be like, “Oh, my perspective is so limited.”

If what I do for the rest of my life is listen to people who have spent decades organizing and working out how to live out the principles that they want to see in their own communities, I could just listen to those people and their wisdom for the rest of my life. As white people, before we start spouting about how bad things are, there’s a lot of shutting up and learning we can do before we feel so hopeless. Sometimes it feels really insulting to me to hear white people claim to know that.

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Jamie Larson