I spent the years leading up to this pandemic trapped inside the hamster wheel of constant touring that many young artists know all too well. At some point in 2019, while wasting away in the minivan with my band Lula Wiles, I came across a highly enjoyable and relatable Twitter tirade about the strange expectations the music industry and fans put on songwriters in the social media era. Its author critiqued the branding-centered approach to artistry that pressures artists to broadcast our personal lives and bare our entire souls to audiences—or appear to do so—while striking a perfect balance between witty nonchalance and “selling” authenticity. In the social media era, the artist is not only marketing music, but their lifestyle and personality, or persona, as well.
The majority of my music career has been with my band Lula Wiles, which is nestled in a specific cross section of the music world somewhere between the singer-songwriter, folk, and indie-pop scenes. Not "Super Bowl pop," which is corporate by nature, but a few rungs lower where artists have to slog after paychecks, marry ourselves to the “tour cycle,” and work the social media matrix to a T. Doing the job well means perfectly timing one’s algorithm-conscious Instagram posts (publish by 11 am for the best web-traffic response!) and providing clever and lighthearted content. It also involves sharing content that highlights charming personalities, antics, and clickbait-worthy vulnerability. Lula Wiles can attest to the centrality of social media for brand growth in the 21st century—at least in our scene.
Regardless, either because most artists at our career level give the majority of our tour payouts to landlords or due to a collective reverence for 60s-era folk music and counter culture, the songwriter scene is unified by a self-perception of righteous authenticity. So, playing the social media game can be a point of cognitive dissonance.
This dissonance runs deeper for women of color. I’ve had the conversation repeatedly at festivals and in green rooms across North America about the pressure we feel, and sometimes even put on ourselves, to “turn our insides out” in our music and performances. We’ve wondered if social media has something to do with that pressure. Because our scene is white dominated, the kind of emotional intimacy that is commonplace for white performers puts us in vulnerable, uncomfortable, and even unsafe situations at our own shows.
What’s most frustrating to me about this is that when artists perform, in theory it is our show and we create the energy of that intimate space. In theory, performing songs we’ve written to people who like our music should be empowering and safe. We’ve got their ear, we can say what we want, and they’ve paid to listen.
I think that the desire to connect and appeal to hearts and minds is a big driver of why many songwriters want to perform their material. But the fact that performance spaces are a two-way street can complicate this for women of color. Once the songs leave our lips, we no longer have control of their meanings or the way our lyrics are interpreted. We no longer have the safety that our songs offered us once they reach the ears of others. Any artist can go through that mourning process of releasing their song-babies from the nest, but it’s a bit different when releasing intimate content can elicit a racist response from the audience.
Let me clarify—the Americana/folk/songwriter scene is w h i t e. There are other Natives, there are Black, Brown, and Asian folks, but we are few and many of us play in otherwise all-white bands and/or to very white audiences at festivals, small venues, and conferences. So, when we share our authentic experiences, the content is mostly gobbled up, transformed, and truncated by the white gaze. When we feature our own authenticity in song, media, or banter, it gets complicated. It can quickly turn into trauma porn for white folk, or it can make them angry.
"Let me clarify—the Americana / folk / songwriter scene is w-h-i-t-e. So when we feature our own authenticity in song, media, or banter, it gets complicated."
As a Native person, I’ve always romanticized the potential of the stage to change minds. Real Native people and stories are generally erased in popular culture, so working in that field as a Native theoretically gives you a little power. When I decided to commit my life to music, I was really inspired by that potentiality. I think that I share with some friends of color in our scene the experience of seeing and enduring injustice in our immediate worlds, yet still clinging to some morsel of the naive hope that we can create change if we only name the problems (in our music, media platforms, or performances). In my youth I had also convinced myself that the reason injustice exists is that people are simply ignorant, but that once they are educated they will be better. This faith-in-white-ignorance perspective provides both patience and a false sense of security.
I don’t wholly discredit or defend that belief anymore, but my experiences in the Americana world have elucidated a lot. In this scene and within a band whose other members are white, I’ve found myself weighed down by the fraught nature of releasing Indigenous-centered songs into white songwriting spheres and audiences.
Here are some examples of these considerations in “presenting” Indigeneity within the music industry:
Will the band, the record label, the audience understand these lyrics? Will the band agree to play these songs if they don’t really know what they’re about? Will they ask me to explain the lyrics of these songs, which might require presenting a dissertation on the history of colonialism, explaining the Doctrine of Discovery and Allotment Act, citing Frantz Fanon’s psychoanalysis of the colonized, defining intergenerational trauma, speaking to the dissociative proclivities of Native youth? Or should I just advocate for bringing more “abstract” lyrics into our repertoire to avoid all that? Can I still write “indie” songs if I also write “Indian” songs? Can’t they be the same thing? Will I get pigeonholed? Am I going to be perceived as “the serious one” or “the angry one” if I’m the only one writing about this stuff?
Will the band do an okay job introducing my songs while I’m tuning and getting ready to sing? Will I be able to talk earnestly about the lyrics’ meanings from stage? In our banter/stage rapport, will the band be able to take a “Yes, And!” approach when I introduce these songs? Will I be alone on my soapbox yelling into the pasty void?
Will this be taken as an invitation for fans to ask uncomfortable questions or present devil’s advocate arguments when I’m cornered behind the merch table? Will we get the “Stay out of politics and stick to singing, girls!” comment in addition to the sexist crap men already feel entitled to say to us? Will this hurt the band’s career by losing us fans? Will talking about Indigeneity onstage welcome racist feedback in shows or online? Will I be able to deliver my completely undeserving landlord a rent check if I admit to myself that these interactions are emotionally unbearable? Will audiences take me seriously as a Native person when I’m not dressed up in powwow regalia?
Will interviewers expect us all to be able to speak on “Indigenous issues”? Will we have awkward moments when the rest of the band can’t, or says the wrong thing, or tries to prove themselves by being performative? Will our PR team even know how to pitch this stuff? Will it seem like I’m taking up too much space with “my personal stuff” or “my political stuff,” or taking attention away from the majority-white collective? Should we work the angle of being an “activist band”? Will industry decision-makers think songs about issues are marketable, or too risqué, or too social-justice-y?
I could go on but I’ll spare you—I’ve spent enough time in my head with these considerations. The “white gaze” and “settler common sense” are useful phrases to summarize.
Constantly weighing these considerations from within the folk/rock/indie-pop scene has been isolating, so I was elated when I got a call from Indigenous Performance Productions in late 2019. Artistic producer Andre Bouchard (Kootenai/Ojibwe/Pend d’Oreille/Salish descent) was putting together an all-Native band to develop a show throughout 2021 and 2022.
Developing “Welcome to Indian Country” has opened up a possibility to imagine a vastly different kind of performance setting. Many who know me through Lula Wiles don’t know that I also moonlight as a jazz musician. The artists involved in this project come from many different backgrounds—traditional (American) music, jazz, songwriting, country, indie, traditional (Native) music, poetry, etc. A big difference in our creative space is that although we come from many genres, we all stare down the white gaze regularly, and we’ve all spent time with the “considerations.” We can talk openly about them, reject them, validate each other, and defy them all together. While the colonial world struggles and/or refuses to change, we’ve come together to create a show for Indigenous people and to curate a truly Indigenous space for our future performances.
We imagine a space where elders are respected (a new, healthier consideration: how can we make sure elders don’t pay for entry?) and gender fluidity is honored; where we can wear regalia without being photographed, mocked, or expected to. Where we can have short hair and many shades of skin and be celebrated, without our Indigeneity being questioned. We want the music to reflect the timelessness and modernity of Native creators, unencumbered by tropes like flutes and hand drums. We want to reject the expectation put on us to spoon-feed audiences a perfectly tailored and nonconfrontational education about colonialism. We want to disempower white girls in fringe jackets and imitation turquoise à la Navajo. All the things.
But even in discussing these ideals here, I’ve fallen into the trap of centering whiteness in defining Indigenous space. I’d like to identify our space by what it is, not what it isn’t. So our process bears the constant question: How do we both protect and celebrate each other without centering the white gaze and settler entitlement in our process? We want to celebrate Indigenous ingenuity, freedom, chicness, ruggedness, humor, and joy not simply as a rejection of the stereotypes we are assigned, but because that is who we are.
I’m learning that considerations in “presenting” indigeneity and racialized identities never really go away in a nation that esteems whiteness and fetishizes, commodifies, and targets nonwhiteness. Tokenism has been around a long time, and in the social media era of self-marketing for musicians, we are pressured to pull out all the stops in advertising what makes us special or different.
In a climate where all artists are self-commodifying, nonwhite artists in majority-white spaces are left to parse out the uncomfortable dilemmas. We already attract varying degrees of unwanted attention because of how white society commodifies us, but we want and need fans’ attention to sustain our careers. We can’t necessarily choose our fans . . . so, do we use the opportunity to educate them? Maybe we try to scare off the worst ones by being unapologetically vocal? Maybe we ignore the audiences and just write/play/say what we want? But . . . some level of fan engagement online and after shows is standard, so refusing that would likely hurt our careers. And if we simply don’t share or perform songs and media content that make us vulnerable, we might be whittling ourselves and our art down in response to whiteness. That doesn’t feel good either.
"We can’t necessarily choose our fans . . . so, do we use the opportunity to educate them?"
Art has and will always be connected to identity. In my young artistic career I’ve seen identity and self-commodification interplay quite differently depending on genre and which communities make up a music scene. What I can say is majority-white scenes and spaces just feel worse if you don’t match, regardless of whether you ‘play up’ your difference. On the flipside, it’s nice to celebrate yourself and your difference when there is authentic diversity, or at least not a bedrock of white supremacy. This is not a groundbreaking conclusion, but in this culture where self-commodification has become standard (aided significantly by social media), it’s important for artists of color to know where we’re safest and where we’ll be most comfortable. We want to actually have fun doing what we love. We want to be successful. We don’t want to have to play into the white gaze. We want performance to remain sacred and unspoiled by racism on the receiving end.
What’s most important in my mind—and perhaps a word of advice for other young artists—is to try to find the creative spaces where you can show up as your complete and uncensored self and feel good about it. I can only speak from my own perspective, but despite all that America is and all the racist baggage that permeates its culture, I know those creative spaces exist. The music industry—like any other seedy American industry—is built on an infrastructure of white supremacy and exploitation, but we can still subvert it. True artists and creatives have done so all along: where safe, empowering spaces for our communities don’t yet exist, we build them.
Mali Obomsawin is a freelance musician based in New York City and a bassist, songwriter, singer, and guitarist in the folk-indie-rock band Lula Wiles (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings). After studying upright bass at Berklee College of Music she attended Dartmouth College, where she studied revolutionary theory and improvised music, receiving a B.A. in Comparative Literature and Government. Mali is a citizen of the Odanak Abenaki First Nation and an Indigenous issues writer, scholar, and educator. She is an activist with Racial Equity and Justice Organization and Sunlight Media Collective. In 2020, she founded the Bomazeen Land Trust, a Wabanaki-led initiative for land rematriation and food sovereignty.