By Kris Smith
The media regularly bemoan a lack of politics in music, compared to a mythic 60s/70s/80s ‘good old days’ – only to salute as an exception the occasional gobby indie-boy band trying to kick-start their career with some token rebellious rhetoric.
#2 Cassie Agbehenu (Fight Rosa Fight!)
What made you decide to use your songwriting to express political viewpoints?
Music and politics fit together naturally for me. They’re both about expression and belief. I can’t separate the two really. Music has always been such a huge part of my life and I love music that gives a platform to the discussion of current issues. Feminism and punk collided in my life and that’s when Fight Rosa Fight! was born. I realised I had a lot to say and to shout about and to be angry about so why not use music as a medium to express *that*?
Do you use songs as tools to put across prefigured messages – or is it more that you self-express in general through music, with politics just one aspect of that?
Yeah I guess the messages and the politics come first for me. I write about things that are on my mind at the time. Usually with a feminist and/or political theme. I’ve been writing a lot about race and feminism for quite a while. I’m moving to write more about personal relationships which is a different path for me. I find that writing about these things is so cathartic. And what’s even more cathartic is screaming about them in a band.
Is the function of politics in music to affirm views within a reciprocal social group, or convert – or at least converse with – a wider public?
Totally both. We talk about this a lot in the band. We play in a brilliant DIY feminist, queer punk scene which is wonderful and supportive. But I can’t help but feel like we’re preaching to the converted. Which is fine in the sense that it’s great being surrounded by like-minded people who are going to cheer when I get on the mic to shout about calling out rape culture, but what are we doing to actually change our wider social culture?
We’ve built this amazing space (which still has problems) but we can’t just keep those conversations in DIY spaces. Although it sometimes makes us feel uncomfortable, when I play shows with Fight Rosa Fight to crowds that that perhaps we wouldn’t usually play to, I know we’re doing the right thing. Myself and my friend Bridget Hart have also started a podcast to discuss politics and the DIY punk scene because we feel like we should be talking about this stuff in a more accessible way.
Do you see yourself as part of, and drawing influence from, a tradition of politicised music/art?
I suppose I didn’t really see myself as part of that tradition to begin with. But there’s something so powerful about deliberately taking up space as a brown woman in what is often a very male dominated space. Particularly now that I also play in hardcore band (Worst Witch) I know that just being there is powerful. The thing is, women (particularly women of colour) have been using politicised art/music/expression as a means to fight for change for decades and if it’s perceived that I have become part of that tradition then I am honoured. I’m inspired by the women, trans and non-binary people that I surround myself with every day and they give me so much strength to believe that my voice is important. And the men in my life who have actively done the work to break down the ways in which they may have been holding up misogynistic ideals or whatever; I feel so lucky to have so many supportive men around me but that should be the norm and not luck. I’ve been told that I’m inspiring to others which is such a weird compliment to take. I just hope others feel empowered enough to push for the change they want to see. When there are lots of women or brown people at the shows I put on/play or whatever, I hope they leave feeling politicised and empowered.
There are various ways that a performer’s politics might not communicate to an audience, but you make a point of speaking between songs to reinforce the message. Did that come naturally, in terms of the confidence needed? Is it to break the ice, to break down barriers with a crowd, or to clarify – or all of those?
All of those things really. I have always had a lot to say but it’s taken time to feel coherent enough to do it on stage. I try to keep it natural and conversational and the most important thing to me is to be honest about how I feel. I have also learned that some things I say are going to make people uncomfortable. Like when I’m challenging a room full of white people on why it might be that I’m the only brown person at the show – I know that might make people feel uncomfortable but in that sense I think when you’re made to feel uncomfortable then you’re probably learning something. The bands I play in have political messages so it would be such a missed opportunity if we didn’t talk about them during the set.
I’ve been given a mic so I should use it to its fullest potential if I can.
Is there a pressure that comes with being known as a political musician? And is there a balance to strike between work on the one hand, and fun and self-care on the other?
Yeah I think there probably is pressure – first and foremost to always be right which is totally not the case. I make mistakes, I will slip up. I have misgendered people at shows. But it’s important that I hold my hands up to that and learn from it. I’m not perfect but I hope the things I say are read as genuine and I’m totally committed to our scene and helping others learn too. My mistake is more hurtful to someone else than it is to me.
Self-care is really important and I’ve found it very difficult in the past. I am learning much better coping strategies to look after my mental health. I read a lot of non-fiction and then write a lot about tough subjects which can take its toll so I have to take time for myself. But regardless of the subject matter, I absolutely love playing in bands and that will always make me happy. I am so lucky to be in bands with the best people.
As with most traditions, what we think of as political or “protest” music has previously been white/male dominated. Have things changed?
The punk scene in all its guises is changing hugely. It’s been 18 years since I went to my first punk show and it’s so different now. We still have work to do but I can’t help but feel really happy about the amazing spaces that we are helping to create. I feel like we (by we I mean, not white, not cis, not men) are not just asking politely, we’re demanding space. And visibly owning it. And that’s really powerful. But I feel like I always want to go further than *that*, it’s about challenging the hierarchies of the scene and enabling the white dudes to feel comfortable to step back and to understand why it’s important that they support this evolution. It’s not about taking things away from people, it’s about being truly inclusive. We talk the talk in this scene but sometimes struggle to walk the walk but it’s getting better all the time. I was talking to a friend the other day about building proper accountability processes within the scene for known abusers; why don’t we have that?? This is totally another separate point but I guess I’m saying we still have work to do and we need to do that together. But I’m excited for what this looks like and to be part of it. It’s an exciting time to be punx.
One interesting aspect of your politics is that they encompass an attack on the Tories and on Austerity-as-class-war. Interestingly you’ve worked as a trade union rep, which is perhaps unusual and something more associated with the traditional Left. In contrast it can appear that class and ideology are missing from the worldview of contemporary musicians. Are people wary of speaking overtly on the subject, or are we going through a period of reaction to Left politics being all about class to the detriment of anything else?
I think the basis of it is that we’ve always been really keen to show that women have ideas about this stuff too – our punk politics aren’t just about being nice to people at shows and creating safe spaces (which of course is important too!) – we care about the impact of austerity on marginalised groups, and we hate the Tories! We hate what they’re doing to this country and how they’re demonising the poor/Muslims/everyone! Music seemed like a great platform to express this. We care about all the things that impact on people beyond the walls of the venue. We’re a very lefty band and that’s pretty obvious but I think it’s also about making politics accessible. I truly believe in people power, no matter how cheesy that is. The anarcho-punk ideal of not voting/taking part in a broken democratic system is so fucking selfish and I get sick of it. Yes the system is broken, but you’re a privileged fuck if you have the audacity to either believe that politics doesn’t affect you or that you can refuse to participate instead of standing in solidarity with others.
I think for us it’s always been about being unapologetically feminist and unapologetically political and that still stands. We’re deliberately brash and open about our views and we hope that we help people understand a little more or go and investigate things. But at the same time it’s like, we know we won’t gain any Tory fans! (Do we want them though!?) I think we’re able to reflect on intersectionality quite a lot and that crosses over into our writing. We might be writing about class, or abortion, or sexual abuse, but behind it all is how those things affect the lives of all different types of people – I guess that’s the message. Yes, I was a union rep (still am!) and worked full time for a trade union for a bit – I’ve never thought about how that influences my writing but it certainly affects my politics and my activism. In fact it’s part of my day to day activism. People spend so much time at work – may as well try and make it as good as possible!
Fight Rosa Fight! are playing their last ever shows next month, Sunday 11th March - Matinee show, Smokey Joe's in Cheltenham https://www.facebook.com/events/165944360704941/?ti=cl Sunday 11th March - Hydra Books in Bristol Find Fight Rosa Fight! on Facebook and look out for Cassie's new band, Worst Witch