Throwback: Kiran Gandhi

Interviewed by Emily Simpson
Illustration by Karolin Schnoor

For Kiran Gandhi, musician, consultant, touring drummer for M.I.A., and all-around badass, the fruition of her Madame Gandhi solo project represents a radical intersection of her music talents and equality messages, bolstered by killer business know-how. In April 2015, she ran the London Marathon while free-bleeding on her period, sparking global dialogue about empowering women, especially during their flow.


What has your 2016 looked like so far, creatively?

Kiran Gandhi: It’s been completely amazing, because I’ve wanted to work on this music project that I have for so long now, and finally I have the time and bandwidth, and sort of a mini-business model to actually execute it. The project is called Madame Gandhi and it’s basically a drums-electronics-vocals music project where I take a lot of the thoughts and ideas that I’ve had both on modern feminism and gender equality but also on just sort of notions of liberation for everybody, and fuse them with my music and the music that I love to make. Actually, I’m in London right now, I just landed, working on my EP all week with a producer named Neil Comber who I really admire. It’s been really cool to kind of get all the five songs on the EP, you know, ninety percent of the way, and then bring them to him and have him add sort of the final touches.

And then it’s also been amazing because my drumming has gotten better, I’ve met a lot of other fellow creatives who are pushing the boundaries with tech. I’ve been able to think about how to incorporate what they do with my music. I think with all art everyone always just wants to have a home for what they do, so, by that I mean, like I play the drums but you know, the drums, unless they have a home like playing for M.I.A. or playing with somebody who I admire, they don’t go anywhere. And I think artists just want a home for what they do. Even for me, knowing that maybe my music can be a home for somebody else’s visual work or for what they do, it’s just super inspiring.


What’s it like balancing your solo work and shows between touring work, such as with M.I.A.?

KG: Actually, with most musicians, what we all do - and I’m doing the same - is you take on jobs that are for other people because they pay the bills and then you use that and funnel it back into your own project. So right now I’m fronting the money for my own E.P. Madame Gandhi by using the money that I make from doing other session work or from speaking, or for different types of consulting work that I do. That’s been amazing. I think you basically take the jobs as they come, because any job that’s fun and that can pay you is worth it. There’s been probably only two jobs this year that I’ve rejected, either ‘cause aesthetically they don’t match up with what I do, or because I actually fundamentally disagree with them [laughs] but besides that, most people who approach me are pretty familiar with my work, and with my passions, so it’s usually a good fit.


Can you talk about the development of Madame Gandhi as a project or persona? Why "Madame Gandhi" instead of simply going by your first and last name?

KG: Yeah! So even since I was young, when I was living in India and I was eight years old, I remember this one experience where someone kind of made fun of me for having such an opinion like an adult did, and they were like “wow, what does this young madame want?” or “what can I do for you, young madame?” and the idea was just like, that a madame’s personality is someone who knows exactly what they want, you know, isn’t afraid to go and get it, and articulates that.

I think unfortunately we teach a lot of young women today to not be like that and instead to apologize if they have an opinion or ask their opinion as a question instead of a statement. I feel like I know so many of my fellow peers who are super powerful, talented women who have told me that, you know, they knew that they wanted to do something or they knew they had an opinion but because the other person dissuaded them or overrode their opinion, it went in a different direction and that it wasn’t the right direction. And they knew better but they weren’t in an environment maybe where the opinion was welcomed in the same way a male opinion was welcomed and so to me that’s the personality of a madame - someone who is fearless enough to say what they believe without worrying what other people think. For me it’s sort of the persona that I want to be a hundred percent of the time, but I think in reality is still a work in progress of my own personal journey to be that madame and be fearless enough to always say what I believe.

Actually one more point on that is, my EP will be called “Voices,” which is about the human voice and finding your own voice and how powerful it is especially in an age of social media and digital and where everyone feels like they can weigh in on a conversation. I actually think that has hugely positive ramifications for gender equality in the sense that more people may feel that they can nurture and cultivate a voice online, which then maybe helps them in person. While the counter-factual to that is that teenage bullying is also growing, is increasing, because of the internet. I hope that there’s a positive there as well.


Many people skew one way or another between left brain and right brain tendencies, but you’ve got this unique combination of quantitative and qualitative ability. How does your mathematical area of thought play into your creative side and vice versa?

KG: Well, you know one of the best things is actually as an artist getting to wait much longer than maybe most before finding a manager or a producer or a booking agent or someone to handle the finances and the business because, I have all of those skill sets. So I’ve been doing it a hundred percent for myself which obviously then saves the project money, and also makes me better at what I do. But the flip side is that, then sometimes, being the business can oftentimes taint the creative if you aren’t able to switch those brains on and off, so I think part of my mission right now is knowing how to really toggle between the two and actually only letting one take over when the other one is sleeping. If you try to be both at the exact same time, then when you’re creating it actually gets tainted by the business side because you’re like, “Oh well,  maybe these lyrics are more marketable than those lyrics,” or “Maybe these lyrics would lend themselves well to a social media campaign,” or something and you know with that, that’s definitely not how you should make your art, it should come from a pure place.


You’re a role model for women (and humans in general) who want to simultaneously realize personal dreams and be impactful on their geographical and societal communities. What do you make of distinctions between how we treat impact between the sexes? For instance, a musician might be lauded in the press as a “phenomenal female bassist” instead of a “phenomenal bassist.” To what extent is the distinction helpful or harmful?

KG: Okay, right, so I have a lot of opinions on this, but I think I’ll keep it short and explain one activity that I did in business school the first year, which was called ‘What Salients Your Identity,’ and in this activity weirdly we were given a list of social identifiers, things like race, gender, socioeconomic status, et cetera, and we had to rank in order from one to ten or whatever what was most salient to our identity. This was such a weird activity because for most people we’re like, “We’re all of these things,” but they forced us to do it, and in that moment I realized that for me, my being female is so number one, and it comes out in everything that I do whether it’s my drumming, my speaking, or my music.

For other people their gender is less important to them, and maybe the fact that they’re black or they’re from Iran or the fact that they are a musician or the fact that they are a coder, like any parts of their identity might be more important than their gender, so for everyone it’s different, and that really helped me because when people ask me, “What’s it like to be a female drummer?” I don’t see it as an insult, I’m happy to talk about it, but for the next woman over who doesn’t want to talk about her gender and that her gender has not been necessarily hugely informative on her work, that will really frustrate her because it sounds like an insult. It’s like, “I’m just a drummer, like I’m not thinking about my gender in that way.” So that’s why, you know, the best thing is for the interviewee and for the person who’s writing the piece to pay attention to what that person unto themselves cares about and then ask the right questions, so for me I’m happy to speak about the experience being a woman in the music industry or in general because I pay attention to it but for somebody else, they might be more focused on what it’s like to be a black person in the music industry, or a trans person in the music industry, and that’s way more important. So that’s how I’d answer that question. It’s dangerous only when the person doesn’t care about it and it feels like it’s disconnected from their actual experience.


A slew of high profile press outlets covered your London Marathon free-bleed. How do you think your message was received by different global communities?

KG: Well, it’s been a completely powerful year where we actually put period stigma really on the map. It’s something that I’m seeing around the world that people are caring about, and I’m noticing both in the global north and the global south more development money is going to initiatives that either provide reusable cups to different communities or things like AFRIpads which are washable pads, and that’s never been the case, because most people think of period stigma as a not life-or-death issue and so therefore it’s not that important, but the more we combat stigma, the more we’re able to show people around the world that actually, unfortunately, period stigma marks the beginning of most women’s economic disenfranchisement, that A) it’s financially burdensome to buy all these products, but also B) for girls in places like Uganda, they drop out of school at age 13 or 14 because they’re so afraid of having a leak and the mortification of being seen without those products is worse than just staying at home. So many of them don’t get the same education as the boys which renders them in a lot of the poorer positions that we see them.

The story in the beginning obviously shocked a lot of people and had a very polarizing response, but the very fact that it was polarizing is what made it effective, and so I’m very happy that it was polarizing because it jump-started the conversation into something that we now pay attention to globally.


I read on your blog entry for the race that you trained for a whole year before the marathon— a radical commitment to self-discipline. Had you put similar preparation into the possibility of free-bleeding, or was that a passionate choice just before the race?

KG: No, it was totally a passionate choice to free-bleed at the start of the marathon. I mean it was really a completely pure decision. I was just… like many of us who have been caught on our cycles unprepared, I just started going through my options, you know? I was like, okay a pad? No way, because you chafe really badly when you run a marathon, everyone says that, and I don’t wanna do that. A tampon - same thing with the chafing and then also I didn’t want to have to carry a second one for 26 miles and I also didn’t want to have to worry about stopping at some sort of random Porta Potty along the way. There’s no privacy on a marathon course, so none of those options just seemed that good and I didn’t exactly know if I would show, like I didn’t think that maybe it would bleed through my pants to the extent that it did, but because I knew that choosing to do this was radical unto itself, because we are so afraid of women’s menstrual cycles, I knew it was radical and it made me want to do it even more, and combat stigma for myself. The thing that gave me the confidence to do it was truly because I was running a marathon. I was like “how can anybody make me feel bad?” I’m literally about to do this badass thing, like this is the one thing that can actually protect me from the shame of other people. So that’s what happened.


I love how you described London’s marathon as particularly fun because of the mass support runners experience. Do you think this support ballasted the positivity of your free-bleed? Do you see differences in how England treats periods, versus how other western nations like the U.S. do?

KG: No one on the marathon course actually gave a shit. No it’s all the same. There’s problems in the global north and the global south. I definitely don’t think Europe is any better than the United States. I think obviously the global north is better because we have access to products to take care of ourselves, so that makes it a little bit better, but I actually don’t think we’re that much better when it comes to the stigma compared to the rest of the world. I think this is a global issue, which is why it’s actually been a very amazing cause for people who actually care about gender equality because it’s something that all women, or people with periods can bond over. It cuts through race, socioeconomic background, culture, age, all these different things. It’s pretty remarkable actually, and I wish it was more of a source of bonding as opposed to a source of fear and discomfort.


What can average women who have access to menstrual care supplies and the privilege of relative societal acceptance of their periods do to help their sisters in more oppressive circumstances?

KG: That’s a good question. So the question is what can we do to help those who are in more oppressive circumstances. Well there’s definitely layers, like I do think each of us internalize our own oppression to a certain extent, even in the most privileged of settings. And I think the first thing we can each do for ourselves is just be really open about what we’re experiencing andhave any ways of taking care of ourselves on our cycle that we really, you know, love, you know a certain kind of chocolate or a certain kind of brand of medicine, or a certain kind of food or any of these rituals, really be open to share them with each other instead of being awkward when it comes to talking about it. Maybe come up with other words like I used to use the word “my flow” instead of saying “my period” because “period” is still super awkward. So saying things like “my flow, my cycle” that de-stigmatizes things a little bit and makes it easier and normal to talk about. And then in terms of reaching out to other communities, well there’s just lists and lists of different organizations out there that are helping low-income or communities in the global south access the care they need. So I think donating, doing fundraisers for these communities, going online and seeing what they specifically have asked, donations, helping to sew the reusable pads, there are all sorts of ways to get involved if you want to.


I’m intrigued about your work advising music outlets like Spotify in guiding them towards mutually beneficial practices for artists, labels, and services. Did that work directly utilize principles from the GrammyU competition business plan proposal? Was there any modeling or existing research you could use as a predicate, or was it super new-frontier work?

KG: Regarding my consulting work, literally what I did was I just said I worked in the music industry for two years, I’ve done so many projects at business school about the music industry, I’ve worked at Spotify, I’ve worked at IDEO. I have this passion for gender equality, and most music industry companies could do better to sell to women. So I think there’s a business opportunity there as well as something that makes women feel more supported. For example, one consulting project I just wrapped up was working for D’addario, which sells drum and guitar products, and we asked, “How can we get more women playing the drums?” That was one way that I combined my skill sets to help them out. So I think something that anyone can take away from this, which is if you have a bunch of skill sets, think about how you already can be an expert at them and help somebody else. And that it’s okay to ask to get paid for that help. I think a lot of times women, we just want to give and help each other out, and also people expect us to do that more so than they expect men, which is why I think more women end up doing things for free when their male counterparts probably wouldn’t. And it’s really important that we feel the confidence to ask for the money that we are deserved to be paid because that also combats things as we get higher up, or we see women paid less for the same job all over the world.


What’s your dream project, musical or otherwise?

KG: The dream project is Madame Gandhi. Drums, vocals, DJ, party, dance, projections, dancing to sounds of gender equality!


There are several places online where you can be found wearing the slogan, "The Future is Female". What does that mean to you?

KG: “The future is female” means that no longer will we live in a world in which male qualities are still held above female qualities. I want to live in a world that is collaborative, that is emotionally intelligent, a world in which we don’t use, “Don’t be such a girl,” as an insult. To me, “The future is female” is accessing femininity for everybody, so instead of teaching girls how to be more like the boys, to actually teach the boys how to be more like the girls. That way you end up celebrating what are considered female traits instead of downplaying them and insulting them.


ES: Anything else you'd like to mention about current or upcoming work would be more than welcome, as would mentions of tour dates and other organizations with whom you're involved, as well as what they do.

KG: Yes! My EP, “Voices” comes out this summer, I’m in London finishing it up right now. Listen to it on Apple Music and Spotify and all those places. Love it, share it with your people if you like it. And that’s it! Thank you so much Girl Crush for the feature, and if there’s anything else you want me to follow up on, just send me a note! Ciao!