Joey Revenge: I don’t think music initially taught me about social justice, as much it provided me with a third space where I could feel empowered as someone who felt very othered. That was really important. Especially in high school. I really enjoyed grunge music & 90’s alternative, but I was also super into Madonna, Missy Elliott and a ton of hip hop. Funny enough, I was just revisiting Madonna’s “American Life” album really recently and now that I am older I was able to take in how deep it actually is. It was Madonna’s “socialist feminist” album I like to say. She was singing about American exceptionalism, the darkside of capitalism, exploitation in the media and trying to find a spiritual center. Give a listen to “Easy Ride” and you’ll see what I mean. But as far as music I really resonated with, there was no one else that has had an impact on me quite as much as Courtney Love and her band Hole. I was bullied a lot for my sexual orientation and in Courtney Love I saw someone who was a powerful lyricist and punk singer that never really got the credit she deserved because she was a woman, because people thought her husband wrote all her songs, etc. That was something I could really identify with, her songs, especially on Live Through This, have a certain honest somewhat romanticized vulnerability and then there is just vehement unapologetic ferocity. I felt like I was listening to someone who understood what I was going through and that I could own my own emotions, thoughts and love of art as a queer person in a very similar way. I felt like I was the powerful underdog.
I went through my own intense body image issues after graduating high school, my living situation wasn’t ideal and so I was working a lot, attempting to get my big break in acting and I developed an eating disorder. I wanted to leave life as I knew it behind and move to LA. Long story-short I was doing good with acting and was up for some big parts, but I got so sick that I nearly died. My body ached. I couldn’t act anymore. I spent a year just recovering and writing in my journal and writing songs. I listened to all of Courtney’s music religiously and for inspiration. I resolved that I could live through the experience if I wrote about it and told the story. Easier said than done, in this time I developed a severe depression where I was collecting my own urine in Starbucks cups, not speaking to anyone and barely leaving my room. Then at one point I was almost placed into a mental institution—which looking back now the way I was thinking was very scary. I had pretty much gone insane, but managed to make this amazingly loving and caring friend named Lindsey Potts who helped me really believe that I could become a good songwriter and around this time her and my aunt introduced me to Bob Dylan records. I was rude, erratic and boisterous at the time, but Lindsey would just sit with me patiently at the piano playing Bob Dylan songs. Then she got me really into John Lennon and protest songs. That was the big light bulb, I started develop a consciousness of how music is used politically and its importance in social justice. I started to recognize a similarity of that in punk music and folk music, which are two of my biggest influences. From there I started to gain interest in learning about certain eras and the civil rights movement because of protest songs, the political nature of some songs, I wanted to understand the context.
It was through Courtney Love covering a Buffy Sainte Marie song though I learned about Buffy Sainte Marie and I can say discovering Buffy Sainte Marie’s music is one of the hugest blessings I’ve ever had. Buffy Sainte Marie is probably one of the musicians I look up to the most today and I love that through her work as an artist and activist she is constantly educating people. I went to a concert of hers in LA a few months, back Morrissey was there—we exchanged looks and I thought about making out with him—but I was in complete and utter awe by Buffy singing such politically charged songs like “Bury My Heart” and then in between songs recommending books for people to read like “The Indigenous People’s History of The United States”, I left that show with an entire reading list. Listen to her and you’ll learn a thing or two about decolonial politics and feminisms. Buffy got me thinking very early on how histories get framed, who gets to be the heroes and the villains and who gets left out. Listening to “My Country Tis of Thy People” completely changed my life.
F: Does your music influence your writing or vice versa?
JR: When it comes to writing music my process is usually really slow. For me the writing usually comes first. So I could be journaling for days, I do different writing exercises—short stories or drawings, write different poems that I pull parts from, write down phrases that stick out to me in the day to day and sometimes I just go to a piece of paper write down my stream of consciousness. My big thing is that I always to be true to me. In music. In art. In life. From these things I usually try to identify a theme or what I’m trying communicate to myself or someone who would listen to the song—what’s the realization, emotion, experience or argument that’s happening. What’s the story, who is this about and how do I feel about it? From that point I’ll usually get an idea of how I want to put it to music and Nigel, my bandmate, is really good at helping me translate that into guitar.
“Honey Bee” was a song I originally wrote as a poem. It was near Valentine’s Day and I was reflecting on a long time on-off again relationship I had with someone who helped me grow up and heal from a lot of trauma. As much as I loved this person though, I knew I couldn’t be the right person for him, our paths and interests didn’t line up, I had been really selfish and I had hurt him a lot. It was a situation I grew a lot from, but hence the song is full of bittersweetness, longing and self-reflection. Our final break up felt like my life was over, because for years this person had been “my savior”. The day after I wrote it Nigel was playing the guitar riff of what would eventually be the one we use in the song. I heard it and immediately yelled “keep playing that” and went to my notebook and started singing along to it. I rewrote and added things, but we we were done with it in about 15 minutes. It was really beautiful how it all happened and I’m really glad with what we ended up with.
F: One of your favorite topics is hegemonic masculinity. In your opinion, is hegemonic masculinity at least partially responsible for the popular stigma surrounding feminism?
JR: To first answer that question, I think we need to remember that feminism is really diverse. I like to think of it more as feminisms. So when we’re talking about feminism, we need to remember we’re not talking about a monolithic, unified body of thought, there are many types of feminisms that emerge from different spaces and they respond various geopolitically specific problems. Truth be told: some feminisms are oppressive to others. Case and point when the US wanted to “liberate” Afghan women, “free” them all from their hijabs and “teach” them about feminism -when they had no idea what Muslim feminist groups already existed! There are also feminisms that exclude trans* people. To go deep into this we need to look at how we conventionally understand feminism in the United States. What is taught in most US classrooms is that there are three waves, predominantly led by white women seeking to achieve the same rights and statuses of white men and then people of color were thrown into the mix and now it’s a big party and everyone is happy! Now let’s just say that feminism is word that describes a set of actions that promote egalitarian ideals and is against all types of oppression. Let’s see what falls under that definition, what about matriarchal indigenous peoples of the Americas—women were leaders and chiefs—-what about the reverence that was given to two spirit peoples that predates the “first wave of feminism” which was very cisgender? Wasn’t that feminist? Did they need a word like “feminist” to describe a way of life that was normative to them? Now what about African women who banned together to kill their slave masters and provide support groups for another if they were sexually assaulted? That again predates the first wave and if you ask me, what they did was really feminist. bell hooks makes a great point about feminism not being an identity, we do feminism. I think in the world we live in today, anyone can say they’re a feminist, but unless that is followed through with some kind of action it doesn’t really mean anything. Donald Trump could declare himself a feminist tomorrow and…well enough said with that. There are people who identify as “feminist” that I think often times get attributed as the embodiment of all feminist thinking too. Some people like Lena Dunham get singled out by others trying to discredit feminist pedagogies and by saying so and so is the leader of feminism and this is why it’s bad. I think this process of singling out and shaming or attempting to discredit people’s identities is very linked to patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity.
Now in terms of hegemonic masculinity, I think a common misconception by men is that feminism is about making everyone else superior to men or that it doesn’t address any of the issues men face. Or they disagree with one particular feminist or type of feminism. I mean meninist groups have popping up and what I think is so hilarious is that some are seriously just advocating for the same things that feminist groups are. For example, in the imaginations of some meninist, feminists have never cared about sexual assault that has happened to men or narrow male body ideals. This is just an example of lack of education and awareness of how diverse feminisms are and what different self-identified feminist scholars & activists have worked on for ages. There are so many body positivity and anti-sexual assault movements from feminist camps that are inclusive of men and trans* people—spend a few hours on tumblr even and you’ll see it. More on education though, I highly recommend people read Susan Archer Mann’s book “Doing Feminist Theory”, it’s dense, it’s detailed but I think for someone who bases their dislike of feminism on some generalizations it helps dispel those. For men especially, I suggest you look up the work of Jackson Katz—his documentaries and books. I firmly believe that two things that need to change are the ways we raise children and teach them how to express themselves, additionally, we need to broaden the scope of education to include a deeper understanding of feminisms, as well as the histories of women, gender non-conforming & queer people, people of color and indigenous peoples. If you are especially a white male going through K-12 education, history classes will tell you that white men have forever been the heroes of the world, shaping all great changes and for 13 years they have their identities affirmed to them. Yet exclusion and lack of visibility of marginalized groups implies that these people are auxillary, unimportant and uninfluential—-essentially just taking up space in a world that white men built and we should all aspire to be like Thomas Jefferson or Abe Lincoln. What about the Audre Lordes and the Marsha P. Johnsons? I believe a good feminist—-or my idea of a good feminist—-education teaches us to be aware of ourselves, our emotions and to see outside of ourselves and utilize empathy and action where we see injustice. It also teaches you that you need to self-reflect and realize you’re not always right or stop placing yourself in the center of your world view. Being conditioned in hegemonic masculinity you start to see yourself as a knower of all things and you can’t be wrong. “I’m a man, I can do anything and get anything done. I inherently know everything there is to know.” You also respond to most problems with aggression. I want everyone to know it’s okay to be vulnerable and it’s okay to admit that you’re wrong. It’s okay to admit the negative impact of your actions and commit to being a new, better person following that realization. That’s being human! You don’t always have to bring down other people to bring yourself up—you can write a poem, meditate or write a note to yourself. I feel like some men attack feminism so viscerally because they feel it’s going against what so much of what they know, so much of what they saw as right or traditional and they don’t want that taken away. That requires all to think about how these things are being taught.
F: Mental health is another important issue for you. Would you say that your writing is an important tool for coping with and understanding your own mental health?
JR: Writing and art have been essential to my survival and growth as a human being. I often say that in me starting this band, it wasn’t so much that I wanted to as much that I needed to in order to live and want to continue living. Writing and creating art helped me start to speaking again when I was silent, it helped me interact and connect with people. It also still gives me perspective on how to see the world and how I see myself in the world as well as much needed catharsis. The beautiful thing about creating art, whatever form it is, is that it allows you to have a conversation with yourself—you can admit or realize things you’ve been hiding from so long when you analyze your own work. You can also find a place of power and healing. For years, I felt like I was literally angry at everything and that I couldn’t forgive or trust anyone. There was so much heartache and feelings of abandonment alienation from my own family, friends and so many people I had loved and trusted. But there came a point where I just got tired of holding on to that and having those feelings burden me everyday. It was actually those songs showed me later on that I could be very blinded by my own anger and hold on to a lot of grudges. I feel like you have to let go of what has weighed you down in the past to make space for what you want in life. There have been humbling moments where after writing a song I realize maybe I wasn’t “right”, but I need to have that conversation with my art in order to have that conclusion. I eventually did start seeing a therapist through my school that helped me identify how I, myself, could be more aware of my own actions—I think a word of caution though is that there are so many pathways to improving your mental health and well-being, what works for one person won’t work for everyone. Fighting off depression and healing from trauma takes work, everyday, it takes support and it takes investing in the choices that are going to change your life and realizing when you’re feeding into something that doesn’t serve you. You have so much to offer the world when you are taking care of yourself and being your best self.
I’ve been doing a lot of research myself on decolonial methods and ethnorelative ways of healing and how certain modes of treating mental health are privileged over others. My advice for people is to constantly be searching and find the ways you can have an honest conversation with yourself and your ideas. Look to your past and always envision the type of future you want.
F: In what ways have art and writing been an important source of healing for you?
JR: I wrote a song about a friend named Chelsea Rose once, we had a falling out and were estranged for many years. The song is called “She’s a Rose” and the chorus goes “she is a rose, is a rose, is a rose/ she has her thorns, has her thorns, has her thorns”, which initially was a very eloquent way of saying “she’s a bitch that hurt my feelings”. The song has a big 60’s inspiration, I was channeling Velvet Underground, Mamas and Papas and Bob Dylan. It had these very vengeful undertones at first. As I grew as a feminist, I realized I was being kind of a misogynist in it and I should re-think of this song, who I am and who I want to be. I thought of her point of view in the situation, I thought of what my end goal was—to sing a song about someone I want to stay mad at forever or to reflect on a friendship that ended. So I delve in deep to my emotions and something really beautiful came out. Now I perform with a certain amount of sadness and just see it as a song about wishing someone who is no longer in your life well, and even though they’re gone you still love them and care for them. A really powerful lyric I wrote for myself in that song is “I’ll forgive & I’ll outlive you”, it’s a good affirmation and the first time I let myself ever write about forgiveness. Outlive the wicked things in the past and living well is the best revenge. A lot of my work explores love, pain, forgiveness and revenge.
Chelsea and I met up not too long ago actually and now we’re friends. Unfortunately, what made her reach out to me is that she heard our mutual friend Ryen had passed away. He was my drummer and one of my best friends. He committed suicide and she found out one night when she was just searching the internet for stuff about my band, she came across my blog and heard all about it. Losing Ryen made me realize how pointless it is to stay angry at people and really how important it is to tell people that you love them. It’s important to let people know how appreciated they are. It was really healing though for us to meet up, cry together and tell each other that we love one another. I showed her some of the songs he was working on before he passed away and songs that we recorded with him that we’ll be releasing in his honor. Right now music is really important to me because it’s a way of reconnecting with him and I want these releases we’re doing to be superb because I want that to live on and I want his talent to be remembered.
F: What’s your primary source of inspiration?
JR: My primary source of inspiration is my lived experiences and the things that fill me with passion and intrigue. Various artists, poets, thinkers. To name a few: Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, my friend -Sarah Gail, Gaspara Stampa, mythology, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, The Ronettes, 60’s pop, Silence of the Lambs, witchcraft, Egon Schiele, Amy Winehouse. I love subversion and art that has a component of subversion. I always like to take what is obscure and bring it to light. I love glamour and I love honesty. I love romance, magic and vulnerability. I love whatever will help me conquer my fears and grow as a person, that’s what inspires me. Life & love.
Joey Revenge is a post-punk hustler, artist & activist living in Los Angeles. He is the front person of the band The Lost Years. In his research & activism he explores decolonial histories, global feminisms & mental health.