So you’re honoring your ancestors while Navita is searching for self?
Exactly. There’s a lot of healing I wanted to do. There’s a responsibility that I feel, and a lot of others feel right now, about where we’re going as a country, as a people, as a planet. For me, I had to make right with myself and with our people and with our pain and history and wanted to heal these ancestral wounds. I wanted to figure out, okay, I’m my own person and part of this bigger web, this lineage, and figure out where I fit into this history, yet also pave the way for others.
In “Pa’Lente” you say we’ve been “colonized, hypnotized,” what does that mean?
Assimilation. Shame. There’s a lot of convincing and a hidden history that people around the world can relate to, to this hidden history. You look back at the people in your past and your lineage, and they are striving for freedom and equality, but if it doesn’t match with big business, then that history’s buried. Because business is what wants people to become cogs in the machine.
As an artist, that doesn’t make sense to me. What makes sense to me is humanity and allowing people to flourish. That’s what “Pa’Lente” was. I wanted to write a song for the Puerto Rican people but also for so many Americans who just feel like cogs in the machine. That’s true for many Americans from all walks of life — black or white or brown — who are just like, “I’m so tired of working at Wal-Mart today, I want to be treated like a person who has dreams.”
I thought a lot about Bruce Springsteen when I was writing it. Bruce isn’t Puerto Rican but he knows. He gets it.
Your concept album reminds me of Drive-By Trucker’s Southern Rock Opera, where they first emphasized the “duality of the southern thing,” but also their new record, American Band.
That new record! The Truckers are so inspiring. So brave. It’s a continuous dedication. They’re like, “No, we’re dedicated to being proud of where we’re from but also in making things right.” It’s brave being okay with learning about the complicated, messy history. That’s what scares me about right now. People want things to be simple, but good luck with that. Our history is not simple. The minute people get over that we can roll up our sleeves and unite together as a country. But, like I said, it’s freeing, as an artist, to kind of see things like a child, “Why can’t we just work together?” [laughs]
Have you seen the new James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro?
I loved it. I saw it at Broad Street Theatre here in New Orleans the day it came out. I love seeing things with New Orleans audiences because we’re all responding to things loudly. Everybody’s like, “Umph,” and “Uh, huh” and “Yeah!”
In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin said the job of an artist is to bring order from the disorder of our experiences. How would you define your roll as an artist?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about children, not just having them, but children growing up in this time and their perception of us as adults leading them. It goes into The Navigator idea. I’ve been thinking about how artists are very similar to children. Children are so clear-headed; they’re like “No, that’s wrong. That’s mean.” They’re very clear morally. Artists can try clearing it up. We’ve been talking about how complicated things are, and yet artists can simplify things into human terms. Like, “That thing we’re doing is causing suffering to another human, so let’s not do that,” you know? [Laughs] I’ve also been thinking about leaving the Earth in better shape than I inherited it and not making it worse.
Is that our purpose?
I think so. I definitely think so. Our purpose right now is to heal the wounds our ancestors might’ve caused and might’ve had, and to move forward to leave the Earth better for our children.
Because if not, then what for?
Exactly. If not, then what are we doing here?
You told me you liked Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk-turned-book, We Should All Be Feminists. What does “feminism” mean to you?
I learned a lot from this book. I’d already called myself a feminist for a while, but this book, she writes so clearly and logically that it’s very helpful. I’ve been thinking about something Laverne Cox said — and she’s one of my role models — is that the patriarchy really hurts men, it hurts boys. Talk about suffocating, giving you this little box, telling you how to act. It denies men of real emotions and beautiful experiences. Sometimes, I have an experience with a man in the world, in public, it’ll make me angry but then really sad for them because it must be a burden to carry all the time to act the way you think you had to act. It would be so freeing to know that you don’t always have to act so tough. That comes from having a brother and loving my brother and watching my brother. I remember watching my uncle teaching my brother how to fight and thinking he doesn’t want to fight. He wants to play with me and look at baseball cards or watch Beavis & Butt-Head or something, but he doesn’t want to fight.
There’s so much talk about feminism right now, and a lot of talk about hating it. For me, it’s about uniting and moving forward and accepting that we’re changing. All these women have been born thinking we deserve equality and it’s going to be hard to change our minds. So for me, it means a world with less violence and less restriction on everybody. Just letting us all be full humans and having full emotions and less monitoring, less socializing about how we should be with one person controlling another.
To your point about all the women born who’re demanding equality, Adichie says that the world has operated the way it has for centuries and sudden change can be tumultuous. Does the tumult allow room for voices like Trump’s to demagogue?
I definitely think so. Lots of people are afraid of losing their place in society. That’s women, too. A lot of women are comfortable. They want to stay comfortable, and I understand that. That’s fear. There’s a lot of fear. People are like, “If things change, does that mean I don’t get to be a boss anymore?” Fear is human and it’s okay to be afraid. But it’s this time right now. There’s a lot of us on the planet right now and we’re gonna have to stop thinking so individually. We just have to or we’re all gonna be screwed. We grew up in a time where everything was pretty stable, everything was fine, “You do you, I’ll do me, and we’ll all be okay.” But now, thinking about us moving forward collectively, there’re people afraid they’ll lose their spot, afraid they’re not gonna be respected anymore if they don’t have this patriarchal system.
I try to have empathy for that fear, but I’m also like, look, buddy: Latin women are seen as maids but I don’t want to be a maid. I refuse to be a maid and I don’t want my daughters to feel like they have to be maids. So we’re gonna have to change things.
Another sort of collectivism is our National Park System, what Ken Burns called America’s “greatest idea.” Tell me how you’ve used our public lands?
Before we started touring so much, I definitely camped out a lot. Those were my first experiences with nature. I grew up a city kid and didn’t see stars until I was seventeen and was like, look at this planet! Look at what we have. That was really when I started experiencing the Earth and the beauty of the country, and it really made me very patriotic.
Look at all we have. In so many ways, it was like heaven. We got it! We were given it in all these different landscapes. To be up in Montana and then in the desert and then on the West Coast with these ancient living trees.
That’s where I first connected with Woody Guthrie also on a different level. He wrote a lot about nature and being housed by nature. You know, being a hobo and traveling on the bum, you’re sleeping outside and waking up to the sun. I was really happy to get that education.
You’re already on top of your comic book game. You made one for your song, “The Body Electric,” to raise money for battered women and Trayvon Martin, right?
Yeah, with Erin Wilson the artist. It was very successful. We wanted to make the video and continued to raise money for the Trayvon Foundation, and also for the Radical Monarchs, who are like the Girl Scout group for girls of color. I think they’re in Oakland. We raised a lot of money and made those shirts that say, “Women are Powerful and Dangerous,” those Audre Lorde shirts. And Katie Redd made an appearance in the video, which is so important to me. I wanted to do something with the song that would shed light on this concept of who is allowed to protect themselves, who’s allowed to say “This is my body, this is my space, and you can’t.” That’s important. So, Marissa Alexander [the protagonist in “The Body Electric” comic book], is a woman who was trying to protect her baby, protect her life from an abusive spouse. She ended up serving time. And then you think of Trayvon Martin who died — it will be five years ago, yesterday, my birthday. Why is it that that man who claims he felt threatened by this young boy, why did he get to quote-unquote defend himself? And this woman — it’s very obvious to me that people of color in this country are seen as a threat to the overall society.
I didn’t grow up with guns because I’m a city kid. But I understand — I have a lot friends who live in the country and guns, to them, means something different. And to some people, it means being able to stop the government from being extremely corrupt, “We’re armed and we can protect ourselves.” I try to respect these ideas, but where I’m coming from is, we gotta talk about the everyday occurrences of who’s being allowed protection [and who’s being shot]. I wanted to honor Trayvon and raise some money for his foundation. I love what his parents are doing with it. They’re trying to take care of the people, the families, who are suffering from these losses and help them get back on track. And also to raise money for the Radical Monarchs because I wanted little girls of color to get some support and learn about women like them. They’re learning about Audre Lorde and people that look like them who changed history. They’re learning about radical love and supporting each other, thinking each other is beautiful, all the things that punk rock did for me. Punk rock did that for me. I was like, “I don’t need to look beautiful for you people. I got my dog collar on, my black lipstick, and I’m tough. I’m learning about women who are badasses. That’s what I want to be. I want to be a badass.” But there’s a lot of people that that scares.
Did you take the title, “The Body Electric,” [American Songwriter’s Top Song of 2014] from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass?
Yes, well, actually, my friend Amelia taught me so much about feminism. She went to college, so she would pass me books like, “You gotta read this, you gotta read this.” [Laughs] She is a songwriter and I was talking to her about it. I really wanted to call it something about lightning because I was thinking about the woman in New Delhi who was attacked and raped on the bus. It was an international news story and they called her “the lightning” because she sparked something, sparked a movement of women and men coming together and saying, “This has gotten out of hand.” I remember reading how men were visiting her in the hospital and apologizing. So I wanted to do something about lightning and Amelia said, “The Body Electric.” I’d already really liked that poem, and it made me go back to it and rethink it as bodies being important and of value, about owning your body. I thought it was a great title. It was one of those magic moments where it’s like, “That’s perfect!”