This is America; This is My Body: A Reflection on Be Interactive

If we were to play a word association game with Bassnectar, my first word would be friendship. Bassnectar’s music has not only made me a better friend, but has also given me a second chance at friendship. I saw him for the first time at a very significant and challenging time in my life. The year was 2013, and I was about a month removed from losing two close friends due to my borderline alcoholism. Yes, I was using alcohol to cope with trauma that wasn’t even on my radar yet, but I don’t like using my trauma as an excuse for my behavior—if anything it’s a retrospective explanation.

Those friends gave up on me, but I don’t blame them. I deserved it. Losing them was my rock bottom, but it was an important wake up call. The incident also showed me who my real friends were—the ones that love me unconditionally, and their support is something that I will never be able to repay. In some ways I’m glad it happened because it made me more conscious of how I come across in general. But this consciousness has manifested in the form of overwhelming social anxiety, and I was insecure about my friendships until recently. I doubted whether I was worthy of friendship.

Anyway, I saw Bassnectar for the first time in Rochester, NY about a month after this incident. He certainly put the raw in Rochester, and I somehow managed to get high quality pictures on an outdated iPhone, and I can barely manage to get pictures of a similar quality these days. Of course I loved it and was instantly hooked, but to be honest, it took me a while to understand its impact.

The impact became tangible once I started making friends because of his music. In 2015, my partner and I went to Electric Forest in Rothbury, MI and spent a large chunk of the weekend hanging out with two of his friends from high school and one of their friends from college. I liked them instantly. They were inclusive and immediately alleviated my social anxiety, which I couldn’t say of my partner’s other friends from either college or within the music scene who only exacerbated my social anxiety by making my feel invisible. When we were deciding who to camp with at Camp Bisco the following month, I insisted on camping with this crew because I felt comfortable around them. I met more of his high school friends, their significant others, and some of their friends from college. It was a legendary weekend filled with shenanigans and debauchery, but most importantly, genuine people that looked out for each other. I have only seen Bassnectar, Pretty Lights, and attended festivals with this group ever since.

I view this group as my second chance at friendship. I learned the hard way not to take my friendships for granted, and I hope they can feel how much I cherish their friendship. I think seeing Bassnectar as often as I have with them has made me a better friend. The message that has resonated the most with me is “the best way to be happy is to make the other person happy” from FSOSF. I tried my best to embody this sentiment this past weekend when 13 friends from this group came out to San Francisco to visit me and my partner in our new hometown for Bassnectar’s Be Interactive event. I am so grateful that they traveled across the country to visit us, and it was so nice to share our new life with them.

The San Francisco show was not only Bassnectar’s homecoming, but also the debut of his new non-profit project, Be Interactive: a project that “combines charity initiatives, community-enrichment programs, and all sorts of creative campaigns designed to promote engagement, inspire activism, and encourage people to get involved with their communities and give back to the people around them.” 100% of proceeds went to charity.

Naturally, I got my period for the first time in six months on the day of the show. While I would normally consider this a massive inconvenience, I actually found it to be deeply poetic given the circumstances. My period and the pain associated with it disappeared when I acknowledged and began to work through my repressed sexual trauma earlier this year. I find its resurgence deeply symbolic for several reasons: first, I was about to start a new chapter in my life. I had taken a leap of faith and left the job that was the source of my depression and would be starting a new job the following Monday. This also coincided with the Jewish holiday Simchat Torah, which celebrates life cycles and new beginnings by commemorating the joy of finishing the Torah and beginning it again. Lastly, the timing was pertinent given Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's brave, public testimony of her sexual assault. Although it has been difficult for me to watch her account and follow this story, it is so empowering for me to hear fellow survivors tell their story. I feel like each time sexual trauma is given the voice that it needs (whether it is myself or someone else), my body reacts. It was so important for me to be surrounded by my support system during this transitional and potentially defining time of my life.

Sexual trauma is an invisible scarlet letter, which is why I find myself relating more to Arthur Dimmesdale than Hester Prynne if I may reference Hawthorne for a moment. Instead of experiencing public humiliation by default, sexual trauma survivors suffer the same dilemma as Dimmesdale: to internalize our shame and guilt or to confess the truth and therefore choose public humiliation. The internalization of these feelings is maddening and manifests in the form of deteriorating physical and mental health. Driven mad by our secret, we consider approaching the proverbial scaffold to share the truth, but like Dimmesdale, it is difficult to find the courage to share it publicly. Unlike Dimmesdale, my pain was neither voluntary nor visible. I am trying to find the courage to step up to the scaffold, and as I find the courage to share my truth via writing, and soon, speaking, the pain is alleviated. But it's not quite liberating, and the fear of public humiliation relegates me to anonymity.

Ever since the rape, and especially since acknowledging it this year, I have felt disconnected from my body. I cannot own my beauty or sexuality, and compliments about my physical appearance cause me to immediately dissociate. This dissociation was only further exacerbated when I stopped getting my period, which, although convenient, connects me mother nature, my femininity, and my sexuality. There was a moment during Bassnectar’s set that helped me re-connect with my body.

About 45 minutes into his set, he played “Indomitable” by the Northern Cree Singers along with Native American imagery. It felt like a war chant. He also included this stunning Native American man dancing and sampled Childish Gambino’s iconic “This is America” over the track. He followed this with a powerful excerpt from Martin Luther King’s “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution Sermon,” which was followed by a mesmerizing track called “Windwalker” by Plastician that fit the Native American theme. I found the Martin Luther King moment to be particularly powerful and appropriate since he gave a speech at the Bill Graham Auditorium (formerly known as the Civic Center) in 1956. This was without a doubt my favorite Bassnectar moment of all time.

If I may take the liberty to draw a parallel here, my feeling of dissociation from my body is analogous to the Native American’s disconnection from their land. Their autonomy and identity were stripped from them just as mine were (almost literally) stripped from me. Lorin’s choice to sample “This is America” over this powerful imagery functioned as a moment of reclamation, and it was especially relevant given how close the event was to Indigenous People’s Day. The imagery and the music made me feel so connected to my roots and my body. Just as Native Americans are entitled to their land, culture, and identity, I am entitled to my body, my sexuality, and my femininity. This is America. This is my body.

(**Please note that I am not trying to equate my trauma to Native Americans’ or to trivialize their tragedy. Mine pales in comparison to theirs; this moment really just resonated with me**).

In my last post about Bassnectar, I described the Bassnectar experience as a catharsis, but I wonder if I was mistaken given the fact that Be Interactive’s mission appears to be to galvanize fans into action by voting (at the very least), and catharsis in the Aristotelian sense is incompatible with action as I will explain below. For the purposes of this conversation, catharsis and purgation are synonymous terms, and Aristotle, the true OG, used the term purgation to describe the effect of tragedy where passions were stirred, released, and at last appeased. However, according to the classical Aristotelian definitions of the fine arts (which includes both theater and music, among other things), catharsis and action are incompatible because the fine arts have no ends beyond themselves and therefore do not require action in the real world (i.e. outside of the experience of the art). The Bassnectar experience is obviously very subjective, so perhaps catharsis functions more on a subjective, individual level depending on what everyone needs to release.

This is a bold claim, but I think that there are parallels between Bassnectar and Shakespeare's methods of influence, even if their respective audiences and reaches are different.

Jonathan Dollimore, a social theorist and literary critic, recognizes that Shakespearean tragedy was “an unrivaled instrument of criticism and dissent.” Bassnectar’s sets are, of course, also unrivaled instruments of criticism and dissent. Another literary critic named Robert Weinmann argues that Shakespeare’s tragedy went beyond mimesis (i.e. the representation of the real world in art and literature) to “discover how the issues of his time, its ‘forms and pressure’ could most significantly be turned into material for great art by absorbing and moulding the varied themes and modes of drama [so] that its latent tensions might be released into dramatic poetry.” Bassnectar does this all the time—whether he’s using Donald Trump imagery, holding a moment of silence for the victims of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, or integrating Native American culture and a Martin Luther King speech. And his version of releasing it into dramatic poetry is releasing the feelings associated with this imagery via a heavy, chaotic, and cathartic bass drop. It's like Bassnectar is leading a sound healing with his sets by giving the audience an emotion to process (whether it's anger or melancholy) and then releasing it via sound.

Going back to the Shakespeare parallels, for Shakespeare, theater exists as a forum to foster his audience’s self-awareness about their position in a chaotic world and the autonomy they have, if any, to change it. Whether or not Bassnectar wants us to take consequential action in the real world, there is no doubt in my mind that he is trying to make his audience aware of their autonomy, and to take advantage of it.