In this January 31, 2017 interview, shortly after the Women’s March, journalist Angela Bronner Helm spoke with activist and singer Abby Dobson about protest, the persistent disconnect between women of different races and backgrounds, and the importance of amplifying Black women’s voices. In Abby’s words, we find powerful insights and calls to action that are relevant and necessary right now.
The night before Donald Trump’s inauguration, two black feminist icons — Alice Walker and Angela Davis — spoke at the annual Peace Ball in Washington, D.C. offering two key messages about the intersection of art and activism. Walker revealed that the creation of art was one of her five tools of resistance. Davis noted that right now, “We need art, we need music, we need poetry.” Davis and Walker both understand the healing power of art, especially for women who feel under assault under the current administration.
Jamaican-born Abby Dobson is a vocalist who carries with her both the activism of Angela and the art of Alice in her song. Dobson says she uses her gifts to birth powerful “genre-nonconforming” music, which is deeply resonant, at times mournful, in turns joyful, but always authentic.
Dobson is currently Artist in Residence for the African American Policy Forum, a gender-equity organization founded by the “mother of intersectionality,” Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw. Dobson was featured in Crenshaw’s TED Talk (see below) singing as part of the #SayHerName campaign, a movement to bring awareness to police violence against women of color.
Dobson, who says she often hums her way to healing, offers great insight on protest, how we can use our gifts to fight the power and why symbolism is never enough for truly transformative politics. We recently spoke to Abby by phone in New York City.
Let’s talk a little bit about the Women’s March since it’s so fresh in everyone’s minds. Did you participate? What were your overall thoughts?
I did participate in the Women’s March. [Initially] I wasn’t going to go to DC but the African-American Policy Forum asked if I would join them, and so I did.
It was an awesome experience to see so many different types of women congregating in one space and having all this energy and all this intention to make a statement in a unified voice. That was very heartening. I was happy to participate [and] be a part of this historic event in some small way.
But what I’m struck by is this — how is that going to transfer in real life and in real time going forward? What is coalition, ally-ship or working together going to mean outside of this symbolic moment? Coming after Obama, we know that symbolism only goes but so far. So I’m just looking forward to seeing how women treat each other and support each other going forward.
What would you like to see happen?
I would like to see real sisterhood, not just sisterhood that is theoretical. I’d like to see the sisterhood that transfers. So I’m walking together with you on the march, so we can laugh and talk and check out each other’s signs. But, you know, when we’re in McDonald’s a couple hours later, we don’t look at each other.
Why do you think it’s so difficult for women of different races, ethnicities, perhaps even socioeconomic backgrounds, to forge genuine friendships in America?
Well, I think friendships take work, like everything else, you know? I think it’s difficult because even in 2017 – with so many great things happening in New York, it’s still a very segregated city in terms of where people live, schools and who you interact with.
And so I think that making the intention and actively seeking to engage with people who may seem different from you and trying to see what the commonalities are on an everyday basis [is key] … and not in a moment where we congratulate ourselves for coming together.. We are women. We share certain things. But apart from that, we have to support each other in practice.
I’m walking together with you on the march, so we can laugh and talk and check out each other’s signs. But when we’re in McDonald’s a couple hours later, we don’t look at each other.
Why is it important to center black women’s voices in your music and in general? What role do black women play in the modern feminist movement?
It’s important to center black women’s voices in my music because I’m particularly interested in the potential and role of our voices (raised individually and collectively) to help bring about our own liberation. The black woman’s individual and collective voices are constantly misunderstood and misread in our streets, places of work, schools, government and even in our own homes. I consider it a privilege and a responsibility to center black female voices because our perspectives and stories, our timbres and our tonality, our desires and our rages need to be heard, appreciated and tapped for policy, legal, political, economic, social and philanthropic approaches to bringing about real change in our lives. I center our voices because I want to use my voice to help people understand what it feels like to move in this world with my skin.
I know it’s important for you to build bridges through what you call “empathy cultivation” in your music. How do you expect to do that?
We make and respond to sounds from the day we are born. As human beings, music is as natural to us as breathing. Music is porous and gets over and under things that seem static and unmovable. I am a sonic conceptual artist trying to use music to leap over micro aggressions in a single bound; to use the sonic and my vocal waves to create force fields to help buffer black women against a multitude of isms; to create portals out of sound and lyrics to subvert and undermine closed mindedness. In all seriousness, in and through my work I’m wrestling with how to create and inspire empathy for black women’s lives through interpretation, creation and performance of song.
To be honest, I’m not sure how I can or will do this in practice. But I hope my voice and lyrics will continue to serve as a bridge of sorts across a listeners hearts, spirits and nervous systems. I use my music to break people open to prepare them to connect with the stories and humanity of another human being. It will take getting in front of as many people as possible and sharing my music in person as often as possible. There isn’t a precise science to my method and I don’t have a formula. I know, however, that it will take intention, constant attention, repetition, focus, and an open heart.
So what did your parents say when you, the highly educated immigrant daughter, Williams undergrad, Gerogetown Law, chose to do art?
I actually never practiced law. I went to law school and I got my degree, but decided early on that I wanted to pursue a career in music. But I’ve worked in law firms for a long time and still do right now. And, my mom wasn’t happy, but she’s always been my number one supporter. My uncle used to beg me to take the bar every time he saw me for maybe the first three years after I graduated. I think they were just fearful for me, wanting me to benefit from the American Dream in a certain way. But after my family began to see me perform in different spaces, I’ve had a number of them come back to me and say, you know, “I totally understand why you’ve done this now.”
Talk a bit about your work as an artist-in-residence for the African-American Policy Forum.
I started working with AAPF in December of 2015. I had been inspired by a couple of campaigns: Why We Can’t Wait and the Say Her Name campaign. Initially I was inspired by the call they put out for people to write the president, talking about the My Brother’s Keeper initiatives that focused on black and brown boys. I was really inspired by AAPF’s campaign to remind people that girls live in those same communities and go to the same schools and travel in the same circles. And so if there is an issue, there’s an issue for all and we should be looking for solutions for all, not one before the other.
I gravitate towards music that I refer to as genre non-conforming. It is rooted in the spiritual.
I was also really inspired by the Say Her Name campaign. AAPF was seeking to change the narrative around police brutality against black bodies. So often the names that we hear are the names of our black male bodies. We know Tamir Rice’s name, we know Mike Brown’s name, we know Trayvon Martin’s name.
But we don’t know the women who also met a similar fate. We don’t know Michelle Cusseaux. We don’t know Mya Hall. We don’t know Kayla Moore. We don’t know Aiyana Stanley-Jones. We don’t know Tanisha Anderson. We don’t know Natasha McKenna. Their lives are no less worthy of honoring and remembering and mourning. We have to think about the violence against black female bodies in the same breath that we think about the violence against black men and boys. And so I wrote a song called Say Her Name, inspired by the hashtag campaign. And I began singing it. And I’ve been working with AAPF ever since, and became their artist-in-residence.
Was there a spark for you? Like, in college did something happen that led to your activism?
I think the way I was raised — my mother, my grandmother — it was always important for you to give back to people. And that can happen in really small ways. You know, how do you treat the people who come into your home, how do you treat the people that you go to church with, people that you may meet that might need assistance in some way? And so it started that way for me.
But I’ve always had an interest in social justice work, public interest work. If I had become a practicing lawyer, I would have become a public district attorney of some sort. In college I was very active in the Black Student Union. I started a Women of Color group and directed a gospel choir, which for me was more than about the music because I went to predominantly white institutions in Massachusetts. It meant so much more. It was a place where people of different backgrounds came together and created something beautiful that uplifted each other in a space that wasn’t always sympathetic or supportive. The gospel choir was made up of black students, white students, Asian students, Latino students. And so that work wasn’t just about music.
What are the ways in which your art actually enhances the work that you do?
Social justice work, either actively as part of an organization or people who are trying to lend their voice or skills to a cause that they care about, that can be very daunting and it can be very draining on their spirit. As we’re doing good, doing something that’s important, it can also deplete you.
I gravitate towards music that I refer to as genre non-conforming. It is rooted in the spiritual. And I’m very much into humming. Humming is how I start the song Say Her Name, as a way to both center you and lift you and soothe you as we deal with the difficulty, as we say names, as we mourn, as we remember, as we lift up others. And so the joy for me is to be able to serve. And then the joy for me is to be soothed myself. So for me, music and singing and humming in a very meditative way is joyful.
If there was a young woman who was inspired by the march or angry about the election and wants to get involved, what would you tell her?
That’s a great question. I would encourage that young woman always listen to her voice on the inside and be directed by that, to surround herself with great women who are as aspirational as she is, and surround herself with a community of womenfolk and be in communication with them. Because you learn from your circle, or at least you should. And I’d say volunteer with an organization that inspires you in ways big and small. I’d also encourage that young woman to write her thoughts down and to document her process as an interesting thing.
If you could wave your justice magic wand and get three wishes, what would they be?
One is that every child, every person seeking an education would be able to get one that is of quality, regardless of where they lived. The second, I would wish that every person when they see a black woman or girl will feel as if they’re looking at family member that they loved and cared about, and treat her accordingly.
And then third — I’d have everyone have all the money they needed to live a life of quality without having to work just to live so they could live and work to make a significant contribution to their communities. In so doing everyone would have the leisure time needed to think, create and properly care for themselves and others.
(Photo courtesy Abby Dobson)