kiran gandhi’s new music project tackles industry misogyny and menstruation taboos

On the eve of International Women's Day, we caught up with Madame Gandhi's frontwoman at Brooklyn's Knitting Factory.

by Hannah Ongley
08 March 2016, 4:10pm

Wendy Figueroa

International Women's Day kicked off a few hours early at Williamsburg's Knitting Factory last night. Feminist artist and activist Kiran Gandhi — yes, the one who free-bled her way through the London Marathon to combat period stigma — closed out the third annual Oxfam Jam Benefit Concert with her new electronic music project Madame Gandhi on the third leg of the group's "March of Madames" tour. A galvanizing combination of percussion, vocals, and visuals, Kiran and her bandmates Alexia and Ayesha describe their project as a "celebration of female leadership" that touches on "themes of feminism, gender equality, and liberation." A natural performer with a stage presence polished by attending Harvard Business School and touring internationally as the drummer for M.I.A., Kiran moves hypnotically across the stage while striking a neon-lit kit and melodiously spitting feminist truths. "I'm not a great singer or anything like that," she claims, "but I have a message and I have stories that I want to express, and the best way to express them musically is to sing them." 

For Kiran, who grew up between New York City and Mumbai before moving to Los Angeles, Madame Gandhi is a sonic and visual culmination of her previous myriad projects. She has also advised Spotify and other major music companies on how to be allies for young creators, spoken at events including TED x Brooklyn and the Ableton LOOP Conference in Berlin, and currently works with Binti Period and Thinx to fight menstruation taboos. As Kiran, Alexia, and Ayesha take their "March of Madames" tour to SXSW in Austin before another stretch of performances up the East Coast, we caught up with the band's frontwoman to talk about female synergy, stepping up to the mic, and why the decline of the music industry is good for women.

How did you meet the other girls?
Through Berkeley College of Music. When I was at Harvard they spent a lot of time giving talks, and I spent a lot of time with the students, getting hooked up into that network. I met Alexia, who was one of the top females in her sound design program. And I was like, 'that's exactly what my weaknesses are.' In business school they actually tell you, when you're forming something new, you really want to find someone who complements you, who has the exact opposite skills. Alexia doesn't like to be a front person — she likes to make beats, she likes to be behind the scenes. And I love being the front person and talking to the audience — talking about feminism, and singing. So it was just a match made in heaven.

What does it feel like to be out in front and singing after drumming for so long?
I'm very comfortable speaking because of the business school training. You have to speak to a room full of people on a topic you don't know that much about. That really sharpened my speaking skills. For that reason, being able to go up to the mic in my own show was a very natural next step for me after graduating. In music you can't speak the whole time, you have to sing a little bit. So I was trying to develop my own confidence. I'm not a great singer or anything like that, but I have a message and I have stories that I want to express, and the best way to express them musically is to sing them. I stay within the notes that I can handle and don't push my voice any further than it can go. Sometimes I watch a show and I'm embarrassed, because I'm like, 'Oh God, that was completely out of key' or it was dissonant, but I think it's worth it.

Ben Droz

What is your perspective on gender inequality in the music industry today?
I really think it goes back to this thesis I wrote when I was an undergrad in my senior year. I called it, 'This is it. Fight like hell. Why the Decline of the Music Industry Is Good for Women.' The point of the essay was to say that because everyone is now trying to figure out alternative ways to be successful in the music industry and to make money, all the old power dynamics have completely gone away. Women don't have to ask much because they used to be dependent on the patriarchal music label system. Instead they're building their own ways. I see women starting their own labels and doing things in the way that they like for other women — starting an all-female drum collective, or starting Girlie Action, the all-female PR firm. That's really the positive version — because there's more space for more people to innovate in the industry today, it has actually been really good for feminism and really good for music. Obviously there's a lot of sexism when it comes to expectations. People might not expect women to play the drums, or to be a sound designer. My bandmate Alexia told me about a lot of sexism that she faced when she was at Berkeley. Professors wouldn't take her seriously, it was kind of like a boys' club. I think that's really the biggest challenge that women face — having communities in the music industry.

Which women in the music industry are you particularly inspired by these days?
Oh, so many — tUnE-yArDs, Saint Vincent, Mindy Abovitz, who runs Tom Tom magazine, Kimberly Thompson, who's a world-renowned jazz musician. Those are the four right now who are constantly inspiring me in my music. M.I.A., for fuck's sake!

Can you tell us about your work with Binti Period, Thinx, and ZanaAfrica?
One thing I try to explain when I talk about the marathon is that I've come to believe that there are four different levers you can pull when it comes to instituting social change. The first one is radical activism, the second one is media/art — so writing, speaking, and performing — the third one is policy change, and the fourth one is innovation. All four of those levers need each other to work in tandem. For the innovators to know what to build, the people in the media have to write about it. Similarly, the lawmakers need to know that a critical mass of people care. With the radical activism, people don't start paying attention until there is some sort of viral event. That's really how I've been working with these companies. It's about using all the attention that I got from this shock culture marathon, and then redirecting it to the people who are actually making change. That's the thing I keep bringing to the table. As a musician with access to art, culture, and the cool kids — the change-makers — how can I leverage that and redirect their attention to the people who need it?


Text Hannah Ongley

Kiran Gandhi
madame gandhi