rachel aggs, believe the hype!
Musician, singer and post-punker Rachel Aggs on the importance of racial visibility within the UK indie scene, and a warning on tokenisation.
Rachel Aggs is a true practitioner of the D.I.Y manifesto. A self-taught musician -- who formed her first band Trash Kit in 2008 -- she works tirelessly in the face of punk adversity; a member of not just one major indie band, but the very mega Shopping and Sacred Paws too.
Stripped of complicated effects or layers of distortion, there's a refreshing simplicity to her guitar playing -- spiky, trebly twangs of telecaster guitar interwoven with lyrics pointing towards her experience as a mixed race, queer woman. It's unquestionable that Aggs' African American heritage underpins her groove, in fact; a signature style, which she -- along with her multiple bandmates -- brings to all her musical outputs currently ripping up the UK indie scene.
The result is a collaborative effort between all members. Sure, their classic set-ups and simplistic approach to post-punk rock, might seem old hat, but dig a little deeper and you'll find politics, dancing, fun -- a proper space for Queer/Trans/POC to connect and get sweaty.
Let's start with race, how important is your racial identity in relationship to the music you make?
When I was younger I was searching for a sense of cultural identity -- I was still figuring out my own relationship to being mixed race. I was a weirdo and an outsider and I wanted to feel a sense of pride in my convoluted heritage as a way of just finding my place in the world. Growing up, there were few brown people making the kind of music I liked. I really struggled to find people like me to look up to -- to gather strength and confidence -- which is what motivated me to start making music.
Black culture and its influence has been ignored for so long -- does the media singularly point at you to be a spokesperson for a new generation of racially diverse musicians?
It was still taboo to talk about race 10 years ago, but now it's almost the opposite. It's easy to get singled out as 'that brown person that plays guitar' and called upon to represent all people of colour in your music scene, which is a very uncomfortable position to be placed in. 'POC' has become a bit of a buzzword and it can get a bit exhausting, especially when I feel like a sort of spokesperson -- which is ridiculous because there are people of colour all over the world having such different experiences. I think it's both political and important to point out that African American musicians are at the root of so much music we would today call 'rock music' and possibly identify more singularly with white culture.
Have you ever felt unfairly tokenised?
I think we have to be aware of the side-effects of this kind of positive discrimination as it can really affect our confidence as artists. When you get asked to do stuff for the sake of diversity - to fill some sort of quota of brown/female/queer artists -- it's easy to fall into a trap of questioning every opportunity and asking 'Why am I really being asked to play this gig or feature in this magazine or appear at this institution?'. You stop feeling valued on the basis of your talent and start feeling more like a walking advertisement for how 'woke' the promoter or organiser or editor is. We have to support and remind each other that the most important thing is the actual art that we make and that the new space we are given is exactly what we deserve for being fabulous and working hard.
Do you feel you have to work even harder because you're a woman, and have you encountered any misogyny within the music industry?
I'm constantly aware of it but I think it's more to do with my own confidence and self-belief. I feel like male sound techs or industry people will assume I don't know what I'm doing and I feel like I have to work a lot harder to convince them that I do. It's a huge honour to be visible and to have a platform -- I hope that it might be encouraging to younger people of colour to see someone like me taking up space. I think it's a whole other issue for women who are more femme/female presenting -- who get objectified and generally hassled way more. They have to be a hell of a lot tougher, I have a huge amount of respect for that.
Do you see your gigs as spaces for Queer/Trans/POC to connect and get sweaty?
We want to create a space where people feel comfortable enough to have a proper dance -- like really freak out!
Has Queer representation within music always been important to you?
I always loved hearing bands like Electrelane, Sleater Kinney and Gravy Train singing about queer relationships. Knowing that these people were unapologetically themselves on stage was super helpful to me when I was coming out. That feeling of solidarity and pride is a huge part of what inspires me and motivates me to get on stage.
Do each of your musical outputs provide a different outlet for you creatively?
Each band is the sum of its parts. I always write collaboratively and especially with shopping we write together in the same room -- this reflects all of our specific musical styles, personalities and the things that we all respond to as a group. The core of that band is really drums and bass and the guitar is always responding to that groove. Shopping is sassy and sharp, we tend to write songs that are speaking with the voice of different characters or themes so it's emotionally detached and performative. Trask Kit and Sacred Paws are more earnest and personal.
Catch Rachel Aggs touring the UK with Shopping in November, calling at Glasgow School of Art's Vic Bar on the 6th, Leeds Wharf Chambers on the 7th, York Crescent on the 8th, Cardiff GWDIHW Café Bar on the 9th and London's fashionable Kamio on the 10th.