The sound artist and selfie-royalty making a splash in Philadelphia and all over the internet talked to us about self-making, black womanhood, and the traps of artifice.
One-half of the sound group SCRAAATCH, E. Jane aka Mhysa is bringing distorted, slow-then-fast club and experimental music to the do-it-yourself queer scene in Philadelphia. We’ve been following E.’s music for a while, and it wasn’t difficult to stay intrigued, seeing as they drop new sounds almost every week, following a creative principle of turning their art practice into a kind of sprint, an athletic exercise. Most recently, E. Jane and their partner Chukwumaa aka plus_c were featured on The Fader as a voice disrupting white supremacy in a time where murders of black people by police are inescapable in the public imaginary. And E. has produced a stream of rough and tumble edits of tracks by black woman artists like Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, and Lil Kim, short anthems for “weirdo queers”. They also curate and organize the new “club-not-club” party ATM alongside DJ Haram and plus_c.
E. Jane asked us to meet them in the backyard stone garden of the Chelsea Highline Hotel. We might have gotten confused and gone to the Chelsea Hotel – the hotel that the celebutante and artist Edie Sedgwick famously burned down a room in. Sedgwick had an infectious playfulness and charisma that E., a longtime admirer of hers, matches. E. talked about how Sedgwick and her “dear friend” Andy Warhol inspired them as a teenager when they were going through different phases of dress and influence. They also cited people like Nina Simone, Jack White, and Adrian Piper as influences of artifice and self-making, leading them to develop alter-egos like Mhysa. We don’t think it’s just artifice, but we do think it’s artful, and fittingly, E.’s Twitter bio reads plain and simple: “both the projection and the Black woman behind the curtain.”
We didn’t meet at that Chelsea Hotel because now it’s some high-priced co-op with landmark status. The hotel’s history might be lost on the grossly changing New York landscape, and Chelsea has more boutiques and Starbucks than gloryholes these days. E. didn’t grow up in New York, but in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Philadelphia. E. walked directly from the megabus stop to Chelsea Highline, having taken the bus in from Philadelphia. They get around New York City just fine, though, because they briefly attended Marymount Manhattan College. Now, E. is an art student at the Ivy League school UPenn.
E. speaks with a thick layer of resentment at being shamed for taking “too many selfies” – as if self-making isn’t art, or as if art produced on the margins of the web hasn’t gone on to inspire an entire generation of digital artists. Isn’t every generation telling the next that they are narcissistic? There’s no doubt that black women bear the brunt of this particular iteration shaming – a public shaming that often seems to be targeting women for their bare existence, if not for celebrating themselves on the internet – and E. speaks without hindrance about the ways that black womanhood isn’t given the same space across the board.
We bought overpriced coffees and a brownie and settled in. From Serena Williams’ champion tennis career bumping up against white beauty standards to the tragically mechanic sounds of Arca, we sat back in our seats, leaned in, and listened as E. shared their story.
So, what are you up to in New York today?
I’m in New York for the opening of the new exhibitions at The Studio Museum in Harlem. The artists in residency there, Lauren Halsey, Sadie Barnette, and Eric Mack, have a new show “Everything, Everyday”. I’ve had a chance to be in all three of their studios. I’m especially excited for Eric Mack’s work, because he’s from Prince George’s County, Maryland, where I’m from. He has this piece titled “Alldayz,” referencing a PG streetwear clothing company called Alldaz. So I’m really excited to see that piece in person. There’s also some work by Lorraine O’Grady down in the basement that should be really awesome.
Tell us about growing up in Prince George’s County.
Prince George’s County is a predominantly black suburb right outside of Washington, D.C. When I grew up there in the 90s, it was featured in Forbes and other magazines for being the richest black county in America. My parents weren’t extremely wealthy and we went from being well-off middle class to lower middle class during my childhood, so I faced a weird conundrum, being in a space that’s really black but also really wealthy. Money became more of a dividing factor than race. I learned to perform class in a lot of ways.
What was it like to be raised by a single dad?
I was raised primarily by my father, a black man with indigenous blood from D.C. He was an elevator inspector for the government – a blue collar worker that worked his way up to white collar and at one point had his own business. He retired when I was 8 and became a community organizer, serving as the president for the homeowner’s association in our neighborhood, and eventually ran a community center and a summer enrichment camp for children in Prince George’s County. He died when I was 22. My mother was an ex-Marine from the projects of Southeast D.C. Her parents were from Virginia. She was some version of mixed. The narrative I receive is either she is Native American and Italian, or she is Native American, black, and Italian. It’s sort of her mythology at this point. She went to prison when I was 13.
I remember that in middle school, my dad didn’t want us to get a Christmas tree, because we couldn’t really afford it. He didn’t say that to me; he just said that Christmas trees were about ‘the system’, and it’s about the Hallmark company trying to get your money. All my friends were like “You don’t have a Christmas tree? You’re such a weirdo.” It’s not like I had a choice. They were looking at me like I was trying to be some outsider because I didn’t have a tree. I’m like, “I don’t wanna be an interloper, I just don’t buy things yet.”
I was raised by a man who constantly told me that I wasn’t womanly enough. I grew up playing football with boys, had a punching bag in my basement when I was going through puberty, and my dad taught me sports. At the same time, I was told that I “walked like a boy,” always criticized for being clumsy, not being graceful or quiet, and for not liking to cook. I had to have women outside of my immediate family teach me those things. Because of that, I struggled with gender a lot growing up. I was made fun of whenever I tired to wear dresses because I looked ridiculous in a dress. I still struggle with the gender binary.
You tweet a lot about gender and blackness. Can you expound a bit about what you’ve been feeling recently about black womanhood?
Just on the way over here, two guys catcalled me on the street and it made me think, oh, I got a catcall so I guess I passed the performance. But why do I even wanna do that, and fuck you for saying anything to me at all! Not to mention, a word like “gorgeous” is very disturbing because it implies “engorging yourself with someone.” It sounds like rape. I guess I go back and forth and I’m really conflicted about what we do with gender. The capitalist structure makes it so hard to dream, sometimes, of spaces outside of itself. I think gender should be abolished but until that happens, get it how you live.
I’ve been looking at Petra Collins’ images of girlhood a lot and thinking about how black women don’t really get to have girlhoods. As soon as black girls start to menstruate, we’re adults and everybody’s worried and trying to make sure that we don’t get pregnant. That can start as early as 10. So, what being a girl means in the American sense sometimes eludes the black female body. And as you get older, if you are thicker or curvier, girly things just get read as blatantly sexual. Your body is policed constantly.
I’ve been really stressed out reading about Serena lately. Somebody tweeted at JK Rowling saying that Serena looks like a man, and she responded with a picture of Serena in a form-fitting dress and heels and responded, “Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress.” It was frustrating because Rowling’s response doesn’t address the real issue. Serena still has to constrain herself like that in order to pass as a woman, to perform woman. I really relate to the performance aspect of gender. You can choose to perform it right, or wrong, but you must perform it. It’s not something that comes innately for me. I don’t think it does for anybody.
Gender in itself is built upon strict archetypes. When people say black women aren’t woman enough or aren’t ‘built like women,’ or when they’re talking about Serena and comparing her to slim, white female tennis players, who are the epitome of Eurocentric womanness and beauty, we can’t compete with that. The white woman has been put on a pedestal, even though that doesn’t mean they are more woman than anyone else, because ‘woman’ is just a construct.
What has your experience been with the educational system?
I went to a magnet elementary school, and I think that was really helpful, because we learned about music, rudimentary things, played the recorder, did theater. I was part of a fine arts performance team. That sort of got me into performing at a very young age. I went to a STEM-oriented middle school, then I tested into an Science and Tech Program in high school. Around eighth grade was when my mom went to prison and I wasn’t really the best student. I was still getting As on my work, but it was more trouble to keep me in class, because if I wasn’t just skipping class I was just a disruption. I think they just wanted to give me extra attention. At one point, an administrator stopped making me go to class. I liked working with a camera and I liked editing video, so they taught me how to use video editing software and I just sat in a dark room editing footage for the senior assemblies all day for the last semester.
So, their management problem ended up being an introduction to art for you?
Totally, though I didn’t see it that way then. And then in high school, I did the computer science track in my STEM program. I learned basic coding, but it was really frustrating. I hated it and I wanted to be a writer. It’s kind of funny: I was anti-technology because everyone imposed it on me, being like, “you’re a black child, you have to learn technology, you have to learn about science.” And so that made me begrudgingly learn about it and interact with it on a professional or academic level, when I really just wanted to sit in the house and watch music videos or ‘surf the net.’ But it definitely helped me make the transition when I got older. When I realized that writing maybe wouldn’t be the move, I picked up a camera again and it felt like riding a bike.
I went to a liberal arts college and majored in art history, but I also have a minor in English and an honorary minor in philosophy. When I wrote essays, I always picked underdogs, or people that had political themes in their work as my topic. I remember writing about David and the French Revolution. I was thinking about his painting The Death of Socrates (1787) and arguing that his history paintings were calling people to arms before the French Revolution.
When you study art history, you study the character of the artist just as much as you study the work: sure, that one seminal work was something, but it’s just not as important as a person’s life as an artist. So I’m not necessarily just interested in the moment I make a work as much as how all of the works will accumulate en masse, and what my oeuvre will say. Picasso was making cups and plates by the time he died.
What kind of trajectory or narrative are you trying to create with your own work right now? What kind of self or body of work are you trying to create?
I don’t know. I don’t at all. I look at the feed, and I ask myself, “Well, what do these gestures mean together?” I think at the end of the day, the only thing I really want to focus on is that every gesture is in some way absurd or abstracting me from a self, and connecting me to the larger idea of selves, and what other people are doing. For example, every black girl taking a selfie is making a political act too. I can see all the content fitting together, and I can see that the work that I made at the beginning of the year is sort of connected to the work that I’m making now. But I think it would be futile to try to construct unity. That’s for a curator or a critic to decide, I suppose.
Is there a measure of success? Are you trying to increase your followers, increase your likes, increase your reach? Or is it more about creating offline engagements or feeling like people know you better?
I think it depends on the type of online engagement. I’m not necessarily interested in just getting more followers. I know that the image I put off isn’t one of 100 percent mainstream pop media; a lot of people find it weird, but I’m not gonna change that to gain more attention. I care more about the type of attention I receive. It’s about getting the right people to feel connected to me, you know? I think that’s definitely what it’s about, and I think it’s about nulling the anxiety I feel when I’m out in the world. Like, if I’m posting all the time, when I do go out in the world and I notice someone that I see online all the time, I don’t have to perform as much because I can rely on my online performance. I can be kind of deadpan and it can be okay, and that’s … comforting. It takes the pressure off of corporeal interaction.
What other parts of meatspace interactions are anxiety-inducing for you?
Well I definitely think performing some sense of a personality is draining. A lot of times I’m really just thinking about my work. A couple years ago, someone was like, “You really don’t do anything if it’s not for the sake of your practice.” And I’m like, “That’s true, I don’t.” I’m kind of a weird, idiosyncratic artist in that way … I’m a person that’s really focused on their thing, and that thing, the internet, is multifaceted. And so it’s nice to give people a glimpse of that via my Instagram page, for example. I try to provide windows into a world that feels more expansive than just my practice, but really is just my practice!
A kind of multi-layered reality.
Right. And it’s slippage. Amalia Ulman’ Instagram project was really interesting primarily in the way she ended it. It was very theatrical. She put up a black and white image of roses and commented with a blue heart emoji and then the next post was a greyish blank square. People sent handclap emojis and praised the performance on the image. And it made me feel like the performance can start any time on Instagram, if that’s how you end a performance on Instagram – “Ta-da!” You know what I mean? The thing is, she was trying to say that everyone is performing. She was so good at fooling everyone because the performance was so easy to do. We’re all selling something to one another on social media. I just use it mindfully, considering it labor, knowing how many posts I have to post per day, and thinking of it as part of my practice to do so.
What do you think makes performing a persona “real” or “fake”? In what kinds of situations is artifice acceptable?
I think artifice is always fine, because at the end of the day we all have some level of it. No one’s genuine – the self is a construction. It’s a series of intersections coming together to sell you to someone else and construct a concrete brand that someone can label and package, especially in the world we live in right now, where everyone has to be packageable. But that doesn’t make it authentic. And maybe some people’s packaging is less legible. There are times when I’ve made things where I tried to be as authentic as I thought I could be in some naive way, and people told me it was superficial. And there are times that I thought I was being genuine in person and people told me that they still don’t know ‘who I am.’ As an artist, I like to look at myself as sort of a scientist with my practice, always testing those boundaries online. “Do you feel like you know me if there are a thousand images of me telling you everything I do?”
In Gary Shteyngart’s book Super Sad True Love Story, the main character has really low Personality Points – in the novel’s world, Personality Points help people decide if they like you and wanna be around you. There are these things called äppärätsthat are like evolutions of the iPhone that hang around your neck like a little pearl necklace. And when you go into a space, everyone’s äppäräts link, and you can see their personality scores and rank. One night the main character gets drunk, and he starts confessing his love for this woman into his äppärät, and his personality score goes up. And I thought about that a lot when I started posting heavily on Instagram, that maybe people don’t feel like they know me because I don’t tell them anything. I don’t know if it’s working or not … it seems like it is. I was in Brooklyn the other day and someone walked up to me and was like “I feel like I know you because I follow you on Instagram,” and I’m like “Cool! That’s awesome!”
You’ve been working on a new party in West Philadelphia called ATM. What is it like?
ATM is sort of an open format, club-not-club party that me, DJ Haram and plus_c throw in West Philadelphia at a space called Dahlak – an Eritrean restaurant that also has a little section for dancing.It’s very cute. For me, ATM is like a safe space where people who feel the anxiety and pressure to be authentic don’t have to be. If you don’t really want to dance, you don’t have to. If you just want to stand there and take selfies while the music goes, we have selfie sticks. If you want to just look at visuals, you can do that.
The visuals are meant to be related to the things that are being talked about online. For the last ATM, I asked people to send me side-eye footage, footage of brown women side-eyeing. A bunch of people sent me videos and I used that footage for the visuals at the party. It connected club goers directly to the internet world. It’s a personal project of mine to make obvious that there isn’t as much of distance between the internet and the meatspace as people might think. I mean, the internet is real life. The guy that invented Silk Road really got life in prison for it.
You have another persona named Mhysa. How did that person come about?
Mhysa is an ‘alter’ of mine – an alter-ego that I’ve been developing over the summer. DJ Haram and I are always talking about how it’s so hard to be one person, especially when you’re making sound. Consistency equals authenticity, but what if you don’t want to be consistent? What if you want to have one consistent sound for one name, and then another sound for a different name? A lot of DJs and musicians will perform under various names in order to be expansive with their practice, especially if they just want to put out a bunch of music and try a bunch of different things.
Mhysa is s the ‘PG’ side of me let loose. I went to school on the Upper East Side for undergrad, and I go to an Ivy League right now, and I feel like there’s a lot of performing the ‘professional black person’ or performing the intellectual, and that performance tends to be void of things like hip-hop. Normative people consider it silly. I see it as fucked-up respectability politics. Mhysa is my attempt to branch into unabashed club music and just do weird things. If it’s a little more sexual or a little more vulgar, it’s not bad. The name has given me space to try things out without somebody emailing me, like, “is that appropriate for a Penn student?” I’m letting it all hang out by being a couple of people.
Much of your sound work are edits of black women superstars like Nicki Minaj or Rihanna. What’s the aim of those projects?
I think that’s me getting frustrated with all the intellectualism in the Ivory tower, and wanting to pull my head out of the sand of academia and develop case studies on how prominent black women are navigating the media. Sometimes I find stories where those black women are being chastised by the media or insulted or discouraged. I feel angry for them and it makes me really sad, like watching Azealia Banks cry while talking about appropriation and the legacy of slavery. Lots of people were calling her crazy. Azealia’s speech inspired the first pop edit I’ve ever done. I just felt like, oh my god, you’re really trying and I just wanna do something that shows I’m supportive of you. Touching the track shows a type of support.
Most recently, I’ve been using Lil’ Kim to reclaim and recontextualize certain things for black women. The Rihanna edits were also an attempt at that; the BBHMM video was heavily criticized by white feminists for being violent and sort of encouraging the abuse of women. In response, a lot of womanists and other black feminists were saying that , no, that’s not what’s going on. Yes, that scene is there, but she’s alluding to a lot of instances in media where white men abuse women. I felt like, well, maybe reifying violence isn’t okay, but Mia McKenzie of BlackGirlDangerous wrote a strong review where she said that Rihanna essentially puts her needs over the needs of the white woman in that video, and we should do that more. I agreed with that. The video was very political and, for a lot of black women, it brought to the surface the realities of black women’s labor being under-recognized and underpaid. Rihanna’s just talking about the long history of black women not being paid what they’re owed that you can trace back to Zora Neale Hurston and the saying that the black woman is “the mule of the world”.
The issues with media reception around Serena Williams came back out around the same time, and all these discussions about whether Serena is “woman enough”. Taking the Rihanna track and making it for Serena was my way of recontextualizing both of them instead of having to write an essay. I got to contextualize these connections through the music. When the BBHMM video came out tweeted, “Rihanna is ratchet. I defend her right to be ratchet in a fucked up world.” I just feel a connection to them, and I’m trying to show solidarity and support from a distance.
Great! Lastly, we’re dying to know … Who in your mind is making the most interesting and inspiring sounds right now?
Arca, Angel-Ho, and Lotic are doing the craziest things, so steely sounds and weird edits are dominating the landscape that I consume. I was listening to Arca’s &&&&& tape on the way here, and walking through the city with all the construction noises in the background it made me think that they sounded like Lotic tracks. They are the sounds of ‘development,’ commerce, and gentrification – steel being hammered. It’s a really visceral sound. But instead of hurting you, they’re armoring you and preparing you to go outside. This is armor for us isolated, weirdo queers. They’re anthems for the queers! Arca and Lotic are the ones making the music for the way that our souls feel. I’d also like to shoutout Chaska Sofia aka PreColumbian and Yulan Grant aka SHYBØI.
Photos by Eva Wǒ.