Photo by Victoria Velasco, a photographer and full-time malcriada de Los Angeles. She spends her time brown-girl raging, craving McNuggets, and dreaming of the revolution.
Meet SZA’s Bassist: Skater, Scholar, Wild Card, and Bruja Arianna Gil
When she’s not touring as the bassist for SZA, Arianna Maya Gil is in class at Oberlin College in Ohio where she experiences a disconnect between the allegedly progressive principles of the school and her peers’ day-to-day experiences with racism and sexism on campus.
Even as a New Yorker – born and bred – she never seems like a fish out of water in Ohio. Arianna speaks out in her classes, throws ‘Latinx Power’ parties for her peers on campus, finds space on stage making music, tweets about her tour adventures and her frustration with school administrators, and posts sassy pictures on Instagram – all while writing her senior thesis.
At 20, Arianna is proving that it does not bode well to draw arbitrary lines around what work we consider political and what we deem culture and art-making. She sees them as inseparable and will call you a “dishonest person” if you think otherwise. Most uniquely, she humbly approaches her craft and her community of mentors and friends from a framework of understanding networks not as capital but as the only way to deconstruct capital in the first place.
Arianna sat down with us to discuss her experiential learning on tour with SZA, the limits of liberal arts education, anti-racist student organizing, her all-girl skate crew Brujas, and how not to ruin New York City for low-income communities.
You just pulled off a big party over at Oberlin. How did it go?
I just went in last night at this party I’ve been trying to organize since the start of school. We got Los Rakas to come and play. It was amazing. Really wild. All night I was like “where are my brown and black students?” and the whole crowd was responsive, everybody talking about stuff like prison abolition. And Los Rakas, I was expecting them to be good but they fucking slammed.
“When you were on tour for the weekend and still threw down 16 pages of critical theory for your Monday class. I'm #goku and ya bitches petty af. #nosleep #foucault #smartgirlclub”
— Arianna's Instagram
How’s stuff with school?
I’m feeling a little torn because I’m missing two of my History of Black Incarceration classes this week because of a show on the west coast with SZA. It’s cool, everything that’s happening at Oberlin right now is good but I’m not really around as much because of the tour. I hadn’t missed a class yet because I’ve been super careful but it’s getting harder and harder. In retrospect, I’m glad I'm taking these gigs because over the long term it's way more important than being in a classroom for 50 minutes. But I haven’t been very upfront about it and I’m going to need to work it out with my teachers.
With media constantly telling us what we are and trying to analyze why we do what we do, self-definition is such an important thing for young women artists. How would you define yourself?
I am a legacy of the South American radical intellectual tradition. My family in Uruguay are doctors in the populist leftist tradition who disappeared for a bit under the military dictatorship in the 80s. Then I have my more working-class white Italian-American side, which is what my mom rebelled against as a punk, but also carried with her in some deep ways. I am proud of my ancestors, and see them in all of what I do, whether it’s in my political commitments to liberation, or my musicianship.
I’m really unapologetic and uncompromising personality-wise, but I always think people put that on me more than is actually true. I think what they mean is that I am unapologetic for being a woman, and I’ve always been deeply committed to feminism, which freaks people out, especially since I’m always in really masculine environments like jazz, hip-hop, and skating, being uncompromising. I’m just a skate rat more than anything, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than lurking at a spot or just skating the whole day downtown. That’s truly my church.
As a city kid, stuck out there in Ohio for the past four years, what’s your relationship to Oberlin?
I didn’t even visit Oberlin before I applied. I honestly have to shout out to one of my biggest heroes and mentors Arlene Davila, who as a radical scholar pressed me to visit after I was accepted, telling me I couldn’t go somewhere that didn't have an American studies program.
Oberlin basically gave me a full ride, and has this whole marketing strategy of being “progressive”, so I went. I always have this vision of myself and my time at Oberlin as me just Taz Mania-ing through these last four years, fucking up everything that I touch. Not in the sense that I fucked up, but I’ve done so much at Oberlin, it’s kind of incredible.
What’s your experience in the conservatory at Oberlin been like?
I joined the conservatory my third semester as a Jazz Bass performance major. I seriously dedicated my first year at Oberlin to learning how to play upright – I had only about a semester of experience from high school with the instrument – and then with the guidance of a dope professor in my department, Peter Dominguez, I just went in and got a high level of training. I played in orchestra at Severance Hall one summer, and other big music gigs I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing as a senior in high school when I was confused as hell about what I would be doing at college. The conservatory gave me so much – training, access to instruments, time, mentorship and community with other amazing musicians – but it was also stifling.
I don’t think Oberlin has ever had or will ever again have a student like me in the conservatory because I came in as such a wild card. My whole life so far has been a wild card. Growing up in the Lower East Side was a wild card but being a student in the conservatory even more so. Not because I didn’t work hard and didn’t deserve to be there but because they had never had a student in my structurally disadvantaged position, make so many strong moves, so quickly. Somebody with such a passion for and dedication to learning.
I love my peers here but the stiffs up top in administration – the white men who sit at the table – were not prepared to give me the accommodations that I needed to succeed.
What do you mean when you call yourself a “wild card”?
I always put myself in places I’m not supposed to be. Sometimes literally through political resistance, or disrespecting private property with skateboarding and graffiti. But also in a more glass-ceiling kind of way. There’s a reason you don’t see women skateboarding or in music. Pop culture as an extension of patriarchy works to remove us from view, and in turn it makes us feel like we don’t belong. But who wants to belong to a vibe structured by settler-colonial genocide and capitalism anyway? I’m proud to be a wild card.
I’m mixed: Latina and white, second-generation Uruguayan, straddling the borderlands between the barrio and elite white higher education, street culture and the academy. I took a fellowship from my school and wrote a Marxist ethnography piece on buying and selling sneakers, where I got to talk to my brother and his friends about their culture, and outside the tradition of “neutral, participant observation” worked to build critical dialogue on the politics of consumer capitalism. I entered an elite conservatory with almost no experience on my instrument, that’s wild card moves. I took the skateboard my brother got for his birthday and traded it for something in my size, that’s wild card moves. I think mostly I just love challenges, and I thrive in unlikely situations.
What has it been like calling out the violence you see within your school?
My experience with my peers in the music conservatory was extremely unsafe. I was sexually harassed verbally by boys in my classes. I actually wrote a letter to my Deans letting them know all the things I thought they needed to do make the conservatory safer for women and gender nonconforming people, and that their curriculum has only male composers and performers. The teachers and administrators say there aren’t any women in music but there are, they just get no light. There are less women in music but it’s about who we choose to bring into the classroom. Why are we always inviting white men to do guest lectures or teach master’s classes? It’s a reflection of who is in charge and who they choose to bring in. It really hurts in ways that aren’t accounted for, how that affects us students of color who need to feel reflected in certain spaces. The truth is there are very few professors of color in the conservatory.
I’m not really an advocate of the idea that if we get enough women of color in the conservatory it’s going to be a safe space...no! It’s an inherently violent space, and no matter who is represented within that institution, the structure remains the same. But at the same time, while you have students here, you need to support them.
So, I sent that letter… and the next day there was a KKK member sighted on campus just walking around. It’s hard to not be reactionary under the threat of violence. Students were like: “Fuck this. We aren’t going to classes, we have to deal with this as a community.” We threatened to blockade the building where classes were happening. The administration was doing everything in their power to dissuade us: “Don’t disrupt your education, that’s exactly what the white supremacists want.” Some bullshit. In that hysteria, I said a lot of reactionary things about the department that needed to be said. It affected my ability to interact with certain teachers and students on campus.
I went into a reactionary mode because we weren’t a very well organized student body and I was very young at the time, I was a sophomore. I suffered for how I reacted in that political moment. People love me because I’m fucking honest but in general I suffer for it. I’ll tell somebody who is responsible for passing or failing me that they are a white supremacist and that I hate them. That’s not necessarily a politically strategic place to be coming from.
What are some of the pedagogical differences you’ve seen between the real life music world and the music conservatory?
The music conservatory is an institution that assumes you have gone through all the training – middle-to-upper class, white-upbringing training – been to jazz summer camps, taken private lessons your whole life, fuck no! I was in a public school music program playing pop. I wasn’t ready for this shit but I’ve worked so hard and I’m at a high level now. I appreciate the people in the institution who recognize my talent and my light and brought so much out of me.
Arianna playing bass for Princess Nokia at RedBull SoundSelect this past summer where she met SZA backstage.
How did you meet SZA and how did you start playing with her?
During the Rough Trade show that RedBull SoundSelect did for AfroPunk, I played bass for Princess Nokia, who is a friend of mine. SZA was headlining. I watched her play and was blown away by her music. Later that week, I tweeted at her saying: you are dope. Hit me up if you ever need a bassist. And she responded just minutes later being like: Yes! We NEED to play together.
I didn’t hear from her again until we ran into one another at AfroPunk. I actually skipped three days of my R.A. training at Oberlin to go to AfroPunk! I shyly approached SZA backstage. She seemed really enthusiastic about me playing with her and took my number. The next week she hit me up to see if I could play with her on my campus for a show. It’s wild! I feel so humbled to be working with her. She’s a goddess.
What experiences have influenced you in becoming who you are today?
I think all powerful women have moments in their lives when they finally realize they are the fucking shit, in spite of everything in the world telling them they aren’t. Not until you start to break away from that are you able to articulate: Your patriarchy and your misogyny is so off. And I am so on! Or to say to yourself: I’m here to rebind the world because the world needs me and my energy. It’s a political maturity as well. The things I’ve gone through also had an impact – my experiences at Oberlin beat me up more than anything I experienced before.
Along the way, I’ve been given many little gifts that have helped me on the path towards personal empowerment. So many men have worked to bring me to where I am today. I’ve also had women mentors who put me in a certain directions. But largely it’s been men who were willing to redistribute their time and education onto me. The sum of all those little opportunities brought me forward.
You’re also a skater. Where does that fit in?
I see all my skills to be connected. As a skater, I feel like I’m finally getting recognition for the work I’ve put in. Some girls find skateboarding late, in their twenties or so, but I was fourteen when I learned how to ollie.
Our city [New York — eds.] is as patriarchal, sexist, and racist as any other place but there’s an energy of resistance here. I’m building off of that. I started an uptown skate crew called Brujas that intends to shift the girl skate culture away from white west coast girls.
#oberlin #skatelife #outchea 💸📷: cofaxxx #brujas 💖 #girlpower 💅 #seniors 👑 #2015
Your work touches so many corners of culture and politics. How do you see it tying together?
We all breathe the legacies of our environment. I grew up in the Lower East Side where Emma Goldman hung out. It’s hard for me to imagine being raised in a place with such a spirit of resistance and not come out like this.
How do I see it all tying together? It’s impossible for me to compartmentalize any of my work, it all ties together. It’s a method of honesty, I think, to realize that everything you are doing is political and everything you are doing is art. You gotta be sort of twisted to separate yourself from the oppressive situations you find yourself in or be complicit in the oppression.
You have to be really dishonest with yourself to compartmentalize your life. Everything you are doing is connected to your ancestors and all the gifts you have been given. Everything I am doing is to help create more moments of liberation for others. Last night, throwing a party was as political to me as doing Students for Justice in Palestine organizing or prison abolition work.
You’ve talked a lot so far about the vibe of New York and the culture of resistance here. How do you feel about the changing city? Do you think there are ways to combat gentrification?
I think it’s important for settlers (who are often, but not always white people and class-privileged people) in New York to remember that our nation’s mass-incarceration project and some of its arms, like Stop and Frisk, are blatantly designed to make them feel more accepted and comfortable. Many gentrifiers are often working to uphold their middle-class, educated existence, and will put very little on the line if it compromises that. I want to push back against the notion that anyone is safer because of mass incarceration, and I want white settlers – if they’re going to take up space in NYC – to actively resist the over-policing and incarceration of the youth in the communities they are in.
When you have the opportunity to give somebody a job – a good bartending gig, promoting gig, DJ slot, whatever cool, decently paid work you come across – are you handing it to your white-settler peers, or are you putting in the effort to bring resources back to those who are natives and structurally disadvantaged?
I wouldn’t be playing bass if it wasn’t for post-jazz school graduate settlers taking time to teach me their craft, usually for free. I wouldn’t be skating if Autumn Skate Shop hadn’t hooked me up with gear for years.
I’m not saying that by being a radical, generous community member you are a “New Yorker”, but you are getting closer to the heart of what this city is about. Engage in your community, give to it, and put yourself on the line if you're really about it. That’s what punk is about, and NYC kids are some of the punkest kids you will ever be blessed to hang with.