• The More Things Change Issue

    Interview with DJ Ashe Kilbourne

    The More Things Change Issue
    Ashe 1 web

    Ashe Kilbourne 

    The first time I heard about Ashe Kilbourne she was leading a campaign at Wesleyan University to remove gender separating bathroom signs and replacing them with ‘All Gender’ signs. The next time I heard about her was several months later, when a mutual friend of ours posted one of her club tracks on my Facebook timeline.

    Hailing from New Jersey and now living in New Orleans, 22-year-old Ashe is a DJ and producer with the shy yet charismatic attitude of a pre-teen with lots of internet friends. She throws herself into new projects, connecting with artists all over the country and approaching people she admires to collaborate with who she’s never met before. The result of this methodology is that Ashe is extremely prolific, coming out with new works on a monthly basis, and is widely respected by her fellow artists (she is cited within a close-knit DJ family along with other young beatmakers like Stud1nt.) On top of her work as DJ Kilbourne, Ashe also plays guitar with the grindcore band Pyka.

    An exhausted Ashe had driven directly from working on a new track when we met up to discuss artifice in pop music, and gender normativity in club and grind scenes. Careful with her words, she diligently attributes ideas she shares to those who have mentored or influenced her, specifically citing black and brown club producers. The more we spoke, the more I realized that Ashe occupies a vital space between fighting for material change for trans and gender nonconforming people and being a part of building cultural spaces that make life worth living. 

    You seem to be coming out with new stuff every month and working with tons of different DJs and producers. How did you get involved in this work in the first place?

    When I first getting involved in music culture I was really only exposed to straight music like EDM. Though, this was before EDM was even a thing with a name, we just called it “electro” or something.

    Then I saw Mykki Blanco while I was a sophomore in college. That was pretty shortly after I started making music; I think I started feeling more and more out of sorts with the world around that time as well. I feel like that pushed me into finding other music that was less bro-y.

    While in high school, I was living in a small town and didn’t have a lot of exposure to different music scenes, artists or nightlife. In college, people who came from cities got me into different kinds of music. A friend taught me how to DJ in our dorm rooms.

    Grindcore and club music are super different, not just the music but also the people that are drawn to them. What do you think it is that draws you to these two genres?

    My friend False Witness says that he can’t get down with PC music because it is completely devoid of trauma, which made sense to me. I found that club music was really messy and volatile. I got into club as I was starting to feel trans – and that experience also felt very volatile and messy. There was an overlap in my experience and the art that I started to feel drawn to. The music didn’t make me feel okay – it made me feel weird and ugly and sloppy – but it was therapeutic in a lot of ways.

    I’m not really into tracks that are cleanly produced and professionally. That’s not satisfying for me. I like slapping things together in a way that sounds sloppy, distorted, and upset. 

    The two club tracks I’m most proud of making this year are probably “Too Real” and “Don’t Panic,” both of which I made in an afternoon and came from a very raw place in my own creative process. I just asked myself, “What songs have I liked on the radio recently?” and worked from there. They are both pretty short and not necessarily very developed, which are the most therapeutic kinds of tracks to make in my experience. 

    That’s sort of what the music I play with my grindcore band Pyka is like, too. The songs that I write for my band are really fast and messy, in part because we play so fast. 

    What’s your creative process? 

    I spend a lot of time listening to the radio, and that’s where I find a lot of inspiration. Usually, I try to find an acapella of a song or a chop that sounds nice and work from there. I like being somewhere comfortable, like my apartment. There’s something cool about being around movement, having sensory experiences while working on a track.

    Sometimes I’ll listen to your mix of Die Young while I’m writing. I can’t help but think you’re re-presenting women pop singers with your club tracks. What’s up with that?

    Yeah, I worked with Deejay Haze on that remix. We met over the internet and have worked together a bunch. When we made that, “Die Young” was on the radio a lot. There are some pop songs that are just so infectious and euphoric when you hear them on the radio or at a bar. I love that feeling!

    I appreciate when she says “punks, punks, punks!” in the middle of the song, and I like that Ke$ha has something punk going for her, even if it feels really constructed at times. I’m really into the artifice of being spunky and femme in pop songs. Artifice is great!

    Yeah, I thought it was amazing that you fixate on the line “that magic in your pants is making me blush.” There’s something really gender-fucking about that part of the song in your version. Can you talk more about the embodiment of gender play and femme in your work?

    I think women’s voices and subjectivity in underground music are still very much treated as accessories. They aren’t given the same value, autonomy, and authority as men’s voices whatsoever. I feel like I’m trying to venerate other women artists by chopping those tracks. By hegemonic terms, I don’t have an essentialized “female voice,” which is why I’m really anxious about doing vocals with Pyka or dropping my voice into my club tracks like other DJs often do. So, part of my work is trying to venerate women’s voices and expose that they are being stripped of their autonomy. I try to be intentional about placing women’s voices in positions of power within my music. 

    Like with my remix of “Selfie” – the original version feels so disrespectful to women. It’s accessorizing women’s voices and seems almost appropriative. Especially as a work that is mocking the act of women creating representations of themselves in their own self image. When I was working on that track I just kept thinking how great it was that the voices were so exaggerated. I thought it was important that my version could make them into empowered subjects instead of just objects. I try to understand this discursive as well as auditory work. 

    I feel similarly about a track I did recently called “Satisfaction” which features Bomber Gurl’s vocals. That song really centers a narrative of women’s pleasure and aggression saying “I’m going to push you, I’m going to touch you until I get my satisfaction.”

    You just finished your tour around the country with Baltimore-based artists Schwarz and Abdu Ali and have been in so many different spaces over the past year. Can you talk about your experience navigating patriarchy across music genres and communities? 

    I have a lot of friends who are women and who make heavy and fast music. I hear a lot about how they experience sexism in grind scenes. A lot of guys running the venues will assume women musicians don’t know how to play their instruments. Like “Oh, let me set that up for you because you must not know how to work that pedal board you lug around year after year playing shows.” I experience this too when my gender is not legible to people and they don’t read me as a cis woman. Or when people read me as a trans women but prioritize the woman aspect, thinking: “Trans or not, you definitely don’t know how to use electronics.” It can be hard to participate in music scenes where people barrel into one another like they do in a pit, regardless of their intentions. I don’t necessarily want to be touched when I’m at the club, or at a grind show.

    I feel so nervous that people are going to call bullshit on Pyka and tell me I don’t know how to play guitar because I don’t. I can’t play a solo, I’m just playing the same chord shape over and over again, with a few exceptions. I saw a tweet that nailed it on the head talking about how men can play music without rhythm or harmony and it would be considered “noise.” But if women play music that isn’t polished or really rough, we might be accused of not knowing how to play. Men would never be criticized for not having experience on their instruments. 

    I remember hearing from friends of mine who went to school with you about the campaign you worked on around ‘All Gender’ bathrooms. Campaigns similar to this one have been waged on campuses across the country but yours was more of a guerilla-style project. Could you talk about the campaign? 

    The campaign started trying to change the fact that we separate bathrooms according to a two-gender system, which is very violent in many ways. 

    When I started working on the campaign, a lot of students had already joined committees and advocated for themselves to administrators who just didn’t give a shit. These students were going through the traditional channels. There had been lot of activism before my time being there, including endless meetings with the administration that didn’t go anywhere.

    So, some friends and I started taking bathrooms signs down on our own while we were walking by. We had a great time doing that and I had like fifty bathroom signs in my desk drawer in my dorm. We could theorize about how we were fighting institutional transphobia. But there was also something very practical about our campaign as a form of harm reduction and creating safe space even on my very white, rich campus. It is a practical and important change to not have the infrastructure of the campus force trans students to hold their pee for hours until they feel safe. I wouldn’t want to work in most spaces on my campus because there were just no bathrooms that were single use or ‘All Genders’. 

    We encouraged people to take action and take down these signs. And they did! Lots of people who I’d never even met or only said ‘hi’ to once were coming up to me saying “I just took down a bathroom sign yesterday!” I remember I had a Mediafire link for a bathroom renewing kit and it had like 700 downloads – those were not all me and a couple friends. 

    Somebody had seen me and a few other people taking down signs and reported us. We had to have a meeting with the student judicial board about it. It was really terrible because the figure they threw at us was a fine of $5,000 which is a ridiculous amount of money. I felt like the school was directly doing violence to trans people and then charging us for it. On top of that, it was very stressful that administrators had been inactive and unsympathetic or receptive to people trying to make the school more comfortable for them. And then, also doing this really weird “corrective measure” – it felt so fear-based. I ended up paying $150 and having the whole incident put on my record. But to throw that huge figure out there was really coercive and in no way engaging with the conditions that pushed students to take those actions. 

    I feel like a lot of people experience this post-college fatigue after being really involved in intense organizing while in school. Adjusting to life after college can be a hard transition. What are some things that you learned during your student activism and how do they apply to your experience going to parties and making music?

    Lots of it is applicable. Whiteness, masculinity, gender and hetero-normativity shape the experience of nightlife and party scenes. Who throws parties and who attends them, the power structure of the party is going to make them what they are. If they are boring and oppressive, they’ll be uncomfortable for everybody outside of the norm. I don’t know who is doing it right. Maybe that’s because I haven’t been living in a city so I feel pretty out of the loop in terms of what scenes are doing it right. 

    It seems like there is an ongoing debate about whether to challenge this dynamic by building a safer community that reflects the world we want or through creating space to have disagreement and learn from conflict and accountability. What do you think needs to be done in order to transform this dynamic? 

    Well, firstly, dance parties can be hard to talk to people at sometimes because it’s loud, it’s about partying or whatever. It’s not always possible to have a conversation about the politics of being there. 

    Questions of inclusivity and belonging are probably dependent on people’s ability to talk about alienation and discomfort. Again, False Witness was talking to me about this the other day. He was discussing how there’s something missing in parties that claim to be safe spaces because in order to claim that a party space is safe there has to be some kind of homogeneity within the group that reaches that conclusion. I think that critique pushes back on the concept of ‘safe space’ because it challenges homogeneity and says, ‘people who don’t look like this group will not always feel comfortable here’. In fact, these spaces often continue to reinforce and produce the hegemony of whiteness, cisgender beauty norms, class privilege or whatever. 

    What are some defining and influential moments for you as an artist?

    During my junior year, I lived in the queer house at Wesleyan, and I started helping throw parties there explicitly for queer kids. This was so new for me. I was just becoming comfortable identifying as queer while before I had tried to seem more cis and straight passing.

    I guess the question is: why do parties at all? Well, there’s something really satisfying about getting people together and being able to facilitate queer make-outs in spaces where people are doing gender in ways they couldn’t elsewhere. 

    I remember at one point thinking that it was cool and kitsch to throw raves at frat houses. But then one night a gender nonconforming student was wearing a dress trying to get into one of those events and was refused entry. I stood back and said: this is not a joke, it’s not funny, it’s not cute. So, I wanted to create space outside of the patriarchal and racist values of those houses. That was when I really started thinking about partying and “scene-making”.

    When you tried to create that alternative space, what made it different? 

    I think partially it was that there were queer people throwing it and queer people attending those parties. That might also be the reason why it fell short in a lot of ways. 

    How so?

    Ultimately, creating a new and “safer space” is about challenging the very power structures of the party: who throws it, who plays and who profits. At the same time, a lot of those attempts can fall short because you can just slap “queer” on an event and it doesn’t change the institution of the college – which for the most part was attended by privileged kids. One party cannot undo all the fucked up aspects of the university or the music industry. 

    Yeah, I guess that’s always the limits of our small scenes made up of friend groups. The spaces we build to survive do not exist in a vacuum, we cannot extract them from our surroundings. 

    But at the same time, even though there were only certain kinds of queerness displayed there – for instance, I rarely saw any other trans women there – it still felt important to us in the moment. Same goes for our small bathroom campaign. It’s possible that changing the bathroom signs to be gender inclusive just reifies and secures that campus for mostly wealthy people who go there. It doesn’t do any real redistribution.

    We can acknowledge what our community spaces do and don’t do, and still challenge the very existence of the institution at large. 

    You can follow Ashe Kilbourne on Twitter and on her Soundcloud.

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