Janet May Finds Harmony in Music and Activism

Protest movements, music, and human beings are more similar and interconnected than they are different and alone, and Janet May lives her life in a way that reflects this.

Pete Voelker

Janet May's heartfelt ballads are deeply personal, but she has a decidedly global outlook.

The artist, currently on tour opening for the indie band Palace, has found ways to merge her passion for music with her dedication to activism.

She's involved in many organizing groups around New York City, working for everything from environmental justice to ICE abolition and beyond, constantly appearing at protests, taking part in a residency at Riker's Island, and performing for incarcerated women.

Her intimate music expresses a similar but more private kind of strength, an earnest reflectiveness that stems from a place of interconnectedness, love, and undeniable, breathtaking talent. A former backup singer for the Bombay Bicycle Club and MGMT, May's solo career is catching on after she took some time off to care for her father and move to Los Angeles. She currently has two singles on Spotify, which explore two different sides of strength: "New York, I Am Home" is an aching, wintry ballad about returning to New York and finding strength in solitude, and "Lessons to Learn" is a guitar-driven sparkler of a song about female complexity and resilience. Peppered with gems of wisdom and honesty, and delicately wound together by simple and elegant musical motifs, they're intoxicating songs that blend the best of modern pop with vintage Laurel Canyon-esque Americana.

Over coffee and tea at a Williamsburg bar near the sold-out venue where she was about to perform, Janet and I spoke about the personal and the political, about the importance of personal connection to larger issues, and about our deep love for New York and all the music and people of the city.

EG: How do music and activism connect in your mind?

JM: My impetus to move on things—whether in music or activism—feel similar, in the sense that they're the first things I think about when I wake up. I write about what I care about, and I work on what I care about, and both things really come to fruition when the time is right and when the opportunity and inspiration strikes. I think they're similar in that artists and activists can be pretty integral to shaping change in culture. So I think they belong in the same conversation.

A lot of movements seem to involve music and singing, so they're definitely connected. What actions have you done that stand out in your mind, and what organizations have you partnered with?

JM: About a month ago, I was out front of Cuomo's office with Sane Energy Project and a coalition of people working to shut down a pipeline going into New York Harbor. We brought petitions to the office. I recently marched the Brooklyn Bridge as part of that same movement against that pipeline. That was a great march—there were loads of kids involved, as well as some of the Lakota women who had been at Standing Rock. They're powerful voices in the environmental movements—and to march with them and that they'd come to New York for our water was amazing.

I've also witnessed and been a part of some big actions with Extinction Rebellion, and I've seen them shut down City Hall.

I got into activism because there was part of me that wanted to understand the movement as a whole, including this idea of resisting, and the idea of acknowledging our responsibility to try to at least steer the ship because we're not being represented well.

At first, I was just checking out loads of different groups, just to see how they were organizing, so I've dabbled in a lot. Here in New York, Rise and Resist has been an incredible and constant system of organizing. They were just down in DC, and I played in DC as well, and it meant a lot to me to know that they were all on the floor of the Senate. Also, they organized a Non-March for the Women's March, so disabled individuals and people who couldn't march could also have a rally. I think they're really inclusive and they're all 30-year organizers or more, so I've learned so much from them.

I also work with a group called 8 Ball Community. They're an art-activist collective located in downtown New York. They have an ongoing zine library that is so unique and so special in terms of presenting alternative news and making it accessible in terms of finding information that may not be in the news. We recently did a big Fox News protest when Fox was trying to get money for advertising. We turned up with some glitter signs.

How do you balance music with all this?

For a long time, I was really overwhelmed with how much is going on, and I wouldn't say I'm not now, but I would say I'm learning through my music and am listening to where I feel like I should be activating. I'm trying to narrow down that overwhelming feeling, and focusing on working on what enrages me, inspires me, and moves me.

What motivates you to write a song?

My songs are so personal to me, and I feel like I can't really write about something unless I really know it. I'm married to that idea. Usually, I'll write a song and feel like that's led me somewhere else, so it's always a multi-step process.

I know you performed a Riker's residency—what was that like?

I have a monthly residency at the women's jail on Rikers' Island, so I've been in a few times. My reason for going in… there's multitudes of reasons, and this is something that I've sat with for a long time prior to even being able to get access.

I wrote a song about having a loved one who's incarcerated called "Feet on the Dashboard," and that's about a personal lived experience for me. I felt really isolated through that experience. It's something I felt was stigmatized, and I didn't really understand and was totally happening to us, not just to that individual. While writing that song and living through that experience, I'd seen this panel discussion with Bryan Stevenson, a leader in criminal justice reform and a lawyer and a writer. He said that when you want to learn about an issue or have an effect, the most important thing is your proximity to that issue.

That's where it started for me. When a loved one is incarcerated, you can really feel that border between yourself and that person. I was interested in rectifying some of that experience for myself and providing some healing by being with other people's sisters, mothers, and loved ones. And that's been amazing. I'm always taken aback by how resilient these women are, and hearing their stories—and that they hold space for my story—is an honor.

I like that quote about proximity—it's so important to elevate the voices of the actual people who are people being affected. And music that directly relates to actual emotions always seems to be the strongest. You seem to have connected your music and activism.

For me, the real idea behind activism is understanding your agency and taking ownership over what you can do. It's not glamorous, and it's not about the outside-in; it's totally about the inside-out.

I got into music and activism because I'm so fascinated with people and movement, and live music—to me—is a direct exchange of energy with a larger group. There's magic inside of that, and so I feel like I started to seek out activism because I was curious about how people were moving with one another and sharing concern and bringing that to action.

There seems to be a lot of rhythm involved in both music and strong movements.

I've heard the reason why music is able to move us so much is that the second we're conceived—the second the egg is fertilized—it splits into two cells, and they start beating together, and that's a heartbeat. That will stay with you until you pass, and that's almost like the first thing that we are, is this shared pulsation.

I've read a lot about how sound waves are central to our makeup.

And sound waves are real, as real as this table.

You're on a pretty intense tour. How do you spend your time off?

I just had one afternoon off in New York recently, and I had to ask myself: In just a few hours, who did I want to see?

One of the places I went was the WPA, the Women's Prison Association. It's a shelter for women who experienced incarceration. It's providing resources in terms of materials for creativity, whether facilitated workshops or what have you with the women who are currently living there. The women who run the WPA are incredible. They're the only group providing resources to specifically women who are concerning themselves with female incarceration. Women are definitely preyed upon, and the system fails so many. Proximity is really important for me here in New York.

Apparently, my yoga studio is important to me, too. I practice on my own, and that day it was heaven. I went in and they were steaming a kettle with eucalyptus and burning firewood, and it just reversed whatever was taking over my sinuses on the tour bus. So, New York gives me life.


Nazi-Chic: The Aesthetics of Fascism

Let's take a look at Nazi-inspired fashion.

Villains always have the best outfits.

From Darth Vader's polished black space armor to The Joker's snazzy purple suit, bad guys always seem to show up their protagonists in the fashion department.

Way more handsome than Batman.

But could there possibly be a real world equivalent to the type of over-the-top villain fashion often found in fiction? It would have to be sleek and imposing, austere and dangerous. Probably black.

Maybe it's him. Maybe it's fascist ideology.

Oh, right.

Let's call a spade a spade. From an aesthetic standpoint, the Nazi SS outfit is very well-designed. The long coat tied around the waist with a buckle portrays a slim, sturdy visage. The leather boots and matching cap look harsh and powerful. The emblem placements on the lapel naturally suggest rank and authority. And the red armband lends a splash of color to what would otherwise be a dark monotone. If the Nazi uniform wasn't so closely tied with the atrocities they committed during WWII, it wouldn't seem out of place at Fashion Week. Perhaps not too surprising, considering many of the uniforms were made by Hugo Boss.

Pictured: A real thing Hugo Boss did.

Of course, today, Nazi uniform aesthetics are inseparable from the human suffering doled out by their wearers. In most circles of civilized society, that's more than enough reason to avoid the garb in any and all fashion choices. But for some, that taboo isn't a hindrance at all–if anything, it's an added benefit.

As a result, we have Nazi chic, a fashion trend centered around the SS uniform and related Nazi imagery.

History of Nazi Chic

For the most part, Nazi chic is not characterized by Nazi sympathy. Rather, Nazi chic tends to be associated with counterculture movements that view the use of its taboo imagery as a form of shock value, and ironically, anti-authoritarianism.

The movement came to prominence in the British punk scene during the mid-1970s, with bands like the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees displaying swastikas on their attire alongside other provocative imagery.

Very rotten, Johnny.

Around this time, a film genre known as Nazisploitation also came to prominence amongst underground movie buffs. A subgenre of exploitation and sexploitation films, Naziploitation movies skewed towards D-grade fare, characterized by graphic sex scenes, violence, and gore. Plots typically surrounded female prisoners in concentration camps, subject to the sexual whims of evil SS officers, who eventually escaped and got their revenge. However, the most famous Nazisploitation film, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, flipped the genders.

The dorm room poster that will ensure you never get laid.

Ilsa was a female SS officer and the victims were men. She spent much of the movie wearing her Nazi uniform in various states, sexually abusing men all the while. As such, Ilsa played into dominatrix fantasies. The movie was a hit on the grindhouse circuit, inspiring multiple sequels and knock-offs and solidifying Nazi aesthetics as a part of the BDSM scene.

Since then, Nazi chic fashion has been employed by various artists, from Madonna to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga, and has shown up in all sorts of places from leather clubs to character designs in video games and anime.

Lady Gaga looking SS-uper.

Nazi Chic in Asia

Nazi chic has taken on a life of its own in Asia. And unlike Western Nazi chic, which recognizes Nazism as taboo, Asian Nazi chic seems entirely detached from any underlying ideology.

A large part of this likely has to do with the way that Holocaust education differs across cultures. In the West, we learn about the Holocaust in the context of the Nazis committing horrific crimes against humanity that affected many of our own families. The Holocaust is presented as personal and closer to our current era than we might like to think. It is something we should "never forget." Whereas in Asia, where effects of the Holocaust weren't as prominent, it's simply another aspect of WWII which, in and of itself, was just another large war. In other words, Nazi regalia in Asia might be viewed as simply another historical military outfit, albeit a particularly stylish one.

In Japan, which was much more involved with WWII than any other Asian country, Nazi chic is usually (but not always) reserved for villainous representations.


That being said, J-Pop groups like Keyakizaka46 have publicly worn Nazi chic too, and the phenomena isn't limited to Japan.

In South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand, Nazi imagery has shown up in various elements of youth culture, completely void of any moral context. For instance, in Indonesia, a Hitler-themed fried chicken restaurant opened in 2013. And in Korea, K-Pop groups like BTS and Pritz have been called out for propagating Nazi chic fashion. Usually such incidents are followed by public apologies, but the lack of historical understanding makes everything ring hollow.


So the question then: is Nazi chic a bad thing?

The answer is not so black and white.

On one hand, seeing Nazi chic on the fashion scene may dredge up painful memories for Holocaust survivors and those whose family histories were tainted. In this light, wearing Nazi-inspired garb, regardless of intent, seems disrespectful and antagonistic. Worse than that, it doesn't even seem like a slight against authority so much as a dig at actual victims of genocide.

But on the other hand, considering the fact that even the youngest people who were alive during WWII are edging 80, "forgetting the Holocaust" is a distinct possibility for younger generations. In that regard, perhaps anything that draws attention to what happened, even if it's simply through the lens of "this outfit should be seen as offensive," might not be entirely bad. This, compounded by the fact that Nazi chic is not commonly associated with actual Nazi or nationalistic sentiments, might be enough to sway some people–not necessarily to wear, like, or even appreciate its aesthetics, but rather to understand its place within counterculture.

Ultimately, one's views on Nazi chic likely come down to their own personal taste and sensibilities. For some, Nazi chic is just a style, an aesthetic preference for something that happens to be mired in historical horror. For others, the shadow of atrocity simply hangs too strong.


Chris Mardini Searches for Purpose on “Sleepless”

Mardini's talent is far beyond his years.

Chris Mardini

Press Photo

Seventeen-year-old NYC wunderkind Chris Mardini recently released his third single, a song about simply being wanted and cared for.

Describing himself as a "schemer, short of a dreamer, more of a sleeper," Mardini's sound merges cutting-edge indie rock, hip-hop, and Seattle grunge. Produced by double Grammy winner Marc Swersky, "Sleepless" features Mardini impressive vocal talent, matured beyond his years. Yearning guitar riffs build to the track's climax, a searing guitar solo that screams out all the tension of trying to find meaning and purpose in one's young life.

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