“Speckle and Stain”: In the Here-and-Now with Elysia Crampton
Updated: May 6, 2019
Written by Jose Benjamin Montaño
When we met, Elysia sat on a giant red bean-bag chair in my living room. She quickly inserted herself in the conversation as as friend and I talked about how far we used to drive to see shows in high school. I remember hearing her comment on how quickly DIY-spaces were closing in downtown Los Angeles when I mentioned the current situation of The Smell, an all-ages venue we both had frequented. Her words were poignant, and deliberate, although she carried a certain calmness, which in some ways surprised me given her performance earlier that night.
Just a half-hour before, I’d watched her play at the Big Red Barn for a room-full of entranced undergrads. At moments, it was sheer chaos. Gunshots meshed with cackling laughter, cracking glass, and booming samples in the midst throwing up sound-tags over the mix that rang “Dee-Jay!”. At other times, the noise quelled into familiar cumbia rhythms, with keytar melodies that reminded me of the Los Angeles Azules bootleg CD that my mom used to play when I was a kid.
Most often, however, the extremes mingled simultaneously. When I managed to snap out of the daze for long enough, I would find myself dancing along as a fanfare of explosions was triggered from her sampler. The more we spoke that night, the more that those contrasts, meshed all at once, made sense. It seemed to go beyond the music, and to a place of a more defined, and ever-expanding identity.
Last week, I reached out to Elysia again to ask her more about some of the themes that came out of our first conversations. She responded to my questions by email, discussing her ongoing pursuit of agency as an artist, the process of finding her own language, and the Aymara logic of contentious equilibrium.
CornellRadio: What is your music’s relationship with the violence of colonial projects that continue to this day?
Elysia Crampton: That is a loaded question—
I think part of that comes with detailing what usually gets dismissed from coloniality's lasting trajectory, such as the misconception that justice is only possible through the state, along with many other deeply rooted forms of internalized colonial logic that we carry on a quotidian level, in the so-called postcolonial era.
In regards to what I do: quite simply, I'm here to make noise so as to alert to the wonder that we are still irreducible to that coloniality, in spite of its enmeshment in our lives (in spite of the scars we bear from it), and to say the anticolonial is a project of becoming oriented towards a future that lies behind us like a memory.
Is spirituality something that’s important to you, or under what terms would you characterize your pursuit of greater understanding?
I understand the term "spirituality" is something laughed at and degraded by northern intellectuals today, but maybe it’s not such a bad term or more, it will just have to do for lack of a better one.
I try to feel things out beyond the rational, which we were taught to honor above all else in a settler society made to imbue things with value as a means to hierarchically arrange and segregate becoming. That is a difficult task because beyond the rational also lies unfathomable chaos. But somewhere past or through those things is a form of thinking we practice with heart and with lungs, which we call chuyma.
Photo Credit: Digital in Berlin
How do you view your position and role as a musician? Do you find it to be inherently political, or do you try to separate the different spheres that affect your life? On a related note, considering the influences that you merge within your own body of work, do you feel that you are creating new knowledge, or preserving knowledge?
I'm still uncovering and negotiating the coordinates and scope of my agency as a musician, as an artist, and all of that's still being figured out as I do it, while I'm doing it.
"Engaging with what has been deemed political isn't a means to an end— it's just a temporary coping strategy for hard times"
There is something inherently political in everything we do, but I think our strongest suit at times is when we're not trying to embody the political realm or inhabit political territory as it has been marked or delineated according to the settler's boundaries, his logic. Simply honoring or recognizing the legacy of our family beyond the horizon of settler sovereignty and juridical bodiedness, for instance, is a highly political act. For survival and quality of life we have been made to take up this framework of the political, yet frankly it is merely another narrow, windowless cavern in the settler's schemata or rendering of the possible, squashed into a universe squashed into a world, projected over the multiverse and the slagheap of the impossible, what they call antimatter and nothingness, for example.
Engaging with what has been deemed political isn't a means to an end— it's just a temporary coping strategy for hard times. I think folks like me are labeled political when we are trying to find language to describe what we have come to know as reality— that is, attempting to describe our experience in a way that is legible— in a way that inspires action, empathy, accountability— which has nothing to do with literacy.
Tell me more about the different scenes in which you’ve been playing. What differences arise from performing your material in the United States vs. Europe, for example.
In Europe crowds seem more openly empathetic, are often more vocal and physically responsive, particularly after a show or on the street; things feel more supportive in that way. In my experience, one of the only places that comes close to that kind of support in the US is New York City. One downside to Europe is they have a history of romanticizing native culture there instead of giving us space-time to voice the violence we still undergo as Indians, (for them that was all in the past or something). Of course, in the US we're all just invisible— diaspora have more political agency than first nations people do at the moment.
A few years back you spoke of building a utopia in the club, does that idea still resonate for you? Live it seemed that you actually sometimes evoke very dystopic scenery.
I don't think I ever said that! Clubs were the only places that would pay or hire me at first (or rather, my friends that worked in clubs were the only ones giving me the time of day back then) so my desires and dreams sort of had to be arranged or sorted out in relation to the histories and boundaries of those spaces.
"What sounds or looks like hell to one observer (or listener) might appear as heaven to another."
I'm not really sure what a standard or recognizable sonic depiction of utopia would sound like... [It] feels bound up with Christian violence when I try to picture it, though.
I don't long for imaginary, restorative wholes; I'm always stuck in the here and now trying to make sense of messy ass becoming, which from an Aymara perspective involves the co-mingling of contrasting, fractured elements in contentious equilibrium, not a balanced yin-yang of discreet, solid opposites. In this way, it's no surprise you'd find dystopia (or hear it) in the same place you were seeking (or forging) its alleged opposite: they cohabitate each other, speckle and stain one another in something like a quantum superimposition. What sounds or looks like hell to one observer (or listener) might appear as heaven to another.
From an Amerindian point of view, we were already made to survive our apocalypse which was the settler's birth of a nation, his future. What so many are calling the current end-times are for us the possible embers of a new fire, ready to consume the settler's world or more precisely, reverse it, bring something unimaginable and new via another pachakuti. It could be better or it might even be worse-- ✸