A Vision of Hope from 'Hopelessness'
In my experience, there are few albums that radically change upon witnessing a live performance. However, Anohni’s 2016 ‘protest’ album ‘Hopelessness’ is one of those exceptional few. This is why I would argue her performances are increasingly relevant in promoting resistance to systems of oppression, challenging passivity, inspiring hope through visibility and giving a voice to marginalised women.
Anthony and the Johnson’s reincarnation as Anohni catalysed a renewed intention politically, personally (as a trans woman), and musically. Her debut album ‘Hopelessness’ is a political manifesto for change. Her frustrated response to the complicity and failures of world leaders is a plea for engagement with issues such as the denial of climate change, regressive civil rights and increasing surveillance, just to name a few.
The most intriguing thing about Anohni’s music and performances (I recommend watching ‘Drone Bomb Me’ as a starting point) is the way in which she politically navigates, displaces and reconstitutes her trans female body and voice. In this way, Anohni’s music and performances are inextricably concerned with paradoxes, displayed through concealing and revealing aspects of her body and voice. These paradoxes are also evident musically. Whilst on a first listening ‘Drone Bomb Me’ appears to be an enticing and catchy pop song, lyrically and visually the song portrays a suffering Afghan girl perversely seduced by the prospect of her inevitable death by drone warfare. Draconian lyrics such as ‘blow my head off, expose my crystal guts’ pose a stark contradiction to Anohni’s alluring voice. Crucially, in the ‘Drone Bomb Me’ music video, Anohni’s body is absent and only her voice is heard. Her voice becomes physically embodied by a lip-synching, crying, Naomi Campbell, who captivates the viewer with her penetrative gaze.
Interestingly, it is through the central paradox of Anohni’s bodily invisibility that she brings visibility. She conceals aspects of herself (her body) in order to reveal the power of her (crucially, trans female) voice and in such a way turns it into a vessel for bringing visibility to other women. Campbell assumes and embodies Anohni’s voice, invoking meaning and asserting authority over the viewer. The confrontational message of the song is no longer purely individual to Anohni’s body, instead Anohni states it is propelled to a ‘new level of universality’, as a ‘universal speech given by an icon of femininity’.
Anohni’s performance at the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival was particularly striking to me. In this visual-spectacle, Anohni removes herself physically from the space. This is done in two ways: firstly, in the way she erases her performing body by wearing a full veil, and secondly, in the way her voice is reconstituted and re-embodied by the performance and lip-synching done by an unnamed women who is projected onto a vast screen behind her. The space between her and the projected women collapse as her voice extends beyond her body, becoming disembodied and then re-embodied. As such, her voice becomes an independent agent, reflective of all enraged but unheard marginalised women.
During these performances, the element of ‘liveness’ is somewhat distorted as Anohni’s labouring body is concealed, and an audience’s attention is instead focused on the screen-projected woman. As a viewer, it feels more like watching a music video - except for the centrality of her voice. Indeed, the act of ventriloquism within this performance leads to a redistribution and complication of agency through the voice, as viewers becomes transfixed by the emotionality evoked by her lip-synching spectacles. Anohni lends her voice and her global platform to the spectacle in order to voice the projected women’s pain. For instance, her Edinburgh International Festival performance featured a projection of Ngalangka Nola Taylor, an Aboriginal woman, who after Anohni’s performance of ‘Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth’ is filmed in her own voice saying:
We are wondering what is happening to the world, everything is changed, changing…is it going to get better, or getting worse? … how are we gonna work together and make the world a better place to live…all of us.
By giving a voice to those often unheard and making her live performances a visual and aural spectacle, Anohni’s use of projections creates a sense of intimacy and empathy between the women on screen and the audience. This performative focus on lip-synching is reminiscent of drag, in the way that, in drag, performers lip-synch and embody the persona and voice of a (usually female) powerfully iconic vocalist. Similarly, through her performance and act of ventriloquism, Anohni’s trans female voice adopts the position of the powerful vocalist, lending agency, power and political resistance to those she embodies or ’envoices’. In this way, Anohni finds ‘strength’ in her bodily concealment as it propels her voice and music to become universal and politicised, strengthening those who are silenced or neglected by society.
Anohni’s spectacle of performance erases her politicised trans female body, yet this paradoxically brings it visibility. In my view, Anohni’s album and performances have a deep resonance. In concealing her body and projecting her voice, Anohni transparently centralises her voice, rather than her body, heralding and inspiring hope for a time where all intersectional bodies and voices are respected and listened to. The voice is frequently a source of insecurity for trans people, (to put it crudely), a ‘give-away’ which can undermine their chosen and visually presented gender, whilst their bodies are questioned and scrutinised. Anohni’s ascendance of her voice, as opposed to her body, celebrates its power as a force to galvanise resistance against many forms of oppression and injustice, both personal and collective.
Whilst Anohni’s visual and aural focus on her voice allows her voice to become plural, it also normalises trans voices, creating a vocal ‘euphoria’ rather than ‘dysphoria’. Through her voice, Anohni celebrates her trans identity whilst also demonstrating that her gender identity is not the defining element or purpose of her performance and brand identity. Instead, her voice becomes a vehicle to communicate collective, rather than purely personal female suffering. Through the use of lip-synching projections Anohni is able to ‘lift [her voice out] of this hyper-personal space’, creating a singularity between the projected women and herself; creating an intersectional, diverse, and universalised female identity. In her words, ‘to create a fabric – a feminine oracle – combining many faces, [and] referencing many different points of view’.
Anohni’s performance and album is anything but ‘Hopeless’. In contrast to its name the album subverts passivity through her direct, enraging and benevolent call to arms. Her focus on creating a collective female voice of resistance enables her to lend agency, bring visibility and representation to anyone whose suffering has been routinely ignored by systems of power. Sadly, in this bleak and turbulent time in global politics, Anohni’s transparent plea for acceptance, and reform appears to be increasingly and desperately relevant. Yet, the hopeful power of the voice prevails, and significantly it is the unapologetic voice of a trans woman, and those that her voice embodies, who are heard.