Our Existence Is Resistance—An Interview With Babely Shades’ Hana Jama

By Stuart Oakes

The work done by Babely Shades – an Ottawa-based artistic/activist collective of women of colour (WOC) and queer people of colour (QPOC) – is not always greeted with appreciation or approval. “There was always discussion in the community how to get more women and more queer people involved,” said founder Elsa Mirzaei in regards to the collective’s raison d’être, “but no one was asking women of colour or queer people of colour.” The issue is that paying lip service to ‘diversity, etc’  is very different from acknowledging and addressing real problems. Moreover, that those problems often require some concession on the part of the ‘establishment’ (read: white, male, cisgender) rarely seems to be greeted well, to put it mildly. For example, ’80s musician Joe King voiced a common ‘establishment’ pushback when his band, The Queers, clashed with Babely Shades over a show the New Hampshire punks had booked in Ottawa last February. In a Noisey interview, the frontman said, “These morons wanting to boycott our show should reach out and talk to us before just saying stuff. They have no idea who we are or what we’re about… They’re actually being racist as hell in my opinion. I don’t think they did it cause they really care, they just wanted to cause trouble.” That his “who we are or what we’re about” is , if you will forgive an editorial imposition (one I am willing to defend), a laundry list of personal biases, unacknowledged privilege, and ignorance is to be expected, and that his position got so much support is proof that, as Babely Shades-member Hana Jama told me, “We’re the first ones in a while doing this work in Ottawa.”

members-of-the-artistic-activist-collective-babely-shades-f.jpeg

Members of the artistic/activist collective Babely Shades (from left): Thu Anh Nguyen, Hana Jama, Elsa Mirzaei, Willow Cioppa, Kelsey Egalite, and Corrina Chow. (Julie Oliver / Ottawa Citizen)

I caught up with Hana on a Saturday evening; when I called, she was sitting in a cafe doing some work. She talks quickly but confidently and intelligently, and when she calls herself a “dreamer” it is tempered by an aura of dedication and hard work and her list of accomplishments. She clarifies the “work in Ottawa” comment with the aphorism, “Our existence is resistance.” The collective, she explains, is focused on continuous engagement with the community over matters both large and small – by “getting our opinions out there, we let [the white boys on the internet] know, we won’t take their shit anymore.” In other words, the collective’s increased (and increasing) visibility forces others to actually reckon with them (QPOC and WOC) and the reality of the oppression they face. Babely Shades’ voice and their vocality – particularly their persistence in calling members of the Ottawa community (and beyond) to task over instances of racism, sexism, and transphobia, among other things – is not about causing “trouble”; it is about serving notice that the things that once flew – anti-Blackness, appropriation, stereotyping, and discriminatory aggressions both large and small – will not fly anymore. It is not an easy task, but the work is something Ottawa needs, especially, Hana believes, when “compared to Montreal and Toronto.”

In an interview with the McGill Daily, members Corrina Chow and Kelsey Amanda put the collective’s size at “over a hundred” members. Hana agrees: “One hundred is an accurate number,” she says, going on to explain that while “a couple of core members are booking shows and organizing stuff, many use [the group] as a connect or as a place for [QPOC and WOC] peer support.” She adds, “Many never book a show, but they come to them and show support.” In that sense, she explains, the group is simultaneously an organized collective and an unorganized community. The name itself comes from those glittery, heart-shaped sunglasses – ones Hana describes as “retro” and “like from a Lana Del Rey music video.” The ‘babe’, both in Babely Shades and in intra-group nickname “Babely Shades’ Babes,” is a reference to and a centering of the collective’s femme trans women, non-binary folk, and otherwise femme members; activists and artists of marginalized genders.

 

The collective does a lot, both through organized action and through the connections it helps members make. Babely Shades has booked two shows in Peterborough, one each in Montreal and Toronto, and regularly books shows in Ottawa. Artists booked include lost shoegaze band  The Veldt, Pakistani-American punk band The Kominas, half-Asian queer rapper and singer Hua Li 化力, and Toronto rapper and DJ Marshia Celina. The collective also holds a monthly show at Pressed, an Ottawa venue, that brings rappers, punks, and other queer artists of colour to the stage. Beyond that, Hana mentions that “festivals have reached out to us about shows”; specifically that they got to help organize this year’s Arboretum Festival. Babely Shades is bringing Lido Pimienta and presenting Melody McKiver and Witch Prophet at the festival, all of whom are fantastic artists of colour (the line-up, which also includes Junglepussy, Mykki Blanco, and Hooded Fang, is making me seriously consider the five-hour drive to Ottawa). Beyond the music, the collective has a second ‘zine coming out later on in the summer – Hana suggests, hopefully,  “August” – and they run “The Babe Goddess Project,” a poetry workshop. The group also hold anti-racism and anti-sexism workshops, panels, and events – including the “Believe Survivors” demonstration in Ottawa following the Ghomeshi trial (Hana says the organizers “rocked it”) and a panel on gender and racism in local music that you can download for free on their Bandcamp – and is working on various other appearances, including a radio panel. The underlying theme of their current plans, Hana says, that “we’ve done a lot of work for our visibility, so now we can talk about stuff.”

In other words, she wants to “bring the online dialogue into real life.” The internet has been central to Babely Shades’ story so far. It helped them get their voices heard, which has gotten the collective in touch with many “closeted allies,” as Hana calls them. “I’ve noticed a change for sure,” she says, “There has been a lot of closeted allies coming out and supporting who, previously, weren’t sure how to speak out. They’ve helped back us up, both kind of in person and directly or by messaging us privately and showing support.”

However, not all the online attention has been positive. “A lot of The Queers fans were online,” Hana says, “…[Activism] can be dangerous; with a lot of people you don’t know what they will do. Things can get violent.” Online, that takes the form of harassment. “People were messaging us death threats or stealing our profile pictures and posting them elsewhere with really horrifying comments.” Hana herself got doxed during the dust-up: “$280 got stolen from my bank account from somewhere in Texas.”

Still, she believes that the benefits outweigh the danger. Babely Shades has given her the opportunity and the means to work on various personal projects. Those includes a documentary about The Veldt – a black shoegaze band from the early ’90s – that she has been shooting in Ottawa, New York, and Peterborough. “The Veldt are these African-American twins from the South,” she says, “who were gonna go big but got dropped for being black.” Following in the footsteps of “Searching For Sugar Man” and “A Band Called Death” – both recent, massively popular documentaries about innovative artists who “fell off” because of industry uneasiness regarding their skin colour – she hopes that the video will help draw attention to the band. “You can’t really find much when you google them,” Hana acknowledges, frustratedly. To counter that, she went directly to the source and booked the band for several shows, including a Q&A session at The Record Center in Ottawa, and has begun talking to a production company who worked with the duo when they went by the name Apollo Heights. “A lot of people came together to help out,” she says – Rachel Weldon, who runs another Ottawa music collective, Debaser, was instrumental, Hana tells me, as was Elsa, who’s band Everett opened a couple of the concerts. “I’ve gotten these opportunities through the collective. I could not have done it without resources like Rachel…A couple years ago, I was just talking and dreaming about this, and now it has a shot.” Babely Shades’ connections has also gotten her a job writing for the local news and culture blog Apt613 – “I interviewed Downtown Boys last week,” she exclaims – and helped her book a mini tour for Brooklyn rapper 777, including a show tonight in Toronto.

That Toronto show, “Black Bitch Supremacy” – “The title comes from when [fellow Babely Shades’ member] Awar [Mitchell] and I were listening to a mixtape called “Black Queer Supremacy” and loving it and we were joking around” – features the Toronto-based Marshia Celina, a queer black rapper and DJ from Philadelphia.When Marshia and Hana met at a concert, she “blew [Hana’s mind]; we talked some real shit – transphobia, queer issues, anti-Blackness. The music is real shit [socially conscious], but still bumping, you can still dance to it, and she’s got a super unique flow and style.” The concert also features 777: “She’s from New York, maybe Louisiana, and she’s pretty big on Soundcloud,” Hana tells me, “I met her in New York at a Saint Heron femme show in Brooklyn. It’s amazing how much she does: she writes for them, she goes to school, she works, she’s part of a collective….” The show also features Toronto’s Babylawn – an super varied group that raps (here) and plays shoegaze (here) and ambient acoustic music (here)- and Lovecraft, an experimental, chill project from Ottawa’s Tyrin Kelly.

The show started to take shape when Hana came up to Toronto in support of the Black Lives Matter tent city – “I am so pro-Black Lives Matter; it was some serious shit,” she says, “It was unreal…I was feeling ride or die, like, here I am and if this goes down it goes down.” She tells me about meeting other dancers, writers, artists, and activists of colour while staying in the city – Lido Pimienta, for example, “came through everyday” – and finally taking a break to party at Unit 2, a house venue on Sterling Road, where she met the QPOC and WOC activists and electronic musicians Rosina Kazi and NIcholas Murray – known as LAL – who run it. “We connected to have this show,” Hana says, happily.

She has been listening to a lot of Rihanna – “I didn’t expect it to be so fucking good” – TDE collaborator SZA, Odd Future-affiliate The Internet – “[singer Syd Tha Kyd’s] visibility as a black queer femme is amazing; so many people are vague, lyric wise, but Syd is upfront about everything” – UK artist Jamie Isaac – “I added him on Snapchat and sent him a pic’ and he opened it. I was freaking out; it was such a fangirl moment” – and, “Beyoncé, obviously, that shit blew my mind,” as well as The Veldt, to prepare for the concert. However, for her, this is just the beginning: “Babely Shades is gonna be a [big] thing. I’m really proud of what people have done so far. But this is gonna take over and run shit.” I would not bet against her.

 

13123391_1009764795739536_560513916172630986_o  Correction: This interview was updated on May 26th at 9:33pm to correct some misinformation. A previous version of the interview suggested that Babely Shades was partly responsible for the Arboretum Festival booking artists Junglepussy, Mykki Blanco, and Hooded Fang. This was incorrect. As the article now states, the collective is bringing Lido Pimienta and Presenting Melody McKiver and Witch Prophet only.

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