How Houston Artists Are Affected by Trump
Giant Kitty. Photo: Michael Villegas
In addition to the journalism work I do here and elsewhere, I’m also an artist. I write spooky short stories, and even occasionally do some music. In fact, I would never have started writing for Houston papers if my creative work hadn’t gotten noticed.
Lately, though, I find myself in an existential crisis regarding creation as I come near the end of my third book. It’s already disheartening enough to try and by a truth-peddler in an age when so much of the country is desperate to be lied to. Beyond that, we have to deal with a world where fiction is indiscernible from alternative facts. In 2015 I said that there was a robotic shark loose in Buffalo Bayou, and it’s as equally real-world accurate as the spokeswoman for the President of the United States of America talking about the Bowling Green Massacre. It’s the sort of thing that really takes the wind out of an artist’s sails.
Some Houston artists agree. Sara Cress is, and I mean this with no hyperbole or exaggeration, the greatest artistic voice in the city right now. She’s a former Houston Chronicle reporter, who, after she was let go, began turning news headlines into poetry. The resulting Breaking Poems are powerful islands of beauty in the madness of the times we inhabit. During the election, every new entry from her was a balm for my troubled soul, and yet, now she finds herself barely able to compose.
“I’m struggling,” she says. “You’d think all this awful, crushing news would make good poetry fodder, but reading the news right now feels like a beating. I went into the year ready to tackle even more projects, to throw myself into my writing, but I am spending most of my free time in bed doing nothing. I have no energy.”
Cress isn’t the only one. Jacqi Kill, the lead vocalist for The Bad Drugs, is finding that her work as a musician is taking a backseat in the current environment. She’s focusing instead on the practical aspects of survival.
“[I’m] more interested in focusing my time on my family’s safety and security,” says Kill. “Sure it makes me feel x and y and that’s great source material. Ultimately though if the economy gets shit all twisted I need a safe secure place to be and my necessities and that has been the focus for the last year. I think we put the offer in on our house three days after the election.”
Others, though, have found the Trump era to be a potent source of new material. Woodlands singer Alyssa Rubich, whose 2011 EP C’est La Vie remains one of my favorite things ever to come out of Houston, was inspired by Trump to finally get cracking on some new songs. The result was the rough and ready demo “My Voice,” a take-no-prisoners takedown of Trumpism. Frank Ortiz is also a using the Afraid New World to make some new tunes. His latest work is far more political than it has ever been, and far more excellent in the bargain.
Probably no Houston artist sums up the new paradigm better than Miriam Hakim of Giant Kitty. She was one of the driving forces behind a recent concert by Houston musicians of Muslim descent (or dissent if you prefer) that protested the inauguration with a show. Being in a band that features both Muslim and transgender members, she has a keen grasp on who a less-inclusive world will hurt. When I asked her if the new administration empowered or impaired her as an artist, she had this to say…
I wouldn’t call it empowering, but I definitely am more driven to do more tangible things to help like participating in and organizing action days and fundraisers. I certainly think music and activism can inform and amplify each other, and art can both incite people to fight and provide a respite from the terrible things going on in the world.
I think a lot about what the Kominas did last year, they’re all desi guys and all the Islamophobic nonsense that has ramped up the past few years has really affected them, but when they went on tour they called it the “Rock Therapy” tour, and the shows we did with them were more… cathartic than just angry?
I’m definitely torn between being driven to make more ragers like our new song “ET2YT” that we wrote the week after the election and wanting to write songs that make the people affected by this stuff feel good in a small way. Like, we just debuted a new really positive, intimate song at our last show about queer lady love and I think affirming stuff like that is especially important now along with the protest art. Sometimes it feels like just existing is a form of protest for some of us.
And that about says it all.
by Jef Rouner