Justin Vivian Bond talks Occupy Wall Street, the power of language, and the politics behind the music
When Justin Vivian Bond was a little kid, v (more about that unique pronoun below) confidently wore Iced Watermelon lipstick to school and, inspired by feminist movements of the time, brandished a sign reading “Kids Lib!” Adults told the young Mx. Bond that these things were wrong, but v knew how right they felt, and represents for queer pride and radical poltics to this day. The writer, singer and activist is best known for v’s role as Kiki DuRane in Kiki and Herb, a drag cabaret show with partner Kenny Mellman. The show started in San Francisco and made it to Broadway, and was nominated for a 2007 Tony award. V's memoir Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels was released this year (wherein Bond tells the lipstick story and a lot more about growing up gender-free). Bond is still touring and will be back in San Francisco Feb. 23, performing from v’s new album, Dendrophile. I talked with v about the upcoming concert, v’s recent performance at Occupy Wall Street, and how music can bring people together.
SFBG What can people expect at your upcoming concert?
JVB I'm going to be performing songs from Dendrophile. I did my release concert when I was in the Bay Area in the spring. So some songs from that, some others songs, and some monologues about contemporary political observations. Also-- 20 years ago I married a local performer by the name of Leigh Crow, aka Elvis Herselvis, and she and her band the Whoa Nellies are going to be opening. So it’s going to be an anniversary celebration.
SFBG You performed at Occupy Wall Street. What was that like?
JVB It was really awesome. I performed for the Trans-form the Occupation rally Nov. 13. It was a lot of trans activists talking about trans issues and establishing a presence of trans people within the revolution. It was so inspiring, empowering and exciting for me to perform my song on the Peoples’ Mic. The song, New Economy, is about the current obsession with whether people have enough and who has it. It was such a great experience.
Of course, the next day the police came in and closed Zuccoti park down. In my show I joked that once the queers and the trans people started making their presence known the police they realized they'd better shut it down. They were probably having flash backs to the ACT UP and Queer Nation days!
SFBG Do you think there has been a good presence of queer and trans issues in the Occupy movement?
JVB There certainly was that day. We didn't get to see how that manifested within the community at the park. But I do feel that there are a lot of queer and trans people involved in raising awareness about social and economic disparities within our culture, so I think that its an inevitability that the subjects are going to be part of the Occupy conversation. Because trans people are constantly being oppressed and harassed.
SFBG How do you think music can help bring that kind of political awareness?
JVB I think that music is a way of bringing people together, especially people that may not realize how much they have in common, or may not have an excuse to be in the same space. If there's an artist who starts voicing thoughts, ideas, and political sentiments, that’s one person making a statement, and people all of a sudden find themselves in a room with like-minded people. Community is formed. That community can become a larger voice, and that’s a powerful way of affecting the culture. Historically, music and artists have been a rallying potent for great and powerful change.
SFBG What’s your most powerful political song?
JVB Probably New Economy, this song that I did at occupy Wall Street . There’s also my cover of 22nd Century, which was written by Exuma, whose a Bahamian voodoo priest and spiritual revolutionary writer. That one really seems to get people going.
SFBG What inspired New Economy?
JVB I wrote it when the stock market was collapsing and everybody was freaking out. People were losing their 401k plans or health insurance. As an artist, I've never had those things. So seeing people freaking about something I'm so used to dealing with was kind of comforting. It was like, we are all going to be on a similar level for a while and try to figure out how to solve peoples problems. The song is about our commonality. The final line is “take what you need and give a little back,” because I believe there is enough out there for everybody.
SFBG You’ve been involved with Radical Faeries, a group that celebrates queer sexuality, connection with the earth, and community. Have you been involved recently, and what does it mean to you?
JVB I haven’t been to a Faerie Gathering since the fall, but yes, I'm still involved. Its about community, and its about finding alternative economies, and ways of sharing and supporting each other on a very human, person-to-person level. That’s as opposed to having your reality dictated by the mass media and corporations.
SFBG Last year, you announced your official pronoun: V. You also use the honorific Mx. The move raised awareness for genderqueer and non-gender-conforming people, and also created backlash. It’s been a year now—how are you feeling about your pronoun decision?
JVB It’s been really great for me. Of course there’s frustration with people who somehow feel like they know me or my trip better than I do. But in general its been really liberating. And on a social level, I've met a lot of wonderful people who are going through similar experiences, that are not interested in being part of a fundamentalist or gender-fascist paradigm. So it’s nice to meet other people who feel this same way, and amazing to find out how many of those people there are out there.
SFBG I know some writers don’t like using gender-neutral pronouns (some commonly-used pronouns that don’t signify a particular gender include ze and they.) But as a writer who has used the incorrect pronoun for somebody in the past, then edited the piece, I feel-- it’s not that hard to respect how people identify!
JVB I've been shocked to find out how heavily invested some writers are are in what they’re used to. For people that make their living using words, I'm almost shocked at how inflexible they can be. As for me, I love language and the power of it. The conversation that the pronoun provokes has been a great conversation to have with so many people. There have been times when people have done that same thing with me, then they fix it online and apologize, so that’s a nice thing.
SFBG Well thank you, and we’re excited for your concert.
JVB It’s going to be really fine show. It’s going to be a celebration, and I’m looking forward to it.