Since releasing his Voided Checks mixtape in 2009, Gordon Voidwell – born Will Johnson – has gotten some really positive attention and approximately one million comparisons to Prince. His latest mixtape, Bad Études, has continued to elicit these comparisons, but Voidwell himself would rather describe it as a postmodernist deconstruction of late ’80s R&B and 98.7 KissFM’s midnight mixes, “for the most part.” Call it whatever you will – this mixtape is full of incredibly catchy tunes that I danced to while making giant pots of soup to warm my freezing ass through all of February.
Though you might start listening to Gordon Voidwell because of his infectious jams, you’ll notice pretty quickly just how much depth there is to his art. His latest project is as deeply political as it is danceable, and when we found out he’s a fan of the site, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask him some questions.
If you don’t already, this Bronx-born and raised Minneapolis transplant, Afro-futurist music-maker, and smartypants is an artist that you should definitely get to know.
Verónica Bayetti Flores: Has feminism (or feminisms!) affected the way that you make your art? How?
Gordon Voidwell: For me, feminism just means thinking critically about the world you interact with. In that way – feminism’s in everything I do. But on a practical level – I was raised by smart, strong women and I think of myself as being informed by feminism as an academic discourse – but also a day-to-day outlook on life. The process of making music and art is – for me – about disentangling my voice and sensibilities from the run of the mill patriarchy that’s so insidiously present in this world. I think for me – a black man making music – it’s also important for me to not co-opt the same systems of oppression that have historically kept people like me alienated. So my music has become a space where I can free myself through critical thinking. My family, partner and closest friends are feminists, and we all probably have different definitions of this word – but for me, it’s as important to making music as knowing how to write a melody or program drums.
VBF: I read an interview where you were saying that you liked ’80s pop because it spoke critically of society without alienating anyone. I’m interested in that.
GV: For me, the best art disrupts systems of power and forces people to interact with those systems differently. So yea – not to essentialize the ’80s – but pop artists in the ’80s seemed down for disruption…maybe partially because artists were in touch with the zeitgeist elements of rap music, punk aesthetics, and postmodernist thought. People like Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, George Michael, Grace Jones, Cyndi Lauper were all unified by this voice of: we’re disturbing societal norms through our bodies, movements and gender performances and also – these weird sounds are made for you to dance to. Social activists overlook the fact that dance is an incredibly powerful organizing tool. Probably my main critique of the Occupy movement is that there’s not enough dance or weird sounds. I’m joking…kinda.
VBF: I keep coming back to Girlfriend Jeans. I like the way you play with masculinity in it, and I feel like you play with normative masculinity a lot throughout Bad Études. Is that intentional, or is it just how you do you?
GV: Girlfriend Jeans is just an actual reflection of my life – literally about wearing my girlfriend’s jeans. My partner who has an MA in gender studies has really taught me to be aware of how maleness and masculinity are performed and how to disrupt them. She also uses her clothes as a space to make statements and she has some couture ass statements to make. We borrow a lot from each other – clothing and ideas. Girlfriend Jeans is an ode to that type of relationship. Regarding gender play – I just feel like historical factors have made it so black dudes are not given much liberty to perform themselves freely. I think I sometimes feel imprisoned by this white, normative language of being a “man.” So this song is kinda like “fuck that.” Bad Études on a whole is kinda like “fuck that.” So yea – basically it’s one long version of If I Was Your Girlfriend by Prince.
VBF: Tell me about the Bart Simpson art! You’ve talked about how Bart has such amazing potential for political and cultural relevancy, and I’d love to hear how you think about that.
GV: Yea – me and my painter homey Emmanuel Mauléon came up with a series of Black Bart Simpsons to serve as album art and thought pieces for the mixtape. The idea was that Bart Simpson is this pop culture icon in perpetual drag and is empowered by not having a singular, fixed identity. Bart can perform race, gender, sexuality, class, age any way the author or illustrator deems fit. My music and artistic intention sometimes seems misunderstood by the critics engaging it (OR HATING ON IT) so I made these Barts to be like “Here’s this blank canvas. Impose on it what you will.” Once you share your music, people are going to re-write its meanings and tell your story to whoever is reading their blogs or magazines or whatever. So – because Bart has historically been such a blank canvas – it was a way of being at peace with that Foucauldian idea of “death of the author.” My songs – and really all songs – are blank canvases and listeners assign meaning to them based on a subjective, limited set of criteria. But otherwise, I think Bart has been co-opted by a number of groups as a connector between pop culture and whatever their specific targeted message is. Bart is so embedded in the pop idiom that he’s easy to fracture and re-write into whatever we like.
VBF: Who are your inspirations? What are you listening to these days?
GV: Right now I’m reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and I’m realizing her writing has really influenced the way I see the world. She’s an amazing observer and conveys mundane observations with complicated humor and analytic beauty. She finds a way to be gracefully disruptive. Generally, I feel inspired by good writing. It’s takes amazing discipline and courage to communicate effectively. Also, just read Hilton Als’ White Girls. As far as music, been listening to a lot of Jersey club music; black dudes from Newark making chopped up avant garde-sounding club music. Along similar lines, dig that dude Kaytranada as well. The new Saint Vincent is dope. She consistently kills everything and everyone. Also – been really into that new wave of avant-R&B music happening by people like Kelela, Jessie Lanza and FKA Twigs.
VBF: You’re stranded on a desert island. You get to take one drink, one food, and one feminist.
GV: This is problematic – but I’d probably take some shit from Organic Avenue. Something with coconuts and almonds and cinnamon that is part smoothie, part cold press juice. They make that, you think? As far as food – I’d take peanut butter and bananas as a combo snack. The last part is a trick question. I’d never take a feminist to a desert island. That’d be some patriarchal imprisonment shit.
You can listen to Bad Études below, and download it here. And for those of you in/around New York City, he’ll be playing what is sure to be an amazing show with Mykki Blanco on March 31st at Glasslands Gallery.
Verónica is pretty pumped about Gordon Voidwell.