Your story in a few lines starting from the childhood so our readers can understand from where everything started
I was born and raised in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts: my parents were not from there, they met in San Francisco in the ‘60ies. They liked poetry and jazz and were activists.
I grew up going to private schools because the ones in my neighborhood were very bad and was lucky that my father’s mother basically paid for my education – she made us a middle class family.
My mother was a professor at the public university (a school designed for the working class people in the Boston area). It was a great place and as a kid I spent a lot of time there, running all over the halls and playing when my mother was at work.
I was interested in music and history: my mother is an historian and my father an ethnomusicologist, as well as a poet and a jazz musician so I definitively combined their interests.
I was involved a little bit in activism when I went to the high school and at the university I was a radio dj: it was a liberal arts college located in Ohio.
I was playing in a punk band in the high school and was continuing that a bit also in the college!
Yeah, I was interested in so many, different things who seemed so separate: now, looking back, it all came together but at those times I would not having knowing it.
I went to protests (against war, against nuclear weapons, for unions), I worked for a union for a little while (a clerical staff one, with a very particular organizing model which is adapted to that specific workplace).
I learned a lot from those experiences, and being in a punk band it helped shape my identity as did going into the rave scene once at college.
After the university, I came back in Boston where I started djing. Overtime I started to feel that the way people are together around music felt more like the kind of activism I wanted to be doing.
Lots of activist groups I was part of (before then) were white and middle class, so there was not a natural understanding on how to work with other people coming from different experiences. Music was a way to respect the differences, whereas in the political scene was not easy for the need to have always a very mediated touch. I was always thinking to the social side of the music.
Did you find a lot of difference when you started touring in UK and EU, in terms of understanding the scene also in the way people got involved in that from a less ‘spare time perspective’ toward a more ‘engaged’ one?
It was very striking, yes, by coming there from US.
I went in London in 1999 where I saw in some ways a stronger and bigger counterculture, for instance the squats scene, which was still then very big (and seems nearly dead now!), where people were very confident to claim a life and spaces outside the state. For me it was very ‘eye opening’. In USA that’s very hard to do. It happens but is very marginal.
How the rave scene and the pirate radios worked there was very impressive to me.
I was on the edge of the free techno scene, I do not play that kind of music, I was doing jungle and break core, I do not like the straight 4/4.
And England was the place for your sound..
Yes, it was. I really like the politics of the free techno scene and I hadn’t seen a place before that where people were explicitly anticapitalist, anti-state, crafting this space for music outside of control. I was familiar with the legacy of the marxist politics – my parents were radical, my mother a socialist – so it was really striking to see all these techno people talking about Hakim Bey, etc.
Free techno people did not talk of some issues I got more interested, like about race, even if their music is an evolution of black music. I also did not hear too much of other issues crucial to me, as immigration and colonialism.
Now you’re at a stage of your life where you fulfill completely the huge intellectual legacy your parents left you, because you have just been appointed to teach at a public university in Philadelphia.
You’re giving so, in a certain sense, back all what you have incredibly achieved during your childhood.
You’re in the media studies as a professor. And of course you witnessed the change of media industry in your country, maybe one of harsher and more critical ‘bullet points’ in this administration…And more in general into the democratization of USA.
As we discussed yesterday, despite the media are becoming bigger (and easily to domesticate), which is the relationship of your students with reading?
Are they aware of the power of reading or are they lazy, are they having their own relation with writing?
Which strategies do you apply to fight illiteracy and is there out something organized to prevent or fight the huge phenomena, that happens also in many other countries?
All the time I was involved in music and activism I came back and forward between academism and not, as in London where I was at a master at London School of Economics but also djing in London at underground venues and art spaces.
I took four non-academic years once I came back in NY where I was involved in warehouse parties and throwing djing acts; I was also volunteering as a medic during anticapitalist and antiwar protests. There was the need, we do not have a real health system, especially for people on the margins.
I was back and forth with scholarship and other programs and actions in those years.
One of the things I learned from my mother – when she was very involved in at the time at the university – was revising the curricula. Because public universities in US are aimed to urban commuters, poor people, whose curricula are not traditionally developed for. Those are people who are ever not being expected to go to universities…And so, it’s true that those folks, even before the advent of the new technologies, did not always have a good relationship with reading. It is also true that lots of writing was not for them, not reflecting their experiences and their reality.
What I learned from here is not to make them learn a technique, or be passive readers but actually make this relevant to them, and I still view it in that way.
I’m not meaning that poor people cannot read theory, but some of the reasons why people don’t read it is because it does not help or reflect, or affect their lives. I am not a theorist for theory’s sake, it has to be useful.
When I read libertarian theory it is not helping me to deal with corporate power. It doesn’t mean I would not look at it just to see what it says, but for students who are looking for ways to find their place in the world, I have to find the way to source things that will be worth for them to read. It’s a challenge and is also true to that lots of academia is very hostile to poor people, to black people. It’s a natural response to be then hostile from their own way and I’m totally understanding that when you read something which is intimidating, not written to be transparent. It’s not certainly better because it is hard to understand! I try to ask them to read like writers, as well, to see themselves as creators of knowledge as much as those they read.
It’s a different kind of work the one to do in a public university. I’m happy teaching here.
My classes are people university can really deeply affect them because our society does not expect them to be there, this is what appeals me the most!
I still have some faith that a huge social change can be made. To do that I have to do a work also for them, considering that this is a reality with less power than others.
We should also get attention to the fact that I have to give them a different vocabulary to assert their claims. This is what I do sometimes also with djing. Creating a space where people can feel important, where different marginalized communities can feel it less.
What about your relation with New York, even if now you’re more in Philadelphia? What do you feel to give to the city (as a citizen, by freezing a little bit yourself the teacher, the activist and the dj) and what do you get back from it?
I think NYC gives me the highest energy it feels like the most multicultural environment in the world. Also, you just do not come here if you do not know what do you want…It is the most fast moving place ever and now that I have much more resources and do not have to deal with three jobs at a time – and given I know that my mum is in good health so I do not have to worry – I can enjoy it at its full.
The city is so expensive, lots of communities do not have access to this energy.
Part of the work with music I do is try to contribute positively to give space – a safer one – to people. I work, for instance, in order nightclubs are a safer place (they cannot rely on police for safety, because it is not good for the community I’m part of), on how to prevent sexual violence in and out the scene, and so on. I got more responsible on these issues, so I think I’m giving back also this to NY.
Which is the place where you do hide yourself in NY when you need to slow the pace?
I think for lots of people is important to have a space, housing is so expensive that they’re very tiny and you do not have room for kitchen (that’s why there are so many beautiful restaurant in town).
I’m lucky, glad, happy that my partner owns his own and so I can get there and take a break, I was used to live in a tiny room in a very noisy area where even sleeping was hard.
Now it’s not so much ‘geographic’, it is about to be at home with my partner.
Anything special for you about food and drinks?
I’ve been mostly vegetarian for 20 years at this point, I think.
I was very envy because Ravish (Momin, her boyfriend, who is an experimental musician also playing under the name of Tarana) was just on tour in Singapore and Malaysia and having lots of my favorite dishes, everything with coconut, basically! And Indian as well! I love all the South Asian and Indonesian and Malaysian food in general. But also Ethiopian and many other kinds.
I just felt lucky to live in cosmopolitan cities, you can have all the food you like!
Where do you see yourself in 10 years from now? Will you still be so proud to act in this multilayered ways or to explore new places?
Two years ago, before I got this actual job, I was questioning myself if I was always having the right energetic level to keep it – the teaching, the djing, the activism – all at a once!
When you get a full tenure track job as I got it, it is a very rare finding that you would like to keep.
There is another thing: being in the music scene at 44, it seems I am ‘too’ old so sometimes is hard to share with the youngsters because they see you more as a mentor than a performer beside them (and especially if you’re a female this happens more, the music scene is still a very ‘male’ dominated one and you happen to be forgotten very quickly if you do not perform often, this is tiring).
I am always also participating in the ‘discussion’ side of the music sector, like workshops, lessons and conversations but I do not feel to get the ‘fun’ side if I do not go to perform and to dance.
There is a last thing I want to tell you and is regarding the ‘Weinstein’ effect also in the music. There are lots of revelations coming out also in this sector, some getting very close to my circuit. Somebody I was djiing with was discovered to have raped a lady and this made me angry, that I did not know, that nobody felt safe to talk about it!
In ten years from now, I would love to be able to be a support for helping this music scene still happening, even if not in an institution but somewhere in a way I can encourage younger people to try and make it an even more interesting place that is less sexist and racist. And still doing music, maybe I can produce my music at the very end!
And what about writing a book?
I’m finalizing my upcoming title, I do not have a contract yet, I sent the publisher the manuscript, I have good feelings they could like it.
It is based on my dissertation about popular music and law: if you look really closely to how people made music for themselves in Jamaica, they can produce for all of us a better understanding on how to claim rights without engaging into a colonial power and in the actual system of copyright. And still getting happy and… getting some money!
In a few words, it is showing a better way of culture making but also a different relation with sovereignty.
I think you learned so many things from life, which is the most striking?
Oh, goodness, a lot and in different contexts – the longer you’re alive…
For me personally one of the most striking is probably very particular and to do with understanding on how power works with society and especially with race. And my relationship to it. It is American centered and deals with whiteness, the system of power you’re complicit with.
For me that has been the biggest and most ongoing revelation, of course it is not finished but it is all about how to engage it. This includes working on Jamaica, a colonized country for instance, I try to find ways to contribute back. I volunteered in the prison system there, and I try still to make good connections with people.
The second is more recent and is linked to the fact I’m a tenure track professor now. I am now for the first time inside an institution. For my all life I was outside raising my fist and being critical from outside!
What are so my responsibilities given I have a sort of power now? How I can gain access to it for people who do not have it?
To listen to Larisa’s as DJ Ripley: https://soundcloud.com/ripley