For the past year, Sunflower Bean’s frontwoman Julia Cumming has been angry. And, she’s been channeling that anger through her music, with songs like “Twentytwo”, and an activism initiative she started called Anger Can Be Power, inspired both by the current state of the world and a Clash song. Since October, Cumming has been putting on events in New York City to help create awareness around political engagement and putting the spotlight on young activism. She’s had public discussions with politicians like Nily Rozic and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, played bass with SZA’s bassist and activist Arianna Gil, and gave a platform to NYC student activists who spoke about everything from gentrification to segregated schools. But, her overall point is disrupt what politics and advocacy can look like, and ignite her audience to turn their anger into strength.
For Lenny Letter, I spoke with Julia Cumming about her platform Anger Can Be Power, her relationship with the emotion and what she hopes people take away from her events.
|||Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming|||
**Tahirah Hairston:** How did Anger Can Be Power come into fruition?
**Julia Cumming:** Sunflower Bean was on tour in the Deep South during the election, and it was this really weird experience of driving around the U.S. and seeing all the Trump stickers on the back of everyone’s car and on the front of everyone’s lawns. We were still on tour even after the election and those first few nights, the shows were really explosive. I was saying stuff like, “Fuck Trump,” from the stage and people were saying it along with me. And, of course, it feels great to say, “Fuck Trump,” on stage. It feels great to say it everyday of your fucking life. But I was trying to work through all these ways to express activism.
I’ve always had this thought that in order to make people interested in activism you have to make it easy for them to integrate into their lives. I was like, “should I start a magazine? no. should I do this? no.” I just didn’t know what the hell to do but I knew that I needed to do something. I needed a place for all these feelings. I thought that I could maybe create a space, like a live show, like an event that people could come to and start talking about how they feel. I thought that if you could get people together and have them make friends and learn things in a politically focused setting, that you would actually get people more interested in activism in general. Because it’s like an entrance into being politically engaged.
**TH:** What was the first event like?
**JC:** My first idea was that I wanted to have this tea party for women and girls of all ages to come and I want to speak to a woman who’s either run or is running for office and the mental jump that it takes to consider yourself a leader. Which is something I’ve struggled with and I know that some women I am friends with struggle with. It started with that idea. I didn’t even think that I was starting anything. I just thought it was a one-off. But I was sort of obsessed with it.
I’d been listening to the Clash song “Clampdown” obsessively for like six months or so. And it has the line in the song, “Anger can be power. You know that you could use it.” And I just thought that that was perfect. I thought that was what we were going through and if we could think about the kind of anger that’s bubbling inside of everyone and actually turn it into something through conversation and community that it might be a start.
So, I threw the first at a prop house in Williamsburg called Acme Studio. It was just this really wacky, special place that as soon as you walked in you felt like you were in an art piece. I felt like people were really happy being in a place that wasn’t like going to a panel at NYU or something. A lot of those settings can feel very sterile, so I was changing what the idea of what political conversation looked like.
**TH:** What do you hope your fans and people who attend get out of this?
**JC:** The thing I would love the most is for people to have the courage to start anything they want to start. To start bands, to start projects, to start films, to run for office, to start anything. And not worry so much about if they are qualified to do it, in the traditional sense. And that’s what we’re seeing so much now this year is so many people who are realizing that they are qualified and that there’s nothing that should be stopping them from being in office because they actually care about people and have other people’s interests at the heart of what they want to do and they don’t need to stop because someone says they’re not a politician. The face of politics is changing and I think with that the face of activism can change and grow with it.
Another thing that I hope to show is that everyone has such different skill sets. Everyone has something to offer. Activism doesn’t have to look like one thing. That’s why this event looks the way that it looks, which is often very experimental because that’s the space that I’m coming from. People express their art in their own ways and I think we need to bring that to activism, like what you can do, are you a good writer, are you a good photographer, are you a good chef? How can you bring those things to people that may need it? People that are campaigning or a group that you really love that has a really bad website but you’re really good at designing them. It’s like being able to donate your creativity.
**TH:** What’s your relationship to anger?
**JC:** The thing about anger is that it is so powerful. That’s what I’m so curious about. It is an emotion that can fuel you for so long. It can fuel a fire within you and usually that fire eats you up and it kills you from the inside. When your anger at someone or when your anger at yourself is so large and so powerful. My hope is that by even unleashing it and even having a person talk to another person and say, “I’m so angry. I’m so angry that I can’t do anything about the NRA. I’m so angry that so and so is in office.” I’m hoping that by sharing that with other people that that will begin to lessen its strength. That’s what I’m trying to do with Anger Can Be Power is to tap into the collective anger and tap into the collective experience and be in tune with it enough that I’m creating something that people want and that people need.
*Tahirah Hairston is the deputy editor at Lenny.*