The Alchemy of Anger
(ft. Estyr)

August 19, 2020

Teh Talks is a series of exploratory conversations between creatives.

This conversation between Jasmine Gui (@jaziimun), Estyr (@estyr_143) and Serve (@serville_) has been scrambled and edited with love.
Unless otherwise indicated, all answers are by Estyr.

Easy to be silent, easy to be sad,
When fear wants me quiet, wanna forget.
Do I descend, or manifest, all I can do, all I can bless you with,
All I can stretch, you with.

- from Mad Woman, Estyr

Do you have memorable stories about experiencing anger or rejecting it?

All of my anger stories involve shame. When anger was expressed in my family of origin, it was always in muted tones and lowered voices. I thought that was great until I realized that quiet anger can trick us into thinking we’re doing well and communicating well when sometimes we’re just sublimating emotion and reinforcing the status quo.

I was raised in a Western, American expression of Christianity that communicated anger as appropriate in response to widespread injustice, but within certain limitations and with censorship. When allegations emerged about the white-led organization I worked at, for being racist and transphobic, I found myself mediating space between this institution that paid my bills and people of colour feeling slighted by the institution. This space of mediating anger in conversation is something that feels familiar as a multiracial person, a woman, and a first-generation immigrant. Occupying anger in any space feels tenuous.

How does anger impact you bodily and transform your internal landscapes?

Unexpressed anger makes me feel restless and like I’m rotting. It orients everything within relative to an oppressor-figure and feels like a reducing force that makes me less human. When I express my anger, I feel empowered, and can move on. There’s nothing more uncomfortable, but essential, to my growth than anger. I usually need some anger before I’m willing to do something. Transformative anger says to me, something isn’t right and I’m not going to let you feel comfortable while that’s the case. It’s a big red arrow indicating “don’t panic but something isn’t right”. Anger gives me a little bit of an adrenaline boost to do difficult things. That’s why I relate anger to fire. A little fire is essential for a lot of things, but too much will destroy everything.

On weekends I was spending my time in white-led churches. With conversations about the inclusion of queer folx and people of colour in leadership roles, I started to feel like I was in that in-between space again. I started to feel bitter, and that bitterness was like corrosive acid wearing me out from the inside. I don’t want this for anyone, and I think if we hold onto anger without allowing it to work, or if we’re dis-empowered, anger can create real effects on our bodies.

What does transformative anger look like when applied to your work, communities, and daily decisions?

Transformative anger to me looks like knowing your role and sticking to it. Not demanding people who have been oppressed to explain or process their anger with their oppressors unless they want to, and they get to set the terms. It means knowing when you’re able and equipped to have a hard conversation.

Transformative anger looks like showing up and facing your enemy without denying the truth of who they are, or even the evil things we might have done—extending compassion. I was listening to a New York Times podcast on the life and legacy of John Lewis and heard the following, “…when faced with a hateful, angry, aggressive even despicable person…imagine that person…actually visualize him or her as an infant, as a baby. If you can see this full-grown attacker who faces you as a pure innocent child that he or she once was, it is not hard to find compassion in your heart.”

When I’m honest with myself, anger usually comes from a place within where love isn’t present.

This struggle brought me to liberation theology, a Latin American movement that marries Christianity with Marxism to fight for social change, as well as modern protest. In my experience, institutions don’t change without advocacy from within, as well as pressure from grassroots movements that are angry.

I’m a mad, mad, mad woman
Raised up for revolution.
I’m a mad, mad, mad woman;
Don’t get left behind; get aligned.

- from Mad Woman, Estyr

What kind of relationship do you have to anger now?

Recently I heard a panel discussion led by Dr. Esther Acolatse, a Professor of Pastoral Theology and Intercultural Studies at Knox College who summed up my learning. I’m paraphrasing here, but she said, “I have always believed that the church’s problem is civility. That we are not real with ourselves.” Considering that the church is one of the world’s older institutions, this is wisdom that can be applied to our broader institutional frameworks. She said “Anger that is shared is redeemed anger”. Anger is necessary—not passive anger, but active anger that is willing to hold complicated, difficult spaces for people to change.

Directed by Serville Poblete
Special Thanks to WHAT I LIKE Studios
Music by LE-VI and Estyr

What was the ideation process for this music video? 

Serve and I were quarantined together. I’d had other plans for the MAD WOMAN video, but also knew the time we had was a rare opportunity, so we started to discover what was possible within our limits. We started a mood board, had a lot of chats with Rahul Madan of WHAT I LIKE (WIL) STUDIOS, and ended up with a few visuals (all black and white) that conveyed the strength and vulnerability we associate with healthy anger.

Serve: I’ve always thought of women as strong and independent individuals as a result of growing up and being raised by my mother. Therefore, I wanted to create a music video that represented that belief but also complemented the core theme of the song which is anger. A timeless feeling that is universally embedded in everyone.

Has sharing the video opened up new avenues of conversation about anger in your community or relationships?

Yes! I’ve had some women reach out to me—they feel empowered listening to the song, and that makes me feel so happy. It’s also made me more aware of these kinds of conversations: my ears perk up when I hear women talk about anger, like Leslie Jamison, who recently shared this story about anger. It’s also made me more willing to broach the subject with friends, men, my mother. My thinking on this subject continues to evolve. How does the liberation of female anger also liberate men? Is it possible to free anger from a false gender binary, or think about it more accurately?

What are the fundamental elements of a creative process for you?

For me, the creative process requires a shared vision. That’s why I find mood boards so powerful. Feeling safe enough to say “no” to something is also key for me, along with shared decision-making. In a collaboration, I want everyone to bring their best to the table, and that requires a lot of vulnerability.

How did you conceptualize the MV for the song?

Our setup for the video was so simple we didn’t have to pivot too much. We wanted the video to be disorienting for the viewer, like anger can sometimes be, so we played a lot with panning and making it unclear how I was positioned in space. Isn’t that what anger is like? Simultaneously orienting and disorienting?

Serve: Showing a sense of power and anger without the need for action, conflict or energized visuals but rather with the use of motivated abstract shots, camera movement and art direction to intensify those emotions. We were really able to narrow down the tone and look of the music video with the help of Rahul of WIL STUDIOS. Furthermore, with the edit, we wanted to create this pace which felt chilling and unexpected by using hidden transitions, close-ups and the use of performative and non-performative takes. We opted for a black and white colour grade to emphasize that ageless feeling but to also make the shadows more prominent and the visuals more striking.

I’m done being silent; I’m done being sad,
Don’t need to be compliant waiting to get
Space to speak given to me; you can test my capacity
but I’m stronger now (yes I’m stronger)

- from Mad Woman, Estyr

Do you have set rituals or routines for writing music?

I’m still finding my footing as a songwriter. Every collaboration asks for a different style. My rituals for songwriting revolve around the notes and voice recording apps on my phone. I usually get ideas while I’m biking, so sometimes I’ll pull to the side of the road and sing a lil tchune into my phone or write down a thought. Thereafter, I’ll sit down to piece together what I’ve found: a melody here, a beat from a producer there, and see what clicks into place.

What part of “Mad Woman” showed up first, and what showed up last?

One of the producers I collaborate with, LE-VI, gave me a beat and asked me to write a song inspired by a television pilot he was working on called VISIBLE. The first part of MAD WOMAN emerges with the phrase “I’m a mad woman”—that felt like an alien phrase. I tried to sit in the sentiment and think about all of my encounters with anger, and worse yet, how often I’ve felt othered for expressing anger. I thought about women’s history and how often women’s emotions have been medicated or characterized by medicine as “hysteria”. I remember others’ reactions to my anger and felt a throughline in this awful history. The last part of the song to fall into place was the voice modulation vamp at the end. I asked LE-VI to play with voice pitching because so much of being a mad woman is knowing others perceive you differently than you know yourself.

What’s a line from the song that has stuck with you in an interesting way?

“Do I descend, or manifest, all I can do, all I can bless you with,
All I can stretch, you with.”

I spent a lot of time trying to fit into spaces that weren’t made for me. None of the available social roles fit naturally, so I contorted myself to fit in, and when I couldn’t, felt horrible! This song marks a reversal for me: the defect isn’t with me, or with others. I am empowered to make space for others, and stretch boundaries of inclusion in my spheres of influence. I believe those who are “othered” have the most to offer the mainstream, but they also don’t have to! Making space for others is hard work.

You mention anger as necessary and alchemic. When I think “alchemy” I think “creative practice”, the transformation of emotion, impulse or mood into a spatial thing or atmosphere that invites other people into experience and dialogue.

I totally agree with this! Sometimes I think of creative practice as mining for gems in the dirt, only the dirt is us. The pressure of everyday life can leave us bruised, for sure, but also with these gems that can only be produced under pressure. When I have a defining experience and I make it into a song or a video, it’s a release.

I’m a mad, mad, mad woman
Raised up for revolution.
I’m a mad, mad, mad woman;
Don’t get left behind; get aligned.

- from Mad Woman, Estyr

General Visuals By Serville Poblete
Special Thanks to WHAT I LIKE STUDIOS