Image: Kayana Szymczak

One of America's Most Prominent Net Neutrality Activists Just Released a Folk Punk Album

Fight for the Future's Evan Greer talks about her experiences as an activist and trans woman in "She/her/they/them."

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Apr 5 2019, 5:29pm

Image: Kayana Szymczak

For the last few years, Evan Greer has been one of the most constant presences in the ongoing fight for net neutrality and internet freedom more broadly. Through her nonprofit Fight for the Future, Greer has helped organize widespread internet blackouts that protested the SOPA and PIPA anti-piracy bills, and numerous letter writing and phone banking campaigns associated with the larger net neutrality fight.

Greer’s activism is a mix of old-school phone banking and letter writing mixed with attention-grabbing stunts: The group bought a series of billboards naming and shaming lawmakers who have either declined to fight for net neutrality or who are actively fighting against it, and website blackouts, slowdowns, and awareness-raising campaigns have been among the most successful tools net neutrality activists have deployed so far. Greer has also been instrumental legislatively—Fight for the Future has been heavily involved in a Congressional push to restore net neutrality, first through an obscure legislative process known as the Congressional Review Act that would have repealed the FCC’s move to end net neutrality and more recently through legislation that would protect net neutrality.

Greer’s activism is informed in part by her roots as a punk musician in the DIY scene. Her new album, She/her/they/them (released Friday on Don Giovanni records) is her first since 2009’s Never Surrender. Musically, She/her/they/them is an eclectic mix of folk punk, from the opener, “First Boy,” which more or less exemplifies the folk punk genre to the punk pop singalong “Last iPhone” that imagines a utopian postapocalyptic world without iPhones, and more complex songs like “Confluence,” which layers cello as the song slowly builds over five-and-a-half minutes. In She/her/they/them, which is named after her gender pronouns, Greer writes candidly about some of the struggles she’s faced as a trans woman (getting regularly misgendered by the media, for example), about her activism, and the general arc of things: On “Liberty Is a Statue,” for example, she notes that statues—like the Statue of Liberty—are “things we build to remind of us things that have died.”

The album isn’t gloomy or defeatist, though, and it’s well worth your listen. I had an email conversation with Greer to discuss why she decided to release another album, and how she considers her music in the context of her activism.

MOTHERBOARD: It's been a really long time since you've released new music. You obviously started as a musician but I've always known you as an activist. Why was now the time to get back into music? Do you feel like you ever put it aside or have you been working on these songs for a long time?
Evan Greer: For me, music and activism have always been inextricably linked. The first song I ever wrote was in high school and it was an anti-war song about the invasion of Afghanistan. I basically felt like I couldn't go around singing about it if I wasn't going to do something about it, so I got involved and helped lead a student walkout. That was my first foray into activism, and I've been weaving together music, culture, and organizing ever since.

Even when I was touring full time and playing a few hundred shows a year, I was always involved in various activist projects and campaigns, and often I'd mix up my shows with workshops and trainings for unions, grassroots organizations, student groups, etc.

In recent years, the balance has tilted more toward activism, as I've been working full time helping run Fight for the Future. But to me it's all kind of the same. Whether I'm writing a song or creating a video or a campaign page, I'm using creativity, words, and art to try to reach people at an emotional level and inspire them to believe that it's worth fighting for the things they care about.

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Image: Jen Vesp

In some ways, touring less and organizing more has actually allowed me to focus on creating art in a more sustainable and focused way than when I was on the road all the time living off of donations and burning CD-Rs off my laptop to sell at shows. It gave me the space to actually go into the studio and figure out how to share these songs with other people and make them sound the way they sounded in my head when I wrote them.

For me, being part of the fight is not really a choice. I get super bummed out when I'm not in the midst of an active campaign, fighting for something that matters to me. That's what gets me out of bed in the morning. But I also get depressed when I'm not making art and playing music. I'm lucky enough to have organized my life in such a way that I can do both, and releasing this album is sort of my reward for that :-)

There's obviously a long connection between punk and the DIY scene and activism. But often punk activism is more along the lines of local organizing, and smash-the-state type stuff. Fight for the Future does some of this, but it also helps write legislation. You've also been involved with online protests, working on the Congressional Review Act, things like this. Is the Congressional Review Act punk? How do you approach your activism, knowing you have this punk/DIY scene background and knowing the types of activism that have traditionally grown out of that scene?

Haha what's not punk about obscure legislative mechanisms that can be used to overturn rulemaking decisions enacted by Federal agencies? ;-)

In seriousness, though, I draw a lot from my experiences in the DIY scene and more grassroots local organizing that I grew up involved in. Doing that type of activism taught me how to be scrappy and use whatever resources were available to accomplish the goal, whether it was providing some meals through Food Not Bombs or raising funds for political prisoners.

My core politics haven't changed that much from my youth of bingeing on Crass, Bikini Kill, and Dead Prez. I still fundamentally believe that our political system is broken at its roots, and needs to be dismantled and built anew. I still believe in fighting for things that everyone says are impossible to achieve. I've just gotten a lot better at it :-) By being more strategic and harnessing the power of the Internet to reach enormous numbers of people, we're attempting to turn the impossible into the inevitable. There has always been a debate about whether to work inside or outside the system. I think both are valid and needed, even if just as a form of harm reduction. But what we're trying to do is something else entirely: we're trying to hack the system in order to preserve the Internet as a transformative technology that has the potential to utterly change the rules in ways that give more people a voice than ever before.

Fight for the Future works on a wide range of issues at the intersection of technology and human rights, but at our core we're about fighting arbitrary authority and unchecked power, and defending people's basic ability to be themselves and speak their truth. I think that's pretty punk rock.

A lot of these songs are about your experiences as a trans woman and are about gender nonconformity, being misgendered, discrimination, etc. But it's also about the broader of idea of liberty, Us vs Them, protest, and equality. How much of this album was informed by your net neutrality and internet freedom activism and how much of the album is informed by your personal experiences as a trans woman? Are there areas in the album where those two identities mix together? I don't know if that distinction matters at all, or if they're worth separating or talking about separately, but is that something you think about?

The songs on She/her/they/them have been written over the course of the last 15 years or so, and honestly I haven't done a ton of writing in the last few years, so I'm not sure there's a song on the album you could call like a "net neutrality anthem" or anything like that. But all of these songs were written while in the trenches of some fight or another.

Because the songs span so much time, they're kind of a collage of a lot of different aspects of my life—there's songs about flirting with boys at parties and songs about mental health in the age of climate catastrophe.

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Image: Gaetano Vaccaro

Being trans is just one part of who I am, but I did want to really forefront that aspect of my experience with this release. It's so important especially for young trans and gender nonconforming kids to be able to see artists out there who they can relate to sharing their art fearlessly with the world.

That's also one of the reasons I care so much about fighting for Internet freedom. The free and open web is such a lifeline for so many people who generally feel left out of the mainstream. It's a literal lifesaver for a lot of LGBTQ youth, who can now go online and find out that they are not alone, and connect with others who share their experiences. For all its flaws, the Internet is an awesome engine for amplifying the voices of those who have so often been silenced, and for creating spaces where the weirdos and outcasts of the world can find each other and connect.

Similarly, it's been hugely important for me as an independent artist. Way back in the day I worked with a group of other songwriters called the Riot-Folk! Collective. Before the days of Napster we would put all our songs up for free download using Archive.org and accept donations. The Internet was kind of young then compared to where it is now, but I could already see its power—showing up in some random city in Europe where I'd never played before and having 100 kids screaming along all the words to my songs. Without a label or management or distribution or an agent or anything like that I was able to tour all over the world sharing my art—thanks to the Internet. Defending it now is the least I can do.

Tell me a little bit about the people you collaborated with on this album ... the strings on "Confluence" are amazing, and some of the additional vocals you have on songs like “Assimilation” and “Ya Estamos” are great and add a lot of depth.

This album would not have happened without my dear friends and musical co-conspirators Taina Asili and Gaetano Vacarro. They produced the album and added their many musical talents. I'm totally NOT a studio musician. I'm much more comfortable on stage or in a crowded basement show. But they really helped me get these songs ready for their close-up. They're also incredible musicians in their own right and have a new album out soon, plus a series of music video documentaries based on interviews with women of color. It rules.

The high school punk rocker in me still kind of can't believe this but another collaborator on the album is Chris #2 from Anti-Flag, who sings on “Last iPhone.” They were definitely one of the first punk bands that caught my attention and honestly their music just keeps getting better and better.

"Confluence" was maybe one of the most complicated songs to record, but it's also one of my favorite. The epic string shredding is from Bonfire Madigan Shive, who is an absolutely legendary riot-grrrl cellist, frequent collaborator with folks like Elliot Smith and Sleater Kinney, and appears on the soundtrack of the iconic queer film But I'm A Cheerleader.

My friend Sean Desiree aka bells roar does the feature at the end of "Assimilation" and I love it so much. They are a super bad ass gender nonconforming artist and it was great to have them part of that track, which is sort of an open letter to the mainstream gay rights movement. Their solo music is awesome and everyone should check it out.

The song "Liberty Is a Statue" is my favorite on the album because it's catchy, clever, lyrically very smart and it gets stuck in my head. But I also feel like it's also one of the only songs on the album where you suggest that "we're losing" in any way (especially the line "statues are things that we build to remind us of things that have died." I feel like the album overall is pretty optimistic, though. Do you agree with that reading? Do you think we're winning?

It's funny because that's actually one of the oldest songs on the album. But it's true that this record is a bit more weathered and maybe even a bit more cynical than my youthful exuberance on Never Surrender. I have my ups and downs but overall I manage to remain pretty optimistic. I draw inspiration from those who fought before, often facing even longer odds in even more dire conditions.

I know sometimes the world can feel overwhelming. Like nothing we could possibly do could ever be enough to even make a dent in all the suffering and injustice and corruption and just plain ridiculousness. But one thing I always try to remind myself is how much worse everything would be if people didn't fight back. The fights we've led over Internet policy feel like a really great example of that—while we're always fighting an uphill battle against bigger, more powerful enemies, and while there are always new issues cropping up every day, we've been able to come together to stop a lot of the worst stuff like SOPA / PIPA. We can point to these moments along the way where the Internet could have gotten way, way worse, and people coming together to fight made a difference.

I find that keeping myself focused on some concrete short- and medium-term goals as an activist stops me from getting too depressed or staring too deeply into the abyss.