In the midst of a consistently volatile social environment, one trope continues to prove true: the personal is political. It’s rampant in our our self-expression and how we view ourselves, our social lives, and of course, in our art and music.
Even if you’re not aiming to posture in such an overtly calculated way, the undercutting subtext of simply existing is enough for a narrative to be created, intended or not.
This hyper-awareness, or, rather, overexposure to the elements in our culture is enough for anyone to feel debilitated, demoralized, and violated by forces that are not in our control.
And while this wasn’t necessarily the primary message running through the speakers at the Rickshaw Stop on Saturday, Baltimore natives Ami Dang and Lower Dens both found a haven on the stage, reclaiming and showcasing their own strength despite identities that might put them at odds with society writ large.
Opening the set by asking the crowd to sit down, ambient sitarist Ami Dang drew the immediate attention of the crowd, who might not have anticipated such experimentations before the synth-rock rhythms of Lower Dens. Blending her Sikh heritage with Western sounds like synths and other electronic templates, Dang transfixed the packed club.
Drawing heavily from her latest release, Parted Plains, she often introduced each of the songs with lengthy dialogue of the origins, pointing out her Sikh South-Asian-American perspective along the way. Describing how to “dismantle British orientalist narratives,” before going into extended sitar solos is certainly a bold move, but Dang showed she is a veteran musician more than capable of mesmerizing crowds. Many in the audience sat with their eyes closed throughout out the set and drifted to the worlds Dang described, a tribute to her ability to cross two seemingly disparate worlds.
Similarly, Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter dealt a deft hand, bringing the band’s slick, danceable synth-pop to eager fans. Look just beneath the surface, though, and you’ll see much more than sheen.
Hunter’s palette for pop is subterfuge for the forces that demean and defile us daily. In 2015, Hunter came out as non-binary, and then later, began identifying as trans. That year, the band also released Escape from Evil, a peppy, almost retro-refitting of the 1980s (by way of Roxy Music) into a more positive, queer future. (Side note: Hunter’s jacket for the night’s show was wildly reminiscent of Top Gun, intended or not).
On last year’s The Competition, the band took a step further by tackling concepts of societal strife and fighting back the demons of capitalism (even getting their serrated, sharp single “Young Republicans” blacklisted by several radio programmers).
What a time to be alive.
Despite fighting an illness, Hunter’s presence was strongly felt, aided by drummer Nate Nelson and traveling guitarist Peter Tran. Pulling heavily from their last two records, and with the strobes flashing bright, Hunter and company kept things moving along swiftly and emphatically.
“We lift our heads and see the world is burning,” Hunter slyly sings on “Young Republicans.” At Rickshaw, the only thing burning was passion.