The Women's March in Washington, D.C., organized a level of star power that clearly shook our new president, but they did not gather to entertain. The artists in attendance — including musicians Janelle Monáe, Maxwell, Angélique Kidjo and Amber Coffman, actors Ashley Judd, Scarlett Johansson, activists Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem — helped bring to life a sense of the movement's values: empowerment, social and racial justice and a renewed commitment to peaceful resistance and coexistence.
Coffman, former Dirty Projectors vocalist and author of the upcoming City of No Reply, one of the standout names in the performance lineup, brought with her a long involvement in the ongoing struggle for women's rights. She was instrumental in helping reveal the true face of PR magnate and alleged sexual predator Heathcliff Berru, starting a necessary conversation about sexism in the music industry. Throughout election season, Coffman was active in condemning Donald Trump's misogyny and racist campaign promises.
She carried that energy up onto the Women's March stage and has since come away with some valuable perspective on how to continue the momentum in this struggle for justice.
"The visibility Women's March provided was so very crucial — it was important for us to see each other and show our strength and determination like that," Coffman said in a recent email exchange with Mic. "We won't be magically unified overnight, and it may be messy sometimes, but what I've seen so far has really given me hope. I have a feeling we will all be seeing a lot of each other in these coming months."
In our exchange, Coffman detailed how it felt to look out at her audience of thousands and call for solidarity. She also offered her perspective on the roles musicians and activists will play in the days ahead and how to keep the momentum going.
Mic: Tell me about the day of the Women's March. What was going through your mind as you took it all in?
Amber Coffman: Well I'll probably be echoing a lot of people when I say I've never felt anything like that before. It was just a profoundly important day. I felt the gravity of that moment. I was running into people I knew here and there, and the energy was good and exciting, but this was not a party. To me it felt like everyone was there in some way or another to fight for our lives and for the lives of others. So the positive energy that was all around us was made up of pure hope, and the exchange between the crowd and the performers and speakers was truly special.
People weren't there to be entertained, nor were the performers there to entertain. We were all there to be strong for each other. The energy was also quite serious. I felt so emotional all day — there were several moments where I stopped myself from crying. I wanted to keep it together. I was extremely humbled to be a part of the rally. I was just sort of awestruck by the whole situation, and stayed pretty quiet for the most part, just soaking it in. I stood next to giants like Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem. It was one of the great honors of my life to be involved in that in any way.
There's been a lot of talk about the role musicians and celebrities have played in this election, with Trump literally tweeting Saturday "Celebs hurt cause badly." What do you feel about the role of celebrities in this moment?
AC: I think celebrities is a really broad term, and gets used as a buzz word a lot by the right. Donald Trump himself has long fit into the category of "celeb," but he's never been in politics before now and he's never really done anything good for anyone — he's just a rich dude. You also have life long activists who get categorized as celebrities, you have people on cooking shows, musicians, actors, athletes... Celebrities are just people at the end of the day so they run the spectrum of motives, beliefs, contributions to society and culture, and income levels.
The way our culture works is so bizarre, because we have this obsession with famous people and with rich people — this is partially how someone like Donald Trump could be elected president, because of our worshipping of rich people and power. But then we also have this deep mistrust of them, like "what do they know about real people?" Donald Trump himself is inconsistent with this- he shrugs off and belittles "celebrities" when they challenge him and then he invites Kanye to Trump tower. We have the very terrible, very human tendency to create idols to worship, to be our heroes and then we rip them to shreds as soon as they don't live up to our idea of perfection. It's really a terribly unhealthy cycle.
I personally feel that we as a country need to challenge the notion of having idols and we need to reassert our humanness with one another I think, in a general sense. We should all have the space to be human because that's what we all are, despite all of these glossy illusions that have been created. That said, the powerful need to be held accountable. Yes, Donald Trump is also a human, but he is one with serious power now to affect millions of people, and he does not get a pass to be destructive and hurtful.
As far as the role of public figures goes, I think we're entering into a era where it's going to be a lot harder for people to try to keep quiet or maintain some kind of neutrality politically.
Personally I'm starting to feel more and more like I need to know where the artists I support stand on the issues. There are too many people and too many causes that need all the help they can get right now, and I want to make sure I'm directing as much of my energy to supporting those people and things, and part of that is supporting those who also support those causes. We're in a very unique position as public figures of having a platform, and having different resources and access and I think each person right now, no matter what their profession needs to take full advantage of their own particular strengths and talents and give what they can uniquely offer to this movement.
How should supporters of the Women's March look to sustain the momentum?
AC: Find a regular, in person meeting of some kind and really commit to it- make it a part of your routine to take direct action against this administration, in large ways and small ones, solo and in groups. Try really hard to make it to as many rallies and marches as you can — don't miss the bigger ones. Get your friends on board — bring them with you, spread the word. The meeting can be a general kind that covers a wide range of issues or it can be more focused. It may take a little searching, but just find what fits for you and make it a regular thing. You will be in very good company, you will make new friends and you will learn so much. We're all trying to figure out what to do now and where our energy is best used. Don't burn yourself out. Taking care of yourself keeps you strong.
I will say that if you feel you gravitate towards one particular issue more than most others, that's fine, just don't forget to show up for other causes too. I know it made a lot of women very happy to see so many men at the marches, wearing pussy hats and backing us up like that — and we need to be willing to do the same, and take an interest in and show up for immigrants and black lives matter even if you're a white person, LGBT even if you're straight, and muslims even if you're an atheist or practice a different religion.
One thing that I hope Trump's win sparked was perhaps the beginning of unifying all of these various causes for human rights into one giant movement. I've seen hints of this at the marches I went to in LA post election, where tens of thousands of people of all kinds were naturally moving between chants of "immigrants are welcome here," "black lives matter," "respect all women," chants on climate change, trans lives and pro choice. It's really been incredible to see. I know we have a long way to go. We won't be magically unified overnight, and it may be messy sometimes, but what I've seen so far has really given me hope. And the numbers we saw on Saturday gave me more hope than I've had since the election. That visibility was so very crucial — it was important for us to see each other and show our strength and determination like that. I have a feeling we will all be seeing a lot of each other in these coming months.
Jan. 26, 2017, 5:54 p.m.: This story has been updated.