Sarah Jones is not a porn star. But she does occasionally get
mistaken for one. The tall, long-legged Jones smiles ironically
and shakes her chunky braids as she tells the audience assembled
at a Seattle community college why her web site bears the long
and slightly bulky address, www.sarahjonesonline.com. “Sarahjones.com
is naked women,” she snorts. “Typical.”
There could be no more antithetical image to Jones than the artificial
fantasyland of Internet porn. Since breaking into public consciousness
in 1998 with Surface Transit, a performance piece about racial
tension, the New York City-based poet, playwright, and performer
has established herself as a staunch advocate for social change
and social justice. Much of Jones’s work focuses on inequities
in culture, be they based around race, class, gender, sexual orientation,
or religion. In other words, she’s interested in disrupting
the uniformity of popular culture and creating alternatives to
what she often calls “The Rupert Murdochs and the Time Warners” — the
ruling elite version of how things are.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about Jones, however, is
her willingness to live the lifestyle for which she advocates.
She actively encourages dialogue around her work, and when the
inevitable flood of backlash rolls in, she’s been known to
engage her opponents in discussion. Since Portland, Oregon radio
station KBOO-FM received a $7,000 fine for playing “Your
Revolution,” her feminist retort to hip-hop’s depiction
of women, Jones has been locked in a legal battle with the FCC
over the definition of obscenity. (In an additional stroke of irony,
Eminem received a comparable fine that was subsequently dropped.)
She’s even developed a famously antagonistic relationship
with the commission’s chairman, Michael Powell. (“So
Michael, you’re a big boy there in your federal high chair,” she
writes, on www.yourrevolutionisbanned.com.)
In 2000, she wrote Women Can’t Wait, a series of monologues
addressing the UN’s inaction after the 1995 Beijing Conference
on Women, and then performed it before the General Assembly.
Clamor caught up with Jones while she took a brief moment of rest
in the New York City apartment she shares with her partner, poet
Steve Colman. Apparently, resting still means speaking at full-throttle,
the fierce rebellion in her words audible even through a hissing
Clamor: You’re a poet, performance
artist, playwright, and an actor. Which do you see as the most
critical piece of your artistic identity?
Sarah Jones: I don’t make a separation between the ways
I express myself and my ideas. I think that they’re all an
extension of my personal experiences as a woman, as a black person,
an American person, as a person of multicultural heritage, as a
New Yorker. All of those things contribute to my views and the
urgency with which I try to express things that I don’t think
are typically addressed in entertainment or culture in general.
I wrote my first poem when I was six about Ronald Reagan and my
dissatisfaction with the way that he was governing the country.
I think that’s a product of my environment, the way we’re
all products of our environment. But I don’t hold any one
genre or any one aspect of my identity as the dominant one.
Does your ability to integrate these different
pieces of your identity help you cross genres with your art?
I like to give myself the freedom to let my ideas manifest themselves
in whatever way they want to. The last time I tried to restrict
some aspect of myself, it really didn’t work out. I had this
TV deal and I was, on the advice of some Hollywood types, trying
to sublimate my political sensibility so that I could do comedy.
But it didn’t feel like me to be in the position where I
was forced to give comedy priority over the things I really believe
in. In fact, I find that comedy’s not as funny when it’s
at the expense of other people in dehumanizing ways.
What do you think of people like Margaret Cho,
who subvert stereotypes from inside?
I think Margaret Cho is doing a lot of important work. [She’s]
talking about social justice in a way that is also really entertaining.
She’s an artist who’s figuring out what it means to
be in the mainstream as an Asian woman. That means confronting
a lot of sexism and a lot of racism. She figures out how to expose
people’s prejudices in a humorous way onstage. That’s
what a lot of artists are striving to do: give people an experience
they’ll remember, something that thrills them and excites
them and moves them, but at the same time, gives them more than
the same old dumb jokes or the same old repetitive images of people
as caricatures based on their ethnicity.
Do you use humor in your own work to soften the
It’s not so much softening the message as flavoring the
truth so that it becomes more palatable to swallow. The truth is
not our enemy. It’s not something that we have to protect
ourselves from. As the saying goes, “the truth will set you
free.” Conversely, not being able to face reality leaves
us in a really vulnerable position as people and definitely as
a nation. If we need proof of that, we can look at the fact that
we’re beating the war drum again, that we’re busy creating
distractions from the fact that our economy is in the toilet. When
you can’t face the truth, you end up in really dire circumstances.
I appreciate performers who manage that very difficult challenge
and are successful at creating portraits of real people — communicating
stories of real interest and drama beneath the comedy — that
don’t indict the audience, but just wake them up. Make them
feel a little bit more alive in their experience and help them
know that this is not about feeling guilty. I think of people like
Richard Pryor, whose life work was creating portraits that made
people laugh and break down in tears. At the end of the journey
with him, you didn’t feel like going home and ending it all,
you felt like going out there and affecting real change.
Do you feel like you’re swimming upstream
against the dominant culture in the U.S.?
I don’t feel like I’m swimming upstream; I feel like
I have my work cut out for me. But I’m a hard worker. We’re
all harder workers than any of us give ourselves credit for.
There is a path to understanding other people and their behaviors.
There are realities about what it is to be born poor, what it is
to be born poor and female, what it is to be born a person of color
or a certain religion in the wrong area of the world. All of those
things contribute to the circumstances in which we later find ourselves.
Once you start to figure that out, it’s not scary! It’s
not about going to the theater and saying, “Oh, I don’t
want to think about those people who are different from me or those
people who think of themselves as oppressed.”
I think about people like Bob Marley and how beloved he is all
over the world by people who’ve never set foot in Jamaica.
It’s because he’s talking about human experience that
is at times about centuries of oppression, but he’s talking
about it through beautiful music that speaks to people, moves people,
and calls people to action. It isn’t until we look at the
rise of corporate structures that [we see] it’s not going
to be financially advantageous for people to stand up for their
rights. What would happen to the healthcare industry in this country
if everybody realized that it’s unfair? What would happen
to our entertainment industry if people looked around and said, “I
can write a poem or a song just as good as that crap heard on the
radio! I’m going to go entertain myself”?
Who is responsible for enforcing these uniform
versions of truth?
It’s big money and unfortunately, it’s married to
our government. The ERA, civil rights, gay rights, all of these
movements forced our government to be accountable. All of these
movements forced our government to own up to the principles it
claims to uphold. What happened is that the government understood
that we — and when I say we, I mean everybody who’s
not a rich, white, straight, Christian male living in the West — deserve
our human rights. It’s something that the people who founded
this country put in place and then weren’t actually practicing.
Women couldn’t vote, couldn’t own property, black people
were chattel, Native Americans were slaughtered on their own land.
Land of the free? You’re kidding me.
As we begin to look at our present in the context of our history,
there’s no choice but to address these things. Unless you
convince people that there’s something else going on. If
you convince people that it’s just pathology and that women
are just inherently stupid and that’s why they need a husband
to guide them. Never mind that people who aren’t heterosexual
are somehow deviant or terrible and should live in the closet because
God says so. Or that Latino people and black people are criminal
and they’re just born that way and that’s why they
fill our jails up in such disproportionate numbers. If you can
convince people of all these things, then, you don’t have
to acknowledge the history.
A friend once told me her mantra for social change
was, “What if everything they told you was a lie?”
It’s painful. Who wants to believe that they’ve been
reared on propaganda, or that part of their thinking is rooted
in sexism or racism? I have come around to thinking the way I do
very slowly. It’s a continuing process of trying to understand
my own basic humanity and other people’s basic humanity.
Look at the War on Terrorism. We have little kids growing up with
this language and growing up with certain images of who’s
a terrorist, without learning about the U.S. and our foreign policy.
I don’t condone terrorism in any form — but what helped
me as an American get some perspective on that suffering and that
mourning was going down to South Africa to perform with my partner.
We were able to talk to people who empathized with us and offered
their condolences, but said, “Now you can understand how
we in the rest of the world feel when a coup d’etat is staged
by our own government in the name of protecting U.S. interests
or economic policy.”
I think it’s all about really getting at the truth and being
able to accept our own responsibilities. But also, to get out from
under this legacy of injustice that’s part of our culture.
Once we can begin to do that, we feel so free! You don’t
have to feel defensive.
If you talk to conservative commentators, they
would claim their information is right. Who holds the power of
In my work, I try to make it clear that I don’t profess
to have the solution to everything that’s wrong. I’m
just interested in making sure that certain facts aren’t
buried under Fox News. What I’m trying to do is create
alternative spaces, alternative ways of thinking and approaching
what we’ve been taught to accept as normal and standard.
Rupert Murdoch recently purchased the Star News cable network,
and so with all of his holdings, his news and views now reach
two-thirds of the people on this planet. When you think about
that, when you look at the fact that people are buying up every
media outlet they can and controlling how we view everything
that happens … when they’re working that hard to
make sure nobody else’s facts reach light, it makes you
My thing about an objective truth is that I’m more interested
in making sure all of the facts come out. We are given the opportunity
to weigh everything and not just spoon-fed someone else’s
political ideology … We as artists, particularly as independent
artists, are all searching for ways to feel not only like we
belong, but like somebody is finally standing up and telling
the truth. It’s not painful, it’s refreshing.
Do you think people live in fear of a big government
hand doling out retribution?
I’m dealing with my FCC censorship case at this moment
and it is frightening to think that our government has the power
to take our tax dollars and use them to restrict what we say.
But at the same time, all we can do is continue to find spaces
for alternatives. [Pacifica Radio’s] Amy Goodman calls
[her radio news program] Democracy Now “the exception to
the rulers.” I think that’s what we’re trying
to do. It’s not about keeping step with the dictator. What
you really want is your individual voice, your individual freedom
and the option to be the exception or to look to exceptions to
the power structure. Not only how you get your news, but also
how you express yourself in life.
You have no trouble expressing your voice and
expressing your truth. Was it ever difficult for you?
I think that the FCC case is probably the most profound example.
It is significant that my ability to express myself freely and
my access to the same outlets as everybody else are going to
be limited by how other people think women’s issues should
be heard or not heard. And how other people think about black
folks, how other people think about progressive politics … All
of those aspects of how I want to be in the world affect my ability
to get on TV, get on the radio, or pursue my art.
It often means choices, it means compromise. Rupert Murdoch
or AOL Time Warner or whoever, those folks own a lot of the means
of production through which we need to get our art out there
and survive. I really needed to pay my rent, and Camel cigarettes
came along with a sponsorship offer. I went to Gil Scott-Heron
for advice and he said, “You have to make a decision. I’m
not telling you what to do, but you need to get your work out
there, you need to pay your rent, and unfortunately, right now,
this is one of the only ways that you’re going to be able
to do that. No one else is coming to offer you anything. Make
the decision that’s right for you.”
I ended up going on the tour, but I took one of my characters
and gave her emphysema. By the time that marketing folks found
out, I had already done most of my shows and they’d paid
me. It was one way to balance out my commitment to what I believe
in, do my art, and take some of the money from the folks that
are doing damage and use it to get my message across.
Would you say that’s resistance from within?
Right. Increasingly, we need folks like Dead Prez, the hip-hop
group that talks about freedom in ways too frank for MTV. MTV
is happy talking about degrading women and staying high all the
time, but it doesn’t want to hear about Dead Prez saying, “Let’s
get free.” We need to figure out how to support artists
like Public Enemy. MTV won’t play Public Enemy’s
latest video because they make a Free Mumia reference. We’ve
got MTV using its power as a symbol of what’s alternative
to adult culture and its street credibility to peddle all the
music that the corporate big labels want it to play. And it’s
silencing real resistance. It’s silencing the very things
on which it built its reputation as cool, free-thinking, and
You’ve been featured in many of the big-name,
Conde Nast-type publications. How have you managed to keep your
image sexy without objectification?
The other struggle, particularly in this culture where there’s
so many stimuli out there, is being engaged. I love music, I
love to go out and party, I love to shop as much as the next
person. I like to participate in the conversation and exchange
of ideas in mainstream culture. It’s how we have fun, it’s
how we live, and it’s how we communicate with each other.
Women cannot live by Ms. alone! I read a lot of the stuff that’s
out there. I just want to make sure that there are many facets.
Not just, “How to Give Him an Orgasm in Three Minutes.”
Being sexy and feeling sexy and alive in all of those aspects
of who you are, that’s so important. If you don’t
have that, it can be even more difficult to get out there and
fight these other folks who are so hell-bent on making sure that
other voices don’t get heard.
Do you think one of the problems with modern
feminism is that it can’t incorporate those two things?
One of the problems is that when you and I turn on our television,
five out of ten of the channels are owned by the same person,
the next three are owned by another conglomerate, and the remaining
two are owned by somebody else. It’s not like we’re
getting a balanced diet in the first place.