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Sarah Jones

Tizzy Asher

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, “ 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 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 phone line.

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 message?

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 truth?

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 suspicious.

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 music-minded.

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.

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