Interview with Terra Naomi: Discussing America’s Current State and Her New Single, Machine Age

   Photo by Jeff Shipman

Photo by Jeff Shipman

Terra Naomi, an outspoken songwriting activist, and Youtube’s first music star, wrote “Machine Age” following the one-year mark of post-election America. Fueled by a year of internal questioning and introspection while the streets of America faced turmoil, Naomi’s meditative lyrics stoked the fire of societal change amidst the uproar that was impossible for her to ignore. Both a sort of requiem and an ode, “Machine Age” challenges the listener to bear voices instead of arms and to choose their desire to love rather than to carry the burden of hate. Reject complacency, support your voice, find your fight, pack light, and love heavy with this timeless single.

Writing something this profound in under an hour is no small feat. Did you have any intention of writing “Machine Age”, or was it a culmination of ideas that just struck you at the moment and you knew you had to write them down? 

Terra Naomi: I definitely did not plan to write this song, and I don’t think I could have written it had I decided to try and write a song of this nature. It seemed to come out of nowhere and basically wrote itself in under an hour. 

“I believe in love / More than I want to hate”. Is it easier to protest the U.S. administration out of hate than protest it out of love for the people under fire? 

Terra Naomi: I think for many of us, the first reaction is to fight back, or feel outraged towards those who attack us. There is so much hate, and it’s almost an instinctual reaction to engage with it. Unfortunately, all that does is create more rage and fill our own minds and bodies with hate. We only hurt ourselves. It’s not necessarily harder to stand with the people under fire versus standing against those doing harm — it’s a different part of the same reaction. It’s challenging to discipline our minds and resist the urge to respond to the hate with more hate and focus instead on the love, but I believe it’s the only way we will move past this current situation, and truly leave it in the past. To me, that line says “I take back my power, my health, my life when I make the decision to choose love over hate.”  

The track speaks of people as machines. How did it come to this? Were we ignorant? Did we bury issues instead of reconciling? 

Terra Naomi: I think the word “machine” refers to the way we are programmed, desensitized, and controlled. When I say “machines don’t feel emotion”, it’s like we’re groomed to be controlled, our humanity is systematically stripped away on a consistent basis. We are trained to look out for ourselves first, protect what is “ours”, and we are desensitized to horrific realities — everything from homelessness to mass shootings in schools. We see these awful things every day, and suddenly they’re “normal”.  People are dying because they have no access to life-saving health care, while taxes are cut for corporations and the richest Americans. People who are okay throwing away tens of millions of lives in order to hold onto the illusion of wealth and power. It’s not the result of one thing, like ignorance or the burying of issues. It goes way back and it’s bigger than our individual choices. It’s cultural programming and mass control, implemented by those in charge of industry; our society is designed to create a dependent population that is more comfortable following orders than thinking for ourselves. 

“I woke up / In a new America”. Who’s to blame for this “new America”? Or were we all asleep, remaining stagnant, while little problems began to grow into something bigger

Terra Naomi: I think a lot of us, myself included, took it for granted that things would continue to move forward with regards to human rights. We saw things changing in our own circles — people looking for solutions to help the world, ideas like conscious capitalism. We recognized the systems of control and we’d already begun to organize, reform, and oppose those systems. And I think the privilege from which so many of us benefit, coupled with the protections granted to marginalized groups during the last eight years, allowed us to believe society would continue to evolve in this way. I’m not one of those liberals who is so quick to start flogging myself for living inside a bubble, in California or New York City, completely removed from “reality” and too self-absorbed to “notice the issues faced by people in other parts of the country” etc — because almost everyone I know came from those places. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not trying to say that moving to Los Angeles or New York is an option for everyone. I recognize my own privilege, but there is a big world of ideas out there, within reach for most of us, thanks to the internet. 

"Your purple mountains, spacious skies / Are only for the free / They mean nothing / If they’re out there / Only for the few to see”. You hint at some type of discrimination here. Is this problem systemic? Has it worsened or is progress being made? 

Terra Naomi: The problem certainly is systemic. We live in an oppressive, white supremacist society that rewards those with the most and penalizes those with the least. It ranges from the obvious, like privatized prisons, to the very subtle and nuanced. I notice it everywhere now. Assistance is extended to those who need it the least, and that is how the rich stay rich and become richer, and those who are already powerful stay in control. I do think progress is being made because, in order for things to change, people first need to know and understand what is at play. One positive to come out of this whole mess is that people are waking up. Some people with lots of power and privilege are beginning to understand what that means, how they benefit from it, and why it’s not okay. 

The whole track resembles a vent to release pent-up rage and frustration. What could be a reason that we allowed this rage to remain bottled up? 

Terra Naomi: I can only speak for myself, but the song was a result of a year of feeling helpless, watching hate crimes and human rights violations, veiled and blatant racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny. I think many of us expressed our feelings and social media made that easy. But I think the song came out to deliver a stronger message, beyond the venting of rage. It moves through the rage and frustration, and into love, and the decision to choose love over hate. It puts the power back on the individual to determine their own reactions to what is happening around them. 

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What are some practical steps that we can take towards healing when it feels as if things are collapsing in on us? Is it an attitude shift or is it something more physical and permanent? Does it start at home or on the streets? 

Terra Naomi: It has to start at home. We can’t walk around hurting and hating and raging — no one heals in that scenario. I’m not suggesting we sit at home and think about peace and love. I mean, that is actually part of it, but action needs to follow. We need to take care of ourselves, inside and out. Some of us feel the need to educate everyone, always speak our minds, but we need to weigh the costs and benefits. If these interactions leave us feeling debilitated, then we need to step away

If you had one or two words to say to the younger generation, those who are growing up in seemingly torn and confused America, what would they be? 

Terra Naomi: I really worry about them, honestly. I remember when I was a kid, and we had tornado drills. I remember feeling scared but knowing the teachers would help us get to the shelter in the gymnasium, or wherever it was. Now kids have “active shooter” drills; their teachers are gunned down in front of them, or they see footage of this on Twitter or Snapchat. There is no feeling of safety or protection. And I don’t know what effect that kind of trauma will have on these kids. I’d love to tell them things will get better, that it won’t be like this forever because I do believe that is true. 

To those who feel like their voice isn’t heard, or they’re fearful of making their voice heard, what encouragement would you give?

Terra Naomi: I’d tell them to keep speaking, even if they don’t feel heard because someone will hear them, even if it’s just themselves listening to their own voice. Unless it’s not safe to speak, because many people are currently in that situation, and scared for good reason. They should focus on keeping themselves safe.

How would you define the word “community” in this day and age? 

Terra Naomi: Community is people coming together to support each other, and it exists in many different ways. While we’re quick to focus on how the internet is turning all of us into isolated, detached, apathetic shut-ins, we also need to remember the access it provides so many people who live in places where a physical community is not an option. I think of people like my friend Jeffrey Marsh, who has created a wonderful community of support and love for queer people online. Jeffrey looking into the camera and saying some version of “I love you, and it’s ok to love yourself, and you are important, and needed, and wanted” might be the only time in their lives that words like this have been said to these kids. And my husband, Scott Turner Schofield, gives so much to his community both online and off. He provides an example of a transgender man living a successful, love-filled, satisfied life. He coaches transgender people and their families, works with schools and companies to change hearts, minds, and policy — and a lot of this work begins with his online community. Anytime we reach out and connect with each other, support each other, share with each other, that is the community.

“The news, the human rights violations that have become so common that we are now desensitized to them.” Is it possible to be desensitized? Or is it your fear that we can’t backtrack? 

Terra Naomi: Even more than backtracking, I believe it’s about moving forward because we don’t want to go back to the level of sensitivity we had prior to our current situation. That’s what got us here. We need to surpass it, and I do believe this ugly time will lead to a new level of empathy and love for each other. It’s already having that effect. For every act of hate, there are more of us coming together in acts of love. We will surpass any previous level of cultural sensitivity, and we will see an escalation in terms of the pace of these changes. But it might get harder first, so we need to protect each other. This is all part of the evolution.