Trigger Warning: Mention of violence, genocide, racism / xenophobia, homophobia, sexual violence, suicide and contains language that people may find offensive.

 

Kitty Got Claws

Every song I’ve written begins with a thought.

It could be as fleeting as a visiting bird on my windowsill. It could be a thought that lingers. A thought I can’t shake, that pursues me in my dreams and depletes me when I’m feeling low. Sometimes I have to take that force – that depletion – and I have to engage in an act of alchemy. I find that when I write, I exorcise some of that force – like magic – I breathe into it a new life. I turn lead into gold.

Music is a force. Like gravity, like magnetism, the rhythm and vibration and pitch and warbling, crashing, gliding, soothing and chaotic verve that is music. Music speaks to the soul, to something so deep-seated in our reptile brain, the will and drive towards movement. Maybe music is the instinct to survive.

It’s a shamanic notion that repetitive drumming will open portals to the spirit world.  Many religions sing songs of praise to deepen their connection with God. Neuroscientists have discovered that practicing music causes structural changes to our brain. And so – whether your perspective is scientific or spiritual – or whether your perspective encompasses both valid practices – we must not negate or downplay the importance of music in our lives.

I have always thought deeply about the political power of music. Music is a representation of our cultural identity and our heritage, and also – by extension – the heritage and identity of those around us.

My name is Kitty, and I am a performing artist under the stage-name Kitty Got Claws. Although, my name isn’t actually Kitty, it’s Eva. Music – that which shapes and guides the identity of nations, races and cultures – often absorbs and overrides the musician’s own personal identity. Stepping onto the stage – we become like a snake shedding our patterned coat – and so with the current global pandemic – many musicians are feeling weighed down by the excess skin.

Wired4Music has asked me to spend a week documenting my music-making activity. I wanted to use this opportunity to explore my English “Gipsy” heritage through music, and to draw inspirations from the soundscapes of Romani and Huguenot life. It is of note that ‘Gypsies’, or ‘Gipsies’, – derived from ‘Egyptians’, is considered by some modern-day travellers to be an offensive term. Though language experts have managed to trace the mysterious origins of the travelling Roma to North-West India, they were often mistaken for Egyptians because of the curly/wavy dark hair and dark skin. By proxy, all travelling peoples and refugees in England were labelled ‘Gipsy’, despite their many splintered ancestries. My curly hair has always inspired an ominous sense of ‘otherism’ when I speak passionately about Britishness, immigration, and racism. I am white – yes – but maybe not white enough – perhaps my views are not white enough – perhaps my tone is not white enough. Maybe they sense the Gipsy in me. Maybe it terrifies them that if they were to ask their grandparents about their grandparents – if they were to scale the ladder south – they would uncover the Gipsy in them too.

My curls are symbolic of the ancestral refugee that I carry within me. This modern-day experience of ‘otherism’, only a small glimpse into the racism and persecution my ancestors experienced, peaked my interest in uncovering more about my forgotten heritage, and the beautiful music that I might discover once I peel back the layers.

 

DAY 1

It’s a personal belief of mine that tragedy begets the most beautiful and honest music.  So much of my work is about tragedy – since my debut EP “Romance for the Lonely” I have been singing about love and loss and struggling to adjust. To be a refugee is to live through boundless tragedy, to be thrown from here to there, and to find ways to dance and sing and be joyous through the pain and instability. During a brief period of homelessness – I felt only a shadow of that which my ancestors faced – that which many still face today – only a shadow of the uncertainty and brisk transformation of my environment.

Today, I decided to learn about the Samurdaripen (Romani Genocide by the Nazis), of St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, of The Battle of the Beanfield. I opened my eyes and heart to these devastating events, lest they be forgotten or driven to obscurity, lest history repeat it’s own wickedness. I hope that by understanding the sheer weight and depth of the pain – I may gain some wisdom or insight that I could use in my own writing.

 

A traveller woman and her baby, at The Battle of the Beanfield.

 

DAY 2

Today, I attended a socially distanced spoken word/poetry event, and though poetry is not music, they are cousins. I believe that one can not exist without the other – so perhaps more accurately they are conjoined twins – though not identical. The atmosphere was in many ways awkward – and keeping our distance proved challenging in the face of collective trauma and loneliness. And yet – when the poets touched mic – fireworks seized the evening sky – a spark – a divine creativity that I’ve come to understand is produced only in the deepest tragedy. Although I do not believe it is the storm that enables the creation of a masterpiece – instead, it is the calm after the storm. Within immediate turmoil survival trumps art – homelessness taught me that. COVID-19 in the UK, as a tragedy and a threat, seems to waver and dip in it’s immediacy in the minds of those living through it – although unlike genocide – there is no safe haven or promised land to run away to, and life instead becomes a balance of maintaining mental health and financial stability, and trying to not catch a deadly virus. I was impressed, when I saw the poets share, that our universal hermeticism had produced genuinely meaningful art. Alchemy had occurred, and lead had become gold.

I thought of the songs Bella Ciao, and Djelem Djelem, and I cried at the potency of art born in fear, in pain, and in rebellion.

Then I thought of Yemen, and I cried. For our ability to create music and write poems, to meet with and be merry with those conjoined twins – for that to be at the forefront of our consciousness – is truly a privilege. As our bubble of blue safety, slick with the fruits of colonialism and slavery, drifts higher, and further – and more separate than ever before, I wonder – when will it pop, and when will we become the very same refugees we exert prejudice against? Then we will all be “Gipsies” – speaking “Gibberish”, and perhaps then our thin Nationalism will disappear as fast as the skin of the bubble.

 

DAY 3

As I woke this morning – I was astounded by one simple truth. Today, I am alive. My life has by no means been easy. But, it is a life that was fought for, in ways I did not fully comprehend until today.

As a disabled woman, as a survivor of sexual violence, and as an emotionally incontinent artist – I had previously resigned myself to death. Suicidal – sometimes actively – sometimes passively – but suicidal nonetheless. I was 13 when I was first brought to hospital for a suicide attempt – and again, at 14. Beyond that point – my attempts became concealed, and continued into my 20s.

As I learn more of the Hugeunots and Romani, as I learn of the life of the Gipsy and refugee, I discover persecutions so harsh and so visceral, I am afraid to type them. I’m afraid your stomach would turn – as mine has – and that you would leave this article in disgust. It troubles me how humanity can be so cruel, and how cruelty on such a scale – cruelty that is racist, bigoted, sexist and systemic – seemingly only happens to some.

In some ways, I feel deep shame. Because my hurdles – though taller than those of some of my peers – were never racial. My ancestors, in the pursuit of freedom, travelled far from their home country – or had no home country at all, instead navigating a perpetual refugueedom. What I went through, whilst living in a house, with food to eat and clean water to drink – was enough to drive me to want to “check out”. Does that make me ungrateful?

I believe that almost everybody born in England with legal recourse (access to benefits, the NHS, etc) has had that thought at least once. Thoughts like this are mostly unhealthy, and in the game of comparison, there are no winners. But, it really does make you think about the significance of having ‘enough’, and about how the blessings we have been afforded might become heavy with stagnation if we do not make a habit of engaging with immense gratitude. I’m not a voice you should be listening to when it comes to refugeedom, but I believe that what I am doing here is something that every English person should do. Understanding your roots may draw you a little closer to your humanity and empathy.

How full of hardship and wracked with guilt this life is – how harrowing – and what is there to do but sing about it?

 

DAY 4

Through my work as a music performer – particularly at small festivals – I have been lucky enough to have some contact with a group of English travellers who identify as “New-Age” or ‘Horse-Drawn’, as they still live in horse-drawn wagons of the same style as traditional Romanichal wagons.

I wanted to speak firsthand to a New-Age traveller, to understand more about what it means to be of the ‘travelling peoples’, the music he loves, and his unique story. And so, I called up my old friend.

 

A traditional Horse-drawn ‘Vardo’

His name is Blue, and I first met him when I did a brief single year of secondary school in Oxfordshire. Blue only did two terms of primary school, before leaving for a home-education that consisted of traveller group workshops and events, and a comprehensive education in useful and practical skills. He also picked up circus skills – like spinning fire – something that I am also passionate about. He returned to ‘typical’ education in secondary school, to fill the key gaps in his learning – such as literacy.

Having lived in Oxford, I can attest that the small city is certainly not the most kind, accepting, or progressive environment.. as would like to pretend they are in the colleges.

Blue tells me that a rumour passed around the school that he was gay. To any younger readers – a quick reminder that homophobia was very common in schools when we were growing up, and disciplinary action was often not taken on the basis of homophobic discrimination (or the action taken was not meaningful). Although Blue actually identifies as straight, even people assuming you are LGBT could cause bullying and harassment. Blue explains that it was because of his long hair, niche interests and perceived lower class, that people thought he was gay and harassed him.

“I was followed home from school one day” Blue recalls, “I remember, I was walking down the back-alley in Summertown, my usual route.” He pauses, swallowing his emotions, and I can tell that he is doing his best to make his tone monotonous. “A student riding his bike came up behind me, then rode in front of me, blocking the path and forcing me to stop. He said to me, ‘You’re gay, and you want to suck my c*ck’. I told him, ‘No, I’m not.’ But he kept repeating it, shouting it at me. I tried to walk around him, and that’s when he punched me in the face.”

“It was at that moment, I thought to retaliate. I had on steel-toed boots, I could have kicked him, I could have fought, and I probably would have won. But, I knew that the school would never side with me. Because to them, I was just a Gipsy. There was definitely classism happening at the school. You get used to it.”

To be a traveller – to grow up in horse-drawn wagons, caravans, boats, squats and tents – your very existence becomes a political act. Blue is a punk and an anarchist, and the music he enjoys – grass-roots punk – reflects his politics and his environment. Of course – you can’t have a punk show without a healthy dose of moshing. I see the moshpit like a whirlpool, a vortex, an act of alchemy. For many young travellers, to mosh is to vent your frustration surrounding your persecution and marginalisation, to throw your body about in an eclectic frenzy, an act of expulsion. It reminds me of the Glossolalia (speaking in tongues) of the Pentecostal Christians, except it is acted out with your physical body instead of with your voice.

Punk – by concerned parents and cunning politicians – has been previously characterised as meaningless noise, hateful – and taking children away from God. I would argue that traveler punk is protest music – preserving history, highlighting persecutions committed against the travelling communities. Blue shared with me some songs that are important to him.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwQwA_kFxoE

The sin of property

We do disdain

No man has any right to buy and sell the earth for private gain

You poor take courage, you rich take care

This earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vNag-MnnAA

We shouldn’t have to feed

Out of their bloody hands

It’s time we upped and showed a fight

And free the sacred land

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLnvwPk7-u0

Born in the common by a building site

Where the ground was rutted by the trail of wheels

The local Christian said to me

“You’ll lower the price of property

You’d better get born in some place else..

 So move along, get along, move along, get along. Go! Move! Shift!”

“I enjoy this music because it talks about real life. Real experiences I’ve had. I also like them because they embrace and celebrate our ‘otherism’. We are outsiders looking in, our entire ethos does not adhere to the current law of the land. We feel strangled, and forced to assimilate into a system we don’t fit into”

Blue, carrying wood, photographed by Outer Site Pictures https://www.facebook.com/outersitepictures

All these songs speak of an aspect fundamental to being a New-Age traveller – the idea that land should be free for everyone to use. For travelling people – this is not a radical political ideology – this is not an act of opposition or rebellion – this is the reality of the culture and community that they are born into, and the right to free movement across the land has been a losing battle fought in England for centuries. The government has a long history of opposing the proto-Marxist idea of free land. In 1857, the Enclosure Act made it an offence to cause damage to village greens or to obstruct their use as places of exercise and recreation. This would directly impact travellers using these sites for campfires, to pitch tents, and to live on. Then again, throughout the 19th century many acts were passed that directly contested the rights and beliefs of the travelling Romani, including the Poor Law, the Vagrancy, Hawkers, Highways, Health, Housing and Education Acts, which resulted in widespread prosecution of travelling people. Contemporary politicians have made racist remarks towards travellers, with former Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg describing Roma as sometimes “intimidating” and “offensive“, and a Tory MP going as far as to say that travellers “should not be protected under law as an ethnic minority”. The messaging is clear. And so with the song I will create at the end of this week, I hope to make something meaningful that challenges the last acceptable racism.

 

DAY 5

Today, I created a piece of music that accumulates all of my learning from this week. It’s a collaboration with my good friend, producer Insert.Play.Smile. We tried to use instruments that we heard coming up often in English traveller music, like the accordion and flute The song also utilises the sound of horse’s hooves clattering, an homage to the horse-drawn.

I hope that you enjoy the song, and thank you very much for reading my Wired4Music Memoir!

[Listen to Blood by Kitty Got Claws]

 

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