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Elysia Crampton

Elysia Crampton on severo, the state and survival

Talking to Elysia Crampton, the Aymara-American sound artist whose new album is an ‘epic poem’ that documents the self-coined musical style of ‘severo’

Although Elysia Crampton has been making music for some time now, it’s only in recent years that she’s started to receive more widespread recognition. Under the name E+E, Crampton created intimate, personal sound collages that married pop and R&B balladry with classical orchestrations. After retiring the E+E alias around 2014, Crampton began to take a more focused and conceptual approach to her music. She further embraced and explored her heritage as a trans woman of colour on a string of records called the Shenandoah Series that chronicled the colonial history of Virginia and beyond while considering brownness “beyond culture, as geology”.

Embodying her influences involves more than introspective or singular self-discovery for Crampton, however. She pays tribute to her heritage (being of the Aymara people, an indigenous Andean group that also contains its own history of queerness within its culture), as well as the the relationships she forms with other people and places. From this, a fascinating duality exists within her new record, Demon City, with Crampton presenting an album of the people that, at the same time, also feels uniquely hers.

Crampton refers to Demon City, as a “solidarity piece”, bringing together as many collaborators across the fringes of the global underground (from Texas industrial/club producer Rabit to NON Records co-founder Chino Amobi) as it does musical styles. As in her previous works, Crampton’s music incorporates Latin American musics such as cumbia and huayno alongside strains of electronic psychedelia. There’s an elusive quality to her productions as always-moving whirlwinds of sound that still somehow wear their influences on their sleeves. Each stretched out laughter sample, DJ drop or expansive melody is part of a musical culture that Crampton has formed a personal relationship with, no matter how disparate the styles may appear to be. Her approach often explores the legacy of her lineage, too. “I’m not born into this world with all the data about my ancestral history. I embody it, whether or not I acknowledge it,” Crampton says, “It’s always a process of uncovering, right?”

She describes the album as an “epic poem”, declaring it to be a document of the new style ‘Severo’. “The Severo style is an ongoing process of becoming-with,” she explains in an artist statement, “Made possible by the family-networks and communities that have inspired and sustained our survival and collective search for transformative justice.” We caught up with her as she travelled from her current Californian home to put some flesh on these concepts.

Can you elaborate on the ‘Severo’ style, and what it means to ‘become-with’?

Elysia Crampton: The Severo was the term that my friend (UK club producer) Lexxi came up with to describe the music that we had been making for some time now. We’re not genre people, but at the same time, he had a good point in wanting to implement that term – because if we don’t come up with the term, then someone else will, and it’s probably gonna be something really shitty. It was like, ‘Let’s reclaim that.’ The (record) label made me come up with the definition, which I didn’t wanna do. That’s one thing I hate about genres – they’re part of that ideal of looking for the solid object that doesn’t necessarily allow for change or movement, which is what the music we make is about. There’s specificity, but there’s that room for change that I think is what has made (Severo) engaging for people.

I used (‘becoming-with’) because I was trying to think about acknowledging those relations that go into the process of creating our music and our sound, and who we are. And how claiming our own name is a way to renegotiate all those things that get lost because people aren’t aware of those legacies. The kinship network was what preserved what a lot of pre-colonial societies in America highly valued, and you understand why, because in all cultures it’s a very important part of preserving culture and identity, right? Trying to relocate that kinship network and not letting it get lost. Especially coming from a queer perspective, coming from a queer person, as a person of colour. That becoming-with was taking hold of the things I don’t know yet, taking of hold of those legacies and trying to bring them all with me while I claim a space in this.

I wanted to be very vocal, or at least put it out there, that (the album is) my uneducated, messy critique of sovereignty. When we talk about sovereignty a lot of people assume that it’s desired. My whole gist is that space is already a violently non-inclusive space. That’s part of that internalisation of coloniality that happens. Unpack it and find something better that (means) maybe we can do away with that whole notion.

“I wanted to be very vocal, or at least put it out there, that (the album is) my uneducated, messy critique of sovereignty” — Elysia Crampton

Demon City is very much an ‘Elysia Crampton Presents’ album. A lot of the tracks are collaborations, and “Red Eyez” is just Lexxi’s. At what point did you decide that you wanted to present Lexxi’s track as the closer of the poem?

Elysia Crampton: I had been doing historical studies from a queer Aymara and Native American perspective. We were working on the record and my routine was to work late until I’d see the sunrise, and then review the work at sunrise, because I love seeing the sun rise. When I heard (‘Red Eyez’), I would see this image of this dancer in this yellow dress, and it was imprinted there in this red horizon. I’d come to find out later that a friend of mine who handles the TLGB archives in La Paz had imparted this image to me that was this very same image I had in my head – her name was Candy, an image from the 70s I think. It’s her in the festivities where queerness happened to survive the onsetting horizon of coloniality, this image of her in this yellow dress with these patterned leather yellow boots, thigh-high. Those festivities are very folkloric, so everyone around her is dressed like a cholo, and here she is as the morena. It was like something was reclaimed there, even though that piece is not necessarily referencing Bolivian genres – although I hear a little bit of that with what they call the Saya, which is a dancing of festivity. So when I heard that, and that connection happened, that was the closer. It had to be there. I don’t think (Lexxi) ever would have let me use that if I hadn’t been in London to talk to him about it personally, you know? For me it’s my favourite track and it really makes the album a poem for me.

Did you have the rest of the album ready at that point, or were you building towards that point?

Elysia Crampton: Well you know Ashland (Mines, aka Total Freedom) was also working on it. He actually made a piece for the record that we didn’t use. So it was still working on it, arranging things and all of that.

I saw that Total Freedom was one of the people you dedicated the album to.

Elysia Crampton: Because of that, and just because of his involvement with who I am.

Could you tell me about the other people you’ve dedicated the album to?

Elysia Crampton: Jamie Berrout is a writer. We became good friends while sharing work together. She’s a poet and she also does translation. I really wanted to dedicate the work to her. The writing in her latest chapbook Desire and the Scent of Guava definitely informed the album in some way. Lastly is my grandma Flora, who in the last year came into our care. Being able to have a relationship with her at this point in her life was such a gift. She’s probably the one that informed the album the most. We come from a heavily colonised country where they adopted Christianity. I saw the way she navigated her relationship with that God. I saw all the parts, they were all already indigenous there. It wasn’t part of a pagan conflict or a pagan antithesis to that faith, it was her being already. The way she prayed, the way she spoke, the way she evangelised, was already an indigenous mode of contact, and being that we would call pagan in this modern world. But it’s not pagan, it’s really just a mode of being that is so resistant to the colonised sovereign mode that it survives it without even any acknowledgement or any need for that resistance, because its resistance is already irreducible. Its resistance comes out of its irreducibility to coloniality.

“Yes, I’m from an oppressed, marginalised community, but everybody under the state, everybody under this system that we’re in, is suppressed and oppressed in some way by the conditions of life” — Elysia Crampton

Listening to the album there’s a lot of energy in there, a kind of defiance about the music. It can be quite exhausting, being marginalised or being oppressed. In what ways might you deal with that?

Elysia Crampton: It’s funny you mention that because I have the biggest chip on my shoulder today that I’m unwilling to remove and I just wanna like, punch a cop in the face right now, you know? At the same time the thing about our society – it’s so hard to talk about these things. Yes, I’m from an oppressed, marginalised community, but everybody under the state, everybody under this system that we’re in, is suppressed and oppressed in some way by the conditions of life. For me, it’s like the (Bolivian trans activist) Lohana Berkins quote. She says that, ‘The love that was denied us is (our) impulse to change,’ to change things. That’s always sort of been my praxis, my modus operandi.

Do you think there is honour in survival?

Elysia Crampton: Yes, definitely. But you know, that’s what’s so amazing – it’s amazing how we survive. I just saw these watercolour paintings of trans life from the 1830s. Trans and of colour, from Latin America. Another girl was killed recently and of course she’s already turned into a hashtag. Another thing about survival is the thing the state takes away. Of course there’s the violence of removing the body, when someone like that gets killed, right? But for me the most violent part is when, in the reporting, their histories, the record of their family loving them, the record of them navigating society despite the odds (and) on their own terms, when that gets erased. Because they become criminalised in the reporting, because they’re misgendered in the reporting. It was the same thing last year with that big list of names of trans women of colour murdered – they just became this list, and who they actually were was robbed. And not only robbed but replaced with a completely other narrative that criminalised them and it’s made them bound to that story. I feel like part of survival is claiming those girls’ names and carrying them on, which is difficult in a world where there’s so much data and so much misrepresentation. But yeah, of course there’s honour in survival.