The Sound of Activism with Rachelle Caplan

The Sound of Activism with Rachelle Caplan

On a drizzly Wednesday afternoon, Women of Cincy met up with Rachelle Caplan, founder of Ladyfest Cincinnati, in her “second living room”: Northside’s The Listing Loon (coincidentally, the same location as Women of Cincy’s first-ever happy hour). We grabbed some beers while Rachelle chatted with other regulars. “It’s like the living room everyone wants in their home,” she comments, looking around at the dark but cozy bar with patrons scattered around the tables and stools. “But, there’s usually more people than you would ever want in your own living room. So this works out.”

We cozied up in a booth across from the bar and got to business discussing Ladyfest, activism, creativity, and the importance of silver linings.

Interview by Kelsey Johnson. Photography by Yashira Afanador.

To get started, tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Rachelle Andra Caplan. I am an artist and a community organizer and an activist in Cincinnati. I’m also an educator. I’m an intervention specialist working with students with disabilities at Taft High School. And, let’s see, what do I do?

I wear many hats and I try to weave them together in ways that make sense. So I’m really passionate about doing things that are in the lines of social justice within our creative community. And ways that creativity inspires activism, and activism inspires creative movements, and the way they hold hands – but in a way that’s really acknowledged; in a way that, like, activates more. So, I also am the founder and director of Ladyfest Cincinnati, which is a nonprofit feminist festival for music and art that happens every fall. It’s coming up on Friday the 13th and 14th in October – so it’s extra spooky – and the theme is “reclaim your radical witch.” So there’s gonna be all these witch-themed events and things that have to do with feminist skills that have kinda been shifted into different ideas – like paganism isn’t evil or something like that, and the ways that that kind of intersects with feminism and patriarchy – which will really be kind of cool. And every curator is taking their own theme on it, so we’ll see what... brews – bah dum bum.

Tell us some more about Ladyfest. What motivated you to start a Ladyfest in Cincinnati?

So, my history with Ladyfest: In 2007, I lived in Chicago for a while. I’m originally from Philadelphia and south Florida, but I’ve lived in a number of cities. I was a part of the first Ladyfest in Chicago, so I learned a lot about that in like six months with folks. I was interning at Windish, which is a booking agency, so that was really what whet my appetite for working within music and organizing in that way. I had been doing freelance art; I was very into the visual art world. So, anyway, I took a lot away from that Ladyfest experience and I thought to myself that I definitely wanted to do that again at some point when I left Chicago.

Wherever I go, there will be a Ladyfest – if there’s a need, right, or if it makes sense. It was just having that kind of friendship that organically grew from working together; having that is what I’m talking about – and feeling really empowered by those friendships.

Fast forward, and I moved to Cincinnati. I remember one of the first thoughts I had was that this place could really use a Ladyfest. There were a number of seemingly small but impactful situations that I found myself in. My partner is a successful musician; at the time he was in a successful band here. There was a way that I was being treated – a way I was being othered – just in general interactions, even just going out. And I really felt alienated and vexed by it in a way that I went through so many analytical states of like, “Well, it’s just me and I’m internalizing something.” Or, you know, when a group of guys is standing in a circle and talking about the music that they're playing and there’s a ring of women standing around staring at their phones, not communicating or not willing to communicate, thinking, “That’s not that strange.” But things like this happened over and over again. I was like, “What’s happening that’s actually activating women here?” I found some things, but there were gaps in them. It was after a lot of, like, powerhouse women like Maureen Wood had established things in Cincinnati – after some of the pinnacles that they had created were mainstay, like Crazy Lady Bookstore and other feminist organizations.

So maybe I came right when there was a little bit more of a lull, but what I was seeing wasn’t reflective of other aspects of the progressive community that I was witness to here. It almost felt stunted. And at the time, there was always that joke of like, “What does Mark Twain say about Cincinnati? ‘If you don’t wanna feel like you’re aging or you want to go back in time, go to Cincinnati because everything happens there 10 years late.’” Have you ever heard that? Well, when I moved here, everyone said that, like, every other sentence. There was this whole attitude about it. The funny thing is Mark Twain didn’t necessarily say that about Cincinnati, but there was a belief that Cincinnati was stoic, and things happen late so don’t try to push it, you know; just let it be.

So I talked to women, and we might talk about the idea of a Ladyfest. I was just kind of planting seeds and feeling it out. It was originally met with like, “Oh yeah, that would be really cool,” and then onto the next thing. And that was it. I was just like okay, that’s fine. This thing is too big of a thing to do by yourself, and there is no real reason to do it by yourself; that’s not the point. You know, it’s grassroots and it’s supposed to be reflective of the artistic community that already exists, and then some. So I was kinda waiting until I got the kind of response that felt like a green light.

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And then – I wanna say it woulda been like five years ago – it got to a little bit of a breaking point. A dear friend of mine and I started a band called Babe Rage that was a feminist sludge-metal band, and that was getting more traction. Conversations started happening – conversations around really difficult issues of consent, women’s right issues, and LBGTQ and gender activism. And people are starting to acknowledge the need for recognition of rights of trans individuals and give space to that. So that hadn’t quite happened here yet. In Philadelphia and Chicago, this is the kind of stuff we were talking about in 2007. And now I’m in 2013/2014 in Cincinnati. So maybe the Mark Twain pseudo-thing has some leverage and legitimacy – who knows?

So there’s a lot of stuff happening. People are questioning things and not getting answers, and I started my thing where I was like, “Man there’s this thing I did once in Chicago and it was really incredible and I got a lot from it. I really wanna do it here.” And I started getting responses of, like, “That sounds awesome. If you do that, call me,” “When do you want to do that?” “Can we do it this year? This year? Can we do it?” So, we started planning just hanging around after a show, having a drink, seeing each other at the farmer’s market, and it started happening. Pretty quickly. I was like okay, I think this is the year for it. So when spring came, I called all those people and said, “Hey, were you serious?” and they were! Everybody had this thing about “Here’s why I’m interested. Here’s why this matters.” So that’s that change that I’m talking about.

All of a sudden, these things that have been present for way too long are being acknowledged and seen. It’s like I’m being given a microphone or I’m being given a space to vocalize, my voice is being heard in some form. What am I doing with that became a question in Cincinnati, maybe more than it had been in recent years at least.

I’m really pumped about it. We’re having our third year this year. Every year, we revamp and reorganize how we structure the event. It’s multi-venue all across Northside, and this year we are doing it in a way where individuals have their own nights – individuals who are already organizing in the city. So women like Siri Imani of the Blvck Seeds, Véronique Allaer of Leggy and Hera City Sounds. A nice handful of women are actually arranging the booking; every event that you’ll see at a venue will have a distinct feel. It’s a way to be organized in a way that is organic to what’s happening in the community already, and then also amplify what’s happening. And trying to create another form of a network for women to be able to not only get to know each other, but directly collaborate in a way that can bolster everything within our community. So I’m really excited. We have a focus on inclusion and diversity particularly this year. Intersectional feminism is the stronghold.

It’s pretty apparent that music has played a large role in your life. How has that passion shaped your current projects?

I started a project with People’s Liberty called Caravan Traveling Sound Studio. So what Caravan is – that’s the nickname – it’s a mobile instrument showroom and pop-up lo-fi sound studio. It’s basically a traveling jam space that is a contained tour van. It goes up to events at a festival, or outside a school, or at a park, or some kind of event, and we spill out onto the sidewalk a bunch of really interesting, eclectic instruments and seating. I have lo-fi recording devices so people just come and, like, jam out. People who have maybe touched an instrument never, or really seasoned musicians. Part of the idea was to get instruments that aren’t the conventional rock instruments because everyone has a seen a guitar, and some people are really good at playing guitar, so to some people maybe that is just really intimidating. So we have a theremin or a single-string cigar box bass, from a range of interesting, world instruments to more synth and future tech gear – it kind of levels the playing field so people can come together and just jam and do whatever. Because you could be the best guitarist in the world, but you don’t know how to use a theremin. And maybe you've never touched a theremin and you’re an eight-year-old, but you’re incredible at it because it just works.

Music is really powerful for me and has this line of connectivity, and all these different manifestations. Whether it’s a band, whether it’s me individually doing my performance art with soundscapes, whether it’s Caravan or an ongoing project that I do, touring with my partner who is a professional musician who’s been in a number of bands – it’s kind of like the thread of the bead necklace and the beads are, like, this really bad metaphor for all these things I’m interested in.

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I met my husband when I was a costume designer and stylist. He was playing music and I was working for a theater production. He saw some pieces and then I made them something and got hired, and you know, the rest is history. I went on tour a bunch, so I know the ins and outs of rock culture, whether I chose to or not. That’s a benefit to understand the nuances of things. I always kind of stood on the more business side, the planning side, and the creative was always with visual until I moved to Cincinnati and became a part of a community that is bridging so many gaps. It’s not as hierarchical as other things I have experienced – the inverse of the pros of these big cities I’ve lived in.

Things are looser here. Somebody who has been playing for maybe 30 years is not as off-put by playing with someone who hasn't played with anyone before. The barriers are not as intense for whatever reason. So it’s really inspiring to be a part of a community where music is common: It’s a common form of communication, and it’s everywhere. So this bar [The Listing Loon] turns into a venue every night, and almost every bar turns into a venue every night in Cincinnati. It’s great.

Do you go to a lot of live performances?

Yeah. I think that there is a lot that is conveyed in a live performance that can only happen through how human-on-human interaction takes place, you know? That form of freedom of expression – it’s special. You’re having a shared experience and that song is being played the way that song has maybe been played a thousand times, but it will never be played exactly the way it’s being played in that moment. It’s like the most temporal thing in art. There’s all these little special moments of that, too, where it’s just me and these 60 other people who got to see that. And you get to carry that for as long as you can remember.

Earlier, you touched on activism being a part of the reason you started Ladyfest. How have the recent changes to America’s political and social climate affected or impacted that?

It’s like this vexing, strange double-edged sword thing. And what I mean by that is that there’s so much more happening this year than I’ve witnessed in the last decade – and that’s something. There’s a lot of activism and unification that’s happening that otherwise maybe wasn’t as strong. I have this whole thing – whatever, I mean, history has the thing – of the “end-all be-all” that will break things apart is the idea of this “divide and conquer” as a strategy to divert marginalized groups and the oppressed from gaining the power that is rightfully theirs anyway. And right now, there’s so much to unify against that that idea is not removed, but it is different.

So through working with Black Lives Matter or feminist organizations, I hope that the hierarchy of oppression bickering has been hushed because there’s so much that’s wrong that we have to communicate with those that are more like-minded, even through difference.

Because there’s now an evil. There always kind of is, but then also not, because there’s a spectrum: It’s not always like a Disney movie, all black and white. But at the same time, I’m seeing a lot of groups work together and a lot of actions take place through the mire and through the despair points, so that is good.

So that’s one side of the story. The other side is what we know: that things are not good right now. And the evil, murky mire that was lurking below the surface that we all knew about – like extreme racism and extreme sexism and these extreme oppressions that are systemic and built into the society that we thrive from. It’s exposed now; it’s not just under the surface. You can’t turn a blind eye or rationalize it away because it’s now our everyday, lived, obvious reality. So that’s really hard, especially for my POC friends who have to wake up every day knowing that something that was an unacknowledged suspicion is now a fully verified, lived reality threat. So there’s a sense of urgency that I feel, and I know that I’m not alone. I’ve voiced that and am met with full empathy and understanding. So I think a lot of us are feeling that way, and not just activists, but a lot of us.  

Nothing is just flat; everything is multifaceted. I get in all kinds of philosophical conundrums this year, because I’m like, “Oh, what other horrible thing is happening that I’m going to also try to find the silver lining of so that I can cope with this and move forward?” It is exhausting. Sometimes things are bad, but pressure makes us move.

I’m watching new activists come and say, “I have to do something; I want to do more than what I’ve been doing,” and that’s the impetus that led me to start teaching. I just started this year. It’s like, “I do things, but am I doing as much as I really can? What does it really look like to do the most that I can?” Because in my lifetime, I’ve never in my 30-something years witnessed a need to the severity that it is right now.

So it was activism that inspired you to move into the teaching field?

I had this wild moment the night before Thanksgiving last year. I woke up in the middle of the night and popped out of the bed – like those kind of things where you think you’re supposed to be doing something but there was nothing I could be doing. So I walked to the kitchen and got a glass of water and then I went to my laptop and I applied for Teach for America – half-asleep, fully applied. It was something I had thought about a number of times through the years, so it wasn’t a completely random website, but it was pretty random and not quite in my game plan.

So I applied and after I submitted, I saw the deadline was Black Friday. It was right in that margin, so that was weird. I’m telling this story – and I don’t tell it to many – but that was fun. I was like okay, I applied and I had to get it in; some higher self-urgency thing did this. I won’t lie – I had some pretty high-level anxiety post-election. This was immediately post, and I was having those thoughts of, “Am I doing enough?” I believe that being an educator is being an activist. Actually, when one of my close friends found out, he shook my hand and he was like, “Congratulations. Welcome to the rest of your life as a professional activist. You’re gonna get a paycheck for it now.”

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So I applied, and I thought about all the things you think about when you change your career or make a major life decision. At the time, I was tour managing for my husband’s band – which was incredible and amazingly gratifying, and at the same time, a really privileged position for me to be in. So I started going through with it. I went to five weeks of diversity, equity, and inclusion training to be a culturally relevant teacher, which is fascinating and very difficult. So it’s like a really progressive lens in educating, which I’m sure aligned with activism.

So now I am six weeks into being an intervention specialist at Taft IT High School for 7th and 8th grade students with disabilities. And it is gratifying, rewarding, super hard work. It’s a lot. But another real passion point of mine is doing work for individuals with disabilities: physical, mental, emotional. That’s deep within me, and my family has a lot of history with that. I have my own diagnosis of a mental illness that I work with and I use coping tools for.

The empowerment that comes from gaining your own agency and claiming those aspects of your own identity is, I think, vital for growth and change.

So some of the problems that we’re vexed by in society – that whole “work on yourself” or the thing of “look within before you look without” – well, you have to have the tools to do that and work with what you’re given. So that’s where I’m at. And maybe the next hat that I wear will be doing something that’s really in the community with individuals with disabilities.

Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

Two influential women? There are so many. I’ll just rattle off who comes to mind first: My mother. First, because she, like all mothers, is the reason I am here. But I have a very different experience of “mom” than most people. My mother has a severe form of schizophrenia. She was also a sex worker. The mental disorder caused her (and my) life to take more than a few roller coaster twists. The intersections of her disability, poverty, and the oppression she experienced both in her profession and as a woman have been some of the most influential factors in my life.

I also want to mention my grandmother on my dad’s side of the family. She and my father raised me when my mother became too ill. She’s this really tough, yet graceful woman who grew up in ʼ50s/60s era of first wave feminism. She has this great story about having her mind blown by reading “The Feminine Mystique.” It’s a perspective that I think gets easily lost in all the many iterations of the movement. Growing up, I often found her vantage point to be too rigid for my ʼ90s kid worldview. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to value having heard about the ways her life began to change as feminist movements developed.

And on that note, I have to mention someone well known, who in my eyes is one of the most impactful feminists of our lifetime, Yoko Ono. Here is this immensely talented artist, performer, and activist who almost immediately became just about the most hated woman in the world. For what? For falling in love and having that love be reciprocated. The world wanted to blame this woman for the loss of their favorite band (rather than just blame the guy whose band it was). It just shows again how comfortable the world is in turning on a woman, regardless of how great she is.

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