It was an abnormally sunny Friday in San Francisco when we caught up with LA-based musician Sasami Ashworth (otherwise known as SASAMI) and Mandy Harris Williams before their Noise Pop Festival performance at The Chapel. Fresh off a show in Sacramento the night before, the two had just finished settling into the green room. Sasami, known for her work as synth player for Cherry Glazerr, has established herself as a rising solo artist, releasing her first full-length self titled album “SASAMI”, and sharing bills with artists such as Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast, and Mitski. Setting off from Mexico City to Pioneertown outside of Joshua Tree, and then to Tijuana, Sasami has used her 2020 California/Mexico tour to explore the boundaries of entertainment and education, all while keeping true to her music. After hitting these stops, Mandy Harris Williams was added to the Santa Barbara show, bringing with her an unexpected new dynamic seldom seen in the indie rock world.
Mandy Harris Williams, better known by her social media handle @idealblackfemale, is a critical theorist and multimedia conceptual artist who explores themes of privilege, representation, and identity in her work. While Mandy works full time as a programming director at a women’s art center in Los Angeles, she turned to DJ’ing for this tour for the first time.
“I didn’t know I was going to like this so much,” said Williams on touring. “I didn’t know I still had a musical practice and I didn’t know that it was a part of my conceptual art practice, but now that this set lives and we’ve gotten feedback, it’s kind of overwhelming. I’m gonna admit something, Sasami asked me to go on tour and asked if I could DJ, and I said yes, but I didn’t know how!”
“I honestly didn’t think Mandy would DJ!” responded Sasami. “I honestly thought Mandy would just have a mic and give a lecture.”.
Being in an educational space is not new to Sasami or Mandy, both coming from teaching backgrounds in Los Angeles. The idea for the use of an indie-rock tour as a mode of bridging the gap between pure entertainment and education came together from a chance introduction between Ashworth and Williams by drummer Zoȅ Brecher at Form Festival, and the collaborative concept took off from there.
“I guess maybe there’s some sort of inherent enrichment in more educational programming whereas entertainment is more of a sensational joyful experience or something,” said Sasami on her inclusion of critical theory into her tour. “I didn’t know what Mandy’s set was going to be like until I had seen it. I feel like one of the messages from it, or from how both our value systems work is that music is basically a language and something that unifies different cultures and regardless of its goodness or badness, it’s something a lot of different people can appreciate. A lot of different people can appreciate the same kind of music, maybe have a different connection to it, or different historical connection to it, and kind of questioning whether people who appreciate all types of cultural music can actually take the time to understand the historical context or cultural context, I think that’s kind part of what this experiment is.
To me it’s an elephant in the room, I think a lot of people don’t really think about it. To me, it seems like a really obvious thing that music is a cultural thing, and the word ‘culture’ is literally embedded in ‘cultural’, and people don’t really take the time to do any historical homework on the culture they’re consuming.”
Mandy Harris Williams is well versed in critical analysis of popular media, with much of her previous work revolving around that very concept. “I think the idea of really questioning what is the content of that entertainment is vital,” she said. “We have a president right now who many people would say is extremely entertaining. A lot of people would say that’s the way he got in, is by tweeting and entertaining. A section of the population that is entertained by white supremacy. I think it’s the idea that we’d even bifurcate those two things is maybe the point that we’re trying to deconstruct.”
In the past few years, the rise of Asian-American artists such as Sasami has led to the creation of a strong community, as they seemingly use their collective success to uplift each other. “Even though I’m a solo artist, I don’t think I’ve ever really acted as a sole proprietor, like an individual person” remarked Sasami on her newfound role as a solo artist. “I feel like I’ve always been a part of something else, and I think those communities uplift each other and society takes credit for it.”
“It can be kind of dizzying, you’re literally making up the rules of like, this is what I’m ok with and this is what I’m not ok with. I’m just always trying to be learning to be better, I’m never going to be perfect. I think I’m better than I was two months ago, and I hope to keep doing that.”
Mandy Harris Williams’s inclusion on the tour was one with this sense of community in mind, with both artists recognizing the strong momentum that women of color in the music industry are creating within the music industry.
“I think one of the facets of artistry is this idea of individualism. And that actually this needs to be happening more, these sorts of collaborations, or even just talking about this particular question, how do we get a bag and not sell our souls? How do we get a bag and represent the folks we know good and damn well” said Mandy. “Not only because we’re coming from that community, but especially as femmes of color, we’re utilizing to a certain extent, this momentum that’s around, like being PoC, right? How do we utilize that in a way that infuses it with information, and not some sort of defanging of our identity.”
As Williams took to the stage that night with a set infused with entirely black femmes of color, alongside spoken word samples from Audrie Lorde and Williams’s own writing, it was clear that this experience was vastly different to concert-goers than what many expected from a SASAMI concert, yet for those who connected with the set, it was a greatly needed and welcome change of pace.
Before ending her set for the night, Mandy Harris Williams grabbed the mic and addressed the crowd, “When it’s Black History Month and you’re at a show and there’s only one Black femme performing–be respectful,” received by a roar of applause from the audience.
Sasami, joined by drummer Evan Parulan and bassist Penn Francis from music collective Rotu, took to the stage after, bringing a set that ranged from intensely somber and emotional, to thrashing heavier rock. “Let’s keep it going, for the sake of frenetic energy,” Sasami told the crowd after debuting a new single titled “Mess”, releasing in the next few weeks. After the show, Ashworth, still clad in polka-dotted jacket and red leggings, manned her merch table, meeting with fans as they left the venue, taking time to talk with those who came and braved the line that stretched from the entrance to the bar.
Sasami and Mandy Harris Williams’s efforts on this tour, however brief, are a testament to the newfound pathways emerging artists in the music industry are taking. Ones that circumvent the cookie-cutter approaches to music, taking risks and prioritizing people over profits.
The 2020 tour concludes in Los Angeles, March 28th at The Lodge Room. While the future is unclear currently for further touring together, the pair hope to continue to combine Sasami’s indie-rock set with Mandy Harris’s critical theory DJ set, with tentative plans to bring this tour outside the boundaries of the west coast.