Interview: Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls

The Indigo Girls are a Grammy Award-winning folk rock duo composed of Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, who first met each other in elementary school just outside of Decatur, Georgia. For over 30 years, Sailiers and Ray have teamed up to make great music and raise awareness of issues they care deeply about. At our invitation, Emily Saliers sat down with us for an engaging interview about music, activism and the importance of voting.

HeadCount: How has politics or your political beliefs kind of affected your songwriting over the years?

Emily Saliers: From the very beginning we’ve written songs about social issues, and then very early on when we were still just playing at bars and we were super young, we started organizing benefits for local community issues and I think actually my very first gig as a 14 year-old was for a Democratic gathering in Minnesota.

Both Amy and I were politically active and thinking about social issues from the very beginning. Then as we got into our career we networked with a lot of amazing activists and we learned the importance of a grassroots approach to activism. And now we can’t really even separate ourselves from the music and the politics and the activism. It’s not really politics because politics can be a mess. Let’s us say let’s just call it citizenship.

What are some of the causes or organizations you are working with right now?

Well the main thing is that about two decades ago we helped start this group called Honor the Earth with Winona LaDuke, she is a Native American activist from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. So our main work is environmental activism and environmental social justice. We work [a lot] with Indigenous communities. We discovered working with Winona that environmental justice issues happen first and foremost on Indigenous land disproportionately. And environmental impact happens to people who don’t have as much money or as much of a political voice in communities that are impoverished.

Also we are very active in the gun control movement and we work a lot with Moms Demand Action, which is a gun control advocacy group. We do a lot of anti-death penalty work and then of course we are very involved in Queer-rights, trans-rights, quality movement within the Queer movement because we are both Queer obviously. So those are the main thrust in our activism.

What are your thoughts on what’s going on with protests around the Dakota Access Pipeline?

Well I think it’s incredible because of all the dedication from the people who live there. That a small amount of people can stand up to these massive corporations who don’t give a shit about people’s livelihood. What the tribes and the people and their allies are accomplishing right now in stopping the pipelines is absolutely incredible, I mean it's really revolutionary. So we are in full support of those tribes and stopping the series of pipelines.

Then there is larger picture – that we can be doing so much more to shut down the old paradigm of depending on oil and fossil fuels and looking to new resources that are sustainable like sun or wind, biomass or other ways. We want everyone to look at the big picture, that this isn’t just a localized issue, this is something that affects us all. And the tribes are leading the way.

Which activists and artists have inspired you? Growing up who did you listen to?

Rage Against the Machine was hugely inspirational, Public Enemy, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell had a couple of killer songs about situations that were political or had social impact, environmental impact. Those artists specifically plus Willie Nelson who always jumped on board to participate in ways to protect communities.

Are there any artists who you haven’t collaborated with who you would love to share a stage with?

Stevie Wonder, I would love to share a stage with Heart, love them, and K’naan. He’s one of my favorite rap artists. We also have a lot of heroes in Georgia.

We have Representative John Lewis, he was there in the Civil Rights marches at the heart of the Civil Rights movement. He’s the representative from my district and he’s my hero. We also have Jimmy Carter who is my hero, and lots of Georgia folks who are politicians or involved in politics who are true heroes.

The south gets a bad rap for being backwards, but we’re at the heart – we’re at the center of the fight. Out of those ashes rise the true heroes.

How did it feel watching Congressman Lewis lead the sit in on the House floor a few months ago about gun violence?

It’s so courageous and strong and important because people who can’t relate to the power of that particular incident, the sit in, are out of touch with of the reality of what it means for people to take a stand. The issue of guns in this country is absolute insanity. So again you have John Lewis harnessing the power of people who really want to protect people to create [change], so we’re not dying by gunfire left and right. So I think that sit in was an incredible thing to do and a very important event.

And I do want to clarify that in terms of voting we are completely non partisan, in terms of how important it is for citizens be involved in the political process. People have died for the right to vote in some countries, they’re still dying in this country, we fought a war for freedom way way way back when. Nobody's right to vote or ability to get to the polls should be taken away from them and it is an non partisan issue.

What are your thoughts on the 2016 Election and other political trends? As a Georgian, how might Georgia vote in this election?

Well it’s really interesting because Georgia has a kind of history of centrist Democrats. We had Sam Nunn as Senator then we had a run of Democratic governors and including Jimmy Carter and Roy Barnes and others. Then we’ve have fire-brands like (former Rep.) Cynthia McKinney and we’ve always had John Lewis, so there has been this sort of, left of center, or centrist Democratic presence. Now when they talk about how Georgia will vote in the national election you know they’re saying it’s possible even Hillary Clinton will win Georgia.

As far as being in Georgia, we are so focused on our local [elections] – we are gonna have a race for the Mayor of Atlanta soon, and we’re going to be looking to the next midterm election that come. Focusing a lot on local elections including school commissioners because local elections are just as important as national elections. The freedom to engage in Georgia politics is a huge privilege. So if people feel powerless this is one way to feel their own power as a citizen to exercise their right to vote.

There are outside powers and forces and PACs and money and all kinds of shadiness and corruption – we all know that's the reality of our current political situation, but also the bottom line is that if enough people vote for a candidate of their choice, who stands for the things they believe in, then that candidate gets elected – that's how change occurs!

For better or for worse [some] people feel like their vote doesn’t count... It absolutely counts! They’ve got to rethink that. The thing they’ve got to do is think about is in their own backyard, what are their community issues or what about their schools there? Do they have problems with water contamination? Do they need more parks? More green space? All those things are affected by the votes they cast in their local elections and then the big things like, will Planned Parenthood get support or how long will Social Security last or will we be taken care of with Medicaid or will those programs go away? That all depends on the votes people cast. So I just don’t buy the argument anymore that there's no power of the vote, because the power to vote is everything in the end.

What do you feel is the role of artist, performers, entertainers to raise consciousness? Do you feel there is an obligation?

I don’t feel like there is an obligation, but I think everybody should be a citizen. Everybody should be involved because this is our world. It’s important to participate, this is our community, these are our communities, and people need each other. We need community. Music is a great galvanizer, it stirs people's souls and it gets them fired up no matter what genre it is.

Every great social movement has had a song that moved it along in times of trouble. Whethers its “We Shall Overcome” or songs of Eastern Europe or South Africa that were sung during times of civil struggle. So musicians have their hands on a great power for change.

I think there's some music that's meant to be entertainment. It's fine it's awesome but as individuals we all need to be citizens and then I think that if every musician were truly an evolved citizen, he or she would probably find a way to link music to social change.

I see your tour dates, and you're going through a bunch of places in the southeast, but it doesn’t seem like you’re planning any shows in North Carolina. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

Yes it was. We just played the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina, which is sort of liberal Christian gathering, because the whole reason for that of this event was to discuss these issues of oppression and discuss change. But even before that we played that we gave it a lot of thought, looked at it from every angle, and then considered it a different event. It wasn’t a for-profit event.

We have been offered to play North Carolina shows and we’re not going to play them until they change the law. I’ve realized that it makes it hard for a lot of North Carolinians who just wanna go see a show. But then it might force them to become more politically active. Ultimately, the mighty dollar is going to affect the big guns who make decisions for the state. [Which is why] we stuck to our boycotting principles in North Carolina.

I do wanna add that we love North Carolina, we have a long history there. There’s incredible pockets of activism and people there so we’re looking for change.

Also we’re super super psyched to be hooked up with HeadCount again. We have a long history with ya’ll. We wanna get people involved and we want people to remember how important it is to cast a vote. It is as important now as it ever was!