By George Stanbury
Only one of this year’s Brit Awards nominees can claim to be the winner of the Mercury Prize, and a previous nominee for Best Original Song at the Oscars. Any guesses? David Bowie? Skepta?
The answer is one of this year’s lesser-known nominees, Anohni, whose trail-blazing ways have brought well-deserved recognition in the form of a Best British Female nomination. While this year’s nominations have been defined by the mainstream breakthrough of grime and the posthumous recognition of David Bowie, her story is no less significant. Anohni’s career has been characterised by her public expression of her transgender identity, providing a voice for those who share similar experiences. Her music, bold and uncompromising, departs from the other nominees, striving to shine a light on marginalised sections of society.
Anohni, formerly known as Antony Hegarty, first sprung into the spotlight as lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons. I am a Bird Now, the group’s 2005 Mercury Prize-winning album, mesmerises listeners with introspective, disarming vocals and mournful strings. Revered stars such as Lou Reed and Boy George queue to lend their voices or instruments on the album, but it is the lead vocalist and her disarming honesty that steals the show. Songs such as ‘For Today I am a Boy’ and ‘My Lady Story’ provide humility and potency to the often trivialised emotional complexities and difficulties faced by transgender people and their pursuit for truly free gender expression. Lyrics such as “one day I’ll grow up, I’ll know whom within me” highlight a remarkable sense of clarity through a difficult time, grappling with the prospect of future fulfilment and self-satisfaction.
This seminal work gained a degree of mainstream success and a Best British Male nomination for Anohni, though this is a label she feels does not validly describe her gender.
Having worked with Future Feminism, a campaign group, she explained in an interview with The Guardian that, “cowardice and shame” stopped her from asking people to call her “she” earlier than she did. When further drawn on the topic of her gender, she notes that “I don’t feel emphatically female, it’s more subtle than that.”
Armed with a more detailed understanding of her own identity, she adopted her “spirit-name,” Anohni, and set her sights on other issues of importance to her. In 2015, she provided the lyrics to the song “Manta Ray,” written for the eco-documentary Racing Extinction.
This song garnered an Oscar nomination, the second ever for an openly transgender person. Having been refused an invitation to perform, she boycotted the ceremony, calling it an institutional reminder of her “inadequacy as a transperson.”
Following this, she set about creating Hopelessness, a protest album that pours scorn on the complacent greed of Western society, the damage of rapidly advancing technology and American foreign interventions. Gone are the strings, and the album has a distinctly claustrophobic electronic pop-feel, aided by the flawless production of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never.
The album’s eponymous track startles the listener with a cutting refrain as she asks “how did I become a virus?” Moving beyond issues of gender, Anohni seems more preoccupied with our place within an ecosystem, a dilemma growing ever more unavoidable. Her track ‘4 DEGREES’ is an apoplectic number, belittling climate change sceptics with an ire not seen in her back-catalogue. Lyrics like “all those mammals, I want to see them lying, crying in the fields” paint the climate change debate in terms of pain and suffering, stripping down the issue in terms we can all understand.
This is continued in ‘Crisis’ where she humanises and gives depth to the growth of extremist sentiment by asking “if I killed your father with a drone bomb, how would you feel?”
In ‘Marrow’, the claim that “we are all Americans now” highlights a collective blindness to alternative views as we shroud ourselves behind our privilege. At this year’s Mercury Prize ceremony, her live performance was accompanied by a woman seemingly smeared in blood, uncomfortably juxtaposing the human cost of conflict with the privilege of a celebratory black-tie event.
With irreverence, Anohni gives a voice to those who are repeatedly silenced by Western media, positing alternative views simply and with devastating truthfulness.
Amidst the collective mourning of the end of Barack Obama’s presidential reign, her track ‘Obama’ decrees a legacy of “executing without trial” and “betraying virtues.” Her reference to Guantanamo Bay reminds us that nearly eight years after his promise to close the detention camp, it still stands and represents a damaged legacy.
In a period of such uncertainty, Anohni’s home truths provide grounding and perspective by boiling polemical issues down to the deeply personal.
A new EP released in March, Paradise, seemingly mocks a political landscape which, one assumes, will be eviscerated by her incisive approach. Whether she walks off stage with the Best Female or not, taking heed of her messages are, to her, worth far more than the prestige and success attached to her brilliant career.
Illustration: Katie Butler