Sunday, January 23, 2011
Singer, Songwriter, Activist Brings Passion to His Music
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The first thing you’ll notice when you hear Joshua Napier sing is the sheer emotion and passion he projects with his music. Not for him the bland delivery of all too many guitar-toting singer-songwriters. Like the rock musicians who were his greatest influences, Bruce Springsteen and Melissa Etheridge, Napier sings with an edgy intensity that makes you identify with him and his songs. What’s more, though he’s a political activist and writes topical songs, he has the knack of the best activist songwriters of combining the personal with the political and creating pieces that reflect his beliefs instead of hitting you over the head with them.
Napier is equally passionate off-stage. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio and raised by a single mother, he was out as Gay in high school. One of the reasons he came to San Diego was to find an activist community with which he could work. Active as the membership chair of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.), he recently left that group’s board to join the board of Activist San Diego (ASD) because he wanted to work with a group that isn’t just focused on Queer issues.
Catch him wherever you can — at fundraisers, coffeehouse gigs or the “Redfest” event of politically aware music he’s planning for this summer. Someday you may find yourself boasting that you saw him “when,” just like the women who saw Melissa Etheridge in her early gigs in Los Angeles Lesbian bars when she was just one person and a guitar.
Zenger’s: Why don’t you tell me your background and how you got involved in music and in activism?
Joshua Napier: I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. That’s where I’m from. My mom was a single mom. She had me really young. I grew up in small towns, basically, and that’s the major influence on my music: I would define my music as small-town working class rock.
I moved out here to California in 2009 with my partner Jeff, who’s a student at UCSD. I wanted to find a different sort of music scene that would appreciate the sort of folk-rock, kind of acoustic thing that I have, and also find an audience for more political-type songs. I met some members of S.A.M.E., the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality, and that was how I got involved in politics. I wasn’t too political back home, so I guess I had a political conversion, I guess. I came to California hoping to find people who were more like me.
Zenger’s: So you’ve always been Left of center, but you came to California to find people to be Left of center with?
Napier: Yes, exactly. Back home I was known as “the crazy kid,” because I came out while I was still in high school, so I guess I was always political without realizing that I was this kind of champion for Gay people. I was just being myself in high school. I’ve met people that I knew in high school who have come out now, and they’ve said, “Oh, we saw you were,” so I guess that’s kind of cool.
I’d grown up wishing I’d been a teenager in the 1960’s, so I could have played in that scene and gone to Woodstock. I’m very inspired by that music, and wanting to write that way has been a tradeoff of working in the political atmosphere, looking at different things and perspectives.
Zenger’s: There’s been a lot written about how people are coming out at younger and younger ages. For Gays of my generation, it’s a little hard to imagine why, with all the other stuff you have to deal with in high school, would you want to choose of all times to proclaim this to the world?
Napier: For me, personally, it helped prevent a lot of that crap that other people deal with, because I was out and open and very confrontational about it. So I didn’t get the same sorts of threats. I didn’t have the same problems, because when people are confronted by such honesty, they can’t do anything but accept it. I think that’s something that our community deserves, to be honest with itself. That’s a big theme in a lot of my songs, and when people come to my shows a lot of the things I talk about are truth and honesty, transparency and its importance to everybody.
The more adults are honest and open, and the more accepted it looks in mainstream culture, the more younger folks feel comfortable enough to come out and just be who they are. Personally, I preferred to walk through high school letting everybody know who I was, rather than having to hide it and constantly worry about what they thought I was, or to threaten me or whatever. I think that’s a lot scarier position to be in than to just be out.
And, unfortunately, a lot of people in our community spend their lives that way in the giant high school that is life, hiding who they are. So I like that that’s happening in the youth movement, and I definitely encourage that. Being part of S.A.M.E., I hope we will continue to connect with GSA’s and youth, the progressive youth instead of the old bigots. That’s what I always say.
Zenger’s: How many progressive youth are there? I get the impression sometimes that this whole country is shifting far to the Right on economic issues. People completely believe in capitalism and “The Market.” So how does a young person grow up to be progressive in this very conservative age, and how many of you are there?
Napier: I think access to technology, having the Internet, has definitely assisted that. As negative as the complete plugged-in kind of feel that we have is, it is access to information, and kids in a small town can see beyond the conservative leaders they have in their town. That’s what saved me: growing up in the age of the Internet and knowing very early on that there were Gay people in the world, that I wasn’t the only person, I think helps.
I know here in San Diego there’s quite a progressive youth movement. We did that demonstration at San Diego High School against Fred Phelps’ church and all that, and there was a huge, huge positive response from the student body, not only the high school but the college next to it. We have to have had about 500 kids out there being political and standing up for themselves, and I think that’s a really cool thing.
Then when we had the student march, that’s kind of the thing right now. It may not even be that they’re becoming politically motivated because they’re Queer, but because they want an education. They want access to information, and I think that’s also radicalizing people. With the big budget crisis, we had lots of students coming out in response to the hike in tuition. I think that’s something that is also inspiring people.
I don’t know how large the progressive youth community is. I have dreams that it’s really large, that it’s kind of this big, sleeping mass that hopefully we can inspire and goad to be more involved. But our job as older activists, I think, is to try to bring them in and let them know. S.A.M.E. is starting this program where they’re going to go into high schools and create this network of GSA’s [Gay-Straight Alliances], and then you know when you get out of high school that you have a whole community to become part of, and to fight along with, on a variety of issues. At least that’s my dream for that project. We’ll see.
Zenger’s: When did you know that you wanted to do music as your life’s work?
Napier: When I was four or five, as my mother could tell you, all I ever talked about was wanting to be a singer. I wanted to sing, and then for a while I wanted to design, because I like art. I’m all over the place creatively. But I got a guitar roughly 10 years or so ago. Originally I just wanted to learn a couple of songs and play stuff for friends, that sort of thing. But once I learned to play it, it wasn’t too long before I started writing my own songs, and they soon became a solace for me, a way for me to deal with my issues in the world. And now it’s my best friend.
I was definitely that kid alone in the room, dancing and pretending I had an audience, and wanting to be able to share my message. That’s one of the biggest reasons I like music: it’s universal. It’s easy to spread, it’s easy for people to get hold of and pass on, and it’s also something that — songs change people’s lives. They change their emotions. They change their everything, and I wanted to be part of that universal amazingness that is music. Its ability to transform, and to share a message, I think, is very, very powerful.
Zenger’s: One thing I’ve liked about you as a musician and songwriter is you perform with an unusual degree of emotion. There are a lot of people at your stage, aspiring singer-songwriters who play coffeehouses and whatnot, who write nice songs but present them in a very bland fashion. One thing that I really connected with you is just the sheer intensity with which you sing.
Napier: Oh, wow. I really appreciate that. My vocal styling has shifted and changed over the years of learning, and of performing in front of people. I find that when I’m the most honest, when I’m the most connected in my lyrics, the emotion just comes through naturally, because I write about events that have happened in my life. I write about the day-to-day things, and that’s how I present them. This is my personal story. I can’t help but feel emotional.
My favorite singers are like that: Janis Joplin, Melissa Etheridge and Bruce Springsteen, people who have these kinds of odd vocals, but they’re very emotional, very powerful. You know exactly what they mean when they sing that song. That’s what I would want to come across, and that is why people enjoy my show, because they can see the honesty and the emotion behind it. I don’t like to play a lot of cover songs. I don’t typically play stuff I didn’t write, because it’s not the same connectedness.
Zenger’s: What would you say your influences are?
Napier: I love 1960’s-1970’s folk-rock, but my biggest influences would be Melissa Etheridge and Bruce Springsteen. I like their style, I guess I would say. Melissa writes very, very powerful lyrics. She was also, for me personally, kind of an idol because when I was a kid and I knew I wanted to perform, knew I wanted to write music and be out there, I looked around and there weren’t any Gay male guys that were like me, that just wanted to have a guitar and write a simple song. Having her as a role model really helped me, because there was somebody doing what I really wanted to do, and she was out.
Even though I would say I’m definitely a Queer musician, I would not say that my music is necessarily Queer. Anybody could listen to it that wanted to, if you like acoustic rock. That’s something I strive for, and like I said, in other artists I like that sort of honesty.
Zenger’s: Where do you want to take your music? Do you want to stay a solo performer, or do you want to have a band?
Napier: I would love to have a band, not necessarily a working band. I’m kind of a control freak, as most of my friends would be able to tell you. I have a specific vision for what I like for my music, but I love being with other musicians. I love a band because I love the energy of a live show. My intention, though, is to stay a solo artist, hopefully involved with a band I would be able to travel with and to play live with. I’m definitely looking. I’ve been trying to build something. It’s difficult.
Zenger’s: Tell me about the project you have coming up later this year.
Napier: O.K., the Redfest and my The Boy in the Red Shirt? I’ve been very inspired by the groups I’ve been involved with, like Activist San Diego, S.A.M.E., the International Socialist Organization, a lot of people who have been very political and have introduced me to a lot of very political music. So I think it would be really cool to have some sort of political activism/music fest, where we could have people come and play political music or songs that are a lot less mainstream, I guess I could say.
My hope is that it would be a large music festival that we could do every year in San Diego, and that it would benefit the ASD Radio Project and also spread other artists that are like me here in town that don’t have exactly the right avenue or the right venue for their sort of music. People with guitars in coffee shops happen a lot, but sometimes our music can be a little extreme or very political, and you want to have an audience that understands and appreciates that. That’s what I’m hoping will happen with this particular project.
It’ll be something I’m building in conjunction with those groups, and hopefully others, and other musicians. Definitely people are welcome to contact me about it if they have interest in helping build it, and it will also be where I’ve been writing a rock opera called The Boy in the Red Shirt, which is about this very, very far-Left activist who takes over the military and ends war. So it’s an idealistic show, but I’m enjoying writing it because I’m able to put in my political beliefs.
There’s so much stuff happening right now with WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning, and so many inspiring things. I just feel it’s a good time to process and to write this kind of show about escaping from this cages I feel we’re constantly put in. At least I’m hoping that’s what will come through.
Zenger’s: You mentioned WikiLeaks: I’ve read some articles and blog posts by feminists saying, “Wait a minute. The guy’s [Julian Assange] an accused rapist. We shouldn’t be just leaping to his defense and saying it’s O.K. what he did with those two women in Sweden because he’s exposing the secrets of the American government, because then we’re condoning rape and violence against women.” How do you feel about that?
Napier: I would definitely say I’m very much a hard-core feminist. I understand the concerns that a lot of the feminist community has had. I just feel that the information, the stuff that’s getting out there, is extremely important to have out there. People deserve the truth. People deserve to have access to the truth, and people deserve a transparent government.
If he did it, about which I have doubts, he deserves to be punished for it, because it’s wrong. That’s one of the most horrible crimes that a person can commit against somebody. It’s such an act of violence that he definitely deserves to be punished for that. But that’s not a good enough reason to suppress the information, and I do feel that there was kind of a smear campaign there, especially since the charges were dropped, and they were brought back up, and they were kind of murky, and nobody knew what they were, and they just started spreading rape.
I thought personally it was a way to drown out what he was really saying and to discredit him, as if to say, “Oh, he did this awful, awful act, so now we can’t trust these cables, we can’t trust what he’s releasing.” I think people should think very hard about what, at the end of the day, what the priorities are. If those women were abused by him, then I feel very sorry for them and I hope he’s punished for it, if he did it. But I still feel at the end of the day that the transparency is more important. Some of the things that are coming out of that are kind of scary, and we should know about them.
Zenger’s: Yeah, one of the things that astonished me about it was that Sweden apparently has a law making it illegal to have sex without a condom, and this is something that some of the more militant AIDS activists have been talking about here. In other countries, people have been prosecuted for these sorts of things. There was one proposal that you would practically have to sign a release form before you could have sex with anyone.
So it strikes me that one of the questions, besides did he actually force himself on women; and is the ultimate goal of this to get him extradited to the U.S. so he can be punished under espionage laws or whatever this government thinks they can throw at him; what does the existence of these kinds of laws say about our notion of sexual privacy? Are we going beyond punishing the bad stuff, the stuff that should be illegal, and policing people’s private conduct in ways the government shouldn’t be involved in?
Napier: I agree that there’s a lot there. We should always question people who are making money off of us. We should question their motives. We don’t have a cure for cancer because losing the amount of money made off it every year would bankrupt several pharmaceutical companies, I’m sure. I think that we always have to question the motives of our supposed leaders: those we have elected to be in charge, those who have forgotten they are servants and not kings, so to speak.
I am extremely against the government being that involved in people’s lives. I think that people as adults have the right to conduct themselves as they want. I’m not really sure about the whole condom thing in Sweden. I haven’t been paying attention, but I definitely think that would be silly here, and almost impossible to have happen. Despite the threat of AIDS or HIV, which terrifies a lot of people, there’s still a huge amount of unsafe sex that goes on. There’s still a huge number of people that prefer to bareback and to behave that way.
It’s like the drug laws. Telling people not to do drugs only makes them do it more. Telling people they have to wear a condom during sex would only increase people not doing it, to be honest. If people would stop policing people that much, people would stop behaving in some of the ways they do. But that’s just my personal opinion. I don’t think legalizing pot will lead to the whole world being addicted to heroin. That’s insane and ludicrous. I think these anti-drug people are only making it worse.
It’s also kind of hypocritical because the government wants to protect us against certain things, but other things are O.K. People are living in the streets because we decided to bail the banks out, because war is more important. We can’t dare take $2 billion out of that war funding to help the federal workers who are getting laid off. Any of that sort of policing by the government, telling people how to live their lives, really terrifies me with how the government’s choosing to live its life, so to speak.
Zenger’s: There’s one thing I’ve heard you talk about at meetings, and it was a question I was definitely going to ask you: how do you feel about the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”?
Napier: As a member of the anti-war community, I was very disheartened by the amount of celebration about it, because it was like, “Yay! We can go out and do more wars. We can kill more civilians that live in the Middle East. Yay!” That’s how I personally felt about a lot of it. I think of the military as one of our largest employers. I think it does send a very strong message culturally, and to our whole society, by them saying, “Gays are allowed to serve openly in the military. They should be able to serve without fear.”
I think that sends a very good message, and hopefully it will help us get an all-inclusive ENDA [Employment Non-Discrimination Act] passed. If Gays are able to serve in the military, if they’re willing to die for their country, they should be able to teach children. “They” — like we’re some separate species. But we should be able to do anything that anybody else does. Straight men get to work around young girls. It’s not like they’re running — well, not all the time, but it’s not like they’re behaving in that way. So to say that Gays would [behave sexually irresponsibly], that really bugs me.
It was kind of bittersweet. It sends a good message that Gay people want to defend the country — so to speak — and they should have the right to. But the expansion of the military-industrial complex is very frightening, especially when we’re in so many countries, doing so many horrible things, as evidenced by a lot of these diplomatic cables documents being released.
Zenger’s: It sounds like what you’re saying is you’d like Gay people to have the right to be in the military, and the wisdom not to.
Napier: Precisely, exactly. Yeah, that’s what I would like to see. I would like to see more people saying, “No, we don’t want to go to war. Not only is it a huge waste of money, but we’re killing people for no reason, for resources that we should be working to be less dependent on.” I can definitely be accused of being an idealist. We should share the world. Unfortunately, that’s not how it goes. But I like that, exactly: Gays should be able to serve in the military, and should have the wisdom not to. Really.
Zenger’s: You recently dropped off the board of S.A.M.E. and joined the board of Activist San Diego. Why?
Napier: I plan to keep the position I’ve had within S.A.M.E. as the membership coordinator, and I have done our newsletters for the past year. But I like ASD. I think it’s a cool organization that could be much more effective, and I think S.A.M.E. is at a point where it’s changing and reorganizing itself. It’s at a good place to kind of go off to some of our newer members, who I think are really plugged in to the marriage equality issue, and they’re better suited to run S.A.M.E. and make it a better organization.
I wanted to be in a more all-encompassing organization. I wanted to work on different things, be able to talk to people who are involved with the legalization of marijuana, or the Free Palestine movement, or the anti-war movement, with the peace and justice, labor workers. It’s exciting to come into a group with a different structure and working in a different way. I’m really excited about it, and I’m excited to see what the next year, or two years, or however long my term is, to see how ASD changes. But I still love S.A.M.E. and will stay an active member in S.A.M.E. and help out when I can.
Zenger’s: What do you think about the latest twist in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger lawsuit, with the federal appeals court sending it back to the state supreme court for clarification of the standing issue?
Napier: It’s exciting to be able to say that these people don’t have standing, because they don’t. They want to restrict the rights of certain people. They want to treat us like we are not human beings. So to have somebody question whether they even have the right to do that is really cool. I’m hoping that once it makes its way — as it eventually will — to the U.S. Supreme Court, that they will have the same thing to say: these people don’t have standing, they cannot keep rights and stuff from one particular group of people. I’ve had issues with the whole marriage equality thing from the beginning, because it’s so obvious to me that these people are trying to tell me I am a second-class citizen, I don’t deserve to have the same rights.
So hopefully that sentiment won’t continue; that people will be able to say that this is kind of a stupid issue. We will eventually be able to marry. We will eventually have access to all the same rights, all the same privileges, and if it takes every single one of these old bigots to go away and die off before we get it, we’ll have it eventually. They’re only delaying the inevitable.
I definitely think we’ll have marriage equality back here in California within the next couple of years. All the states. But I have mixed feelings about the marriage equality fight because we’re fighting for things we should have access to already, like health care. I should be able to leave the things that I have when I die to whomever I want. I should have the choice. All the rights and stuff that are being kept from us — that are benefiting people who can get married — I think is ludicrous. I think people should have that already. But that gets back to my idealism, and as they have not yet elected me King of the Universe, I have to keep fighting.