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An interview with Aisyiyah Prahastono - Mama / Activist / Musician / Cook

September 7, 2018

Tell us about yourself in your own words.

My name is Aisyiyah. I am a mum, of Marley. I play in a band called Arafura, I am a cook and community organiser. I was born in Sydney in Darlinghurst but I grew up most of my life in the south west suburbs. I’m originally Indonesian. I’m half Sumatran and half Javanese and my parents came here as undocumented migrants back in the 80s.


How long have you been performing in bands and how did that start?

I guess I’ve been in the music community for over a decade, but it took me about 5 years to work up any semblance of confidence to actually play in a band and assert myself as a musician. I was doing acoustic folk punk at a place called Jura Books for a couple of years, but that’s all I thought I was worth. I didn’t want to do anything that called out people actively and openly until Palmar Grasp happened which was in 2013. That band lasted 2 years and then Arafura happened. Arafura took many different incarnations and now it’s Dean (Patrick Crowe), Ed (Fox) and I. It’s a thing that happens sparsely but also something that I take very seriously and is very important. I’m grateful that I get to do it still even though I’m not as involved in the community as I used to be.


Have you always played heavier music and what attracted you to it?

I think in terms of listening to music, I’ve always been into heavy and abrasive music and that’s what was common in DIY punk in Sydney in the early to mid 2000’s. It’s what I was exposed to but I just never felt like I had a place in that because it was such a masculine thing to be a part of. I thought that I was only able to watch and enjoy from a distance. There were a few bands then that had women and non-binary people in them and I forever thank them for existing and showing me that I could do it, but it was predominantly male and predominantly white. I realised after hanging out with a few other women in the community like Blossom (McKenzie King) and Kelly (Hellmrich), and even women like Kat from Mere Women, that I could do it. Those people made it possible to enter the abrasive or heavy music scene and not feel super insecure about it or not feel like I had to take a backseat and wait for all the men to finish talking. Palmar Grasp was a huge wakeup call for me. I realised I can do this and I can tell men off directly who are standing in front of me in the audience and I can call them out there and then. I remember playing a show at the Gladstone and someone yelling something and I just pointed at them and told them ‘this is not for you, please don’t speak over us’. I had never been able to do that before because I had never played in a band. If you’re a folk punk artist it’s a bit harder because you don’t feel like you have backup. I think abrasive music is awesome for that - it’s in your face already musically and you can make it a complete thing by being also a really explicit and assertive person within it.


What sort of themes do you explore through your music and lyrics and what inspires your songwriting?

I think Palmar Grasp, the lyrics were gender oriented because that’s what we were facing at the time. Kelly was just coming out of her teens when we started that band. Being a teenager in punk, and a woman, you’re constantly being intimidated and second guessed and that was the main concept of Palmar Grasp. We wanted to say ‘you can’t take this thing that we actually made and turn it against us’. The whole idea that men are at the forefront of punk - that’s what you see on the surface but you don’t see all of the hard work that goes into it from all of the people that are supporting those men to actually be able to play music in the first place. Everyone that does the door is a woman, everyone that does merch is a woman, people that just spend so much time listening to men are women or non binary people. That was the main thing about Palmar Grasp - just playing music and doing it unapologetically. It was mostly about women in music and I guess Kelly’s taken that into Camp Cope and that’s the direction that they’ve gone in. I, in the past few years, have had to confront a lot of very traumatic experiences to do with race and so that’s been the direction that Arafura is going in. Dean and Ed have given me the space to use it as a platform to engage with that trauma and so I think the themes of Arafura will continue to be very fiercely anti-colonial. The lyrics are mainly to do with my own heritage but obviously the indigenous struggle is global and we have to address the injustices in Australia because that’s what we’re directly involved in. It’s very well connected to other native peoples around the earth because indigenous communities have very similar philosophies about life and very similar connections to the earth. You can’t really focus on one without engaging with another. So an internationally aware anti-colonial band is what Arafura is currently.


What is the impact and influence of activism in your life and why it is important to you?

It goes back a long way. I was first exposed to activism through my own personal experiences. My parents were undocumented migrants from Indonesia and my Dad was detained in Villawood detention centre twice. I remember going to visit him and seeing people out the front protesting the existence of a detention centre. Even at that time I thought this is not a humane practice and that was my first insight into it. I couldn’t really figure out how I would engage with it or how I would get involved with it because I was 12 at the time, but I remember thinking those people were challenging something that they should be challenging. A few years later I got into punk and I was playing music at Jura, so that was my first access to literature and anarchist communist terminology and language. I was lucky to have that access because I think that a lot of people in my position may not have that to look to and may not be able to express themselves in the kind of academic language that I now have a knowledge of. I still reject it because it’s not representative of me or my personal history and I think that activism needs to be really accessible. It’s mostly poor brown people or genderqueer people that can’t go to uni and overthrow the system from within. But I was lucky to have Jura as a foundational place for my activist ideas and then from there I was just going to rallies, talking to people, making connections, travelling and seeing activists in countries where their livelihoods are far more threatened than here or even in rural Australia where aboriginal people are far more isolated. Human connections are where my activism lies.


What is your creative process and how has it changed over time?

I always write lyrics first. I’m not a musician - I don’t know how to play instruments. I do very poorly and very basically. I just write words. I do diary entries and really stereotypical lyricist practices where I have a notepad and I jot down ideas and expand on them later. Generally something that affects me deeply will be triggered by a news story or something that I come across on facebook and I’ll just be reminded of something that I have personal experience with and then I can write about it. But there’s not really a process. Generally when we’re at band practice Dean will have a riff and he’ll play something and I kind of tell Dean to cue me in, but in terms of the actual words I just sit in the corner of band practice and write until it works.

What impact has being a Mum had on your activism and creative process?

It’s changed it a lot. I think one of the main things is just not being able to risk my body. In the past I was never afraid of being arrested but now I’ve got another person I need to protect and I can’t be taken away for a night in a cell. I don’t think it has hindered any kind of activism, it’s just changed how I have had to conduct it. The internet is my main platform now. I still go to rallies but I find myself with a different kind of energy. I used to be very angry which I still am but I can’t really show it as much because it will affect how Marley feels at a rally. She can feel it when I’m anxious so I have to go into it being really positive which is not easy given what I’m protesting. I have to make it an educational experience for Marley and also just something that she’s not scared of. It’s a very different energy that I have to put out there. I’m not really doing much activism at the moment simply because I don’t have the time but I’m constantly engaging with people online and keeping in the loop. But I think the greatest form of activism for me right now is just making sure that my kid is well informed and critical and kind. That’s the best I can do right now. It’s very hard and there’s a lot of push back against parents in anarchist communities because I think there's this strange idea that parents are selfish and that they are overpopulating the world, but my family and my entire history is built around community. Communities started with families so I don’t think I could be doing activism any other way. I don’t think yelling at cops is my calling. I think really focusing on Marley and who she has around her and what we do and how we contribute to the community as a family is more important to me - that real grass roots kind of work.


What is the biggest obstacle you face when expressing yourself creatively?

I think issues surrounding race are just not talked about - in general and in punk. It’s really cool that there is more and more people of colour playing music now but I think it’s still not an active conversation. I think gender is kind of being addressed at this current moment and it’s being addressed by a lot of people of different genders and that’s awesome, but the intersection of race doesn’t really exist yet in punk and that’s the biggest challenge. When I’m playing an Arafura show and I say something that’s uncomfortable, people are so paralysed by their own guilt that they don’t know how to process it and channel it and they don’t know how to come to me and talk to me about it. I feel really awkward at shows when I’m saying something about colonisation or racism and there is just awkward silence. I guess I should put myself into a white person’s shoes and think how I would feel listening to that - it’s fucking uncomfortable. It’s real shit and it has to be because you can’t address privilege without looking at your own. At the same time I need people to acknowledge it and at least clap when I say something that’s real. It’s really awkward saying it and I know most people agree with it but they won’t explicitly support it. People explicitly support talk about gender at the moment but race is still not there yet - especially colonialism. I think colonialism is something that is replicated in the punk community. I sometimes feel like I am more discriminated against when I’m hanging out with the music community because I just feel silenced all the time and I feel like everything that I say is so abstract to people because they’ve never experienced it themselves, that it often gets overlooked. Whereas with gender, most of the people I hang out with are women and non binary people so they get it and they have their own anecdotes and experiences to speak about and connect that abstract idea to. When it comes to race not a lot of people I know have that. It’s really cool that there are lots of younger people - like Dispossessed - who are people of colour and are making waves but I don’t have people in my immediate company that can guide me through that. I feel like half the time people aren't listening anyway and I wonder if people hear what I’m saying and if they care. I guess part of being a woman is just second guessing yourself all the time and wondering ‘am I crazy for saying this?’


What is the best piece of advice you could give to young women and queer folk who want to make art or music or just be seen and heard?

Just hold each other up. I’m not a person without the people around me. Ever since I had Marley it’s so easy to just be in the house and completely isolated, but I have so many women literally knocking on my door and saying ‘hey you still exist and you matter’. If I didn’t have that I don’t know who I would be right now. I wouldn’t still feel connected. It’s only women that do that and… maybe 2 dudes. I just think it’s the most important thing to surround yourself with people you admire and support them and in turn be supported. There is nothing stronger than women sticking together in a community. Also I would say don’t look anywhere else but inside yourself for a validation. That’s the hardest challenge that I’ve been going through at the moment - just constantly wanting other people to say I’m doing a great job but actually one of the most important things is recognising that for real for yourself.



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