Jessica ‘Coco’ Hansell
Now Is Not the Time: Trauma Dollars, Resisting Emotional Tourists and Sometimes Trading Guttural Fury for Looking After Yourself
Recently, I found myself in a state of psychic exhaustion. I couldn’t speak about several issues, despite dedicating much of my time and work to them. Be it casual or formally required of me, I wouldn’t say I was inarticulate or terse. I was silent and strange.
There are many benefits available for me if I am able to articulate and calmly explain systemic trauma in front of others. If artists consent to our token reduction in some capacity we can ascend, this notion ain’t new. And most minorities in colonised countries understand such code-switching as the armour we can’t escape wearing. That is, if we wish to exist in the eyes of the state. This is especially true with race and gender where a contemporary art audience, often juiced on guilt, hold my fiscal future and problem reputation in their hands.
Whenever I resist any loaded invitation to contribute to a conversation where I am the ‘only’ something, many a mortified voice confronts me (and one of them may be my own).
“But don’t you wish to enlighten others and enrich the discourse?” the voices barter.
You may be surprised to learn, not necessarily. I am not exactly withholding food from a starving dog am I, people talk and post political shit all day long. And unlike many “socially aware” people I encounter, I like shutting the fuck up once in a while, gathering my thoughts and I don’t feel I need to rescue every tense or “problematic” thread with my incredible perspective. To the chagrin of oversharers online and planet-wide, my most meaningful thoughts feel more awkward to commodify or disclose than ever. Are those less represented always obliged to light up dull discourse with their “unique perspective”? Or are we simply playing into the machine that constantly renders us unique? When the hurt overwhelms us, we are allowed to openly say “yeah you need me to weigh in, but I’m fucking exhausted.”
My original (self-assigned, masochistic) brief for this very piece was to unpack a few incidents of systemic racism I had experienced both in Aotearoa and in Australia while living there. I also wanted to touch on the septic perception that I was a “good indigenous person” both at home and abroad simply because I was an educated light skinned Māori (German Samoan to boot). Funnily I was often told simultaneously that we “Māori had it good” by those who weren’t clued up on our history. Basically if I wasn’t being asked to sell out my Aboriginal siblings during some Aussie happy hour, I would be forced to take the murder of my ancestors as a compliment.
This essay I had planned for you, oh man. It was going to be sick. I had myth-busting interviews and comics planned, with traumatised friends and strangers, from all over. Yeah it might have been a bit trite, but what did it matter really? That’s the Antipodean thunderdome of literature and tweetable journalism now isn’t it? Perpetually shopping for plastic diversity efforts like the Halloween costumes they are? I could play fake woke, throw in some POCa WOCa flames from across the Pacific and you’d be none the wiser. The perfect online journal crime.
But there was one problem.
On the day of delivery I couldn’t physically make myself Frankenstein this damn piece together. Like my hands literally cramped up every time I went to do it. I’m not sure whether it was muscle memory or just my subconscious pulling rank (bitch let me live!). But I remembered the thing about these themes and memories, is that when we are forced to think about them too hard, it can physically wipe many of us out for weeks. For those unfamiliar with “post”colonial stress, this is not a melodramatic joke. I could have collected hundreds of interviews, woven their sadnesses into my own and got you all up in your sociopolitical feels, guaranteed. I would have brought up some emotional turf that doesn’t always have to be reprised and traversed for your feral think piece consumption.
The marginalised are always on the edge of being duped out of ourselves within the supposed “creative class”. At its simplest, we just want to do our thing but we keep getting tokenised, fetishised or used. In more complex terms, we oblige and drive the emotional tourists around our social pressure-cooker, our historical wounds, despite risking ourselves psychologically. I long to mobilise and motivate myself and my people, so I do oblige, sometimes. I imagine kinfolk spotting my hand reaching out under all the rubble every time I write anything like this. Will they see me? Will they hear my swamped dog-whistle? Perhaps when you ask people who bring their cultural identities to their work to deliver something, I ask you to revisit this image. Are you the kinfolk I am looking to comfort? If not, please do not contribute to the rubble on top of me. And do not insult me further by thinking I can’t tell the difference.
I understand exposure is crucial for many artists, recognition and compensation keep us sane, maybe occasionally help us pay rent. But sometimes if your art and activism is indistinguishable, you learn the hard way that certain kinds of audiences and organisers can make you feel unsafe and reduced real quick. They put words in your mouth. They superimpose their face onto yours. They turn their mic and experience up louder even if you disclose your thoughts with the frequency of a decaying comet. They want to stand beside you with the Nashville filter on, but when all other filters are deactivated they’re conveniently indisposed.
This summer I was essentially mute outside of discussing the things I really, really had to. The sociopolitical microaggressions and fine-print in almost all of my professional dealings had stacked up and had momentarily won I guess. It happens. I often find people wish to witness and invest in you IF your temper and mental health is not precarious. Meaning if your emotional or spiritual self can be industrialised.
Beyond pooling the perspectives we are willing to share, many minorities allowed into privileged spaces are surrounded by loaded handshakes. We are regularly guilt-tripped into providing cred for people who could earn it themselves if their heart and respect for immersion was actually in it. And many of us are asked to provide emotional labour for people who shouldn’t be trying to access and exploit our identities in the first place. We are demonised when we don’t immediately cooperate. People with more resources persuade us to do their research while they control the outcome anyway. This is on the assumption we are not battling our own demons and our self-image isn’t propped up by fractured bones. It’s as if in the modern artistic world, minorities are in a perpetual start-of-recovery after a historically botched operation but are still expected to perform flawless pop cultural surgery. The hilarious thing is, we can do it, and do it well. But it’s nice sometimes to remind people that we don’t have to. Correction: it’s essential to do so.
Activists and artists in my community surreptitiously have to find ways to motivate each other to keep resisting these respectable mind-games. If we are caught by the system we are punished accordingly – the polarising loud-mouth caught red-handed! The semantics that surround us will be infected thereafter.
I may have spent most of this summer shutting the fuck up because if my emotional labour was a car, I’d be getting violently jacked every three days. I was tired and sometimes silence is the only way you can cut off spiritual and cerebral supply and set boundaries. But you find the talking continues, this time it’s coming only at you, and not asking for your input. The world turns whether you provide commentary or not and I think this is the dilemma most storytellers should face. Are they required? If so, are they actually in a psychospiritual condition to contribute well?
Everyone knows the digital age is a pontificating slaughterhouse. A story emerges, then multiplies, then turns into a Fantasia-esque factory floor of self-cannibalising hot dogs. Fear not, I am not a corny person hell-bent on denouncing this. As if. I simply wonder, do the consumers of good stories ever pause to hear the spiritual groan rising from the pores of the genuinely traumatised and tired? Don’t we owe a deep soulful thanks to the people who phone in the devil for their work? Who inspect their battle scars so the unscathed will believe there was a fight? I couldn’t do it so today I want to take this opportunity to shout out to the people who can. I see you. And I need you more than ever.
Sometimes I only get the guts to put on a proverbial helmet and enter the anglo saxon rape culture fray because I’ve experienced the unspeakable power of visibility and rescuing younger incarnations of myself before. But that doesn’t mean we can pull stories of “survival” out of thin air. We know this takes bravery and industrial vats of energy. Storytellers from all walks of life can’t unearth certain things without actually harming ourselves a little bit and reliving things that we know will return for us with a bommy-knocker anyway. I’ve always thought if systemic violence was a movie it would be the relentless pursuit of Terminator crossed with the familiar dead-eyed smile of Groundhog Day. It’s like when you dream of a full banal day at work, then wake up and have to go to work (but you know, forever). Today reader, this Māori German Samoan gender-bored human woman chose the supposed low road.
Outside of sincere healing and expression, why are minorities expected to trade our (conditional) trauma capital for literal capital? I am speaking as much to myself as to you. Do people like me feel we must comply so that someone might thank us at a BBQ and say they learnt a lot, maybe give me a decent wage for once? Maybe they’ll cite me as a “sassy Pacific artist” during a really stimulating Gmail chat with powerful friends. Maybe I do it so my squad can gather even more proof that life is harsh and they are amazing cyborg survivors. (Nah, they already know that).
We are already overwhelmed enough by the hunt for our own reflections, our lost stories but somehow we still wish to share, it’s in our blood. I just don’t like it when we are stopped at every colonial corner, mugged for our autobiographical findings, so we can be legitimised and acceptable in the eyes of those who took them from us.
Ko Coco tōku ingoa me Jessica Lee Hansell ranei. He wāhine Māori au i te taha o tōku mama, nō ngā whānau a Muriwai me a Kingi hoki. Ko Ngāpuhi tōku iwi, ko Ngāti Popoto tōku Hapu, ko Mokonuiarangi tōku marae, ko Whakarongorua te maunga, ko Utakura te awa. Nō Hamōa ahau nō Tiamani (Germany) hoki i te taha o tōku papa. E toru ōku mahi, he kaitaurima ahau, he kaituhi me he kaiwhakatangitangi hoki. Kei konei ka taea e koe pānui e pa ana ki tōku mahi me ōku pakiwaitara. Mauri ora!
Coco Solid is the musician, writer and artist Jessica Lee Hansell hailing from Aotearoa, New Zealand. Acclaimed on her home-turf and abroad, the outspoken Māori/Samoan/German Aucklander has proven herself as an enduring and shapeshifting artist in recent years.
As a musician, Hansell is one half of Parallel Dance Ensemble (Permanent Vacation Records, Germany) with Danish producer Robin Hannibal. She is also a founding member of New Zealand noize collective Badd Energy (Flying Nun). As a solo artist she has released cult records and mixtapes independently since 2004 with a wide roster of kiwi cohorts. Hansell also regularly collaborates with Portuguese rap duo A.M.O.R. and continues to work with artists and producers from Europe, The US, Asia, Latin America and the South Pacific.
As a comic book writer and zine-maker Hansell produced ‘This Is Not A Comic’ with Pritika Lal from 2005-2008. She briefly edited political newspaper ‘Fight the Fight’ and has produced her annual zine Philosoflygirl ever since. She is set to release her first full graphic novel on Pikitia Press this year. Hansell was also the creator of the comic ‘Hook Ups’ which was turned into the cult cartoon series in 2013 with another series currently in the pipeline. She has recently became a writer for leading Māori magazine, MANA and in 2014 Hansell became a hand-picked member of Piki, the film-making collective and production company founded by award-winning director Taika Waititi.
Hansell has attended the Red Bull Music Academy in Barcelona, she has been sampled by Princess Superstar, remixed by Jimmy Edgar, rapped with Grandmaster Caz, Flight of the Conchords, toured Mexico, New York, Berlin, Portugal, London and Tokyo, lived in South Korea at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul. Hansell obtained her Masters in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victory University. She has been to the PAF art residency in France and was among The Listener’s top 10 records of the year, three years in a row. Hansell was voted the Best NZ Hip Hop Artist in 2007 (as voted by student radio stations nationwide) a year after she was christened ‘Lyricist of SXSW’ by the Austin Chronicle in Texas.
Coco describes her mission statement as: Creations on low, doer of the damn thing, Face Value 4 Money, Social Suicide Bomber, Community uplifter, Philosoflygirl, Foodini, Both Voxbox and Equalizer, A Destabilizing Decolonizing Contaminater, The Trillion Box Ticker and just another bad semantic cop patrolling the beat.