by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
This past summer, as our country marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, many Americans marveled at how far we’ve come since the 1960s. From schools revamping their lesson plans to include the contributions of gay and transgender individuals to the legalization of same-sex marriage, we’re seeing true queer liberation on so many fronts.
But beyond cities like New York and the San Francisco Bay area, where Kaitlin McGaw calls home, many LGBTQ communities have experienced increased violence and intolerance — especially over the last few years.
“I don’t turn away from it, and don’t cringe when contextualizing it for my young nieces, nephews and child,” says McGaw, whose hip-hop collective Alphabet Rockers channeled their frustration and hope into their latest album, The LOVE. “Embracing that has helped me counter how dominant culture is at work in children’s media, in our implicit biases, in our shushing and half truths.”
Alphabet Rockers’ Kaitlin McGaw (she/her) and Tommy Shepherd (he/him)
The album — available for download everywhere — is loaded with uplifting, high-energy jams, tribal beats, lyrics about inclusion, gender identity and pride. It’s relatable to every listener, no matter who they are, how old they are or where they live.
We recently sat down with Kaitlin McGaw to chat about motherhood (her second child is due in October!), music, culture and more.
Rockmommy: As a dancer, educator, musician and podcaster, you’re really a Jane of All Trades! How’d you get your start as an artist?
Kaitlin McGaw: It had to be the start of high school, when I dove into poetry, voice and theater. Specifically, hearing the performances of poetry from Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou helped me see the power of these art forms to change culture, including my own. When I moved to the Bay Area after college, I found the bravery to really go deeper into every aspect of my artistry. I performed in a hip-hop dance troupe, acted in musical theater and then finally dove into songwriting and singing full-time. I loved how with music, I could let the songs and art change with me — with performances that could stretch over months and years instead of weekends of a theatrical run. Today there is no separating the art from the heart. It’s an authentic representation of myself and the community I perform with and for.
Rockmommy: Why is a record like The LOVE — which centers on gender identity and acceptance — needed so badly right now?
Kaitlin McGaw: Our kids deserve music that is rooted in our diverse identities — songs that they want to bump loud and proud, and process all their big ideas and feelings. Right now, our kids are absorbing all the pain of our country, including our silence and our resistance, whether we talk to them about it or not. Sometimes we hear folks say how grateful they are we do so much for the next generation. But we’re not done changing, either! The LOVE is for all of us — for parents who want to keep learning and evolving and for kids eager to be a part of love and change. There is incredible power in empathy, incredible impact in learning through another person’s narrative and lens. This is how we broaden our ‘blind spots,’ and we can’t do it by staying in a media space of tolerance that centers on dominant cultures. The LOVE allows us to hear from all ages, to center trans and non-binary voices, and to level up our love and understanding.
Rockmommy: Can you walk us through the process of creating the album, from concept to execution?
Kaitlin McGaw: For the past two albums, Tommy and I have used an inquiry process to create our songs; our goal is to have an authentic truth to each song that meets the real need of our audience. It’s almost like translation. We research, we listen, and we host individual and community conversations about the issues we are writing about. Then we create a web of lyrics and sounds — always pushing ourselves sonically to stay contemporary and on the top of our musical composition. The first track we created for this album was “Live Your Life” — written with a young trans member of our family — and he shared what he would want to tell the 5-year-old version of himself. For other songs on this album, we partnered with Our Family Coalition, the two spirit indigenous community of the Bay Area, and many individual families with gender diverse identities. What resulted was music that sounds, as Our Family Coalition reflected, “by us and for us” — and songs that translate from age 2 to 80 in our human evolution.
Rockmommy: Some of the best art comes from anger and frustration. Have any of those emotions fueled this record?
Kaitlin McGaw: One of the kernels of love on this album, advised by one of our gender non-binary parents, was the importance of honesty even if it counters the child media of ‘love is love’ and ‘sunshine after the rain.’ Telling kids that everything would get better, in the parent’s perspective, was neither true nor fair. You will hear that freedom to name the pain and the self love in so many songs on this album — and I hope listeners will join us in that spaciousness.
For myself as an artist and privileged cisgendered white woman, I have been in conversation with anger, oppression, humanity and justice for many years, even if it is not in my lived body. I don’t turn away from it, and don’t cringe when contextualizing it for my young nieces, nephews and child. Embracing that has helped me counter how dominant culture is at work in children’s media, in our implicit biases, in our shushing and half truths.
All that being said, the album The Love feels at once contemporary — speaking our current truth — and of service to our child selves, both music for our future legacy and healing of our past. None of the violence and oppression we are witnessing today is new, nor is our bravery or truth speaking new. But it all is still a revolution and revelation of expansive consciousness, connection and willingness to create positive change.
Rockmommy: Were there logistical challenges in making the record?
Kaitlin McGaw: We coordinated more than 60 artists and collaborators to make this album, which was a huge undertaking! The logistics of coordinating recording sessions, meetings and rehearsals continues to be a huge part of our job in presenting The LOVE — and yet this challenge is so necessary to undertake. One thing I’ve learned about equity and creating equitable frameworks is that what may feel convenient is not always equitable. It takes time, trust and stretching to find that common ground.
Having said that, we’ve got an amazing home base — Zoo Labs — a studio and business development space right here in Oakland that has facilitated every public creation for the album. From artistic brainstorms to business models, listening sessions with families to final recordings, we had a safe and nurturing environment to create. We are also fortunate to have a deep and diverse community of creative minds — families that really opened up to us, and artists who came on board to share their truths.
Oh, and being in my first and second trimester of pregnancy throughout the recording meant a few bumpy days as well! This baby is going to have music in their heart from the very beginning.
Rockmommy: You have lots of other projects and work commitments, in addition to motherhood. How do you balance everything?
Kaitlin McGaw: Balance is huge. Having an active toddler with 12-hour recording sessions, 7 a.m. departures for school concerts, and coordinating a team of performing artists, documentarians, booking agents for tours and shipping/product management means my brain has to be large and in charge. And full of patience. My main thing I have been working on is letting go — knowing I won’t get to everything, that’s it’s OK to not be the perfect meal planner, that my life and art will be OK even if I have to do one more than the other. It’s not always easy. My self care routine is to stop working after I pick up my little one from day care — no projects or logging in. Same for weekends, when we are not performing, I give my family 100 percent attention. Of course the work day, inspiration and upkeep doesn’t ever stop for entrepreneurs, so it’s not easy!
My husband and I are both very passionate about our life’s work (he works in building affordable housing for the Bay Area) so we also feel a ton of support for one another’s time, heart and balance. He thrives on the mornings with our toddler when I race to a school show, or their time on weekends when I’m out at a concert. And I love sitting on the carpet to play with cars to start or unwind the day. But the best part has been watching my toddler grow up in the studio, at rehearsals and looking up to the 10- and 11-year-old Alphabet Rockers.
Rockmommy: On the other hand, how has parenthood influenced your artistry?
Kaitlin McGaw: Becoming a parent has given me so much more compassion for each parent’s journey. Now at shows, when I see parents with little ones, I feel extremely thankful and aware that they have gone the distance to do something of value for their children. I feel even more responsibility and honor to be a source of culture in their family story.
And every story that is shared with me becomes a part of my artistic fabric. The mom who told me her family was targeted with racist harassment on the street on vacation — she said they went back to their hotel and listened to/sang ‘I’m Proud’ on repeat. This is the why. And it brings it all full circle. That song was rooted in the need for healing and self empowerment for diverse individuals — and it continues to do just that. I am eager to hear the stories of how The LOVE changes lives, moments, and after-school processing, and builds a community of empowered change makers.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.