Former Braids member Katie Lee opens up about band's 'performative allyship'
Montreal-based band Braids has existed as a trio for quite some time now, but when they first made their debut in 2011 with the Polaris Music Prize-nominated Native Speaker, there were four members: Raphaelle Standell-Preston, Austin Tufts, Taylor Smith and Katie Lee.
During the recording process of Braids' sophomore release, Flourish // Perish, Lee left the band. When the album came out in 2013, her departure became a focal point of the press narrative. Braids' remaining members were quoted describing the conflict as "ego-wars" between singer Standell-Preston and Lee, or that Lee had been "really slowing" the process.
Lee, on her part, has never spoken out about the matter — until recently.
On July 20, Standell-Preston published a feature on Pitchfork called "Why I Fought the Sexist Gear Community (And Won)." As an artist who frequently challenges sexist behaviour in the music industry, Standell-Preston's piece details her experience protesting a misogynist guitar preset being sold by TC Electronic called the "Pussy Melter", and the harassment she and her band members endured for speaking out.
While Lee, who no longer plays music full-time, says she agrees with the points on misogyny in the piece, she found herself frustrated reading other parts of it. So the following day, she released a statement on Facebook regarding what she calls Standell-Preston's "performative allyship."
"Since leaving Braids I have not heard a single apology, except from Austin the drummer in the band in one instance, regarding the way they treated me during and after my leave," she wrote. "They have publicly defamed me, they have stripped me of fair ownership over certain songs, and they have gaslighted me."
CBC Music reached out to Lee for an interview last week and while she initially expressed caution about opening up, she has agreed to discuss her experience in the band for the first time since leaving.
Below is Q&A of the interview, edited for length and clarity.
In Raphaelle's piece on fighting sexism in the music industry, she refers to the band Steel Panther "taking cheap shots at women and minorities," pointing to their lyrics as an example. I'm curious if the latter was what triggered your response, her speaking on issues regarding minorities.
That was mainly what frustrated me. I think it's a hypocritical stance because she hasn't really done any work regarding her own racism. There are so many people out there who could also write that article and who have done good work when it comes to being intersectional. I don't think she deserves that platform. That whole band needs to do a lot of work.
The person who made that petition, Jessica Fennelly, worked really hard to get signatures. It wasn't entirely Braids' doing that the petition got the signatures, there was someone who started that and [Raphaelle] mentions her once in the article. She should've included all the people who have been trying to talk about this and discuss this, instead of just saying that you were the one who fought and won when there are tons of people who've been fighting and speaking about this. She is trying to centre it around herself and profit off of the language.
Shortly after you posted your message on Facebook and Twitter, Braids shared your post and apologized. How do you feel about their response?
I think [Raphaelle] retweeting my post was a step in the right direction in that she's giving me a platform whereas before they took that platform away from me. So I've asked them to take a step back from social media and they've respected that.
So you've spoken to them personally about this?
Not personally. I've sent them messages through friends and have expressed how I want to move forward with this since I don't entirely trust them. I've tried to frame it as: if I am to speak with them, how do I do it in a way where they understand the power that they hold? I want them to listen to me in a more open way. I've asked them to take an anti-oppression workshop, and they've agreed to do that. I think that's the best starting point for them because if you don't have the language or the framework with this kind of stuff then it's going to be a tough conversation, especially for the person who is marginalized.
[The band has confirmed that its members will be "pursuing the appropriate reflection, education, and training" in order to "engage in healing dialogue with Katie." Read their full statement after Lee's Q&A.]
Let's take a step back for a moment. A lot of the press surrounding Braids' second album, Flourish // Perish, was focused on your departure from the band and although the band never divulged specific details, you say in your Facebook post that they have "publicly defamed" you. Can you tell me what that time was like for you and why you decided to walk away from the band?
Honestly, I didn't decide to walk away. It was their decision. I tried to find different ways to work together because it was clear that there was a communication breakdown. I tried to speak to them countless times, but after a certain point, they were exhausted. I was told that their goal was to focus on recording the second record and the problems that were happening between us wasn't a focus for them, so I was asked to leave halfway through the recording process. That was heartbreaking, and I had to accept the fact that that was what they wanted. We had originally decided that the band would tell the press that I left "due to creative differences." That was not respected. In several interviews, they divulged information that I had not agreed to and were false, like that I wasn't proficient during the recording process.
You also say they stripped you of ownership over certain songs. Can you expand on that?
At the time, they told me, "We're asking you to leave halfway through, but we still want to make sure that you're still respected as a valid member of the band and we want you to get 25 per cent of all the songs moving forward for this specific record," but they went back on that a year later when the album came out. It took me a long time to get over everything that had happened, but when we were negotiating all that stuff I couldn't stand up for myself.
There was a specific song I had written, titled "Amends", that was difficult to negotiate. This track was written in response to Chris Reimer's passing and they basically took out all my keyboard lines and Raphaelle mimicked my lines with her vocals. They told me I didn't deserve 25 per cent of that song, which I subsequently had to explain that that song wouldn't have existed if I hadn't written it. They didn't understand that my contribution to that song was valuable. I remember saying, "OK fine, I can accept 20 per cent," and they responded, "Well OK, we want 10 per cent so let's meet in the middle and do 15." That was offensive to me. They were essentially erasing me.
What was the fallout of you leaving the band, on your end?
I remember someone telling me that I had to leave Montreal because shit's gonna hit the fan and people are going to treat me poorly or something. He was a white man and he told me this and I was just like, OK…. And I did. I left for six months and I lived in Oakland for a while. It was difficult for me to talk about my story because mutual friends or people who knew me as someone in the band sort of refused to listen to what I had to say or never asked. They never asked, "How are you doing?" When I came out with this story a couple of weeks ago, people were like, "Wow, I had no idea." And it's like, you never asked.
You were othered by your community, it seemed.
That also shows you that it's not just three people who didn't know what they were doing. It's a larger problem. Here's a group, a community of people who didn't know how to support a person of colour. Lately, I have seen people trying to pressure others into being more cautious, yet I continue to see influential white musicians using their platforms to silence people of colour time and time again. It doesn't just happen in America; it also happens here in Canada. There are people of colour who don't even want to participate in the "CanCon" scene because they know that they're not going to be listened to so they create their own communities.
As the only person of colour in Braids, were you always aware that your experience as a person and as a musician was different from your bandmates?
In the beginning, no. I mean, I went through the common narrative of a woman of colour growing up in a primarily white society and trying to assimilate. I even remember denying my identity, often fighting with my parents and being like, "My white friends' parents let them do this, why can't you guys do that!"
This was something that also played into how I saw myself in Braids. Both my parents were sort of mortified when I dropped out of university to play music and there was a period in my life where I was disowned by my parents. It wasn't until they saw how successful I was — or somewhat successful at least in Canada — that they began to see that this was something that made me happy and they started to accept that.
But when I left Braids, I realized why they were scared. It was less about me playing music; it was because they wanted to make sure I wouldn't get hurt. I think I realized how much my mother distrusted the other members of Braids. She knew they didn't value me and she saw that in little interactions that I would have with them outside of playing music. So, mom knows!
Right, people often see racism as a big, aggressive act but it's also present in small moments like little comments or just even not fully understanding that your experiences growing up were different, therefore your perspectives and experiences are filtered through a different lens.
People don't think that small comments are a problem. However when it's four-plus years with a group of people, and they're doing it all the time, you start to feel like you don't really have a voice and that maybe you're not as equal as them, you know?
So what are the next steps? How do you think people can learn and move forward not only from this scenario but with changing the music industry and the way we include, discuss and elevate people, especially women, of colour?
I think that people need to start listening with an open mind and heart. The one thing that I want people to understand is that it's important to be uncomfortable. It's OK to be uncomfortable. If you're uncomfortable that means that you're questioning the things that you were taught, the privileges that you have. It's good to assess those things and think about them and it's daily work, it's not something that can be fixed right away. You have to practise it, you have to do things on the regular in order to fully embody that way of thinking. That process is going to be uncomfortable.
Ask how people of colour feel. In my case, no one asked me how I was doing and if I needed support. I had to find that support myself. After my post, I had mutual friends reaching out and being like, "We're cool, right? I'm not racist!" I see many people liking my posts, but I just wonder what they are doing outside of it. It's an easy thing to like a post or sign a petition, but how are you helping and empowering other voices that need to be heard?
CBC Music reached out to Braids to comment on this story, and below is the band's full statement regarding Lee's time in the band and her recent social media posts:
From our perspective, Katie's departure from the band was a result of irreconcilable creative challenges. However, as social advocates ourselves, we support Katie sharing her experience, and look forward to engaging in healing dialogue.
Katie's statement has caused us to reflect deeply on our parting. We have been in touch with her privately — via a third party — and have made arrangements to invest in and work towards better understanding her experience.
We would like to clarify that at the time of Katie's departure, all four of us worked together in good faith to make sure Katie's songwriting contributions to the group were acknowledged, fairly compensated, and mutually agreed to. At no point did we take away her rightful ownership.
We honour this process of healing, and will continue to engage in this situation with compassion and a willingness to listen and learn.