Heather Nolan

Percussionist, Vocalist, Lawyer

May 30, 2016


How old are you?

I’m 38. I was born in 1977, that’s what I know. 38, I think that’s right. Next year I’ll be 40, this year I’ll be 39 but not until November. I didn’t think that question was going to be hard.

In what capacity are you a part of the music community of New Orleans?

I play in two different bands—Bate Bunda and Kumasi—and we have rehearsals regularly and I also play informally on other gigs from time to time.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in Milwaukee and then I moved to Chicago and lived there for eleven years and went to law school there.

Did you play music at all in Chicago and Wisconsin?

I was in concert choir and musicals in high school and then sang and danced informally throughout college and then just socially after that. I love me a karaoke bar and love to dance but didn’t start any formal training until I moved to New Orleans four years ago.

You said you went to law school. Do you still practice law?

Yes, I own a law firm with two of my colleagues and it’s wonderful. I have the best of several different worlds. I’m very grateful.

How long have you been in New Orleans?

Almost four and a half years.

What was the motivation to start visiting and then to move here?

I met [my partner] in Chicago and he let me know that he planned to move to New Orleans so I helped him move and then went back to Chicago and continued on with my life there. But I began visiting him regularly and fell in love with the city and really felt like it was bringing out the best in me. And I also was in love with him so there was every reason for me to come.

Do you remember being told or taught anything while growing up about behavioral expectations of girls that were not told to your male peers?

I don’t know what exactly what my male peers were told but I do know that growing up as a girl in the Midwest, I was told very regularly what I should and shouldn’t do and I have my beliefs that some of that was largely rooted in gender. But I also had a gun in my hand at age 12. I was driving a boat as soon as my dad could legally let me do those things. With my immediate family, I was made to believe that I can do anything which I’m very thankful for. But in the larger picture, I was made to feel weird wearing certain things and I was made to feel weird engaging in behaviors that were expressive sexually. I saw differences in the way that I was treated in that way. The word slut and words like that are big red flags that women and girls are treated differently than boys. And as a lawyer at a law firm, I have some hesitation about saying things about being called a slut for how I dress. Which I think is unfortunate because that means that I still have my own feelings surrounding not being proud about being expressive sexually. Maybe not everyone will trust me and my opinion as a lawyer if they see me wearing leggings or short skirts acting a certain way.

How would you define sexism?

I define sexism as the treatment of a person or people more negatively because of their gender or gender identity.

How does it present itself to you?

It’s not always visible and it’s not always audible. It presents itself to me as labels and expectations that are put on me without communication and understanding.

How to do feel when you’re being treated that way or being subjected to that?

I have a real desire to be understood and that causes me to be stubborn. I don’t want to move on until I really feel like I’m understood. If I’m faced with labels or expectations are based on how I look and the parts that I have, it’s very frustrating to me because I want to be understood and I want to be able to communicate about myself. I live for expression and sexism prevents me from expressing myself. It’s based on assumptions. It’s based on what some people think they can get away with and what they have gotten away with in the past.

Do you always notice when individuals are acting in a sexist way?

No and honestly, sometimes even if I do I brush it off. Growing up in the Midwest as girl, you’re encouraged to make everyone feel comfortable. Being differential to people in positions of authority is a part of what I was conditioned to do growing up. Sometimes I’m just not going to make a big deal out it. But I have taught myself and learned from other people to speak more directly in response to sexism when I identify it. Then again, New Orleans has a very small music community. I’m in large bands and sometimes for the sake of not burning bridges I interject humor into the situation rather than cause it to be more seriously addressed. And sometimes I do think humor gets people’s attention but I don’t know if it helps as far as changing their behavior. If they get a laugh, is it even enough to change it?

Can you recall any specific occasions when you experienced sexist behavior against you?

One of my bands is named Bate Bunda. It means ‘spank the booty’ and we do this whole play on butts and how our rhythms will spank you into dancing and move you into dancing. I have responded to people who think that that in itself is sexist and I think that that is an important conversation to have and I encourage anyone who has feelings about that to have the discussion with me about it. I have the personal opinion that we have hyper sexualized so many things within our culture that it is a problem to celebrate our own bodies and to celebrate particular parts of our own bodies that are the sources of so much creativity, so much birth, so much new life. It comes from our center: below our waist and above our knees is where so much of that is coming from and this is why you see traditional dancers from all over Africa, West Africa, South Africa just completely shaking their butts. I have had the need to respond to people who are concerned about the messages that we are sending as well as to protect the female dancers and percussionists in Bate Bunda. Often times when we’re parading men come up and try to grind on me when I’m carrying a giant bass drum or I’m playing a rhythm in a parade. This is not just a drum circle, I’m performing. We have a huge group so sometimes the dancers are right up against the crowd and there have been occasions when someone has taken it too far beyond just dancing or complimenting the dancers but infringing on their space and safety. I think I see it happen more to the girls than the male musicians. It’s to the point that someone has even tried to take my drum and tell me “Here, let me show you, let me play it.” Are you kidding? You’re going to take my instrument away from me? And I really haven’t seen that happen with a male musician.

I’ve had that happen with my camera.

This discussion is making me realize that I haven’t seen that with respect to a male musician before. I recognized it as something disrespectful in the moment but I hadn’t thought about it until now that I haven’t seen someone try to take a man’s drum away from him.

Another time, we were about to get on stage and I had had a real rough day and usually when I get on stage I will let it out and the music heals and it’s beautiful. But on this day, a guy said “Come on, smile!” And I could tell he was staring at me and trying to get my attention. He was getting in my face and saying “Come on, smile. You really should smile.” And I sucked it up because I’m a performer. He wouldn’t have said it to me if I was a man and I just know that. I just know that. There are so many impressions that you form when you perform publicly that you never know about but that can impact you. Totally sucked that one up and it pissed me off. Give me a reason to smile but don’t have the expectation of it and don’t tell me what to do.

Have you noticed any distinct differences in your travels and your research as far as the relationship between men and women go?

It’s pretty interesting to see the gender roles in all of the West African places that I’ve traveled and been able to experience daily life. Women are working. In Haiti and Brazil there are dozens of people working together to get ready for the next meal for dozens of other people and then they move onto the laundry. Washing that much by hand takes a long time. It’s helpful because the older kids are stepping up to help out but it’s just the female children that are doing that. I was just talking to a friend from Bangladesh and she said that a number of their most recent heads of state have been women and it’s so odd that the US hasn’t had a female president yet and yet we think we’re so “progressive”. Women have certain roles and yet they recognize the value of women so much so that one would be head of state. Maybe that works in a society as long as everybody is respected in what they’re doing.

I think a lot about the spread of ideas through the Internet. It can be such an amazing tool because we can have the spread of great ideas and great stories but when people have a negative viewpoint, instead of consulting their friends and loved ones and people around them and having a dialogue, they can go on the Internet and perpetuate that negativity. Although, without the Internet would these issues still be hidden away?

I think that as crazy as information age is, it can help bring things to light. You’re not crazy for wanting to wear short skirts but I felt like I was crazy. If you understand that other people have felt this way you can see that it’s not just you. But then you get scared. Like shit, it’s not just me.

This is a burden that we don’t have the choice of carrying.

There are so many amazing benefits to being a woman. I think a lot about how to use those things to deal with, to confront, to resist, to rise above this problem that we have inherited and that is imposed upon us. There are differences between us and but they should be celebrated. It is more socially beneficial on a larger scale to celebrate those differences than to take advantage of them.

I’m curious, when those people who reacted negatively to the message of Bate Bunda understand once you had that conversation with them?

When I’ve had brief conversations with people it still seems like they don’t fully embrace that concept. But everyone has their own place that they’re coming from and I respect differences of opinions and we’re not going to appeal to everybody. But then again, there might be people who have felt hesitant to let themselves out that we have helped to free. There was one person that I haven’t been able to have a conversation with. She has never said to me that she thinks the band is sexist but she did say that to a mutual friend. And it hurt me badly because she was close to me and to never be able to have that conversations despite my efforts was really frustrating. It goes back to what I was first talking about. I want to feel understood but I also have to be at peace with the fact that not everyone wants to listen.

That is something that I find hard to make peace with admittedly.

Because we’ve got something to say!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I feel a strong conviction about what I’m doing, about the music that I’m playing, about the dancing that I’m doing, and how I’m performing it. I am trying to create and encourage people to express themselves more freely and not feel confined to what they should or shouldn’t be doing based on their gender. And I know that that’s not going to be comfortable to everybody. The concept of spanking isn’t comfortable to everybody. I really hope that people talk to me about it and I’m trying to brainstorm ways I can be more open about it and initiate that dialogue myself.