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The Ripple Effect Of Using Fashion As Activism

Artist, performer and activist Samantha Urbani explains why it's so important to her to represent herself as a billboard for her thoughts and feelings.

It's not often that fashion and politics coexist, but in her own DIY way, singer, activist, and designer Samantha Urbani has found a way to merge the two. The artist, best known for her vocals in the New York band Friends and her collaborations with boyfriend Dev Hynes aka Blood Orange, has been using fashion as a vehicle for change since high school, but it wasn’t until a few homemade t-shirts that she started receiving attention for it. The shirts were simple but powerful: one beared the names of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Oscar Grant, another said “Stop Police Brutality” that the pair wore to this year’s Lollapalooza; a different one Dev wore to perform on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” was emblazoned with the continent of Africa and the words “Black Lives Matter.” They were her and Dev’s way of responding to the recent senseless murders committed at the hands of police and using their platforms to protest against these injustices—and they were also reminders of how easy it is to make the same kind of statement on your own.

That got people messaging Samantha with praise on Instagram, one of whom happens to be a textile designer that she’s partnering with on a new line which blends activism with fashion. “Political statements integrated into design—that’s the concept,” Urbani says over the phone from L.A., where she’s spending her winter. “It’s not just this in-your-face aggressive protest vibe. It’s beautiful and aesthetically positive. The designs have to do with people coming together and accepting each other.” All that’s left to figure out is a name and how they’ll distribute the profits so that they’ll only keep what they need for supplies and can donate the rest.

We caught up with Urbani to discuss how the idea behind her designs originated, the aftermath of her and Dev’s reported assault by Lollapalooza security, and why politically conscious clothing is hopefully on its way back.

MTV: When did you start using fashion as activism?

Samantha Urbani: When I was in high school, I would make t-shirts using iron-on print outs and I’d write on them with markers, whether it was words or images or new things that I felt could start a dialogue. When I was a teenager, George Bush Jr. was president, there was the war in Iraq and all of these crazy injustices with the environment, gay rights, and gender inequality that were visible but it felt like no one could do anything about them.

Samantha Urbani

MTV: Do you think that feeling of being powerless in the wake of injustices has changed since that era?

Urbani: I go back and forth feeling a lot of different ways. When we went to the Millions March in New York last month, I was inspired and happy that everyone was coming together and then as soon as we walked into the park, I immediately started sobbing involuntarily. I think the feeling at that moment was that it’s beautiful we’re all united at this moment but what can we do? How is it going to change anything? Generation after generation people speak out about horrible things but it feels like nothing will change. But I think there’s a lot of value to be placed on empowering each other even if you don’t see the whole world coming together in the way that it’s supposed to be. If you can inspire one kid or adult who has prejudice placed on them every day to feel stronger and more positive, that’s super important and it has a ripple effect.

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MTV: Was that the idea the t-shirts you made for Lollapalooza and Jimmy Kimmel?

Urbani: It wasn’t as deep as “Well, maybe we can change this”—it was more like, “How the f--k can we not say something? How can we sing our songs and just have fun and not address what’s happening?” The more people who stay quiet about it is power to the injustice. Anybody not saying something should really think about that choice because anyone with a platform can create influence, whether it’s at a dinner table with your family and enlightening your dad who’s kind of ignorant about race relations or if you have 1,000 Instagram followers.

When we did the Lollapalooza show, it was right after Eric Garner died and nothing had happened with Ferguson yet—the Mike Brown situation happened the next week. We did the shirts that day because we knew pictures would be taken and throughout the whole set we were representing something we believed in.

MTV: It’s uncanny how tragically predictive the shirts were—not only were you assaulted after you got off stage, there became an increasing amount of injustices in the public eye after.

Urbani: Yeah, the crazy thing is these are just the cases coming to light right now, so it feels like there’s a lot happening at once but these things happen all of the time—that is what America is founded on: genocide of Native Americans, slavery, and systemic racism that people benefit from. It’s so deeply ingrained in this country’s history, it can make one feel ashamed to be American. But you have to decide what you’re going to do when you disagree with the chemistry of your homeland. You can get out or try to change it.

The assault at Lollapalooza was totally coincidental. It had nothing to do with us wearing those shirts, which made it even more insane. I’m with Dev every day and we see things being together that we wouldn’t experience on our own. I see racism, and he sees sexism and the objectification of women. It was just another instance where we were both targeted in a way that women and black people are targeted. It felt like crazy cosmic timing because we were wearing those shirts and had just addressed police brutality.

MTV: Have you since resolved things with the festival and the security company?

Urbani: No, nothing has happened. Lollapalooza never made a statement or issued an apology, because that creates liability for them to acknowledge that it happened. In a way, I can understand wanting to avoid that legal situation, but it’s totally unethical. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen security act like s--theads at a show, especially big men that get aggressive toward people who are smaller or people they want to pinpoint as being aggressive. They accused us of being drunk and we were completely sober, trying to get back into an entryway we had just come out of. None of it made any sense. Dev’s kneecap was shifted and displaced. It was so dark.

Samantha Urbani

MTV: Back to the idea of fashion and politics coexisting, have you thought about why people don’t take more opportunities to make a statement with their clothes?

Urbani: Yeah, I think about it a lot. I love tactility to a point of fetishism. I love cassette tapes and making things with my hands. As much as I love how the Internet allows us to connect with each other in a split second, I think it’s scary to think about future generations losing touch with touch—not thinking it’s important to exist in the physical realm because you’re just representing yourself online. People connect now with hashtags, which is a cool technology, but every day we have to exist in 3D and use our senses to experience. So, I think that it’s a really important time to consider how you dress and represent yourself as a billboard for your thoughts and feelings and how you want to affect the world around you.

Every day when you put on clothes, it’s an opportunity to influence and inspire people without even having to have a conversation with them. If anybody feels like they want to have a voice, that’s such an easy way to do it. Writing on your shirt is as easy as writing a tweet and it’s so much more effective because not enough people are doing it.

A bunch of kids have messaged me on Instagram asking for my permission to recreate the shirts that we made and I’m like absolutely, of course. I don’t have any ownership over any of it and I don’t need any credit because it’s not about ego. It’s about wanting to add positivity to a world that’s way too often apathetic and consumed by fashion just being, “I look good and I have money.”

Samantha Urbani

MTV: Absolutely. Fashion is at times trivialized—for good reason—but it does have a really transformative power that not enough people harness.

Urbani: Totally. You know what’s interesting to me? In the ‘90s, political fashion and multiculturalism as imagery was really trendy. If you think about TLC wearing shirts about education and condoms over their sunglasses, it became an aesthetic but it originated in an honest place of making statements. Positivity and consciousness being trendy is a very cool thing as long as people don’t lose touch with the meaning, so I wish that it would come back.

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