Shawna Potter is the frontwoman of the heavy rock band War On Women and the co-creator of the Safer Scenes Workshop that is being held in the TEI Booth everyday on the Vans Warped Tour. We caught up with Shawna on the June 25th stop of the tour in Denver, CO to see what drives War On Women and what the workshop is all about.
Groovey.TV: War on Women isn’t afraid to make a statement, using their music to bring attention to injustices and issues that people are facing today. What made you decide to combine your passion for activism and music?
Shawna Potter: It was very natural, actually. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 12 years old, I’ve been in bands forever, toured all over and at some point I started getting involved in activism. I started the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback! and kind of shortly after that my other band kind of fizzled out. Brooks, who plays guitar in War on Woman, he and I wanted to keep playing music together and we were like ‘We have to talk about this stuff’. No one was talking about this stuff that we knew of, and there’s always Riot Grrrl to look back on when we started the band. But we were like ‘where are all the heavy bands with women in them?’ So we were just like ‘let’s make that band that we want to listen to’. It was just a natural progression on both fronts.
GTV: Do you find that you’ve found resistance in the male-dominated world of heavy music to the lyrical content of your songs?
SP: No one is ever bold enough to say anything about the lyrics because they don’t know, they don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. They can’t speak to that in any way. No one is stupid enough to come at me for that and I could easily dismiss it based on pure ignorance. We get it for the music, sometimes. I often find that those people either haven’t listened to us; they just assume we sound one way or another. Like we’re a Lilith Fair band, no offense to Lilith Fair. I went, I saw Liz Phair, I loved it. But we just don’t sound like that. Or they are so used to male voices and male aggression that the idea of feminine aggression is so out of left field for them that they don’t know how to compute it. It’s like it sounds too aggressive. ‘Why is she screaming so much? Why is she angry?’ But they’ll listen to the heaviest fucking band with dudes in it and not blink an eye. They’re just not used to that type of aggression from women and they don’t understand it.
GTV: Do you ever hear of fans saying that your lyrics opened their eyes to a situation they may not have been previously aware of?
SP: Oh yeah, all the time, which is great! Most of the women and trans folks that come to shows are like, ‘Yup, that sounds right. You get it! You get me!’ We’re all in this together. But there are dudes that come up and say they never thought about it that way or never realized that street harassment was so relentless. It’s really nice to hear.
GTV: Being a female in a male-dominated industry, I’m sure you’ve dealt with your fair share of harassment. Was this the inspiration for founding the Hollaback! program in your hometown of Maryland?
SP: Yeah. I was just super pissed off about dealing with harassment. I feel like I’ve been dealing with it since I was 12 years old. And it changes, it’s various, and it depends on what my body size is at that point in time or how I looked. To be dealing with it for over 20 years, at some point it’s like ‘Alright, stop. I get it.’ It’s just relentless and frustrating. I just felt like I had to do something. I didn’t have the confidence yet to really go up to every single harasser and try to have a conversation with them to convince them that I’m a human being that deserves respect. I wasn’t ready to do that so I started Hollaback! instead and it got me to the point where I am fine to have those conversations now.
GTV: So what does Hollaback! do?
SP: It raises awareness about street harassment and it’s really supportive of the people that experience it. It’s really about submitting your story, getting your story out there. Saying ‘this harassment happened to me’, ‘this is how I felt about it’. Putting it online, doing it through the free phone app, maybe even taking a picture of your harasser. What that does is it creates a community of people that have your back, that know what it’s like to go through that. It’s an isolating experience and to know that other people are going through that stuff is really helpful, just mentally. So it connects all those people together. And anyone who is curious about street harassment that doesn’t understand how serious it can be, they can literally just read these stories and you instantly get why this is such a big deal for people.
GTV: You’re running a social justice workshop every day here on the Warped Tour. Can you tell us a little about what the workshop is and what we can expect?
SP: It’s certainly an extension of my work to end street harassment and with Hollaback! What I’ve started doing lately is moving those ideas into spaces I inhabit. So spaces like clubs, venues, DIY spots, basement shows, festivals. How do you create a safer space at a show? What do you if you’re in the audience versus on stage? What if you’re the promoter? What if you’re doing sound? Everyone has some amount of power in those situations where they see harassment or violence and this workshop is all about just getting specific and telling you, ‘This is what you can do in this moment in your role’ and whatever works for your personality even.
GTV: Why did you feel like it was important to bring this workshop on the Warped Tour?
SP: Well, I’m sure everyone is aware of some of the bad press that Warped Tour has gotten over the last couple of years with some band members participating in problematic behavior and, sometimes, illegal behavior when it comes to young women and minors; just sexually inappropriate stuff. It’s not Kevin Lyman’s fault that some dudes are assholes sometimes, it’s not okay to blame him, it’s not Warped Tours fault. But everyone can always handle it a little bit better. Everyone I’ve met on the Warped Tour staff is amazing; they all just want the show to go well, we all have each other’s back and that’s really cool. But they can’t be everywhere all the time. So all the tips and tricks I have will be very beneficial to any of them that want to attend the workshop. It’s also good for an audience to know what to do, because they’re the ones that are going to be closest to it. When you’re packed in front of the stage, it’s the people in the audience that have so much more power than they know to do something to stop harassment and violence.
GTV: What has the feedback been so far?
SP: Really good! I wish we sold more tickets, I wish more people were going. But I know it’s not a sexy topic, it’s like work. Its asking people to improve themselves, which not everyone wants to do or has the money. It’s also been really hot and no one wants to sit outside. And I’m not famous, so it’s just a straight up workshop; it’s an educational workshop. I’m hopeful that as the tour goes on more and more people will come. Everyone that I have worked with so far has felt really appreciated and validated in the ideas they had. They already knew they wanted to do the right thing and had really good ideas, I just kind of steer them in the right direction.
GTV: Since you’ve been involved in all of this, have you seen an improvement in awareness and advocacy?
SP: I would like to think that the work I’ve done with Hollaback! or with War on Women has been apart of that change. I’m too humble to say that we had anything to do with that. I think in general, in the last few years, most people in punk communities, metal communities, they’re tired of this shit,; they’re tired of putting up with it. People are getting more and more comfortable with it and to being able to speak out about their stories. The people that are going through sexual violence, they’re more willing to believe those victims and those two things have to happen. We have to believe the victims when they tell their stories but victims also have to tell their story; they work together. I have definitely seen more and more venues that are like ‘nope, this person is banned because they are a sexual predator’. It’s a cool thing because when communities take a stand and say ‘this is not welcome’, that’s when behavior changes.
GTV: There have been bands that have had their entire careers taken away in days by sexual allegations. What do you think of this swift of action on the industry’s part?
SP: The queer community has been talking about these issues or doing it better for longer out of necessity. They have to. Their communities are smaller so they can’t afford someone to hang around and keep abusing people. So I thought it was a really eye-opening thing for me as a straight person. I thought it was really necessary for me to learn that. I respect that. I think we need more of that in more of the mainstream communities.
GTV: How is this personal for you and what continues to drive you?
SP: Trump is doing a good job at keeping our band around, I would say. I started becoming a Feminist during Bush Jr.’s presidency and just reading up on how he was starting to erode women’s reproductive rights. That was the first time I realized, ‘this dude, who will never get pregnant, has absolutely no right to tell me what I can do with my body’. He just doesn’t know what it’s like. So ever since then I’ve been pretty active and doing my best to be a better feminist. In this day and age, feminism absolutely has to be intersectional and you have to think about other issues, not just ones that will affect you. There’s too much else going on. Everything Trump does is just terrible. All the rights that people have gained are just being eroded away, especially as a woman. Just knowing how hard it is for other women to access birth control and access abortion care. Then it’s like ‘we love you when you’re pregnant but as soon as your not pregnant we don’t give a shit about you and your kid’. They don’t care if they can eat, it’s just terrible, right wing, religious bullshit. And as soon as that goes away the band can stop and I can pay my rent easier.
GTV: War on Women and the ‘Creating Safer Spaces’ workshop will be on the Warped Tour for the remainder of the summer, but do you have any plan for the fall that you can fill us in on?
SP: We’re going to see how the Safer Scenes program goes this summer. Maybe we do something else with it. Me and Kira-Lynn, who is a Canadian activist, created it and flushed it out together and what it would mean for this tour, and that’s all we had planned. We knew we needed it for this tour and then we’ll just see what happens, we still have two months. When the band gets home we are going to work on a new record and release that next year. So that’s our big plan.
GTV: Any last comments?
SP: Anyone coming to Warped Tour please, please, please come to the Safer Scene booth and learn how you can be an active bystander and intervene when you see harassment at shows. And we have free stickers so come on out!
Connect with War On Women:
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Connect With Hollaback!:
Check Out Go-Go’s photo gallery for War On Women