Shae Altered: Never Not Loud
Calling in from her home in Milwaukie, Oregon, alt-pop singer-songwriter Shae Altered discusses the intersection between pop music and politics. Photo by Brian Brose.
As the pop music industry churns for success, speaking out on politics isn’t always encouraged. With the chokehold of many label and industry heads keeping artists silenced for fear of alienating one side or the other, too many in the industry are quick to quiet, or slow to make their voices heard. However, for Shae Williams–a.k.a Portland alternative pop singer-songwriter Shae Altered–staying silent was never an option.
Whether speaking out online or protesting in the streets of Portland, Williams isn’t afraid to get loud about the things she cares about. So as 2020 came to a close, a year ripe with political movement and outrage, Shae Altered joined Indie/Alt for a remote conversation on the intersection between pop music and politics. Calling in from her home in Milwaukie, Oregon, Williams discussed the importance of using one’s voice, her personal playlist of protest music, and all the ways the pop music industry needs to step up and let its artists speak out.
Indie/Alt: You’re very vocal on social media, you have a list of causes on your website, you were regularly attending the Portland protests when those were happening. You’re very politically involved. Was this always something that has been important to you?
Shae Altered: Yeah, I think so. I went to my first protest when I was 14. It was a march during the war in the Middle East with the Bush administration after 9/11. That was the first time that I had done any sort of active participation. I’ve just always been that type of person where… I guess it’s just like injustice really bothers me. And that’s something that I think is just a character trait that I came into this world having.
Indie/Alt: Because this is a conversation about the collision between music and activism, I want to talk about protest music. What would you consider to be protest music?
Shae Altered: I think you have those things that you would consider staples in culture and then you also have what you personally consider to be protest music. I think protest music can be a very personal thing as much as it probably would be a cultural staple too. I definitely have my own playlist. Like when I need to get in the mood or I want to listen to something inspirational or something that’s going to hype me up. It may be that those songs aren’t something that would be considered protest music in a historical context, but to me, that’s kind of what that emotion or feeling or movement embodies.
Indie/Alt: What’s a song that in your life has really spoken to the activist in you and really inspired you in that way?
Shae Altered: “Killing In the Name” by Rage Against the Machine. I think when I was younger, like a teenager, that was my first introduction to that kind of music that has a statement to make, culturally, socially, politically. And then, a song that’s hard for me to listen to, but it’s a song that I love. It’s called “16 Shots” by VIC MENSA. I really love “Freedom” off of [Beyonce’s] Lemonade. And I consider “F**k tha Police” by N.W.A. to be protest music. Anything that gets me hyped up sonically, like the feeling of “gonna go fuck some shit up.” For me personally, my grief, my sadness, my pain for people and things and whatever’s going on, that manifests particularly in me personally as anger a lot of the time. So I think, not necessarily words-wise, but anything that sounds angry that I can just listen to and get those emotions out.
Indie/Alt: In what ways do you personally use music as a form of activism in your own work?
Shae Altered: That’s something that I want to try to work on. I’m very vocal on Twitter or on Instagram and just in my own life personally, but not so much in my music. I think because usually, my music is what I use to just process my personal problems and my personal trauma. And luckily I never… Well, I wouldn’t say never. [But] I am in a very privileged position. I’m cisgender. I’m white. So there are obviously things that I do not experience. But to the things that I do experience, I do want to write more about that. And I think it’s also different too, because like in the pop sphere, it’s not something that’s encouraged because it’s not as consumable I suppose. As an independent artist, you want to do what’s going to sell and do what’s going to make you the most successful.
Indie/Alt: You bring up a really good point. With pop music especially, protest and political activism are not really encouraged in that realm. Do you find that within the industry, being politically active or having a loud presence or a loud voice when it comes to social justice issues, is that seen as a hindrance?
Shae Altered: As much as we hate it, the music industry is a business. It’s a machine. It exists to make money for labels and shareholders. And there’s the part where it’s seen now, I think to be seen as a little more politically active, it feels gross saying it, but it’s more on-trend. So I feel like where it’s more on-trend to be politically outspoken, you can probably get away with that a little more. I guess I was saying the mainstream pop sphere–unless you’re talking like punk music or some rap genres, I think that’s kind of based inherently into that music genre–but as far as the pop sphere goes, I think it would depend on who you are beholden to at that point in your career.
Indie/Alt: You’re saying how it’s kind of become on-trend, and I think that’s a good observation. In the past with the music industry, you had artists like the Dixie Chicks who absolutely lost their career just for saying that they don’t agree with George Bush. But I feel like more now, we’re seeing this kind of push and pull. We’re seeing a lot of people from one side of the aisle saying, “Shut up and sing. We don’t want to hear about this.” Then you have a lot of other people, when an artist is not making statements, saying “You’re not using your platform. I don’t respect you because you’re not using your platform to speak up on these issues.” You have to try to find a middle ground. Do you think artists should be using their platforms more often in that way?
Shae Altered: I do in most senses. I think a lot of it also comes individually and also how much control you have over your own career. Say you’re an artist that has a lot of control over your own career and you want to speak out. You’re free to do that. You can say whatever the fuck you want. But what if you’re an artist that maybe doesn’t have as much control over their own career? The label has their hands around their neck and it’s like, “You just need to shut up and not make a statement because if you make a statement one way or the other, you’re going to alienate groups of your fans.” And to a label, those are dollar signs that you’re going to be eliminating. So I think it probably depends on what the artist feels like they can say without jeopardizing their career. I know for me personally, I could never not speak out. You look at me where I am now, as far as my social media presence, it’s not that big. It’s pretty fucking minuscule. But to me that doesn’t matter. I feel like even with my tiny ass platform, it’s just as important for me to say something as it would be like an Ariana Grande or a Taylor Swift. Because you know, things that I say can still reach people. It could. No matter how few people. So to me, it’s worth it, no matter what.
Indie/Alt: Aside from the artists themselves, there’s been a lot of push from the industry side to speak out on these issues or do things to help problems within the industry. But are they doing enough? From your perspective, do you feel like they’re doing enough to support BIPOC artists and the community in general?
Shae Altered: I mean, the music industry in general for anyone is fucking shitty. I’m pretty sure we all make like 0.003 cents a stream or some bullshit. It’s all systemic. Look at who you start with, even who the most popular people are. Who’s going to get a label? Who’s going to get a manager? Who’s going to get a deal? Who’s going to be shoved into the public eye? Look at who that has always been. And thankfully that’s fucking changing. I mean, look at Lizzo. Thank God. But I think that’s just now starting to change. Even still, it’s still an issue. I think if you’re not cis, straight, white, conventionally pretty–whatever the fuck that means–you’re still gonna have a time. It’s still gonna suck. All those things about you that should just be things about you are seen as barriers that are quote, unrelatable. It’s so hard. It’s like anything else in life. Any sort of industry in general, any sort of marginalized group, is going to have a harder fucking time breaking through.
Indie/Alt: What actions could the industry take so that they can better support BIPOC artists and BIPOC people within the industry? What do you want to see?
Shae Altered: You got to employ people, man. You gotta put people in power. You can try and break as many artists of color you want, but are they going to feel comfortable in that space when their manager and their A&R and their label head, like everybody’s fucking white? And also, what are those white people going to understand about their experience or maybe even what kind of music they’re trying to make? Are they gonna know how to market them? It sucks because it’s a hard way to make change, but shit starts at the top. You got to hire BIPOC people and put them in positions of power in the music industry, in any fucking industry. Cause that’s the way it’ll change.
This article has been edited for space and clarity. Listen to the full conversation between Shae Altered and Indie/Alt in the podcast linked above. Visit shaealtered.com/causes for a list of causes to support. Shae’s “Fuck the Algorithm” t-shirt inspired by our podcast conversation is now available to purchase on her website.