War On Women is a metal band that uses its raw musical power to spread a message of feminist empowerment. Vocalist Shawna Potter has an explosive stage presence and spreads an anti-racist, anti-transphobic, anti-sexist message through her songs and her stage banter. It’s an electric sight to behold.
Before the band’s set at Warped Tour last week, City Paper chatted with Potter about her Safer Scenes blog, making political pals on tour and using your money to show Warped Tour that inclusivity is worth it.
Thanks to War on Women, Safer Scenes has a booth and is educating people all Warped Tour long. It’s pretty rare to have an overtly feminist message like this on Warped Tour, but it’s really refreshing. When in your own life did you discover feminism?
I always joke that because I’m the only child of a single mother, I was born a feminist [laughs]. It’s just natural. I was raised to be independent, out of necessity, and so the idea that I couldn’t do anything that men could do, that idea was not in my mind. That’s something I had to learn from society. I didn’t have the language, it just seemed natural to me that everyone should be equal, whether they were or not.
I did have a subscription to Bust and Bitch magazine, and when I started reading about Bush Jr. restricting reproductive rights, something clicked in me. I was like, ‘That’s obviously not fair, because you can’t get pregnant. So how are you telling other people when they can and can’t have children?’ It was the early aughts.
One of the things that always impresses me about War on Women is that the lyrics are obviously feminist, but because the language is accessible, it’s like a sly little educational tool. Is that level of accessibility conscious?
I hadn’t really thought of it like that, but I do try to purposefully write in a way that makes what I’m trying to say obvious, and maybe it’s figurative or funny, but I still want the messages to be clear and not vague. I hadn’t really thought about writing it in a way so that everyone can learn something from it, it was more like I wanted the way I write and the lyrical content to be in your face and obvious, and not shy or hiding or the unnatural ways that women are taught to be quiet or not say what they mean. And I kind of just wanted to do the opposite of that, state things as a fact and make it so that people had to think about it, so that they couldn’t escape the message even if they just liked the music.
How has the Safer Scenes tent been this summer, and what’s been the biggest challenge? And what are the biggest rewards you’re seeing?
Safer Scenes was the band’s idea, but we knew we couldn’t actually run it while we’re here. It’s just so busy, and I have to save my voice, so we got two amazing volunteers to come on tour who have the skills and expertise in this field. I’m not at the table all the time, but I do hear stories from them. I hear mostly that women and girls are walking up to that stand and saying, “Oh my gosh, we’re so glad you’re here, let me tell you about this experience of harassment I faced,” and it’s not always about Warped, people can talk about all their experiences at that tent.
A lot of men don’t know that they can learn something from the table, and they’re hesitant to come up to the table because they think it’s just for chicks or something, but in a way the purpose of Safer Scenes is more for men. We’re asking more of them and have more to teach them, and we kind of need them to step up and come over to the booth and learn something.
Everyone can learn something and everyone can intervene when they see harm of violence and do it in their own way that feels safe and comfortable for them, but we need more men to do it and to stand up for women and femmes. It’s not a sad booth! We’re not telling sob stories or handing out depressing statistics. We’re really just teaching people how to be an active bystander and how to intervene safely and effectively. It’s tips for when you go out to a show or are in public in general.
And that’s a skill set that’s beneficial everywhere.
It’s really just a good human skill to learn! And it is a skill. A lot of times people feel like the gut reaction they have is good, but they aren’t confident enough to actually intervene, or maybe your gut reaction is to punch someone which is actually not advisable because it escalates the situation for the victim potentially. People have a lot of ideas of what they would do if they ended up in one of these situations, but once you actually have an expert telling you that you can do x, y or z, people go, “Oh! Now that I know this is a proven effective way of doing this, I’ll remember it and do it.”
How is the tour so far?
It’s great! We’re at the halfway point which is pretty wild. Everyone’s in their groove and has their shit together and are rolling with changes. We’ve had a couple very rainy days the last couple days, so I think people are just really glad that the sun is out today. Everyone’s mood is a little lighter [laughs]. Overall it’s been great! We’ve met a lot of amazing and nice people.
What bands do you check out when you have down time?
Other members of War On Women have lists and make sure to check certain bands off their list, but I’m tour managing and doing press and doing TEI [The Entertainment Institute] workshops [about creating Safer Scenes] and trying to save my voice, but I’m letting myself meander, and if I catch a band who I haven’t seen yet I’ll stop and watch them. It’s a very casual festival experience, which I kind of need to balance out the rest of my day. But I was really excited to discover Candiria, I knew about Valiant Thor, but it’s so exciting to see them and Municipal Waste over and over. Also Fire From the Gods, that band was a fun band to discover. I went into the tour purposely not looking at the bands or listening in advance so I could be here and be present.
Are there any bands on this tour you thought you’d never tour with?
All of them! [Laughs] Except Anti-Flag. Short answer, safe answer: yes.
Do some of the more overtly political bands stick together?
I was just talking to Monique [Powell] from Save Ferris about this, since she’s done this tour a few times and we were talking about how it’s changed. She was talking about how in the early days, everybody would hang out together, but there were less bands. So now there’s so many people in bands, which is amazing for the festival goer, but it’s impossible for us on the tour to all hang out together because there are too many of us.
Naturally, and not in a negative way, there are little groups that you find yourself gravitating towards. I do see that, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s like, I’m finding that we are hanging out with bands that are more political, that play their music live, that play rock music.
Since we’re playing the Skull Candy stage which is right next to the Hard Rock stage most days, all our bands from both stages are loving each other, and if we didn’t know each other before the tour we’re getting to know each other now. Everyone’s cool and nice, so it’s a lot of fun.
What’s the thing you miss most about being home when you’re on the road?
I miss doing laundry whenever I want, but we’re going home in a couple days and we have a day off there. I’ll probably drop off a bunch of band shirts I’ve acquired on the tour at home too, seeing as bands like GWAR probably don’t need me to advertise for them since they’re doing pretty well on their own [laughs]. You accumulate stuff from friends and bands and I’m ready to pare back down and get ready to hit the next three weeks as efficiently as possible ... oh and touch up the green in my hair.
I was going to say, has the sun done any evil to the green?
It was actually probably swimming in the ocean that did the most damage to it [laughs], but it was so worth it.
What is your advice to people coming to or paying attention to Warped Tour?
I definitely want people to check out the Safer Scenes tent. And I also definitely want people to know that if you like the fact that this year’s Warped Tour has a lot of women on stage and people of color present in bands and the fact that Safer Scenes is here and the tour is generous enough to let us do that, if you’re into that, buy a ticket. To another city that you aren’t even going to go to, that’s fine. Show the tour with cash that they’re doing the right thing and should continue down that path. That’s the way that this will work and get better is for people to show with money that they’re doing the right thing and you approve of it.