Why does identity matter? Katarina Becic - Head of Social Channels at Ableton and an ambassador for Keychange - joins our students, alumni and tutors to tackle the topic of identity and why it matters in our latest public Dialogues event.
What’s your favourite emoji? We didn’t see that question coming in last week’s Dialogue on identity, but it was actually pretty telling. Identities, like emojis, can express our personalities and affinities, or our membership to certain communities. Of course, our engrossing panel discussion went much deeper than a bubbling brain or a boar framed by golden stars – don’t ask.
For the first event of the three-part series, we were joined by panellists Katarina Becic, Mario Llana and Roz Yuen. Katarina Becic is Head of Social Channels at Ableton and an ambassador for Keychange, a diversity initiative for women in music. Electronic Music Production & Performance alumnus Mario Llana, better known as Goblin Prince, is a singer-songwriter and producer whose synthy baroque pop songs navigate themes of identity, victimhood and alienation. Creative Audio Production & Sound Engineering alumnus Roz Yuen is also a singer-songwriter and producer, creating downtempo electronica pop with an experimental edge. The international panel was facilitated by Catalyst Screen Acting vocal coach, cultural advocate and intercultural negotiation specialist Cavana Hazelton.
So, why does identity matter? Over the course of two hours, our panellists and audience touched on many topics including personal values, cultural heritage, creative alter egos and empathy. Scroll down for our recap of the top five things we learnt from the discussion.
“All of a sudden, I’ve built this identity that I didn’t know was so strong in me before”
Our panellists all agreed that identity isn’t just what you’re born with. Rather, it is defined by ever-evolving values and choices. Roz sees identity as a fluid concept. “I was thinking about my artistic identity,” she reflected. “When I first came to dBs [now Catalyst], I had very strong ideas about this is what I do, this is the type of music that I make, I have to hit the ground running and say this is what I do. And then I opened myself up to the experience that I’m here to discover a bit more about what I want to express and what I want to say. I felt quite lost at that period of time, trying to figure out my identity and where I fit. Then I realised that the most important thing is to be able to express myself authentically.”
“Identity, for me, is a series of ideas that you identify with,” said Mario. “Sometimes they’re positive ideas, sometimes they’re negative ideas, sometimes you choose them, sometimes the world imposes those things on you. But I think that’s important because that shapes your entire life.” Before she began working to bring more women into music production, Katarina didn’t identify as much of a feminist. However, it was the very decision to engage in the project that shifted her perspective. “Throughout the project I realised that I’m very much am a feminist,” she admitted. “For once, I am totally comfortable with this idea and I’m starting to develop it further. All of a sudden I’ve built this identity that I didn’t know was so strong in me before.”
“Artists, by nature, are curious people; we’re always changing”
As artists, both Roz and Mario have found themselves contemplating their creative identities. But, as we discussed in our Dialogues collaboration with Music Pool Berlin, putting yourself under pressure to fit a certain image is not always healthy. “There’s this danger of getting caught up in this identity that you’ve chosen to align with,” Mario commented. “I think it’s a bit tricky for artists sometimes to distance themselves from that and allow themselves to have many different faces.” Mario continued that artists should feel free to adopt many alter egos when expressing themselves creatively: “It can be a version of yourself from the past, it can be a character, [or] you can put yourself in someone’s shoes when you’re making music.”
“I totally agree with that,” Roz added. “Artists, by nature, are curious people; we’re always changing. And yet there’s that pressure – and it’s self-imposed – that you have to know who you are immediately and represent who you are. Actually, it’s quite counter-intuitive because you’re meant to want to explore and get to know yourself better and try different things.”
A member of the audience related the story of a musician friend who, due to his record deal, did not have control over the way he was presented in his own music videos. “I get why your friend was super mad,” Mario responded. “I think it’s massively important how you present yourself, if you also want to make a point with the music. Videos, photo shoots – everything – are a form of self-expression.”
“I was told, ‘you don’t belong in a creative space, you can’t be an artist because you don’t look like this.’ And now I’m like, ‘no, I’m going to reclaim that space; in fact I’m going to make the space'”
As our panellists discussed, nobody has the luxury of choosing all of their identities. Often there is a disparity between your perceptions of yourself and others’ perceptions of you. Katarina, who hails from Serbia, doesn’t want her nationality to define her. “I guess one of my strategies at times was maybe to be the least identifiable as possible,” she shared. “If I just say one aspect of my story, there is a big risk of you putting me into a certain box immediately, and that’s what I’m trying to avoid in general.”
Cavana vehemently agreed. Her least favourite question, she told us, is ‘where are you from?’. “For international people, it’s really hard,” she said. “I don’t even know what people are asking me. Do they want to know where I’m born? Do they want to know what language I speak? What kind of experiences I have? You don’t really get behind any tangible answers with that question.”
Roz described a modular synth meet-up event she once attended back in her native Australia, where the other attendees were all White men in their 40s. “I was very conscious when I walked in that I don’t look like everyone here,” she explained. Working in a male-dominated environment, Roz has also received patronising comments like, “oh, you look so cute behind a big mixing desk.”
Nowadays, however, she makes sure to take up space: “I’ve seen that evolve and I’m quite proud of saying that yeah, I’m female, I’m Australian-Asian. Sometimes, when growing up, there were some quite racist moments, where I was told, ‘you don’t belong in a creative space, you can’t be an artist because you don’t look like this.’ And now I’m like, ‘no, I’m going to reclaim that space; in fact I’m going to make the space.’”
For Mario, trying to fit in as a gay kid in a Spanish Catholic school created a mismatch of identities. “It’s like when they try to translate [the series] Friends into German,” he explained. “The jokes don’t translate at all and the laughter is even louder so in the end it’s just awkward.” But ultimately, Mario’s past influenced him as a person and as an artist: “Something good that I took from then is that I don’t have to be like the people around me, and the things that I like don’t need to be liked by other people. So, if I put out music and someone tells me that it’s shit or that it’s weird, it just does absolutely nothing to me.”
“People live their lives on social media or on a stage to the point where they lose their sense of self and their identity”
As an audience member pointed out, identities become clearer when we connect with each other: “Forms of identity pop up, like oh, that’s me. So it’s not really a conscious decision about this is my identity. What emerges in the connection is a form of identity.” So, is identity really about the person or is it about the audience?
“If you’re talking about audience and artist, or reader and book, or watcher and movie, I think that you connect with either what you identify yourself with or what you would like to be like,” Mario replied. “I think artists sometimes represent for people a mixture of these two things. I relate to this person and I also look up to this person so I could be this person. Even though I’m not, that gives me hope and that’s why I want to support them because they could be me. But I think the audience also fills the gaps of a work of art or a person with their own experiences as well.”
Roz brought up an important point about the impact of connecting with others online: “people live their lives on social media or on a stage to the point where they lose their sense of self and their identity.” Katarina approached the question from the perspective of a brand. “Ableton has this way of thinking that we always put the user first – we always listen to feedback and so on,” she said. “But at the same time, over the years, we have developed this particular identity that people like to relate to. It goes from the photography we use, the visual, the tone of voice we use on social media – all of these aspects – and people really notice these things. I would say ultimately it’s the combination of [both person and audience]. It ends up being a dialogue.”
“It totally changed me in the sense that I became more empathetic towards other diversities”
What was clear from the discussion is that identity is the very essence of humanity. In order to understand each other – regardless of gender, sexuality, race, nationality, etcetera – we need to employ empathy. “I learnt a lot about empathy through this project of women in music,” Katarina expressed. “It totally changed me in the sense that I became more empathetic towards other diversities – not towards other genders only, but actually about all kinds of differences. Since I shifted my thinking, I started also correcting other people, saying ‘hold on, put yourself in that person’s shoes before you say something.’”
“I think it just elevates your understanding of yourself and other people when you place a lot of importance on [empathy],” Roz added. “If you’re somebody that wants to come into an environment that is quite diverse, hopefully you’re motivated by that a little bit; to be more empathetic and build those connections with other people. I think sometimes that’s why people can’t open themselves up to being empathetic, because it might expose them for not knowing everything or having their world view challenged in some way. But I think that’s a real block to your own creativity and self-discovery.”