We live in an era when it is nearly impossible to ignore the realities of systemic inequality in America. But a vast number of white indie artists have chosen to stay silent on pressing issues, creating music that is incredibly personalized and, though touching, ignores broader social justice struggles. Emily Jane White is not one of those artists. Her fifth full-length album, They Moved in Shadow All Together, shows the singer-songwriter bringing her concern for race and gender equality to the fore of her poetic folk-pop.
The daughter of a merchant marine, White grew up in Mendocino but often found herself at the Oakland docks as a young girl. She arrived to drop off and pick up her father from his ship, leaving her with a very simple but unique impression of the city. As she got older, she began going to Oakland house shows and became immersed in the local music scene, where she established herself as an artist in the mid-Aughts.
Now 35 years old, White is at a mature point in her career. She has built a strong body of work and toured internationally with her music. They Moved in Shadow All Together, which she put out last week in the U.S. through the French label Talitres, is a penetrating project drenched in emotional outcry. Its instrumentation is beautifully delicate but reflects an air of discomfort and pain. Throughout the album, White layers her soft folk-guitar ballads with reverb that sprays like a mist over her bellowing and often haunting voice.
"There is a sonic concept of the album that reflects an emotional and political concept," she said. "I listened to a lot of current events that were happening during the time I was making the album, and the level of cultural, social, and personal trauma that happens in the world is so immense and vast."
The artist revealed that They Moved in Shadow All Together had very intentional elements of exasperation with seeing people around her mistreated. Throughout the project, she touched upon issues such as police brutality and sexual abuse.
For instance, White wrote "The Black Dove" as a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. She said that witnessing anti-racist protests in Oakland over the past two years made her passionate about the issue, and she channeled her frustration into song.
"As a white person, there are so many misconceptions to what racism is, but the fact that you can turn a blind eye to issues of racial brutality is a symptom of being white," she said, adding that her background in women's studies helped her educate herself on social struggles that don't apply to her directly. She strove to use her music to spread awareness to listeners who are sheltered from the realities of racial inequality.
Although few indie artists are publicly outspoken about these topics (it's no secret the genre and its audience are largely white), it's not the first time White has touched upon social issues in her work. Previous tracks such as "Red Serpent" and "Red Dress" from Victorian America reflect her perspectives on women's issues and civil rights. For instance, she wrote "Red Serpent" after finding a disturbing Mormon pro-life pamphlet that decried abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. "Red Dress" addresses internalized sexism and body image issues, commenting on the amount of masochism and drug abuse women in the fashion industry endure to meet extreme beauty standards.
On They Moved in Shadow All Together, "Womankind" speaks out against violence against women and the ways that victims are often silenced, with solemn piano and dramatic violin chords complementing White's heartfelt vocal delivery.
White uses her relationship with her experiences and the world around her to create powerful albums, and each of the eleven tracks on They Moved In Shadow All Together reveals brave levels of vulnerability and strength.
Her approach to her work evokes the famous words of South African anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."