When Seattle indie rock act Carissa’s Wierd formed back in 1995, the last thing frontwoman Jenn Champion was worried with was her name. Back then, she ditched her real last name, Hays, for one to give her a bit more anonymity, Ghetto. Almost 20 years later to the day, Jenn has, after lots of debate and discussion, decided it’s time to change her last name again – but this time for serious reasons.
“Over the last few years, I’ve been working with a lot of people in the activist community that raise more awareness about language and how much it affects people,” she says. “People say ‘Oh, but Jenn Ghetto is your name. I don’t think people think you’re being racist by having it.’ But Ghetto is used today with negative connotations which I never picked it up to give myself any kind of edge. I was actually trying to find a band to play with in Philly for this tour and the woman who was helping me asked why I use the name Ghetto, that it was pretty racist. At the time, I knew it was problematic, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Her saying that to me directly really made me take a look at how powerful words we use can be, no matter what the intention. Racism is really scary. You don’t want to perpetuate that.”
To Jenn, Ghetto was just a last name, six letters, a word she chose for its sonic value. Once she began writing new songs for her solo act, S, in the wake of Carissa’s Wierd’s 2003 split, conflicted fans began to speak up. Her folk pop songs were appealing, but they couldn’t get over the issues of her name. Thankfully, we have the power to change things in small ways; all we have to do is choose to.
Living in Oregon has given Champion a default safety zone. Both Portland and Seattle foster creative, encouraging, and equal environments, offering up support to any and all musicians in their area. “When someone forms a new band, everyone gets excited,” she explains. “No one tries to compete with one another here. Seattle in general feels like a small town in a big city way, and big corporations moving in makes us all squish together in that sense, too. We all live on the same block and work in the same place, mainly a bunch of bars on the hill called Linda’s and Redwood. It makes you wonder why more places aren’t this supportive.”
That communal friendship extends into S’s upcoming tour. Stacey Peck, her co-worker and one third of alt-rock trio Childbirth, stepped in to play with the band is already cracking jokes. “We were talking about making a music reality show on our iPhones on tour,” Champion laughs. “I think we’re going to call it Rock and Roll Housewives because we all date people who have really fancy work jobs with 60-hour requirements. When you date someone who works like that, you have excuses like ‘I have to go to band practice and walk my dog’ while they have five meetings.” The two, she goes on to explain, crack each other up at the local bar quite often. Asking her to fill in for some live shows was a no brainer.
So this is where she finds herself: sitting on top of a charming new LP, Cool Choices, with her own cool choice finally implemented for good. No matter how things end up moving forward, Champion knows S will allow her to funnel positive change through everlasting rock. Hopefully she won’t be the last to do so.
“I think the industry is still so run by white men that it’s really hard to push anything that contradicts that, from sexism to racism and beyond,” she explains. “It’s my responsibility to be socially aware of what other people think and to not continue that. It’s tough when people say word choice like this is simply art or expression. When I’m doing stuff now, I’m thinking about the origins of where those actions or words come from. Is this racist? Is this okay? Will everyone feel safe with this? Certain words or images… we become desensitized to them. This conversation has been going on for a really long time and I’m so grateful to get to be part of it at this point.”
Champion has talked to the record label, the press plants, and beyond, working her best to get all current and future work to represent the name change. It’s a classic case of rebranding. But what usually comes with stress this time comes with excitement – and the promise of a larger, cultural change. “I’m really happy about it,” she says, “and I really hope it’s positive for everybody else, too.”
S (JENN OF CARISSA’S WIERD) + GEM CLUB + LITTLEFOOT + IAN. TUE 10.13. LILYPAD, 1353 CAMBRIDGE ST., CAMBRIDGE. 9PM/ALL AGES/$10. LILYPADINMAN.COM.