BWW Interview: Karen K & Mista Cookie Jar on New Diversity Children's Song
I was sent a link by a friend to hear this new song and I was automatically taken by the sound and the message. Like what Mackelmore and Ryan Lewis did with "Same Love" for adults, "Rainbow" by Karen K and Mista Cookie Jar has been created to jumpstart a dialogue about our ever changing world between parents and children. Topics not always heard in a children's song, but very important ones in this diverse world that we live in and that children will grow with. If music can help to soothe the soul, these songsters are there to do it.
BWW: Thank you both for joining me to discuss this incredible new song. I've only listened to it a few times and the refrain is stuck in my head. How did this new song come about?
Karen: C.J. (aka Mista Cookie) and I had been talking about collaborating for a while. Back in February when Arizona tried to pass their anti-gay legislation, which their Governor later vetoed, I got really angry. Like a lot of people, I thought this type of thinking, this type of governing should just not be happening. At the same time, a friend of mine, Brian (who's touring with Joseph right now), posted on Facebook that he felt he couldn't return to his hometown of Tucson, because as a gay man he didn't feel welcome. It broke my heart and made me even angrier. So that night, I sat down at the piano and wrote the "hook" or the chorus - "I will be a rainbow, I will let my star glow...I can chase the fear back into the night..." - and sent it to C.J. (Full disclosure: There's a "grown up" version of this song for the Arizona legislature that I will not repeat here...)
CJ: Soon as I heard the hook, I loved it and got it right away. It's the kind of hook that doesn't need explanation. It can actually be about so many things - it's that open but still so powerful. I told Karen to send me everything she wanted to address in the raps, so she sent me personal stories, links to websites, quotes, youtube videos, etc. I used those ideas to make a bunch of rhyming couplets, put a banging beat to it, and wala!
BWW: There are so many topics discussed in this song from gender roles to diversity to racism. Issues not usually covered in children's songs. Why were these important to you?
CJ: I've invested my career in family music because I believe there is true revolutionary power in nurturing the minds and ears of our youth. The "Kindie" community - the blend of kids and indie music that's become a movement of sorts - is an underground haven for quality music for children. As a songwriter who's interested in creating bridges between worlds through music, I find it not only fascinating but urgent to merge "Kindie" aesthetics with a pro-LGBT message. I've taken much from hip-hop and singer/songwriters who have taken political stances in their music. Often with the best political music, there's a pointed and direct spirit that brings clarity and drive to an often confused or oppressed worldview. As we all know, music can uplift and shine light. With "Rainbow", Karen and I wanted to do just that -- but with a child in mind.
BWW: It is a bold move to write about LGBTQ in a children's song.
Karen: CJ and I agreed that if we really wanted to affect change and open the dialogue with children about LGBTQ rights and these other ideas, then we would have to talk about them honestly and directly. And you know, obviously this song won't be popular with a lot of families. But my parents are from Greensboro, North Carolina, where they lived through the Woolworth's sit-ins and events that drove and were tantamount to the Civil Rights Movement. Their experiences weren't lost on me as I drew the connections between the fight for marriage equality and LGBT rights in 2014, and the 1960s. This is the civil rights issue of our time, of our children's time. And like my parents, I want to stand on the right side - not necessarily the popular side - of history. And I want to teach my daughter to do the same. That's important to me.
BWW: Was there a reason you wanted to release it during Pride Month?
CJ: Releasing the song in June was partly our own timing. But I think there is a bit of a kismet how it all came together -- which I think can be explained by an overall urgency and the peoples' desire for change. I could definitely sense there was something in the air as June was approaching... Karen: Our goal was that "Rainbow" not just be about tolerance and acceptance - but celebration and love. Equal rights. Self-affirmation. Building community. Opening minds. That's what Pride Month is all about.
BWW: I mentioned at the top this is a jumpstart - is that how you feel?
Karen: It's my hope that parents and teachers and adults will start talking with our kids - in age appropriate ways - about what it means to be gay. Lesbian. Transgender. Actually using the words, naming it. Taking the mystery out of the vocabulary so that when our kids hear those words used as weapons later, they'll know better, and they'll do better.
BWW: CJ, tell me about that investment you made in family music.
CJ: It basically started when I became a step-father about 7 years ago. Writing songs and performing were already an integral part of my life at the time, so when I had kids, my songwriting was brought to a whole new level. Before that I worked at a convalescent hospital as a strolling minstrel/music therapist/activity leader. Basically, my job was to go around and sing for the elderly. It was one big party. This actually was great prep for the children's music world. Family music I had written seemed to be a great way to cater specifically to my audience while at the same time keeping the demographics as wide as possible, for all people any age who would enter the hospital. We're now able to travel across the country touring and performing the past five years. While working at the hospital, I was getting my MFA in poetry and had written a book about childhood, innocence, memories, and collective memories and how we remember history and mythology. So as you can imagine, there was much meditation on themes of birth and death. So between singing at a convalescent hospital, having a family, and writing poetry about childhood, writing music for children and families seemed to be the most beautiful path to follow.
BWW: Karen, what about you?
Karen: My background is musical theater (read: proud member of AEA and nearly-professional waitress), but when I had a child I started teaching music to young children, and writing songs inspired by my daughter and her view of the world. That quickly morphed into the most fulfilling career I never imagined. Now when I'm not raising my own small human, I run my Jitterbugs music classes to tots 5 and under in Brooklyn and Boston, and have a band called Karen K & the Jitterbugs that performs all over the east coast. In fact, I always enjoy roping my theatre friends into projects ranging from arranging and co-writing to producing videos. ("I Woke Up in a Fire Truck," the video my NYC choreographer/director friend Mike Kirsch and Unique New York Productions produced was just voted Best KidVid of 2014, hollah!). And my fans are all under the age of 7 and their parents. I'm incredibly lucky.
BWW: I love the connection of giving proceeds to The Covenant House. Tell us about that.
Karen: We knew we wanted the download proceeds of "Rainbow" to go to an LGBTQ-related cause. Covenant House is the largest organization in the Americas that provides shelter, food, crisis care and many other services to homeless and runaway youth. The Broadway community is actually quite involved with Covenant House in NYC, particularly with Broadway Sleeps Out which is really one of the most inspiring and compassionate events in the city. Something we learned through this project is that 20-40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. That's an extremely high percentage, and a huge problem. So we thought, if we can join the fight and help make a difference to even one homeless young person, well, that's good. And no one does that better than Covenant House, so we're really thrilled to be their partner on this project.
BWW: Before I let you go, both of you tell us if you have set any kind of goals/dreams with the song.
CJ: To me, Rainbow is an extension of the "Love Bubble" - my band's theme song and central guiding force to all music we create. The basic concept is that the Bubble is an imaginary forcefield built with love. The more love you give it, the stronger and bigger it gets. The bigger the love, the bigger the Bubble. The goal is to get the whole world in one big Love Bubble. No one is excluded in the bubble -- especially the oppressed world wide. So as you see, we have a long ways to go! But you gotta dream big.
Karen: One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes is, "Be a rainbow in someone else's cloud." That's pretty much it for me. If this song is the rainbow that challenges even one child, one adult to think more openly, act more kindly, BE AND DO BETTER, then it's done it's job.