by Yasmeen Adin
I had no choice but to unreluctantly start reading Mona Eltahway’s Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution after reading the dedication to her book on Twitter: “To the girls of the Middle East and North Africa: Be immodest, rebel, disobey, and know you deserve to be free”. Eltahaway’s writing is unapologetic and filled with rage. Reading the title alone back in 2015 was partially uncomfortable, but that is generally how she engages with her readers -- she purposefully disrupts them, encourages them to be angry with her, and asks them to use that anger to unlearn, change, and create. And she is right. My tendency towards creation exponentially increases as a result of anger. I did not know what to do with my rage whenever I felt like fuming. I would encapsulate it and wait for it to evaporate from my skin; acting upon it would bring unpleasant outcomes that I was not fully prepared for. However, I find myself now running to a pen and a sketchbook or a laptop instead of helplessly staring at my anger and see it stare back at me. Whether it is a bunch of scribbles, or smashing a keyboard, I found this anger cease and metamorphose to written pieces and rough sketches. This anger-driven art was not something I only experienced, but a psychological phenomenon that psychologists and artists have been investigating through their research and artwork to better understand how rage fuels creativity.
After the bombing of the African American Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, singer Nina Simon said, “I had it in mind to go out and kill someone,” but her husband tried to push those ideas aside and simply said, “you can’t kill anyone. You are a musician. Do what you do.” A year later, in 1964, Simon released Mississippi Goddam, whose inspiration came from her utter rage and frustration, resulting in one of the most revolutionary songs that became integral in the protests of the 20th century in the US. For different reasons, but with Simon’s same fuel, sculptor Louise Bourgeois’ prolific career was driven purely by anger. “You have to be very aggressive to be a sculptor,” she said in her documentary Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine. “It’s the anger that makes me work.” But these anecdotes that correlate between creativity and anger are not exclusive to Simon’s and Bourgeois’ experiences; they are universal in their nature and proven by the human psychology. This topic has been the interest of psychology researchers Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu, and Bernard Nijstad, who conducted a series of studies investigating the emotions fueling creativity, ranging from sadness to happiness, and from neutrality to anger, and which emotion(s) specifically catalyzed this creativity. In their studies, they traced back the “creative” process from its foundation: brainstorming to solve solutions. They found that creative people, although mostly unstructured in their reasoning, were noticeably the most creative in both the quality and volume of their ideas. But as their anger faded, so did their creativity. It seemed like this fuel did not last long once it was ignited and needed to be increased in order to survive. Which further proves the continuity of Bourgeois’ and many other artists’ creative careers as “it is the anger that makes [her] work.”
This series of studies was published in 2011 under the title Creative Production by Angry People Peaks Early On, Decreases Over Time, and Is Relatively Unstructured in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. I showed the article to my friend Saida Dahir, who immediately commented, “why did they not mention me in the title?” She related to the experiences mentioned in the studies, and how as a Black Muslim refugee woman, her rage about issues she faces on a daily basis, from gun violence and police brutality targeting Black people to Islamophobia and misogyne, was best articulated and expressed in the form of poems she used to protest in marches. In fact, her first album, The Walking Stereotype, is a celebration and embracement of this anger. In an interview with The Recording Academy, Saida answered a question about what inspires her to write poetry about tragedies like the Parkland shooting with:“The anger and the fear and all of that just boiled down to, ‘What I can do to make sure that that never happens again?’” And to make sure that never happens again, Saida’s activism extends beyond her personal poetry as she creates spaces for other poets to express their anger and frustration. As I witnessed her cocreate Slam Gun Violence, a youth led poetry slam centering the experiences of marginalized communities as they exist on the frontier of the threat of gun violence, I fully realized that I was about to witness a living proof of not how pure rage fuels creativity, but how it also fuels social and political change. Being in that space, where poets as young as 16-year-old, whose frustration found solace in poetry, I was left with much more anger than I came with. Although I could only snap or shout “PERIOD!” after each line this slam participants recited, like poet Kenede McCloud’s “America was never great,” I was also left with hope and relief and reassurance as well; our rage-driven artistry can move mountains.
Two weeks after Slam Gun Violence, Zara, organizer and artist, invited me to an event they were organizing titled Shape Shift, which they described with: “Experiencing the queer brown musical magic of artists: Diaspoura, Quisol, and Mirrored Fatality.” The use of the words “brown,” “queer,” and “magic” in the same sentence suggested that that the event would promote healing and perseerverance, but the healing process leading to these outcomes demands learning how to deal with one’s rage. And I was not disappointed — as they opened the event, Mirrored Fatality asked the audience at the end of their performance to confront their rage. They emphasized that we are left with so much rage on a daily basis as we carry the burdens of the struggles that we inevitably experience because of the intersectionality of our identities, and we mostly do not know how to deal with it; they as artists express it through their music, and they audience may choose to scream, sing, or simply sit in silence. After their performance, Quisol his performance by thanking them for this part of anger release. “As a soft person,” he said, “I don’t express that anger.” Softness and anger are both radical acts and can exist simultaneously. And when their intersection inspires art of any medium, we get to witness the creation of revolutionary art that moves beyond canvases and book covers and contributes to social and political shifts.
Regardless of the backgrounds and identities they represent and the events their art initiated and continue to inspire, the artists previously mentioned share one main thing in common: they are all angry. And whether their anger is left unspoken and expressed in silence or in the form of music and poetry, their art resembles the correlation between creativity and anger. Their use of different modes of creative expression to release that tension from their bodies to disrupt, disobey, and lead a change that goes beyond their personal work shows that they rage; therefore, they create.