In the tense days of the post-Trump presidency, with the world in crisis, artists are bending every rule to create expression that can truly make a difference. This can be difficult, though, when you as a human are misunderstood; as a biracial queer woman raised by an adoptive family, Pamela Means was often just that. This background provides a unique perspective on life, which she says defines “her own voice.”
Means’ brand of political activism and social justice winds through every facet of her music. It’s designed to resonate deeply and impact profoundly. In addition to her lyrics, her guitar full of jazz chords, fingerpicking techniques and rhythmic slapping of her instrument sets her apart from other contemporaries. After hearing her music, listeners find out more about her story. Though she sings to audiences who have not lived anywhere near the same life as her, she does her best to convey her story through her music.
Means’ first guitar was a plastic Tiger-brand guitar that only had four strings. She knew from an early age that she wanted to do something creative. The family that adopted her was not musically inclined, but they enjoyed listening to her play. By 14, she had upgraded by borrowing her brother’s guitar that he didn’t play often and started taking lessons at the YWCA. Means found out earlier this year that some of her birth relatives were also musicians. As she put it, “music is in my blood.”
After high school, she attended college for a while but then went to study music at the Wisconsin Conservatory where she learned classical guitar and jazz. This is where she says she really started to “learn about the instrument.” That education grew into a love of jazz. When she reflects about her education now, she realizes that it formed the basis of her unique jazzy folk style of music that she made entirely her own.
Means understands that it may be hard for some audience members who don’t understand her story to relate to her music. A lot of her music is politically charged and has a heavy focus on race. While this may turn off some listeners immediately to her music, Means is not afraid to get to the heart of political and social issues with her songs. She does not mind upsetting people with her beliefs if the listener does not agree with them.
When she started out her career and even on her first album Cobblestones in 1998, she never set out to be an activist. As she grew, especially within the last five years, she began to see the world was pretty messed up. Issues such as murders of unarmed black people and the ever-looming possibility that legal rights of women, as well as the LGBTQIA+ community, get revoked are some fears that affect her daily life. Means channels that frustration through her music. Her latest EP, Impeachment, Now! released in 2018 is not subtle in her frustration with former President Trump and is a call to arms to take action. Her song “Hands Up” provides a window into what it’s like being a Black person, in a world where racism and police brutality are pervasive issues. The emphasis with which she sings lyrics like “we’re tough, but not bulletproof” shakes listeners right to the core. This is how Means strives to reach her audience: her music is meant to draw out raw human emotion and uses that feeling to bring you in. She believes that if she can get you to feel that emotion, that is the closest you will feel what it’s like walking in her shoes.
Not all of Means’ songs are about her political views or social causes. Her songs of love provide a different but still intense passion. Her song “Cinnamon and Chocolate” from her last full-length album Plainfield offers a sultry, tender song where you feel the emotion pouring out of both her voice and her guitar. The songs are certainly personal, but still quite accessible for most anyone to relate to. LGBTQIA+ love songs are becoming more mainstream, but they are still not very common to hear.
Pamela Means will be playing at the Stone Soup Coffeehouse at the Music Mansion at 88 Meeting Street, PVD on March 26 at 7pm. Doors will be open at 6:30. Tickets are $20 and are sold at a first-come, first-served basis.