Kathleen Hanna’s Tees4Togo highlights the space between art and activism
Kathleen Hanna led the charge of the riot grrrl movement and helmed pioneering bands, including Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and the Julie Ruin. Aside from being a trailblazer in the music community, she has also been a formidable political activist for over 30 years, taking a strident public stance against sexism, homophobia, transphobia and white supremacy.
Hanna’s latest project, Tees4Togo, is a T-shirt brand launched in 2018 to fundraise for Peace Sisters, a nonprofit organization that helps to educate girls from the West African country of Togo. Since its launch, Hanna’s brand has curated over a dozen T-shirts featuring images of actors, writers and activists, developed in collaboration with a range of unique designers. Many of the shirts highlight notable musicians, including Grimes, Joan Jett, Beastie Boys MC Ad-Rock, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Le Tigre’s JD Samson. Through its work, Tees4Togo has raised thousands of dollars to help give women the freedom to shape the course of their own lives.
Hanna doesn’t think there’s a tension between her activism and her career as a musician. For the legendary rocker, art and politics are inseparable, part of a broader mission to make the world more beautiful and more inclusive. Or, as she puts it, “It’s actually all the same fucking project.”
[Design by Seth Bogart][/caption]
One of your latest projects is Tees4Togo, a T-shirt company that you started in 2018. You’ve been an advocate your entire career—what inspired you to create this brand?
I moved to Southern California, and we rented a house. My landlady introduced me to her friend, Tina Kampor, who gave me a flyer to go to this event. It was in a tiny little shop. Tina got up and started talking about Peace Sisters, and I was extremely moved.
I grew up with a mom who had to stay in a bad relationship because of economic reasons, and I really wanted to get involved with something that helped women have options. This seemed like the perfect thing. Without education, a lot of women end up staying in relationships they don’t want to be in. When you can pay your bills because you have a job, because you have [an] education, it gives you the option to leave a situation that you’re not happy with and do things that make you happy. I gave a donation that day. And then I was like, “What if I threw a party for you [all]?” And I just kept getting more involved.
[Photo by Jason Rothenberg][/caption]
I actually had the idea to do a T-shirt company earlier. I have Lyme disease, and I’m in remission now. And I wanted to do something to help other people with Lyme disease because health insurance doesn’t pay for treatment. I’d actually already made my logo and everything for a T-shirt company, with all the money going to a nonprofit. And I was going to do Design Against Lyme, and I was really excited about it. I was just about to launch, and I had my first 10 shirts. I realized I was going to have to do press and talk about Lyme disease every damn day. It was too much for me, emotionally, and I just couldn’t handle doing it.
Then I was like, “Wait, I’m already throwing parties for Peace Sisters.” At that point, I was going to the board meetings, so I knew everything about the internal organization. I knew how tight they are and how every single penny counts to them. It was beyond vetting. I just transferred the idea, and it was a very natural thing that happened. It was so funny when I was like, “I can’t do this. I can’t do Design Against Lyme.” And then I was like, “Oh, Tees4Togo, dumbass.” So that’s how it happened.
View this post on Instagram
Let’s talk about the shirts themselves. How did you get interested in designing T-shirts, and what was your experience like as you started the brand?
I started with a T-shirt of me where I asked friends and fans, people who just sent me drawings of myself. There are like 10 people who made that shirt. I thought it was a good idea for the shirt, for me to be designed by friends and fans because I feel like so much of the work that I have done in the world has been being a part of a community. So it made sense that mine would have drawings by other people and be a team effort. I tried to contact a few people for the first couple of shirts, and they were all like, “Yes, whatever you want to do, we’re down.” And so then I just set about making a logo.
I enjoyed doing the graphics for the T-shirts, and I enjoyed getting to meet some of the artists. I enjoy making these weird collaborations. It’s also something selfish for me. It’s a way that I’ve stayed connected and been forced to reach out. I don’t know John Waters, [but] I had his email because he emailed me about something a long time ago. I had it on my to-do list for three months, [and] was so terrified. [So I said] “Fuck it” one day, and wrote to him and told him a little bit about the project.
He wrote me right back, and he was like, “I never do this. I hate it when people bootleg my face. But I just got your thing. I totally believe in what you’re doing.” And the John Waters shirt was born. During the pandemic, during so much racial hatred and white supremacy running rampant, to have one of my idols, my all-time favorite artist in the world, say, “I care about what you’re doing, and I want to support it.” And he went and made these phone calls to make it happen, and he barely knows me. It was incredibly touching and gratifying.
View this post on Instagram
Many of the shirts in the collection are portraits of musicians, but you’ve also showcased people from areas such as comedy, film and television. Can you speak about the individuals you chose to highlight in the brand? What do they mean to you, and why did you want them involved with this project?
When I first started, I wanted to pick people who don’t typically have shirts with them. I don’t know of a Carrie Brownstein shirt. I didn’t want to cut into their incomes, so if they’re a comedian that already does a shirt of themselves, I tried to avoid that. And I tried to ask people who are in bands to just do a photo of them. I tried to ask people who could either afford to take a cut into their income or just didn’t have a shirt of themselves available already. So that was part of my criteria.
Also, they have to be people whose work I like. It’s very boutique in that the criteria is, “Would I wear the shirt? Do I like the shirt? Am I proud of the shirt?” And I’m really proud of all of them, and I like either the music or the art or the activism of everybody who’s on the shirt. Hari Kondabolu is my absolute favorite comedian. He’s done so much incredible stuff. He did that movie [The Problem With Apu], about Hank Azaria, a white guy playing a stereotyped character on The Simpsons. And, you know, they have removed that character. Hank Azaria is like, “I will no longer voice the character.”
At first, they wouldn’t even talk to him and were making fun of him, and people were harassing him about it, calling him a reverse racist. He’s also funny as hell. His standup is so fucking great. So that was a shirt that I was just really, really excited about.
[Shirt photo by Sean Gustilo][/caption]
Tees4Togo is an effort that obviously engages people who are fans of music and comedy. However, the work also has a clear real-world effect. I wanted to get a sense of your self-understanding, given that you’ve always worked between music and activism. Your music has often had a socio-political edge. You’ve also been an activist spanning your full career, and you’ve remained outspoken about recent issues such as electoral politics and the ongoing social movements that are growing around us, including the Black Lives Matter movement and creating equal opportunities and a safer space for women, people of color and individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community. Do you see a natural connection between your artistry and your activism, or do you think of these activities as fulfilling separate purposes?
It’s actually all the same fucking project. It really is. When I was younger, I went to a hippie college [The Evergreen State College]. There was this real antiquated idea that politics is something you do by making a sign and going to a protest, and if you put politics into your art, you were somehow corrupting your art. This was in the late ’80s. It’s a different landscape now, hopefully, but I was always really frustrated by that.
I remember thinking it was the choice between making something beautiful and making something impactful. That was when I came up with this idea in my head. I was like, “You know what I want to make? I want to make a beautiful pot.” [And] I wanted to decorate it so beautifully that I could look across the room and it would make me really happy and remind me that beauty exists in the world. But I also wanted to use it to carry things. And I wanted to use it to put a plant in that would oxygenate my space. I could use it to put flowers in that a friend gave me. I could use it for something.
That’s when I started thinking about all of my projects in this way. I want my songs to have something beautiful and appealing about them but also be useful. And I feel the same way about this project. I want the graphics to be beautiful, I want the shirts to be something that people buy and keep forever. But I also want it to serve a function. That’s the throughline with all of my projects: I want it to be beautiful, I want it to be fun and I want it to serve a function of doing something positive in the world.
You can read the full interview in Alternative Press Issue 393, available here.