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Bonnie Ryan-Vance, DJ + Activist 01.03.22

Bonnie shares with us the role music has played in her life, and the ways in which art can help facilitate community and connection.

"When we connect with art, it touches us. It’s emotional. Selecting a soundtrack based on what I feel and connecting with others through it is indescribable; it is those moments of inimitable unity that tided me over months of total isolation. Everything in me is driven by feeling. I cry in TV adverts. I get goosebumps listening to the same song thirty times in a row."

…If you didn’t know better you’d say the gods of comedy and tragedy had a hand in it.

Zadie Smith (Intimations, 2020)

I remembered these words early on a Sunday afternoon. Though an assignment I accepted without hesitation only days before, writing something that would appear under the optimistic heading ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’ in the shadow of the government announcement suddenly seemed peculiarly paradoxical. Elation to deflation in under three seconds. Everything wanted and worked towards by those in the industry, the events that served as the light at the end of 2021’s impossibly long lockdown tunnel for almost everyone I know - disintegrated in the time it takes for a traffic light to change.

Months earlier, I had been contacted to contribute a piece for this same series; at the time an impossible task. On a page in the back of a notebook I used last year, I had scrawled “not my defining characteristic”; the only idea I had tried to develop, now a strangely comforting sentiment. I used that phrase a lot during introductions, a light-hearted retort to the frequent DJ question that followed my name, but of the utmost importance. The idea of my worth being tied to how I choose to pay the bills hadn’t become more appealing when it went from mundane office employment to music selection.

When I was growing up I had a little game that I played when one of my parents drove through the tunnel in my hometown. The music from the radio would always cut out on entry, and I would continue singing the song to myself, trying to keep the time perfectly so that when we emerged, and the radio turned from static to song again, I was in the right place. Many of my memories are about music, though I was not raised in a musical household, never played an instrument, and never undertook education on the topic; until only a few years ago I wouldn’t say I had any skill related to music at all. I probably wouldn’t have said I had any skill or talent, period. I battled through school with minimal effort, unable to absorb spoken information (something I still struggle with) but a human sponge when it came to criticism, which was extremely harsh, and often; something that bothers me deeply to this day. Told I would not be anything, or succeed, because of my apparent insolence, I told myself that, too.

My parents always encouraged me to be myself, even though I was a really weird kid (something I never grew out of) and they probably fretted a bit that I’d do something bizarre, but as life went on I felt like I didn’t know what that was. Autistic people, women in particular, often use ‘masking’ as a survival skill socially to hide the traits that draw negative attention to them, and these became so deeply ingrained I could no longer distinguish what was genuine.

Finding my place in music was how I found myself. Cliché, but for a reason. My ridiculously vast - and sometimes unbelievable to others - knowledge of songs and the like which I had always considered a useless trait was suddenly not an embarrassing by-product of my newly discovered (but long standing) neurodivergent status, but something to be proud of, and I didn’t need to pretend to be anything or anyone. I couldn’t pretend, or focus on anything else, or I wouldn’t be able to do it properly. It required me to be totally present, focused on how I feel, an impenetrable bubble around me and the booth. The more I did this, and the less I worried about what other people thought, the more engaged I was, and the more engaged the audience became. It didn’t mean the end of outwards negativity, but that didn’t matter anymore. The confidence in selecting songs grew, the confidence in my being grew, and the rest just ceased to matter.

Music, my life, entwined to every part of my being, isn’t about a job, but about feeling. Everything is. When we connect with ourselves, and better ourselves, we are building foundations for a better future. You can do all you want outwardly, and try to fix everything around you, but unless you work on you, there is no point.

When we connect with art, it touches us. It’s emotional. Selecting a soundtrack based on what I feel and connecting with others through it is indescribable; it is those moments of inimitable unity that tided me over months of total isolation. Everything in me is driven by feeling. I cry in TV adverts. I get goosebumps listening to the same song thirty times in a row. That is my character. I’ve learned to take responsibility for the things I need to and let go of the things I can’t change. That’s what defines me. It doesn’t go away when I can’t play at events; the outlet simply changes; the desire to connect only grows. On the top of the piano in my room - my current learning project - I have ‘HOPE’ spelled out in old scrabble pieces. Nobody can take my music, nobody can take my hope. If I keep my attitude right, everything else will fall into place, and my best will always be just around the corner.

Not so paradoxical after all.

This music’s the only thing keeping the peace When I’m falling to pieces

Lil Peep, Star Shopping, 2017

Written by Bonnie Ryan-Vance

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