Isolation Drills: Julie Be (Ants On A Log; I Try, You Try)

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Be: Fourteen years ago, I was sitting in my college dorm room making a list of Things That I Could Do With My Life after graduation, which was quickly approaching. The only thing that I actually wanted to do was create benefit concerts for Planned Parenthood. I know, it’s a pretty specific goal. And I think I realized at the time that Planned Parenthood Benefit Concert Creator wasn’t actually a job title. But all I knew was that I loved pairing music with activism. Without one, the other felt unfulfilling to me. Plus I majored in gender studies and ethnomusicology, so I felt qualified for, umm, something.

Fast forward to March 2020. My band Ants On A Log was in the middle of touring our musical, Curious: Think Outside The Pipeline!. The family-friendly show uses music and humor to tell the story of two siblings who organize their community to fight for clean air. They persevere in the face of greedy businessmen, distracted politicians and their mansplaining Uncle Steve (#dontbeanunclesteve).

We based the musical on Philly Thrive’s Right To Breathe Campaign, which was an inspiring show of grassroots force that shut down the PES oil refinery in South Philly last year. Thrive’s work fighting environmental racism was documented on the cover of the N Y Times Magazine this summer, and I was never more proud of journalism highlighting the right stories. 

Anyway, the tour ended abruptly, as did life as we all knew it. 

As I look back over the past several months, I realize that this strange time of What Should I Do? and What Is Important? led me back to that original dorm-room dream. 

I ended up spending the summer creating a compilation album of songs for trans and nonbinary kids. Usually, I spend summers directing Camp Aranu’tiq, a summer camp for trans and nonbinary youth. It was heartbreaking to not be there, and I wanted to create something uplifting and connective for our campers. As the project grew, NPR’s Morning Edition picked it up, and overnight the mix had more than 15K listens, plus we raised $5,000 for camp. Again, good job, journalism!

The Trans & Nonbinary Kids Mix now stands as a milestone in the world of kids media, as there is so little out there that reflects the experiences of queer and trans youth. It was inspiring and energizing to collaborate with 19 other artists from all over the gender map, and the allyship I saw from cis musicians was unbelievable.

As I was using half my brain for that project, I was using the other half wondering what my role is in fighting white supremacy. I have been asking this question for a while now, as a member of a multi-racial collective house. But this summer’s uprisings made me ask this question in many more places in my life—specifically, what can I be doing as a white musician? It’s especially pressing in the kids music community since white folk musicians (like myself) are hugely overrepresented.

I found myself organizing a performers’ boycott of the place I most love playing kids concerts: the Philly Free Library. The Black workers at the library have been telling our city for years about the Library’s racist work environment. (Follow the Concerned Black Workers on Instagram: @changetheflp.) It was sad to watch leadership show defensiveness and disrespect toward their Black workers—at one of the only places in the city that is supposed to be safe and accessible to all!

As we canceled our virtual concerts, we called upon our fans to take action in solidarity with the workers. In the past, I’d heard stories of bands boycotting bars with sexist or racist owners, but this was the library! Did I naively think that a place that serves kids and families would be exempt from systemic racism? It’s everywhere.

As I worked with kids musician Devin Walker to organize this boycott, I felt hopeful learning about his work: Kukuza Fest and Wee Nation Radio. Both are resources for kids of color to see their communities reflected onstage and in age-appropriate media. Spread the word!

Just like all white people, I have a long way to go in my own unlearning of racism. I have been thinking about the value of singing along to that journey in the form of kids music. We—in this generation of artists—are beyond thinking that songs about love and rainbows are going to teach kids to stand up. Now we have to start being real with kids and giving them more credit. As we see with gender, adults are afraid to talk about it, but kids get it. Hopefully, we can start being real with kids about race now, too.

Most recently, I organized hundreds of performers to entertain early voting lines. I hope that was my last project that felt propelled by fear, adrenaline and a dire sense of I Must Do Something. The past seven months have been full of questions, fear and scarcity, but I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the roles that musicians have played over this time. We’ve created the music that reflects the world’s mourning and yearning and fear. We’ve offered some of the only beauty available when most creativity stopped suddenly.

And, apparently, we kept people entertained long enough to stand in long lines even when we all felt like quitting and going home. Now I am working on allowing myself to rest and celebrate, before getting back to the work—the hard work that still needs to be done. But now, hopefully, without the constant feeling of crisis and fear.

Sending wishes of balance and motivation to all of Philly and beyond!