By Maura Marcellino
This month can be a tough month for autistic people. Some people tell us we are not normal or complete human beings, while other people are telling us we are superheroes and autism is a superpower when it is not. Autism is not a bad word. Yes it is a disability, but it does not make us any less of a person.
While I was first starting out as the social media director of Alchemical Records and learning about the people we followed before I was the director, I found a post about a 20 year old musician finding out they were autistic. That person was singer-songwriter, Bossa Nova performer, and activist, Gabrielle Zwi. I reached out to them saying I found out I was autistic at age 20 the previous year. They sent me a song they released in 2018 before they found out they were autistic, “Without A Label.” “It’s about how labels can be useful and empowering, but only if you seek them out and embrace them for yourself. Labels can be really damaging when placed on you by others, or when others tell you that you can do things *despite* your label, when actually it’s their false perception of your label that made them believe it was limiting. My personal experience in writing this song was around ableism, especially as a neurodivergent student, but others have told me that they relate it to their experiences with sexism.” Every autism is different. It is not a linear spectrum, but more of a color wheel. I listened to this track on repeat for a bit. Gabrielle and the song really helped me understand that I am not alone. We are trying to figure things out now matter how long you have known.
In the summer when we were planning our 2022 theme ideas, I wanted to highlight the autistic voices in the entertainment industry. I reached out to Zwi asking if they were interested in doing an interview with Alchemical Records. (Yes I knew it was months away, but I was just so excited!) When it came time to assign articles, I jumped at the chance to interview them. I thought having another autistic adult interview another autistic adult that found out fairly late in life. We chatted about autistic representation in the media, autistic adults, what this month is really about, and more.
When it comes to accurate representation in the media, autistic people lack someone to look up to. In fact, one of the characters we talked about was not explicitly stated as autistic. Abed Nadir from the NBC/Yahoo! Comedy series, “Community” was a character a lot of autistic people such as myself related to. Freeform’s recent show, “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” was written by and starred autistic creators. There is also a new show on Amazon Prime Video called “As We See It” with three autistic leads playing autistic characters. It is hopeful to see actually autistic people portraying autistic characters. Autism was seen as a white cis-male issue and women, non-binary people, and people of color can be misdiagnosed or seen as “just quirky.”
As I have stated in multiple posts and newsletters I have written, autistic adults are real! I was discussing how lately I have noticed older people discovering they are autistic. Zwi stated that autistic children become autistic adults and adults discover they are autistic later in life. Also, this month can be called Autism Awareness, Appreciation, and/or Acceptance month. Zwi pointed out that most people are already aware of autism in general, but not everyone is aware of the signs, the organizations, resources, etc. Listening to actually autistic people is a vital step in allyship.
Zwi comes from a musical family and was into singing and writing from a young age in the Jewish community and middle school. Zwi’s older brother is autistic and music was a way for them to communicate. Open mic nights are a passion of Zwi, especially DMV open mics. They have met collaborators at events like those. One of their favorite things is to take songs that are not acoustic and then play on the ukulele, like My Chemical Romance Songs. The Musicianship has uplifted DMV artists in a way to put DMV on the map as a music city. The DMV has a very rich and hidden jazz history and Zwi is in Columbia University by Harlem, which is more of a well-known jazz place. It is amazing to see how much recognition the DMV music scene has gotten in the last couple years. Not only with recognition, but the connections and sense of community within the DMV music scene. After mentioning that I work at Jiffy Lube Live, Zwi asked if I knew Ricky Munoz and talked about his amazing house shows!
As for the creative process, every song is different. “Without A Label” was a way to learn how to self-advocate and was written in the margins of math notes. When they were frustrated. Every song is different in the order. They have a document online with unfinished song lyrics and sometimes they see if any of them could fit together to create a song.
Zwi is also an activist for many things such as climate activism, disability advocacy, LGBTQ+ rights, and more. Members of their favorite band Fun, and sister of member Jack Antonoff, Rachel Antonoff, founded The Ally Coalition, which is a nonprofit dedicated to bettering the lives of LGBTQ+ youth and raising awareness to the systemic inequalities the LGBTQ+ community faces. https://theallycoalition.org/
Here are some other resources they recommend:
DC Teens Action (Zwi co-founded in 2018) https://www.dcteensaction.org/links
Autistic Women & Non-binary Network https://awnnetwork.org/
I look forward to seeing and hearing more from Zwi in different aspects of life such as activism and entertainment. There is still a stigma with autism and while I doubt that will be completely gone anytime soon, I am optimistic about the future. Check out “Without A Label” and Gabrielle’s other tracks below:
Maura Marcellino is studying business and environmental sustainability at George Mason University. When she is not studying, Maura enjoys listening to music and spending time with friends and family.
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