An Interview With Hip Hop Artist The Buttress: Transgression, Violence and Wicked Women

About a year and a half ago I was introduced to The Buttress (Bethany Schmitt). I was talking about my own transgressive visions, conflicts, values and fears in art-making and a mutual friend suggested I check out Bethany’s work for validation and inspiration. She’s a young hip hop artist, at the time based in Chicago, who directs her own videos and exists in a realm of creativity and self expression that was completely foreign to me.

Since then, not only have several other people recommended her work to me, but I’ve also gone through a range of feelings in reaction: disgust, confusion, jealousy, admiration and ultimately, fascination. Her work has lodged itself deep in my psyche and encouraged me to continually look again, and look deeper. I didn’t know her agenda, but I did know her art was highly attractive to me. It felt like the first time I saw Richard Kern’s Hardcore Collection or when I first got into John Waters’ films. I felt at first conflicted, then enamored. I kept going back to that same question: why am I looking for an agenda and why does it matter? Morality has no place in art, I believe this, but that’s often a conflicted opinion.

Bethany is crazy talented, and in my opinion, wildly, and refreshingly, unique. When I think about her work I want to sigh with relief, because transgression is alive and well. Her work satisfies my interest in genuine expressions and ideas. I’m much less interested in an artist’s obsessive dedication to being PC and trying to convince the consumer that what they do is progressive. It either is progressive or it’s not, it either satisfies a basic outline of morality or it doesn’t. And even those aspects do not determine the value of the work. It isn’t really up to the artist to decide that, and I think in the feminist discourse we watch a lot of young artists bite the dust because of that very issue. I wanted to conduct this interview with Bethany without trying to satisfy those notions, or give them validity. It’s easy to get attention by satisfying a political agenda, but it’s more interesting when you get attention for being yourself and with talent. Without the latter, all artists surely will be exposed as just the opposite: fake and talentless. In my mind, it is far more progressive to be true to your vision and to have artistic integrity.

I’m attracted to your work because it’s transgressive and unapologetic. Do you intend to be transgressive or do you find it to be an innate quality in your practice?

I think if it happens it’s just coincidental I guess. I don’t really feel like I’m ever trying to make a statement or anything.

Do you think most artists are playing it safe in our generation?

Not really… I feel like “playing it safe” implies that these artists are watering down some revolutionary concept for the sake of not offending the masses or something, but I wonder whether most artists are just uninteresting to begin with.

Some of the first and most progressive female artists in film and photography used a self-directed image as a form of rebellion and ownership. In addition to writing your own work, you also direct your own videos, which gives you full control and ownership over your image and how you could be marketed and consumed. Which is unlike a majority of musicians, in general. Do you find what you do to be radical? If given the opportunity, would you allow a person who could guarantee you commercial success to direct and market you?

No, I’d never let someone else direct me. That would just be completely unfulfilling to me. If I’m not in control of the creative process then the end result is not really mine so I could never be proud of it. I don’t really think what I do is radical in that regard. I think a lot of artists, at least the ones I respect the most, operate in a similar manner.

On that note, what are some things you would never do as an artist? To your image and identity, specifically.

The only thing that I can say for sure I’d never do is exactly the thing you just asked about, and that is executing someone else’s idea. I mean, I’ll do that as a hired hand or if I support your vision, but whatever I make for someone else is not my art, it’s theirs.

What challenges do you face specifically as a hip-hop artist?

I’m a really anxious person, and that does not fly in hip hop. A big part of hip hop is putting yourself on a pedestal and asserting yourself, and that’s not something I’m always comfortable doing. It’s a challenge I welcome though.

What artists in your genre are you commonly compared to? I saw something you posted recently after the release of “Funeral” about someone comparing you to Eminem. How do you feel about those comparisons?

All the comparisons I’ve gotten thus far seem to be specific to a certain song, like people were saying on “Funeral” I remind them of Eminem, and when “Pilgrims” came out a lot of people were saying I sounded like a female RZA, which is incredibly flattering, especially since RZA is my favorite rapper, but of course I’d much rather hear people say “wow, I’ve never heard anything like this before.” That’s the goal. In the meanwhile I’m glad these comparisons seem to be song-specific. If I was getting the same ones for every track I think I’d begin to feel like a hack or something.

Violence seems to be pretty important and/or attractive to you. Talk to me about female violence specifically. I had this thought while constructing this question about how violence is always associated specifically with men (for obvious and historical reasons) but then men want to act like violence is their “thing” like they own it. Do you believe “female violence” is it’s own thing? In most of your videos you are the recipient of violence. Though, your most recent video for “Funeral” features one of the only common points of reference for female violence — infanticide. Tell me about your relationship with violence and your artistic intentions, particularly with this video.

Well I definitely think infanticide takes on a different characteristic when women commit it versus when men do. Obviously women bring life into the world, and we’re often associated as being the primary nurturers and caretakers of our offspring, so for a woman to snuff out that life and kill her own children, that shit is like pure fucking evil, that shit contradicts nature. So yea I’d say female violence is its own thing, maybe not in and of itself, but at least in the sense that we have a different kind of reaction to it. It seems more wrong or something. And then on top of that it seems even more wrong to extend any sort of sympathy to a woman who could do something like that, which is what I was trying to do with “Funeral.” Like when I first heard about the Andrea Yates case, which is what inspired this track, I felt conflicted — because on the one hand what she did is totally insane and fucked up, but on the other I really think she believed she was doing the right thing. She thought she was saving her children from eternal damnation, and that’s heavy shit for me, especially since I was raised so religious, and I lived for a long time with a very real and serious fear of hell. If I thought my responsibility to my children was to save them from eternal suffering, even if it meant murdering them, who knows what I would have done? In Andrea’s mind she did the harder thing, the right thing. And to me that’s like… heroic. And it’s weird to feel that way about a child murderer. So yea, for me the track was much more about the violence of the internal struggle going on rather than the actual act of violence, and it’s that way with most of my videos. I often die at the end of them because I think I’ve accepted the only way I’m ever going to calm the raging storm constantly going on inside my head is when I die. I wonder if a part of me is looking forward to it.

Speaking of infanticide, that makes people pretty uncomfortable, though violence against women is still en vogue in pop media. Do you think we should just go all or nothing?

Yea I don’t see why not. I don’t believe in censorship or anything. I’ll watch a woman committing or receiving violence, I don’t really care as long as the movie is good.

Do you believe in moral relativity? What role does morality play in art, as a consumer and a maker?

I don’t know how much I think about morality as it applies to artmaking outside of my thoughts on what makes good art “good” or bad art “bad”. Like I will never boycott an artist because of some controversy surrounding their art or personal life, nor will I support an artist just because I agree with their agenda — what it really all comes down to for me is whether or not the art is good.  A film might have a great idea behind it, but if it looks like shit it’s not a good film. I might even enjoy it … but I’m not gonna put it in a time capsule. And I don’t really believe any art is actually timeless, but a lot of art stands the test of time more successfully than other art. To me that’s something to strive for.

What offends you?

Willful ignorance.

Some of my idols are people whose work disgusted or disturbed me at one point in my young life. Do you have similar experiences? What scared, disgusted and offended you as a developing mind?

Well growing up super Christian I was always really fascinated with what was forbidden — and for me that was Satan, the occult, and all that shit. I actually used to tell my parents I was researching the occult so I could “know more about the enemy” so I wouldn’t get in trouble for checking out those kinds of books at the library. The stuff in those books definitely scared me, and I’ve always been drawn to stuff that scares me, I guess because I just have a really visceral reaction to it. I saw an interview with John Carpenter once, he was talking about why people are so drawn to horror films, and said something to the effect of: when people are confronted with death and dying, it makes them more aware that they are alive, and it makes them feel more alive, and I totally subscribe to that idea. As far as idols go, I wasn’t really allowed to see or watch much growing up. Most of my idols are people I latched onto later in life.

I have this idea that came from watching Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist that women are the Antichrist. Not in the misogynist sense often associated with the film (and Lars Von Trier’s oeuvre in general) but in the most direct way possible: women, as sexual beings, stand in direct opposition to puritanical Christianity, and can lead to the downfall of man (our girl Eve). This concept is deeply embedded in the history of misogyny, hysteria, violence against women, femicide, enslavement of our sex — all based on fear. Historically, men are terrified of women and what women are capable of (or perhaps what those men were not capable of). I’ve noticed a lot of similar notions and ideas in your work, particularly in the video for “Behind Every Great Man.” In addition to the lyrics and the title itself. The line “The evil that resides in men’s minds/ I harness it” really resonates. Talk to me about it.

That song is about wicked women, and I’m associating myself with them in that track, because my approach to living life as a woman for a long time now has really just been that if you can’t beat them you should join them. It’s like fighting evil with evil. Some people might call it selfish, but I won’t always take an active role in fighting injustice towards women in situations where I think keeping silent might benefit me more. Like I’ll laugh off some dude’s sexist joke if I know he’s going to be doing me a favor, or yes I’ll let men pay for my shit, even though I don’t necessarily think I “should”. By being subversive I feel like I’m just exploiting a system that never really cared about me in the first place. And it makes me feel kind of evil sometimes, like I’m sacrificing my morality for my own self-interest or something, and I think I’m just kind of embracing that with that track.

I found out about you about a year and a half ago from a friend who called your video work “horror porn.” I haven’t noticed any sense of eroticism in your work — the exact opposite in fact. Bodies are seldom (sexually) objectified or eroticized in your videos, from my perspective at least. Tortured and regarded as non-beings, certainly, but not for sexual titillation. When I think horror-porn I think about sexually objectifying rape scenes and the torture of women for sadistic enjoyment. Do you think of your work as sadistic?

In a sexual sense, no, not at all.  I have never really been interested in making art about sex, and I don’t even really enjoy sex scenes in movies, or songs about sex unless they’re funny. To me it’s like eating or something. I love it but I just don’t really care like that.

Can we still transgress in 2015? A lot of (older and jealous) people talk shit about our generation and say we are out of things to do. Sure, there’s nothing new out there, but can we still freak people out? Make them think? Reverse roles and challenge the status quo? Especially as women?

I think so, for both genders, yea. I think both men and women are continuing to break out of traditional roles, and as time goes on these attempts become more successful. I think achieving new things in art is much more difficult than achieving new things socially, so that’s something to think about. Regardless, I feel like people have probably always been complaining that things used to be better. We already see our generation doing it now towards kids who don’t know what it’s like to not have internet and shit.

Do you believe that social media and the way people consume film and music in the 2000s has helped or hindered your practice?

I would say it’s helped, definitely. Like it’s weird to think that more people will watch one of my videos on the Internet in a few days than the number of people at all of the film screenings I’ve ever done put together. It’s kind of depressing but at the same time it’s a really valuable tool so it’s not like I’m not going to use it. I think the best part about it though is the real life interactions it accommodates. Like I’ve gotten to meet and work with great people in real life because we first connected on the Internet.

When I first heard your name, The Flyest Buttress, I couldn’t help but think of Art History 101. Please tell me that’s how it happened.

That’s pretty much exactly how it happened.

How gross are you?

I have this reoccurring dream where I’m eating dog shit, and I’m ashamed of admitting that. I don’t enjoy it in the dream… I don’t know why it keeps happening. I guess cause I’m gross.

What is your favorite song?

Damn… I’m gonna go with the “Eyes A Bleed” RZA remix. It’s RZA’s remix of a Bounty Killer track with a Masta Killa verse. When I listen to it I feel like I’m in that film Strange Days.

Describe to me a vision of success and fame in your genre.

I will feel financially successful when I’m able to make enough money off my art to support myself and my practice without being someone else’s slave for 40+ hours a week. But I won’t feel like an actual success until I make something that I actually consider good. Like really really really good. Cause there’s already really really good stuff out here.

What advice would you give to other female aspiring artists?

Be upfront about the things you don’t like about yourself, don’t try to overcompensate for them. People are not as dumb as you think, they’ll see right through you.