Qualifications and Qualifying Statements

By The Seventh Wave

An Interview with Author Sephy
December 4, 2020

Interviewed by Avi-Yona Israel, TSW staff

This is the third in a series of interviews (conversations) I have done for The Seventh Wave this year; each began with a grand plan for interviewing lots of strangers (all with Zoom fatigue) across the spectrum of every relevant industry (that is likely crumbling), before ending on the phone with a long-time loved one, haranguing them about their chosen career and denying any and all assertions of impostor syndrome.

The last of these — this one — occurred between myself and the best friend that I left (though only corporeally) in Philadelphia. Joel, otherwise known as Sephy, is an absolutely brilliant musician, composer, and piano teacher, the smart and funny son of two smart and funny South American immigrants. He is a community activist, formidable cyclist, and my moral bellwether. There are few people who have witnessed more of my ups and downs over the past decade (and even fewer cruel and clever enough to help me sort which is which). And so, in a time, in a country so in need of moral integrity and attention direction, I offer you my lighthouse, by coordinates.

Avi-Yona Israel: Ok, Joel. Can I call you Joel?

Sephy: Joel is fine, sure. Sephy, Joel Sephy Gleiser. You know what, you can call me honey, sweetie, whatever you normally call me.


Avi-Yona: So you and I met in Philly in 2013. I think you were playing piano at a house party. Do you remember that?

Sephy: I don’t know. I do vaguely remember.

[Here, we speak briefly about the first time Joel does remember meeting me, and it is hilarious, but unflattering, and in its unflattering-ness, besides the point.]


Avi-Yona: Okay, so I know you first and foremost as a friend, and then as a musician, and then as an activist, but I’m going to ask about them in reverse order. When we first started talking about doing this interview, you were hesitant about the idea of portraying yourself as an activist specifically. And I think I know some of the reasons that you feel that way, because I know that you’re a very thoughtful person. Do you want to talk a little bit about that impulse?

Sephy: I think a lot of people have been showing up and putting their bodies on the line in ways that I feel like… I guess, I experience impostor syndrome. I just know there are people out there every day doing the thing. I’m not out every day. And sometimes I think the imposter syndrome is driven in part by things that I see on social media, where the current landscape is all about sharing political messages and informing everybody.

And I’m not doing that, not because I don’t want to or because I don’t see the value, but mainly because I don’t want to make more noise. There are so many people I follow who are doing that, and I would rather sit it out. The problem with social media is that it enriches a small group of people, and not the people that we want to help. So I’m more into showing up when I can in person. Also, I present to the world as a white male — my parents are Columbian and there are lots of Colombians who look like white people. I don’t feel offended that someone would look at me and make assumptions because that’s reality. The most important thing I have to gain from how people see me is that I can put my body on the line and be an ally, basically. Even if I feel like I’m part of the group, even if I’m Latino, I can still take the role that I think white people should be playing, like standing between protestors and cops.

Last weekend there was a march for Black trans liberation — I biked in back of the parade between the cops and the rest because that’s a job I feel comfortable taking on. That’s the role I think cis white males should take as much as possible.

The problem with social media is that it enriches a small group of people, and not the people that we want to help.

Avi-Yona: Why do we need a wall of moms? Where are all the fucking white guys who should be standing linked arm and arm?

Sephy: The Wall of Bros. Yeah, they’re doing nothing, they’re playing FIFA.


Avi-Yona: Well, I know what you’re saying about feeling like an impostor, in the general sense. As a writer and a bartender, I just feel like my only value is passing a beer and making sure it gets to an old person that will tell me a good story. That’s the only interaction that I have that’s crucial to my craft. Everything else I do is not the point.

Sephy: That’s real. In the context of my work, I think most art is political. There are people who think any art driven by capitalism is political. It’s just that politics suck. It’s weird. I don’t love labels in general. Words on their own are pretty meaningless.


Avi-Yona: I think you, as a smart person, don’t like already having responsibilities to a person before you’ve even met them, which is essentially what roles are: telling someone that you will do what they want to expect before they’ve even encountered you. Labels inherently discourage creativity in the way you think, in the way people think about you.

Sephy: Well put, thanks Avi. That’s really good. [Laughs]


Avi-Yona: So, even if you feel that way about the word “activist,” like maybe it should be applied more stringently. Do you feel that way about the word “musician?” That’s not a trick question, only something that I find of interest.

Sephy: So, something I’ve definitely said before in my life, mainly in trying to rally my co-conspirators in whatever I’m doing, is that there are so many ways that we identify that should really be verbs.

For example, if you are not being active or being politically engaged, then you’re not being an activist. There are people who were activists at one point in their lives, but because they’re just sitting on the sidelines now, they are not. The same exact idea applies to music. With music, I am doing the thing every day. So I would take on the label musician or artist, because there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not doing that. I think if I was apart from my instruments, I’d be doing body percussion. Anywhere I am there can be music made, or I’ll hear it in my brain, or I’ll hum it, or I’ll write it down or take out my phone and make recordings on that. Music in my life is unavoidable. It’s part of who I am. Maybe there are other things that I could participate in actively on a daily basis, and I would accept those labels a little better. But I can’t deny that I’m a musician.

Music in my life is unavoidable. It’s part of who I am. Maybe there are other things that I could participate in actively on a daily basis, and I would accept those labels a little better. But I can’t deny that I’m a musician.

Avi-Yona: I like what you said about there being something unavoidable about it. I think that the people you and I would think of as true activists, they’re the people who never turn down an opportunity to point out if there’s a better way to do this. People like Daryl Davis, who sat down with a bunch of white supremacists around the country. That to me is activism of the best sort. You have no voice but your own, you’re not amplified, you’re one human body. When I read about him, he was having these conversations daily. The food he eats, what he wears, it all has to do with fighting whatever he considers himself to be fighting every day.

Sephy: I think talking to strangers — to people who have opposing views — that can be activism. In some ways, I see it as more valuable than protests because protests are very high energy: you’re screaming, you’re shouting, and it’s not necessarily the case that you’re engaging with someone who has a view any different from yours. It’s about talking to people, explaining what’s going on in the world, like the world is really complicated and very different depending on where you are.


Avi-Yona: And I’ve been struggling with asking “how much”? Like, at what state do you get to be an activist? Is activism the highest thing on a hierarchy of needs, like you can only be an activist after you’ve eaten, slept well, made a friend? In denying people self-determination, is it paradoxical to expect that person to advocate for themselves?

[and on and on and on]

Sephy: One thing I believe in really strongly is that the government owes reparations for slavery. There are individuals who no doubt owe reparations for slavery, but I think that is a whole separate thing — it requires a little bit more personal admission on the part of people for the acts of their ancestors. We need a truth and reconciliation committee — South Africa, Canada, all these places have had to grapple with the sins of their past. And the US just goes on pretending it didn’t happen. I think if we had a huge number of white people demanding reparations for slavery, it would happen.


Avi-Yona: But that’s also how you can tell that, in those other situations, the war is over. And in the American situation, it never has been, because we have no choice but to co-exist. I think there’s still a mentality in the conservative white American that they don’t have to live with us, whether it’s by putting us all in jail or them doing white flight or whatever.

Sephy: Which is going against the first part of that, the truth part. I believe it to be a fact that the “greatest economy in the world” only exists because of slavery. When people can’t deny it, that’s when they will strive for real justice. But there are factions of society that just won’t wake up to that.


Avi-Yona: So, I consider you to be a deeply social justice-minded person. What’s been going through your head during the last couple of years as far as the general social condition?

[a deliciously incendiary conversation about childbirth as inherently immoral that is decidedly, though unfortunately, off-topic]

Sephy: The hardest thing for me to understand this year has been why anyone would have faith in our government anymore, why anyone would have faith in our nation anymore. We are still choosing between the lesser of two evils who don’t have to actually live in the world they helped create. There’s still a party that doesn’t believe in climate change. If Republicans want to be the pro-life party, they’d better start acting on climate change because nothing is going to create more death and destruction than climate change. America has become an entity with its own interests, and it’s those that are being served.

If Republicans want to be the pro-life party, they’d better start acting on climate change because nothing is going to create more death and destruction than climate change.

Avi-Yona: Yeah, they send out $1200 to boost the economy and then they ask people, “Well, why did you buy Nikes with that?” And people are like, “Because I can’t go to college with $1,200 measly fucking dollars.”

Sephy: Reaffirming the Constitution doesn’t really get done. You know, there’s nothing in the Constitution that says every 50 years we’ll hold a new constitutional convention and check in on the relationship between the government and the governed. And it would be so valuable.


Avi-Yona: It’s because the founding fathers knew they were creating bum-fucking deal. All those slave owners who were deciding what was going to happen to people who weren’t allowed to read and write, I don’t necessarily care too much about. They have to keep us faithful to the Constitution because it’s the screed that tells us they aren’t the oppressor.

Sephy: It’s just a very old document. Technology is accelerating so fast, in my lifetime everything has shifted. The founding fathers would have said everybody had the right to bear fucking 5G, it would not have said shit about guns.


Avi-Yona: Okay, now just tell everybody how you describe your art, what you’ve been working on, how it feels to be a musician right now. We aren’t neighbors anymore, so I miss being able to hear what you’re working on.

Sephy: My neighbors really are the people who get to hear the most of my music. Sometimes, I practice with the windows open. Every time I begin to describe it, I’m like, “You know, what would be better than this is if you just listen to it.” When you’re first learning to play music, you’re told about the conventions. And it’s a lot of rigidity. Like, you have to set things within a certain parameter and kind of stick with that. But for me, it’s like, come on, fuck your parameter, let’s go, let’s go follow the impulse. So there is a bit of experimentation in that sense. It’s kind of like, on any given day, what do I feel? I have a big old piano downstairs and when I record, I like to use that. And when I write, I’m mostly writing at the piano. I think patterns are pretty. I like to mix language. I’ve been speaking Spanish in the USA my whole life, so there’s a serious blending of words. And from one sentence to another, I might alternate languages.

A good work of art probably should make you a little uncomfortable. And there are times where you might not know what I mean. And even if you understand the words, you probably don’t know what I mean. But hopefully some feeling gets conveyed and implanted in the listener to some degree. Like, hopefully people will listen and learn from it, but I think a lot of the music I’m making is colors and dreams and ambitions and fractal shapes. It’s hard to describe but sometimes it’s a party, and it’s always rhythmic and kind of fresh. A frustrating element of music to me is how much I value being novel. I value being unique. And when I hear people who sound like other people or when I hear pieces of music that sound like they already exist, or maybe unfortunately they already exist like a million times over, I’m like, why did you make this? To a certain degree I think we’ve backtracked, and we’ve become accepting of this kind of homogenous, uninspired, factory-made bullshit.

I think a lot of the music I’m making is colors and dreams and ambitions and fractal shapes. It’s hard to describe but sometimes it’s a party, and it’s always rhythmic and kind of fresh.

Avi-Yona: Maybe the issue is just that there are people who are purporting themselves as good transformers but they aren’t transforming anything. Like I think the art of transformation does require cleverness and quickness and understanding of the history and the potential and the machinations as well as the inspirations. But maybe that isn’t music, specifically. Maybe that’s another thing, transformation.

Sephy: I see it as a matter of effort put in, and the value I take out of a thing. If all you can give me is something I’ve already experienced, I probably don’t care that much.


Avi-Yona: Okay. I love you so much. Thank you for doing this with me. I really just wanted an excuse to talk to you.

Sephy: Can I give a testimonial? The interview was excellent and informative and we conquered new territory. Two thumbs up. I’m going to go play music.

Headshot of sephy

Follow Sephy on Instagram @sephymusic.

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