Photo Courtesy of Lachi Music, LLC / New York, New York / 2021
Recording Artist And Accessibility Advocate Lachi Talks Disability Empowerment And Celebrating Blindness Through Music And Beyond
New York-based EDM singer/songwriter and disability inclusion advocate Lachi has been taking her activism to new heights in 2021. Recently meeting with White House officials and working in tandem with the UK nonprofit SYNC Inspire, Lachi is striving to make a global impact on visibility accessibility and awareness in the entertainment industry and beyond. She also founded Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities (RAMPD), an organization aimed at unifying the voices and goals of music creators and professionals with disabilities and promoting inclusion in music industry.
Amid October’s Blindness Awareness Month and National Disability Employment Awareness Month, the Recording Academy sat down with Lachi to learn more about her advocacy efforts, her journey of embracing and elevating her blindness as a key part of her identity and what’s next for her musically.
How are you doing in the ‘new normal,’ and what have you been up to over the last year and a half?
Near the beginning of the pandemic, my manager at the time, Gary Salzman, passed away. It was a huge loss. After that, I knew I had a big decision to make because I was very dependent on him for a lot of my work. I began to start to self-reflect on becoming more open about my disability and becoming more confident in all parts of myself. I said, "I need to figure out what I really want to do. Do I want to rebrand myself?" And I did. I wanted to make sure I stood in front of my disability and took that into the rest of my identity because why hide that part of myself?
I am a vocalist at heart; I do EDM singing, songwriting, dance music, trance music, house music. I've really been blessed to have already been relatively well-respected in that realm whereby coming out about my disability did not disrupt the flow of work coming in. People weren't like, "Oh my God, she's blind. What do we do now?" They were just like, "Oh, really? Huh. Okay." I was shooting myself in the foot not being upfront about it because it turns out people thought it was actually pretty awesome.
That has led me to be more active in accessibility advocacy. I've been working with the Foundation Fighting Blindness, doing musical things with them. I've been performing a lot virtually and working with other artists to help make their online performances more accessible through ASL, captioning and having people announce and describe themselves for those who have sight conditions. I recently spoke with the Office of Public Engagement at the White House about greater equity and awareness of blind Americans. And not long ago I hosted a PBS segment called Renegades that highlighted disabled renegades who shaped America.
I [also] started a YouTube series called Off Beat - Going Blind & Staying Fabulous in NYC. The series celebrates my journey going from low vision to no vision, while still learning the things I want to learn and checking off some bucket list items. Through it, I've had the opportunity to speak to celebrities and public figures in the disabled community like Haben Girma, Molly Burke, Lucy Edwards, who's a huge TikTok star, folks in the LGBTQ community like Paperboy [Prince], and politicians.
In terms of the bucket list items, I'd always wanted to skydive, and so I went skydiving. It was a lot of fun; I wasn't scared at all. I was like, "Yeah, let's do this!” We got on the plane and they're like, "You sure?" I'm like, "Yes!" Then we go to the door and they're like, "You sure?" I'm like, "No, what am I doing? What is this?" But then we jumped! And it was amazing to fly.
I have a bunch of things on deck [for future episodes]: scuba diving, spelunking and a bunch of really great guests. I've been having a lot of fun with the series. It's supercharged my personal growth, and now I'm just this fearless adventure seeker. The more I lose my vision, the more I want to grab life by the balls.
Do you think it’s important for creatives with disabilities to come forward and share their experiences to help normalize disability culture in the entertainment industry?
Absolutely. I think one of the biggest barriers any marginalized community has is lack of visibility, lack of awareness. That's always step one, because people can't relate to your issue. People can't relate to you on a human level until they see it, until they feel it, until they can stand beside you and not feel uncomfortable asking you questions about it.
I'm going to be speaking on behalf of those with disabilities and accessibility needs on a PopShift panel in Hollywood that is bringing together 50 leaders of underrepresented groups to exchange stories and strategize how to further normalize minorities in mainstream media.
When we start talking about things en masse in a way that is relatable, in a way that is hits close to home, then we start to see the change. Young minds [with no exposure], if they see someone in a wheelchair they go, "Oh my God, that's really weird and strange and different. Can I stand near this girl in a wheelchair?" But if they see the girl in a Netflix show, living her life, doing awesome things, instead of being afraid to stand beside the kid in the wheelchair, they're ready to say more than just hello.
You were newly appointed as an Advocacy Committee co-chair for the Recording Academy’s New York Chapter. What would you like to achieve while on the committee?
I'm so excited for the opportunity! I have to give a huge shout out to Sharon Tapper for seeing leadership qualities in me. She was the one who really fought for the New York Chapter’s Music, Purpose + Community panel that I moderated in April. Initially, I was afraid to speak to all the big wigs at the top, but with her support, I went forth. Once I did that panel it was all she wrote. I am advocating for all musicians, and I want to be sure that all includes musicians with disabilities.
When we speak to leaders and politicians, I get to walk into the room representing an intersectionality that includes disability that they don't normally see in these rooms. I am advocating for the disabled musician, the intersectional musician. I really like studying the acts and laws that we are advocating for and making sure that they understand the nitty gritty and how it affects their communities.
There's money and policies from local to national levels that musicians can benefit from, the arts can benefit from. A lot of musicians can’t sit there and try to figure this out. They should be off creating; they need to be off creating. But I have this platform and I’m down to help, so I want to do what I can to ensure we get all the things that creators need from the policy level and then make sure musicians know about it.
Tell me about the new organization you founded, Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities (RAMPD), and your goals for making the music industry more accessible.
I got flooded with emails from people with disabilities saying, "I felt so seen to see myself up there speaking to the Recording Academy. What's next, Lachi?" I couldn’t sit there and hide under my bed. I have to do something. I have to answer that question. Here's what's next: We need a body of representatives. We need representatives to speak to companies like the Recording Academy and policy makers specifically on behalf of musicians and music professionals with disabilities, not in an “inspirational way” but in a competitive, professional way.
[Songwriter/violinist and RAMPD Vice President] Gaelynn Lea and I are such a perfect team because we come together and we talk about things from different angles. She's a lot more about physical accessibility, while I'm a lot more about visibility. We get to tackle both of those. We came together and put out a call for established and up-and-coming artists and professionals with disabilities, and we found a deluge of great individuals who fit the bill. These are extremely high achievers and they’re living with a disability. They have a disability, that's who they are. And it's part of RAMPD’s mission to empower people to identify in that way.
As a body of accredited musicians and professionals with disabilities, it is also our goal to liaise with the music industry about inclusion. We've been speaking with folks at NIVA [the National Independent Venue Association] about their Save Our Stages efforts, like, "How can we partner with you to get accessibility included in some of the bills you're pushing?"
We've also been speaking with Attitude is Everything, which is a huge proponent of music and disability in the UK. They've done studies. They're a lot further along than we are in the US . We’re gaining advice and insight from them because we really need those figures in the US to support our discussions and planning. That’s the next step.
What are some action items for the music industry to be a more inclusive, diverse and accessible place for all?
Team up with RAMPD! For example, if booking agencies partner with RAMPD, we can become their go-to resource for competitive music professionals and performers with disabilities and booking inclusively. I’d also like more companies to consider creators with disabilities for leadership councils, senior positions, projects, panels, consultations, et cetera.
Another thing that folks can do anywhere in the music industry, whether it be venue accessibility or online accessibility, is universal design. When designing a website, gear, anything, companies should be consulting with disability experts from the onset so that we don't have to deal with the issue of having to go back and try to fix things later.
People don't always realize how commonplace people with disabilities, visible or not, are in their own community, or consider that they themselves could one day have a disability. If we design the things we make universally and accessibly from the get-go, that is one of the best ways to not only serve the disability community but the community at large for the long term.
What does Blindness Awareness Month and National Disability Employment Awareness Month mean to you?
Employment for musicians and music professionals is not just the stage. It's from the green room to the boardroom. It means gigs, it means streams, it means placements, and much more. Sadly, because people with disabilities are not on the boards or at the decision-making tables, our perspective is oftentimes not heard at the top level. Because that voice is left out, it trickles down. I believe that when we talk about Disability Employment Awareness Month, we need to really consider the back room. We're talking a lot about having visibility and awareness and stuff like that, but we really need folks in these senior positions, in these decision-making positions. That's where we really start to see the movement.
One of the things that I really love to celebrate this month is my team. My whole team is made up of people with disabilities or very staunch allies. My manager, Ben Price, is legally blind. He is also on the leadership council at BPI, which is the UK equivalent of The Recording Academy. My talent representative, Keely Cat-Wells, she has been on 30 under 30 [lists] and lives with a nonvisible disability. She is a huge advocate in Hollywood disability representation. She's doing a lot of things with her company, C Talent. My literary agent, Stephanie Hansen, she's unilaterally deaf. She consistently gets major book deals for her clients. She's having somebody shadow me now for an autobiographical book. My operations manager identifies as neurodiverse. My assistant is legally blind, [as are the two people] who run my social media. My publicist, Sarah Solomon, only represents disabled and DEI artists.
My entire team is made up of folks who either have a disability or are a staunch ally, and that's why we work so well. I think personally, folks who have disabilities, if you have to wake up and figure out a creative way to get from your bed to the bathtub every morning, then you have a super strong creative muscle. That turns into self-determination. That turns into a person that's just really good at solving anything, despite any kind of obstacle. When I realized that of myself, I said, "I need to have a whole team that identifies this way." We've been such a well-oiled, fast-paced machine of doers and thinkers, and all about that purpose of really showing to the world, "Hey, we all have disabilities and look how awesome we are."
Lachi | Photo Courtesy of Lachi Music, LLC / New York, New York / 2021
EDM and EDM festivals have blown up over the last decade. Any of those you’re hoping to perform in the future?
RAMPD has begun communicating with various festivals to discuss how to make them more accessible for those with a wide range of disabilities. A good friend of mine, Yvette Chivers, is a DJ who is legally blind, and has a company called SYNC INSPIRE. Through that, she's starting up this thing called the VIP Experience, which stands for Visually Impaired Persons Experience. She's helping festivals create an accessible section for folks who are visually impaired. I'm part of that movement and the festivals we’ll be tapping first are Amsterdam Dance Event and EDC Las Vegas to start including this element in their festivals and to hopefully branch out to allow folks with other disabilities to be a part of this experience.
Musically I've been writing a lot of new songs. In the last quarter of 2020, I released a new track every week or two. Right now, I'm working on remixes of my songs “DNA” and “Years.” A lot of my recent songs highlight self-empowerment and more cerebral topics. At this point in my music, I want to focus on expressing my experience as a disabled badass. I just finished putting together a new track with Apl.de.Ap of the Black Eyed Peas called “Dis Education.” It's a modern track telling folks, "Hey, I am not your inspiration porn. I am a badass chick. I'm competitive. I do not need you to feel bad for me. I don't need your charity to make it out here in this world."
Ultimately, it's about getting the message out to the world that disability is bold, that disability does not have to be something that you fear. You can be a badass. My whole thing is self-pride. I focus on disability pride, but it's all about just being proud of yourself. It's hard for folks to get outside of their internalized -isms, whether that’s ableism, racism, sexism. We all have internalized -isms that we have to deal with because of what society has put inside us. While I focus on anti-ableism, because it's one of the hardest ones for people to get over, everybody has -isms that they have to work on. That's really my goal with the work I do.
What do you want to say to those who may be struggling with their disability and are trying to get to a place of self-acceptance?
A lot of times people say, "Hey, it's all about the ability, not the disability. It's all about putting the ability in disability." I'm actually super freaking tired of that. I want to say that the prefix of dis- is just fine. When you take the dis out of disability, you're taking away my identity. It's like saying, “Let's focus on the American of African American,” or “Let's focus on the man of woman.” No. We're focusing on the African part of African American, the wo- part of woman, and the dis- part of disability, because it's one full word and it's one full identity. I want to make sure that folks with disabilities and non-disabled individuals alike embrace that full word and appreciate that full identity.