Promoting human rights, with support from the U.S. government

  • 2013-08-08
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

BETTY is an alternative rock group from New York City that got its start in Washington, D.C.
The band achieved notoriety by giving their first major gig as a band an “autobiographical” two-act musical at the legendary DC Space in February 1987. Titled “BETTY: Inside Out,” the show established the tongue-in-cheek personas of the band that follow them to the present day: the ego of egomaniacal diva Amy Ziff, the shame-free rebel and Amy’s sister Elizabeth, and the superego of calm, superhero Alyson Palmer. The wild success led to appearances in the hottest ultra-hot clubs and lounges in New York City in the 1980s. Having pocketed two Emmy and BMI awards, they have gradually become vociferous civic rights activists, speaking (singing) out especially for women and ethnic and sexual minority rights around the world. Invited by the U.S. government, they recently had a concert tour in Lithuania and, in Vilnius, performed for the LGBT Baltic Pride marchers and activists. The crazy girls sat down to speak to The Baltic Times before their concert in Palanga.

Where does it feel better to perform: in Madison Square Garden in New York or on the Baltic Pride stage cordoned off by police from the enraged, anti-gay crowd?
Alyson: (grins) We were invited to perform in Lithuania and we are very happy to be here. We came here invited by the U.S. State Department, which has set up for us a whole program through the U.S. Vilnius embassy here. When discussing the program, they asked us where else we would like to go besides Vilnius, and after they described Palanga, we knew that we were eager to come here and see the beautiful and amazing resort town on the coast.
Amy: Palanga is our last frontier. But it’s been lovely from the moment we rolled in. There’s plenty of art all over here, and we really enjoy all those art stalls and vendors.

You are involved in many activities aimed at empowering women and minorities all over the world. Why are you doing this?
Elizabeth: It’s simple. To make the world a better place.
Alyson: For me, it’s all about diversity that makes us all stronger and more beautiful. It really makes life better to be diverse. My message to people is this: diversity is a very important thing.
Amy: When you look at the garden and you see a beautiful flower that is really pretty… but it isn’t that pretty unless surrounded by other different, colorful, or not so [colorful], flowers.
Alison: When there is only one beautiful flower in the garden, it’s bittersweet. You perhaps always want to see more flowers, a big variety of them…

Didn’t you miss the diversity, to put into your own words, of “more flowers in the garden” when touring Lithuania?
Amy: Really that was something we did. Particularly in the Baltic Pride concert…
Alison: Yes, we marched with all the people in the main Vilnius street. It was wonderful to see people walking for equality together. But, frankly, I saw a lot of angry and enraged people around and that made me a bit sad.
Elizabeth: Diversity, sure, is very important for us, and it’s great if a country has it. But for me, what perhaps matters even more is if there’s, or not, any prejudice against people that speak out for equality and diversity. I really want to see and accept people for who they are, unless they are hurting somebody… And I hate to see people being discriminated against for who they are…
Amy: We had learnt before coming to Lithuania that there is a big issue of violence against women in Lithuania.
In fact, Lithuania passed a domestic violence against women law in 2011.
Elizabeth: We’ve heard of it, and that is a very good thing. We really do not think that you can have a wonderful society when women - half of the population - are threatened. We work for that - freedom and rights if women and girls. We do that all over the world, not only in the United States.

Do you believe you can address other countries’ problems?
Amy: Definitely, we cannot solve other countries’ problems when it comes to the prejudices against women and minorities. We’ve been artists for a long time, and activists too. So when the U.S. government is sponsoring a program, we can combine both: music and speaking out for human rights, tolerance and fighting the prejudices.
Alison: That’s wonderful that there are these kinds of programs that take us to very different countries. We are envoys of our country and we are very proud of that and take it very responsibly.

Frankly, I’ve not heard until you told me now that there artists in the United States that can be sponsored by the U.S. government in conveying civil messages oversees.
Alison: Yes, in the States they do it if band is relevant to the community and if it conveys the message of freedom. And there’s always a reverse connection: having learnt of the new cultures, we bring a sense of them back to the United States and we speak of them in our U.S. concerts.

What will be your message to the Americans about Palanga?
Alison: Go and see it! Go for vacation since it is very beautiful and amazing!
Amy: There’re three of our friends who having been told about Vilnius who came to see it last year and left being impressed with it. You’re a journalist, so you know how powerful it is to write and talk about something. That is exactly what we do when we return to the States.

What means are you using to convey the message?
Amy: We do it through our concerts, talk shows on radio, TV appearances and so on. And the people can have some of the experiences we have, and the sharing is unique.
Elizabeth: Every visit enriches us and we value the opportunity of seeing new countries. Would we ever have come to Lithuania and Palanga if there had been no State Department program? Most likely, no.
Alison: Speaking of that, perhaps there are a lot of things that the U.S. government cannot say officially, but can convey the message through us, artists and musicians.
Alison: Therefore our government tell us: “Go wherever you want and be yourself and do what you know best: perform and send out the message to women and minorities, everyone. We’re thrilled to have the U.S. government so supportive of us.

What are the words for Lithuania that you could openly say, but that the U.S. government perhaps would not?
Amy: Some of the men are hot as hell…
Alyson: We share lots of the values that the administration promotes, but we can say them louder and sometimes more crassly, than can the diplomats overseas.
Amy: Or sometimes we don’t say it at all, just let our music speak it instead…
Elizabeth: But our music is not political. But it has been amazing to do it through the different administrations, from Reagan’s to the incumbent president’s.
Alison: We do have one or two songs that rise to the strong political messaging on human rights and equality. But we do that not because somebody may have told us to do it, but because regard ourselves as earth’s citizens. Until we are all equal and free we cannot party yet as hard as we wish.

Does that mean you agree with all the U.S. government policies?
Alyson: No, not at all. We are free to tell the audiences as much as we deem it necessary. And, in fact, there are things that we disagree upon… But we are encouraged to be ourselves by our government and that means a lot to me. How many artists could say that around the world?

What kind of experiences have you had in some of those human rights-sensitive regions?
Alyson: Well, a couple of years ago we went to Saint Petersburg in Russia… In the beginning, to be honest, I was a little bit afraid since we were brought in by a human rights group defending LGBT issues. But it was a wonderful experience overall.
Elizabeth: We took a chance there to get acquainted with the rich Russian history, and especially poetry. And the ballet was unbelievable. Though we were afraid of a possible eruption of clashes in the concerts, it just didn’t happen. Even more: young people would come up to us and shake our hands saying we all need equality everywhere.  Amy: I got a hug from a black guy, a total stranger on one of the streets. He told me he had not seen a black person in three days (grins).

What impression were you left with by the Lithuanian crowds at your concerts?
Amy: Mostly, people tend to party and have good times in the same way everywhere.
Elizabeth: Perhaps the concert crowds in Lithuania would loosen up more at the end of concerts…

Elizabeth, I know that you’re a breast cancer survivor. What is your message to Lithuanian women?
Elizabeth: Statistically, in America, one out of six women - it used to be one out of 15 - will get breast cancer, and worldwide it has been pandemic. The main thing is never quit. Once you quit fighting it you quit your life. The only thing that I see has changed in me after three years since I am clean is that - get me right - I don’t necessarily have to be in a relationship. I feel now. I am Ok being single. I just don’t feel like [I’m] willing to put up with the relationship crap anymore, so I enjoy being single now and being surrounded by my true family, which the band is. But an even more horrible thing than breast cancer is ovarian cancer, that is usually detected in the late stages.

Do you guys fight after spending so much time together and calling the band your family?
Amy: Oh, we still do fight. We’ve had a fight even on stage some years ago, to tell the truth.
Elizabeth: But over the years, we’ve been fighting a lot less. I thing we have calmed down.
Alyson: But when we fight, the other thing we do is laugh. If you cannot laugh, being in the band, then it’s over. And I think that is what strengthens us, individually and the whole group.