Sydney vegan performer and activist Carolyn Ienna (Rap Attack) talks animal rights, ethics, disability and racism with Elizabeth Usher.
Long-term Sydney vegan Carolyn Ienna doesn’t just wear many figurative hats – among them dancer, rapper, songwriter, activist – she also has millinery skills and can design and make actual hats!
Ienna, who also goes by the name Rap Attack, has displayed great resilience over the years, never letting the fact she lives with a disability, and has had to deal with racism and economic pressures, detract from her relentless activism on many different social issues.
Going right the way back to where it started on the vegan front, Ienna states: “It was like a revelation that we didn’t have to eat animals, dairy and eggs in order to survive, but the moment that I was vegetarian I realised who the victims were in the equation.”
Back then, even after moving through vegetarianism to eliminating all animal products from her diet, she didn’t know the word “vegan” at first, so it came as a surprise to learn there was a term for this ethical approach.
She was immersed in the local hip hop culture before becoming vegan, and credits that with fuelling her initial forays into activism, describing it as “another marginalised community which was mostly African Americans and they’re telling me about their struggle. And I thought: ‘OK, if there’s this marginalised community, then there’s another lot and another lot and another lot.’” The upshot being that she decided: “The only way to tackle all of that is to basically be a lot more vocal!”
Ienna says performing as Rap Attack gives her more scope to put out messaging on serious issues and keep an audience engaged, compared with other forms of communication.
In addition, it’s helped her in the process of overcoming a speech impediment.
“It helps me personally because it [gives] me more confidence and self-esteem, being up on stage and people actually listening to me, for once. Because a lot of people don’t listen to me.”
She continues talking about the nuances of vegan ethics and how her childhood experiences on a small family farm still impact that today.
“I felt very unheard by people generally … I think that was something I kept really private because I still suffer from the memories of being on the farm and seeing animals killed in front of me, going to factory farms as well to pick up eggs or little chickens to take to our farm and raise them for food or eggs.
“You don’t really ever get over those kinds of sights.”
Refuting the oft-raised perception that veganism is costly, Ienna explains: “I’ve never seen it as expensive to be vegan because back in the day when I first started … there wasn’t the processed meat and all the fancy vegan milks in the supermarket.”
She still makes a lot of nut milks from scratch, and has taught herself a lot about nutrition. She prioritises fresh organic fruits and vegetables in her food budget and describes that as “most of my diet”.
Equally though, she acknowledges the practical limitations of ethical veganism, saying: “it’s amazing what you find out over a period of time … I was amazed to find out that the books we’re reading [can contain animal glue]. Not that I’ve really read much in quite a while because of the disability … So you’re like, ‘Well, what do you do?’ You do the best that you can!”
In terms of doing the best she can, Ienna’s efforts span supporting campaigns and protests beyond non-human animal issues, also covering Indigenous rights, asylum seeker rights, environmental rallies, and so on – supporting the ‘consistent anti-oppression’ approach.
Sadly, though, Ienna is not optimistic about the question of whether society has improved from the days that she was overtly called racist slurs. (“There was a very hateful element to it and I felt like they were going to kill me – like really, I can’t stress that enough, that is how you feel.”)
“No, I don’t think so at all, otherwise we wouldn’t be experiencing people like Trump, and Scott Morrison and so many others – Pauline Hanson. There’s no way someone like Trump could exist without a very racist society. I’ve got lots of friends on many different continents and they tell me daily what they experience.”
When asked how she continues in the face of this, Ienna pauses to reflect.
“It’s a real hard one,” she says. “I think it’s either you sit down and be miserable or you keep fighting and also telling the people that benefit the most from white supremacy that they need to do the work.
“They need to talk to their friends or talk to politicians … a person can’t just say ‘I’m not racist,’ … it has to be active, working on it, chipping away at it over a period of time.
“If you’ve got a friend who says something that sounds racist, then you’ve got to call it out.”
Staying true to her own approach, when I ask at the end of our interview if there’s anything else she’d like to cover, Ienna wraps up the interview saying: “I pay respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation … the traditional custodians of this area that I’m sitting on.”
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