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How can grassroots musicians fight the Trump beast?

Adele Nicholas of Axons and Impossible Colors is also a self-employed civil rights lawyer—and she’s releasing a compilation to benefit the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

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Business on the left, party on the right: Adele Nicholas in attorney mode outside the federal courthouse near Dearborn and Jackson (left) and at the space where her band Axons practices. - ZAKKIYYAH NAJEEBAH
  • Zakkiyyah Najeebah
  • Business on the left, party on the right: Adele Nicholas in attorney mode outside the federal courthouse near Dearborn and Jackson (left) and at the space where her band Axons practices.

Adele Nicholas didn't sleep the night of the presidential election. She stayed up watching the results with her husband, and she couldn't bring herself to stop even after it became clear what had happened: Donald Trump had won. Nicholas, like many other people in the Chicago legal and music communities to which she belongs, felt immediate dread and horror.

A civil rights attorney as well as founder and front woman of synth-pop trio Axons, Nicholas remembers being struck with a sudden conviction as soon as the electoral votes were tallied: "Basically everything we do now is political," she says. "There's nothing you can do that's not." She's frank about her pessimism when it comes to what four years of a Trump presidency will mean for the world—and in particular the people she represents in her legal practice. She focuses on dismantling unconstitutional criminal justice practices and policies that disproportionately affect poor, minority, and otherwise vulnerable populations.

"I have a lot of fear about what this is going to do to our democratic institutions, and the danger it puts people in," she says, "not only because Donald Trump advocated for terrible policies, but also because of the anger and the hate he's normalized and unleashed."

Seized by what she describes as a "sense of desperation," Nicholas cast about for something constructive to do. On November 9 she posted in DIY Chicago, a Facebook group with nearly 13,000 members, about the plans she'd made: she would assemble and release a cassette compilation and donate all proceeds to the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a nonprofit that pays bond for people charged with crimes in Cook County and works to eliminate the county's cash bond system altogether.

Response was swift and enthusiastic. Within a week, 13 artists­—some of whom Nicholas contacted directly because of their politically charged work—agreed to donate a track apiece to the project. "I had ten people lined up to contribute within a day," she says. Nicholas will release the tape through her label, Impossible Colors, which she launched three years ago to put out her own music and that of her friends. Its catalog includes Axons, a series of split cassingles that's featured the likes of Strawberry Jacuzzi, Swimsuit Addition, Bloom, and She Speaks in Tongues, and two mixtapes celebrating the annual feminist music showcase Frontwoman Fest, which Nicholas cofounded in 2015.

Titled Down in the Trumps: Chicago Artists Respond, the comp includes a variety of subject matter: some songs express despair over the imminent Trump presidency or frustration with the mainstream media's susceptibility to reality TV-style antics, while others are relatively overt protest ballads. The range of styles and genres is even broader: among the contributors are rapper, poet, and actor Mykele Deville, dark rock duo Pussy Foot, poppy Latin-tinged prog band the Avantist, and Axons. Down in the Trumps will come out digitally on Friday, December 16, and Impossible Colors will sell preorders of the cassette (as well as download cards) at a Planned Parenthood benefit show that night at multipurpose Lincoln Square venue Resistor. Four acts from the comp—Deville, Axons, soul-influenced hip-hop artist Fury, and poppy punk three-piece Jackass Magnets—will play live sets, and Shannon Candy of Strawberry Jacuzzi will spin records.


Planned Parenthood benefit with Mykele Deville, Fury, Jackass Magnets, Axons, and DJ Shannon Candy
Fri 12/16, 8 PM, Resistor Chicago, 5053 N. Lincoln, $7 suggested donation, all ages


Despite her bleak expectations for the next four years, Nicholas continues to believe in the power of grassroots activism. "Roiling with all those feelings and fears, I had the sense that I wanted to do something immediate and create something that felt like we still had some power in our local community," she says. "That we could still work to make things better in Chicago for our community and the people we care about and encounter in our day-to-day lives."

The project melds Nicholas's work as an lawyer with her activities in the city's underground and aboveground music scenes.

A 2008 graduate of Chicago's John Marshall Law School, she's in her ninth year as a practicing civil rights attorney. Early in her career, while employed by the firm Jackowiak Law Offices, she worked mostly on cases involving excessive use of force, beatings, illegal searches, and abuse of authority, usually litigating against Chicago police officers. Six years ago she struck out on her own. These days she partners frequently with another self-­employed attorney, Mark Weinberg, and focuses her professional energy on fighting cases against the city, county, and state over policies she believes to be unconstitutional.

In September she filed a class-action lawsuit against Circuit Court of Cook County chief judge Timothy Evans alleging that the county's juvenile-detention practices violated minors' Fourth Amendment rights. Unlike adult arrestees, juveniles did not receive probable-­cause hearings on weekends or holidays, which meant they could be jailed for days without charges being filed. A precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 requires that people arrested without a warrant receive such a hearing within 48 hours.

"We brought a case saying this policy was unconstitutional, and now they've changed the policy," she explains—within weeks the county began holding weekend and holiday hearings for juveniles.

But before she was a lawyer working to dismantle systemic injustices, Nicholas was a musician.

"Early in college, I got my start playing guitar in the dorm with other students at Northwestern," she recalls. "Pretty much as soon as I started playing guitar, I started writing songs."

Over the past 15 years, she's played in several bands, including the still active Puritan Pine and the defunct Love and Radiation (with Lakshmi Ramgopal, aka Lykanthea). Now her primary musical endeavor is Axons, which she began as a solo project three years ago. It's since evolved to include Amanda Kraus on auxiliary percussion or drum kit and Kriss Stress (who also helps out with Impossible Colors) on synth.

At first the dichotomy between these two parts of her life was a challenge for Nicholas. "I used to think it was important that people in law not know about my music, but it's become a little impossible," she says. "I realized that anytime someone from the law world found out about my music, they always had a secret passion of their own to share."

Her views on music and what making it means to her have also evolved. Nicholas explains that she used to think of her bands as "a release valve" from her serious legal career.

"Now I see them as completely linked," she says. "I think everything I do with music for the foreseeable future will have to reflect this environment we're living in."

Though she's not personally involved with the Chicago Community Bond Fund, Nicholas believes in its cause and wanted to use her connection to the music scene to benefit the organization and draw attention to it.

"The cash bond system imprisons people accused of crimes for no other reason than their inability to pay that. To me, it's a very oppressive, unjust, and wrong system," she says. Raising money for CCBF is a way "to show we could stand against oppression in our community and fight against it."

Trump's election poses a serious threat on so many levels that it can be overwhelming just to try to choose which battle to fight. With this benefit compilation, Nicholas decided to keep the struggle close to home. "I keep coming back to the idea that even under a Trump administration, we can still each do good work in our own communities and our own small spheres of influence," she says. "Doing a fund-raiser for Chicago Community Bond Fund—which takes direct action against an oppressive part of our criminal-justice system on a local level—felt like a good way to get together with other people and say that we reject Trump's ideas."

Nicholas’s Axons bandmate Kriss Stress drew the artwork for the new Impossible Colors benefit compilation.
  • Nicholas’s Axons bandmate Kriss Stress drew the artwork for the new Impossible Colors benefit compilation.

CCBF cofounder Max Suchan, an activist and attorney, says the inspiration for CCBF arose from a confrontation between Chicago police and attendees at a candlelight vigil for 17-year-old Desean Pittman, who was fatally shot by CPD officers in Chatham in August 2014. Seven people at the vigil, including Pittman's mother, were arrested, and five faced felony charges—including aggravated battery to a police officer and mob action. Two juveniles charged with misdemeanors were released without bond.

All five people charged with felonies, unwilling to accept even the small risk of a lengthy sentence by going to trial, eventually took plea deals resulting in probation and supervision. But several served significant jail time in the interim because their bond was set too high for them to afford.

Suchan says activists and attorneys helped raise more than $30,000 to bail out four of the five, prioritizing Pittman's mother—she was released after about two weeks so she could attend her son's funeral. But the money didn't come in all at once, and it took four months to get the last person out of jail.

"These are people who would've made their court dates and never should have been locked up," Suchan says. Among the four arrestees who couldn't quickly make bond, he explains, some lost their jobs, and one friend of the slain teen had to repeat a year of high school because of the time he spent locked up.

A judge typically sets a bond amount, and defendants usually need to pay 10 percent of it to be released before trial.

Suchan explains that money is the primary determinant of whether or not someone can walk free before their next court date. A judge always has the option to deny bond for someone deemed too dangerous, but under the cash bond system, he says, someone with more money is allowed out while someone with less has to remain behind bars. Last month Cook County sheriff Tom Dart became the first elected official in the state to oppose the cash bond system, calling it unfair to low-­level defendants with few financial resources.

No matter the outcome of a case, though, bond money is refunded three to six weeks after it's resolved, Suchan says (minus a small fee). The CCBF's founders used the refunded bond from their initial effort to create a revolving fund for others in need of help. The group formally became a nonprofit in August 2015 and posted its first bond that December. According to Suchan, it's since posted bond totaling more than $270,000 for 47 people.

"Ultimately, our aim is to end the use of cash bond in Illinois. That is our overall mission. We will never be able to bond out all the people we want to bond out of Cook County Jail," Suchan says.

Nicholas knows Suchan through their work with the National Police Accountability Project (as well as through mutual friends), and when she approached him in mid-November with her tape-comp fund-raiser idea, he says he was "really excited." The more money the organization raises, the more people it can free—and the more time CCBF members can devote to working behind the scenes to end cash bond statewide.

The CCBF has consistently received strong support from the community, but Suchan believes that since the election "people are feeling like this is the time to really support infrastructure that will try to advance a more progressive vision for the future."

He sees music as a good fit for that type of work, given that artists are often on the forefront of progressive change—and that Chicago has spawned its share of politically vocal and active musicians.

The Avantist's front man, Fernando Arias, says donating a track to the project was a no-­brainer. The band, which consists of four Arias brothers, contributed the song "Conquer" from a self-titled album that came out in September. He describes the track as a response to police brutality—and to how unfair it is that people killed by police can never tell their side of the story.

"[Nicholas] sticks her neck out, and she's doing good work. I want to be involved with anything she's doing. I want to be involved with anyone who is willing to fight the way she does," Arias says.

Azieb Abraha and Sidney Fenix, who released an album of synth-poppy hip-hop called Fox and Wolf this month, donated the track "Entertainment." Fenix says he hopes it encourages people to "question what's going on."

Abraha appreciates Nicholas's work as an attorney fighting for the rights of her community. "I think a lot more people are starting to become more conscious, to use their talents for causes to help the community and not just to get paid," she says. "It's very rewarding for me to give a track to this. It makes me feel like I'm helping."

Arias thinks music can help reach people who might not otherwise want to have a political discussion. "You get a bunch of that together on a compilation, and if the intent is right, the only thing that can come from it is good," he says.

In addition to raising a few dollars for a good cause, Nicholas says the compilation is a small way for musicians and music lovers to come together in opposition to the racist rhetoric, unconstitutional policies, and toxic sentiments that Donald Trump stands for.

"We have to do something good to counteract all the bad that's happened," she says. v

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